If all goes well, Canadians will soon be able to drive to a little-known corner of France.
The French islands of St-Pierre-Miquelon just off the south coast of Newfoundland – North America’s last vestige of colonial New France – have long attracted adventurous travellers seeking an unusual European experience.
But the ferry that links Fortune, N.L., with the windswept archipelago 40 kilometres away only carries walk-on passengers in the spring and summer months.
Later this year, however, the tiny French territory plans to start using two new ferries that can carry up to 15 cars, 200 passengers and three tractor-trailers year-round.
“It’s like a piece of France right next door,” Fortune Mayor Charles Penwell said Tuesday.
“The language is different from what we’re used to in Newfoundland, but it’s very similar … to the (language spoken in) the Basque region of France … It offers traditional French food, French atmosphere, and the music and song of France. It’s unique. This archipelago is indeed a part of Europe that’s right next to our border.”
Penwell said St-Pierre-Miquelon – about the size of Honolulu and home to about 6,000 French nationals – doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
“We get frustrated,” he said in an interview from Fortune, population 1,400.
“I think there’s a fair number of people even in Newfoundland and Labrador who don’t realize it’s there.”
The islands were returned to France in 1815 after several stints of British occupation.
The French government now provides hefty subsidies to support its outpost, which is heavily dependent on government jobs, fishing and tourism.
The smallest of the islands, St-Pierre, is also the most populated, with colourful clapboard homes on tidy, winding streets.
Tourists can take advantage of fine French wines – at reasonable prices. In the town of St-Pierre, there’s a regular midday siesta and access to smaller boats that serve the larger, sparsely populated islands of Miquelon and Langlade.
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Restaurants and bakeries specializing in fresh seafood and French patisserie bustle with foreigners in summer.
Though often draped in thick fog and scoured by powerful offshore winds, the largely barren islands offer precious isolation for campers and hikers.
The new ferry service was supposed to start May 15, but the port authority in Fortune hasn’t been able to scrape together enough money to upgrade its wharf.
“I think they’re still about a million dollars short,” Penwell said. “So they’re looking to the provincial government and the (Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency) to see if they can come up with a bit more money … So far there’s been no resolution.”
Negotiations with federal and provincial officials are ongoing, but Penwell said a temporary solution is in the works, though he isn’t sure when the wharf will be ready.
The head of the independent port authority in Fortune declined comment Tuesday.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s tourism minister, Christopher Mitchelmore, issued a statement saying he’s working with the Fortune Port Corporation to find the money.
“I met with officials from St-Pierre-Miquelon on Friday, and am hopeful they can reach an agreement with St-Pierre-Miquelon which will provide them with options to finance the expansion,” Mitchelmore said.