On a clear day, stand on any westward-facing beach near Point May on Newfoundland’s wind-scoured Burin Peninsula and gaze seaward.
You can see France from there.
While Paris lies 2,700 miles to the east, the eight small islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, a French possession and the last remnant of France’s once-vast colonial empire in North America, float like rocky lily pads barely 16 miles off the Canadian coastline.
But this wasn’t a clear day. Thick fog, a constant presence in June and July, obscured the islands as my wife, Roxanne, and I prepared to board the ferry at Fortune, Newfoundland, that would take us to St. Pierre. The only hint of what lay ahead were a pair of eyebrow-raising signs, one in English and the other in French, that hung over the entrance to the customs office in the ferry building:
In fact, a little more than an hour after the ferry left the dock we were in France. Hello baguettes and smelly cheese; goodbye poutine and Tim Hortons. The 5,500 residents here are French citizens and can vote in French elections. French license plates adorn the Peugeots and Renaults that share the narrow, hilly streets with Fords and Chevys. Flagpoles bear the French Tricolor. The signs are in French, the official currency is the euro (though Canadian dollars are cheerfully accepted) and the local patois is closer to the French spoken in Brittany than in Montreal.
The center of tourism here is the Musee de l’Arche just off downtown St. Pierre, the largest of four museums on the islands. Seven walking tours organized by the museum explore the town and its colorful history. The most popular chronicles St. Pierre’s architecture and its French roots. Another highlights the town’s notorious Prohibition years. Visitors can opt to take a motor launch across the narrow harbor channel to a restored fishing village on L’Ile-aux-Marins – Sailor’s Island. Private tour operators offer the more adventurous dory tour of the island or a trip on a 30-foot sailboat to the smaller nearby islands. Or they can take the ferry to Miquelon, St. Pierre’s nearby sister island, for a Zodiac boat ride to the breeding ground of seals and seabirds.
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, visitors can stay inside the museum and view the exhibits, which include the only guillotine ever used in North America. It was shipped from Martinique to St. Pierre and sent murderer Auguste Neel to his just reward on Aug. 12, 1889.
Tour guide Hilhne Girardin rounded the corner of the reception desk on the third floor of the Musee de l’Arche and introduced herself to her charges for the day.
Like the village itself, Girardin, 27, makes a striking first impression. She smiles easily and often through multiple lip piercings. Her hair is dyed fluorescent blue, green and yellow, and pulled back into a relaxed bun. Her black coat and loosely fitting pants with their black and white vertical stripes, tucked into black combat boots, bespoke her formal training as a costume designer.
We left the museum and walked past wooden houses painted purple, yellow and pumpkin orange that lined a narrow terraced street above the harbor. “These two are typical fisherman’s houses,” she said, pointing to two striking clapboard and shingle houses that stood side by side, one gray and one painted plum red, that were built in the last half of the 19th century.
“In the basement of this gray house,” she said, “we found the hull of a ship.”
Beaten by the North Atlantic winds, trees on these islands rarely grow taller than head-high. To build their houses, residents imported wood from Canada or scavenged it from shipwrecks; more than 600 ships have been lost in these treacherous waters since 1816.
“All the houses were built together,” Girardin said as we passed a striking, grape-colored house shoehorned between yellow and coffee-brown ones. (Perhaps to defy the dreary winters, locals favor an extravagant palette.) “With all the houses made of wood and so close to one another, you can easily guess that it catches fire easily.” The most destructive fire broke out in September 1867. It burned 177 buildings to the ground; villagers destroyed another 50 in their frantic attempts to contain the flames.
We turned right on Rue Marichal Foch up the steep hill to an imposing dark-brown stucco house. A statue of the Virgin Mary looked down at the traffic from a large window box just beneath the roofline.
“The fire stopped right here,” Girardin said. As the inferno advanced, the homeowner had placed a statue of the Virgin Mary in the window facing the oncoming flames.
“It worked,” she said. In gratitude, “he made a special window just for the Virgin Mary on top.”
Cod fueled the St. Pierre economy for more than 200 years. The rich waters of the Grand Banks are just offshore. Acres of gutted cod once lay split and drying in the sun where downtown shops, restaurants and the La Place du General de Gaulle waterfront park now stand.
Overfishing sent the cod population crashing. By the turn of the 20th century, the fishery had largely collapsed, and along with it the island’s economy.
Prohibition temporarily rescued St. Pierre from decades of economic decline, Girardin said. Canada did not ban alcohol, but it did prohibit distillers from selling booze to countries that did. “St. Pierre was French. There were no laws – they could sell all the alcohol they wished and it was completely legal.”
So the liquor flowed to St. Pierre, where it was stored before being loaded aboard smugglers’ boats bound for the United States. In 1922 alone, more than 7 million liters of alcohol were delivered to St. Pierre, she said.
“Before Prohibition, people basically had nothing,” Girardin said. “When Prohibition started, all they had to do was store alcohol in their basement and they had money flowing. Even the big leading fish company turned its back to the sea to import alcohol.”
The morning fog had lifted when we boarded a motor launch for L’Ile-aux-Marins. Lying at its closest point just a few hundred yards off St. Pierre, the island protects the harbor and town from the worst of the North Atlantic’s fury.
In its heyday in the 1900s, 600 fishermen and their families lived on the island. Today, there are no permanent inhabitants. The old homes and buildings, including the city hall, school (now a museum and cafe) and the magnificent but seldom-used Notre-Dame-des-Marins Catholic church are maintained as a tourist site. A few St. Pierre residents have weekend retreats or vacation homes on the island
As the cod stocks declined, so did L’Ile-aux-Marins. One by one, residents dismantled their homes and rebuilt in St. Pierre. Few people remained by the 1950s. When a boat accidentally cut the cable that carried electricity to the island, they didn’t bother to repair it.
The city forcibly removed the last resident from the island in 1964. “He didn’t want to, but he was sick and there was a storm approaching,” Girardin said.
Unlike many graying villages in rural Newfoundland, Girardin says young people are not abandoning the islands for the big city, never to return.
Instead, migration here follows a boomerang pattern. “When they reach 18, they are really eager to leave because all they knew was this island. They want to see everything else. They’ll study, they’ll party, they’ll try to find a job.” But when they reach their late 20s, many return.
“They realize they lived very well on this island,” Girardin said. “There are no transportation (problems). You can come home for lunch. You have a lot of free time. There are a lot of jobs. A lot of people choose to come back here to raise a family and have a proper job they can keep long-term.”
Girardin said the islanders have a phrase to describe the attraction that locals feel for their island home. They are attached to it “comme une vignette sur son caillou” – “like a sea snail on its pebble.”