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Story by Karoline Cullen, Photography by Cullen Photos
(for Travel Writers' Tales)

"After our week in Newfoundland," I tell friends "we'll take the ferry to France." They nod enthusiastically and then confusion clouds their faces. "A ferry to France from Canada?" they ask. Absolutement! The French islands of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon are a short ferry ride away from south-east Newfoundland. How French are they? We are about to find out.

On a bright morning, we sail from Fortune, Newfoundland on the M.V. Arethusa. Ninety minutes later, with passports stamped and Euros in our wallets, we are in France!

Jacques Cartier claimed the islands for France on his second voyage in 1536. The first settlers arrived in the late 1600s and fishing has been the mainstay ever since. However, during American Prohibition, another industry blossomed. Large stocks of Canadian whiskey, legally exported and warehoused on Saint-Pierre, were bought by American rum runners, including Al Capone. Hundreds of thousands of cases per month were sold and it was a prosperous time for the islanders.

Photo 1 The main square of Saint-Pierre.

In the main square are benches, a fountain, and a merry go round. Its cheery colours are only outdone by the vibrant paint combinations on some houses. Immediately we feel an atmosphere reminiscent of Brittany in north west France. We dodge a few French made, not available in Canada, Citroen cars zooming around the square and head uphill to our hotel.

Our base camp is the Nuits Saint-Pierre, a boutique hotel run by the engaging Patricia, a 6th generation Saint-Pierrite. Down the hall from our elegantly appointed room is a kitchen for guests and a basket of croissants beckons. In short order, we have emptied steaming cups of tea and have a tabletop littered with crumbs from the flaky buns.

Photo 2 Cannons on the Saint-Pierre harbour

Thus fortified, we set out to explore. As in so many European villages, wandering and absorbing the atmosphere is highly satisfying. Guarding the harbour is an arc of cannons, relics from years of conflict between the British and the French. Les Salines, a row of colourful sheds used to store fishing equipment, run along the water. The church has door handles in the shape of fish and its bell tolls regularly. Cats languidly guard their doorsteps. Most of the small yards are festooned with yellow blooming weeds which, being French, still manage to look good against brightly painted houses. The viewpoint overlooking the town offers a panorama of the marina, the harbour and densely packed houses hugging the coastline. Hotly contested games of boules are played in a gravel square. Shop signs are all in French. While fresh foods are mostly imported from Canada, staples and goods are brought over from France.

Photo 3 The author by a Saint-Pierre grocery store

Having worked up appetites, we happily discover dinner menus are much more varied than what we saw in rural Newfoundland. The cooking is definitely French and holds up well to the standards set in the Mother country. And that brusque attitude French waiters are famous for? There's a bit of that here too.

Photo 6 Cheers from the author at lunch

The next day, I am on a ferry, squinting through the fog at the shoreline. I am going for a day trip to the neighbouring islands of Miquelon and Langlade with Marie and Jacques, a couple of ardent wildlife photographers. The ferry quay buzzes with activity as we disembark. Miquelon has a small town centre where we stop for picnic provisions before checking out a couple of viewpoints. The landscape is treed up in the hills, but scrubby brush covers the lower hillsides. A long isthmus connects Miquelon to Langlade and the road seems in danger of being overtaken either by sand or sea.

Photo 4 One of the Langlade horses
Langlade is a sparsely populated summer retreat. We take a zodiac out on a lagoon to photograph lounging gray seals. Hiking over grass covered dunes, we spot wild flowers, bird watch, and pass groups of semi-wild horses. They range over the island most of the year but are housed and fed in the winters. Speaking of being fed, is there anything better than a French picnic? With a view over the marsh, we contentedly munch our baguette sandwiches, sip some wine, and savor the solitude.

Photo 5 Patricia by a portrait of Joséphine.
Besides baguettes and cheese and wine, the French do tea very well. In her tea salon, Lés Delices de Joséphine, Patricia's joie de vivre comes through as she greets customers. Named for the woman who built the building in 1939, the salon has a casual flair in a contemporary setting. We can heartily attest to the deliciousness of the pastries. Both the food and the ambience of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon definitively settle the question of how French these islands are. The answer is very!



You can get to France by one of two ferries or by air

Canadians will need a passport to enter Saint-Pierre et Miquelon. The currency is Euros and the electricity is 220.


1 The main square of Saint-Pierre. K.Cullen
2 Cannons on the Saint-Pierre harbour. G. Cullen
3 The author by a Saint-Pierre grocery store. G. Cullen
4 One of the Langlade horses. K. Cullen
5 Patricia by a portrait of Joséphine. K. Cullen
6 Cheers from the author at lunch. G. Cullen

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