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The curious North American islands which still belong to France

In World
June 08, 2024

“That’s North America just out of your right-hand window,” came the pilot’s voice as we began our descent. “And the European Union is below us on the left.”

I gazed down, over waters bloated with humpbacks, and felt all of a sudden – unexpectedly – that I was on the very edge of Europe. For, you see, it is perfectly possible to fly from North America to France in less than an hour – and you won’t even need a hypersonic jet or DeLorean time machine.

All you have to do is board a flight on Canada’s eastern seaboard from St John’s, Newfoundland, as I did earlier this month. Just 45 minutes later, you’ll be rewarded with grudging Gallic charm and cuisine, and all without another Brit in sight. The destination? Saint Pierre and Miquelon, where all you hear, see and taste is as French as can be.

In black and white, Saint Pierre and Miquelon is “a self-governing territorial overseas collectivity”, but for the 6,000-odd residents who live on the archipelago, it is France, pure and simple. Some days, the colours of the bay in capital Saint-Pierre are like the Côte d’Azur, the dune-backed beaches of Miquelon as golden as those on the Ile de Ré.

Writer Mike MacEacheran during his trip to St Pierre and Miquelon

Writer Mike MacEacheran during his trip to St Pierre and Miquelon

But when I arrived, the Atlantic was grey and broody, verging on black, and it felt like Brittany, Normandy or the Basque country, in the fog and out of focus. Aptly, the islands were settled in the early 17th century by cod fishermen from those same regions when they came for a fresh start to locate their fortunes on the Grand Banks. Today, there is a great deal of pride in all of this.

Residents of the archipelago often worry about being misrepresented, and it’s little wonder. Simply put, despite the geography, they’re not Canadian, Newfoundlanders or Québécois, but as French as Napoleon – and their islands remain a rock pool of tradition. “That’s the way we like it,” said my guide Agathe Olano, as we took the 90-minute ferry from Saint-Pierre’s petit port to Miquelon on my first day. “Our remoteness from Paris engenders a closeness and everyone knows everyone.”

Cuisine in Saint Pierre and Miquelon is distinctly French

Cuisine in Saint Pierre and Miquelon is distinctly French – Mathieu Dupuis

As our ferry steered through the foaming Atlantic, Agathe filled me in on the details. The currency in Saint Pierre and Miquelon is the euro. It’s quicker to post a letter to France than to Canada, only a dozen miles away. All supplies come by sea or by air, also mostly not from Canada. Shops commit to the traditional French two-hour lunch break. Bastille Day is a public holiday. Everyone smokes. This is France.

There is even a guillotine in the collection at L’Arche Museum and Archives in Saint-Pierre. In a macabre, if jokey, Pythonesque moment, Agathe told me, the beheading device wasn’t sharp enough, so the one time it was used in North America back in 1889, the executioner used a knife to finish off the job. Currently, the galleries remain closed because the building’s sail-shaped roof is leaking.

The islands focus largely on the fishing industry and have for over a century

The islands focus largely on the fishing industry and have for over a century – Alamy

Talking of rather sharp blades, Peaky Blinders has also led to a spike in Google searches for the French remnant colony. Miquelon was featured heavily in the TV show’s season-six storyline, with the archipelago playing a key role in the efforts to smuggle alcohol during the American prohibition era. The names of gangsters like Al Capone, who carried out bootlegging operations on Saint-Pierre, now ring out on summer rum-running tours. Today, so the story goes, thousands of whisky bottles still lie sunken on the seabed.

By the time we arrived on Miquelon, it was a little after 11am, and yet the newly opened boulangerie – huge news for the parishioners – still had a queue snaking out of the door. It could have been a scene straight out of Paris’s Marais district. Later, at the grocery store – surrounded by shelves of wine, jars of confit de canard and foie gras made at a Miquelon farm – Agathe put imported cheese into her basket.

An old map of Saint Pierre

An old map of Saint Pierre – Mike MacEacheran

The feeling of being in the right place, but on the wrong side of the world, was much the same over lunch at Le Snack Bar-à-Choix. I paid the bill for my buckwheat galette and was given a blank look when I mistakenly replied in English. It was a scene so familiar from a thousand bistros, yet like parts of France, these islands roll out the red carpet for no one.

That afternoon, before catching the last ferry back to Saint-Pierre, we explored Miquelon and its southerly neighbour, Langlade, connected by a tombolo sandspit. The interior is defined by peat bogs and mossy hills on which horses are left to run free all summer. Lining the shore are dune-backed lagoons, where seals honk and puffins, wonderfully named “le macareux moine” in French, swoop over to nest every summer.

A church and old fishing houses at Ile aux Marins

A church and old fishing houses at Ile aux Marins – Alamy

There is also a wooden Catholic church, where a canoe hangs above the pews; dory fishing boats and trawler traps; a shipwreck at the entrance to the village. Always, the sense is the locals are anchored to the sea.

The ferry slipped back into Saint-Pierre as late Friday afternoon turned to evening. I disembarked and ate at Le Bar à Quai, tucked away in an oceanfront precinct full to the gunwales with bistros and bars. With everybody outside smoking, flirting or killing time, the restaurant was near-empty and its hints of maritime life – half-spooled ropes, a painting of a lighthouse, a fishing net loose on a staircase – felt fallen straight from the pages of Jules Verne novel.

The harbour was full of life, and so it was halibut and coquilles St Jacques for dinner with Chenin Blanc and crème brulée. By then, Agathe and her friends had appeared for a birthday party, and another bottle was opened. Next door, at Le Rustique, the patrons fell out onto the streets. The danger of eating and drinking too much felt like a threat in Saint-Pierre.

Another highlight was a morning’s hike around the Cap au Diable loop to Le Trépied at 207m. The views over the Atlantic seemed to carry me up to the island’s highest summit, past ink-dark ponds and tufts of sweet gale, sheep laurel and wintergreen exploding with berries.

At one point, my hiking guide, Gilles Gloaguen of Escapade Insulaire, and I found ourselves pausing to look for white-tailed deer on a tranche of hillside. At the top, we had a bird’s-eye view of this entire French-speaking world to ourselves. The air had the smell of a blustery day at sea. “This is our Mont Blanc,” said Gilles, as we looked to Newfoundland in the near-distance. It felt so much farther away.

The region is home to some beautiful hikes

The region is home to some beautiful hikes – Mathieu Dupuis

Before my return flight back to Canada, I spent my last morning looking out from Saint-Pierre’s Point aux Canons Lighthouse, the sun streaming across the horizon. Just 10 minutes across the bay was the sliver of L’Île-aux-Marins, a ghost island of antique innocence since its community of fisherfolk deserted in the 1960s.

Later in the summer, there are tours of its crooked houses and church, but just then it lay empty, lifeless, exhausted. Even the harbour around me thrummed with stillness. It was Saturday and, fittingly enough, with no one else around, it was a last chance to enjoy France – or a version of it – completely alone and in a wholly different way.

Essentials

Mike MacEacheran was a guest of Tourism Saint-Pierre and Miquelon (en.spm-tourisme.fr) and Legendary Coasts of Eastern Newfoundland (legendarycoasts.ca). Auberge Quatre Temps has doubles from £84, including breakfast (00 508 41 43 01; aubergequatretemps-spm.com). The ferry from Saint Pierre to Miquelon costs £20 return (spm-ferries.fr). Fly to St John’s from London Gatwick with WestJet, from £319 return (May to October only; westjet.com). From St John’s, fly with Air Saint-Pierre, to Saint Pierre, from £305 return (airsaintpierre.com).

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