From Newfoundland, take a side trip to these French islands
When travelling to Eastern Canada, you probably don’t think of changing dollars to Euros in order to buy booze. But you should, because it’s only 25 kilometres from Canada to France—close enough they could build a Chunnel. But this corner of France only has 6,000 residents, so I settle for a 40-minute flight from St. John’s, Newfoundland, and voilà, I’m under the tricolour flag of France. By the time I hear locals speak French French, sink my teeth into locally baked croissants, and nearly step in a pile of dog shit on the sidewalk, I swear the Eiffel Tower is just beyond the next block of wildly colourful wooden houses.
Welcome to St-Pierre, the capital of St-Pierre–Miquelon, a self-governing collectivité territoriale of France just south of Fortune, Newfoundland, from where most visitors arrive via a 55-minute ferry ride. Like Newfoundland, this French island and nearby Miquelon were originally settled as fishermen’s havens. In 1536, Jacques Cartier claimed the islands for France, but the British and French fought over them for the next several hundred years. The French have retained the islands and associated fishing rights since 1816. Amazingly, much of what I find on St-Pierre today remains as French as foie gras and fine wine, both of which are found on the island. That goes for local accents too—the sound is decidedly not Québécois.
I snack on dazzling quiche and baked goods at Les Delices de Josephine (upstairs, Nuits St-Pierre is ultra-hip lodging). I sample good cuisine at L’Atelier Gourmand and Saveurs des Iles, restaurants that highlight both local ingredients such as Miquelon scallops and traditional French dishes like foie gras and chocolate mousse. I browse shops for local art. For fashion inspiration, I spot prominently displayed posters of several former Miss St-Pierre & Miquelon beauty queens, who represent their islands in the Miss France pageant. If only I did drag.
I also find a wine store, Le Tire Bouchon, in “downtown” St-Pierre and, discovering the variety of bottles available, realize how easy it would be to become a wino here. When I check out the liquor section of a supermarket on the edge of town, the wino possibility becomes even clearer: I spot a bottle of French vin de table for only €2.69 (about $3.60)—decidedly better than Vancouver prices!
Booze, it turns out, is one of two key industries that historically made this French outpost viable, the other being the once-booming cod fishery. These days, many paycheques come from a busy tourism industry or the government sector. It’s France, so things run on a 35-hour work week. Bon luck for them, eh?
Back to alcohol. The island produces a small amount of berry wine, but that’s not the interesting part. I learn that St-Pierre was a key player in America’s experiment with prohibition from 1920 to 1933. At the height of Prohibition, St-Pierre was the hand-off point to the United States for 300,000 cases of booze a month, which arrived from around the world. The liquid pleasure was warehoused along the town waterfront until bootleggers slipped it to the thirsty Americans.
St-Pierre’s stint as one of America’s largest hooch suppliers was relatively short-lived, but evidence of the period can still be seen in local architecture, including some warehouses, and at least one house made from wood that once crated bottles of alcohol.
Despite the abundance of cheap alcohol on the island, I don’t get the sense that it’s a terribly boozy culture—although, as I leave the island’s weekend hot spot–disco, Bar le Rustique, I watch a guy pour his wine into a plastic cup to sip as he wanders down the street.
The island offers many distractions beyond drink. There are a variety of solid tours led by local characters, including one by minivan with Jean-Claude Fouchard, who used to be a customs officer at the airport, and an outstanding architectural walking tour with Lauriane Detcheverry, a guide from L’Arche Museum and Archives, who points out structures dating back to the 1860s and the subtle architectural differences that define various periods.
A huge highlight is touring the tiny island of Ile aux Marins, about a kilometre off the coast from the city. From a distance, its church steeple and collection of houses make me assume there’s a town. But in fact it’s a ghost town—remnants of a fishing community with a population that once exceeded 600, lured by the fish that Jacques Cartier supposedly said were so abundant in the 1500s you could walk across the ocean on them.
After a scare-the-shit-out-of-me Zodiac ride with tour guide Jean-Pierre Toth, we explore the island, learning of the hardscrabble life residents eked out. Men once hauled cod from the sea; residents spread it across the island’s abundant volcanic rocks for drying. We explore several structures that have been lovingly restored by summer volunteers from St-Pierre. The centrepiece is a church that seems unusually elegant for the location, but Jean-Pierre reminds me the women would have needed it—God was often the only thing they could lean on when the men were at sea. Well, Him and other women, with whom they could gossip at the (now restored) laundry building, built over a flowing stream.
Back on St-Pierre, I snag a fresh baguette from a boulangerie, some cheese and an apple from a small grocer, and make myself a French picnic on the waterfront facing Ile aux Marins. I need the calories for a hike I have planned that will later take me up the hill behind town for maritime postcard views, and eventually into seclusion in the wooded centre of the island.
I spend several nights on St-Pierre, giving me time to truly savour this bit of France on Canada’s doorstep. I love the bizarreness of its very existence, and can’t imagine a trip to Newfoundland without adding a side trip to “France”.