Until we planned this trip, I’d never heard of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon. Most people I’ve spoken with haven’t, either. I liked the idea that we would visit France, so to speak, on our Canadian Maritime tour. I had little idea what to expect.
We were greeted with a beautiful sunrise in Saint Pierre, although the day was mostly gray and cool. It was perfect weather for hiking. We struck out for the highest point of elevation for great views. It felt good to stretch our legs and lungs. Saint Pierre himself greeted us at the top.
Saint Pierre and Miquelon is self-governing territory of France, the last remaining colonial outpost of the New France empire; an archipelago of eight islands, two of which are inhabited by a few thousand people. The territory is located about 16 miles off the coast of Newfoundland and more than 2,300 miles from France.
Before deep freezing made transport and alternate processing of fish a reality, Saint Pierre and Miquelon was a key resource, situated in the Atlantic near the Grand Banks. Harvested fish (this is cod country) were carefully prepared on shore, laid out on flat rocks for “eight suns,” salted, and dried. Accumulating eight sunny days to dry properly in this northern Atlantic climate requires three weeks or more.
Each sunny day the fish would be set out on the rocks, brought in when the weather turned, only to be set out again. It was quite a process and a lot of work. Fishermen still use the winch and pulley system to haul the heavy wooden dories laden with fish from the sea. Although many small boats are modern aluminum, some of the lovely dories are still in use.
The island is colorful, quaint and distinctively French. Most buildings are brightly painted and trimmed. Fishing dories and shanties are no exception. The shanties, in fact, take it one step further, each one displaying a large painting on the back side. Walking into town was like walking through and outdoor gallery. Even on a gray day, Saint Pierre was bright and beautiful.
We wandered through the neat grid of streets as we made our way from the hilltop, stopping to browse and shop here and there. Everything ran downhill toward the post office, a sprawling wooden building with a tired old Santa Claus peering from the uppermost story. (He appeared to be a permanent resident.) The territory is known for its stamps — 1,500 over the years. So much to commemorate for such a small place! It is a stamp collectors dream. The streets are narrow and sidewalks irregular but traffic is light so it is no problem to get around.
One of the quirks of the place is that old zoning laws required summer porch structures be temporary and dismantled every winter. In many places, you ascend and descend a small set of steps in the middle of the sidewalk, an empty platform where a porch may sit next summer. More recently, zoning laws have changed so that dismantling is no longer required. Therefore, in other places, you walk smack dab into a porch structure and must use the street to circumnavigate. It’s generally easier just to walk in the street.
I bought some toys made in France — a small wooden train set and animal dominoes — for the grandbabes to play with at GiGi and Pops’ place. (Currency is Euro but Canadian dollars accepted in some places.) We poked around an old stone church featuring bright green fish-shaped door handles, a sailboat of stained glass, and another hearty Saint Pierre hailing from on high. Finally we purchased lunch at a bakery — a ham and cheese crêpe and a slice of feta and olive pizza. Delicious!
The people of Saint Pierre left a mixed impression. We met several locals who went out of their way to be friendly and helpful, including two specially appointed greeters, a random man who initiated conversation, and a few shop keepers. Others seemed ambivalent about the influx of tourists. But a few seemed inconvenienced, disinclined to try to bridge the language gap — including the bakery clerk/owner. The island infrastructure is a bit run-down, so you might think tourists, even English-speaking tourists, would be welcome? Perhaps not. I guess that’s your prerogative if you are French or an isolated fishing community.
We docked at Saint Pierre Island in clear view of L’Île-aux-Marins (Island of the Sailors), just a short ferry ride or cold swim away. It is inhabited only in the summer and even then, reportedly, something of a ghost town. Even from a distance we could see that the handful of historical homes, church, and school are meticulously maintained. Stepping onto the island must be like stepping back in time. I would have liked to wander around there for a couple of hours. Maybe next time!
~ René Morley