My wife Aiko and I celebrated 25 years of marriage in the spring of 2014 that began with a four-continent honeymoon. Each year we’ve maintained the “let’s travel someplace exciting and different” tradition where I choose the location, keeping it as a surprise as long as possible, and then she hits the local tourism office on arrival – picking, and keeping, the itinerary a surprise from me as long as possible. It’s worked out pretty well over the last quarter century.
This year I twirled the globe and landed on an Atlantic archipelago and the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. The archipelago is one of North America’s best kept secrets and offers some of the finest French seafood cuisine anywhere, along with hiking, biking, boating, pristine beaches, Euros, Sûreté (police), boutique hotels, cobblestone streets, and a cacophony of merrily-painted buildings all wrapped up in a foreign culture. It’s, as the local tourism folks say, a French adventure without going to France.
The Adventure Begins
The adventure began as we stepped from Canadian soil onto a French-registered aircraft, an ATR 42. The ATR 42 is a French-built twin-engine turboprop with a maximum range of roughly 1000 miles. By mutual agreement, foreign aircraft are not normally allowed to fly domestically within a hosting country unless the aircraft’s point of origin is from the country in which the airplane is registered, in this instance, France. That meant the flight crew were all French. France was roughly 3000 miles away. So we were either swimming part of the way or going someplace very, very unique. Fortunately, we found ourselves someplace unique—the only colonies remaining of the former French Empire, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.
There are three principle islands in the chain, which hang like a string of pearls in the North Atlantic about 25 km south of Newfoundland. Only Saint-Pierre and Miquelon are inhabited year-round. Saint-Pierre is home to roughly 6000 ancestors of Normans, Basques, Bretons and Saintongeais. Six-hundred of similar ancestries live on Miquelon. First “officially” discovered in 1520 by the Portuguese, the islands were ceded to France by the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Its chief economy is fishing and tourism but after a collapse of the fishing industry in the 1990s, its economy is heavily subsidized by its parent. The only way to the islands is by private boat, ferry from Newfoundland, or by air from the other Canadian cities of St John’s, Montreal, Halifax and Sydney. Government officials are rotated from France. Administration is conducted by a préfet who resides in Saint-Pierre to ensure the representation of the State in the archipelago. The préfet is also a member of parliament and a senator in the French parliament. The territorial community is managed by a Territorial Council of nineteen members elected for six years.
A pair of those officials awaited our nocturnal arrival by the quaint, fog-dulled aerodrome of Saint-Pierre. As we taxied toward the terminal the poor visibility almost transformed the scene into a reenactment of the end of the 1942 film classic, Casablanca. But no, not Humphrey or Claude discussing exit visas, just the two gendarmes waiting to process our entry. (I found the image ironic; in 1942 the French Vichy islands were liberated by the Free French under General Charles de Gaulle. And, sadly, during the first war roughly one quarter of its 400 (mostly) conscripted residents were killed.)
Although the general is long gone, there is one hotel that housed some of his troops (and before them, Al Capone), the Hôtel Robert, as well as more than a dozen other hostelries proffering rooms from 30 to 150 € per night. We narrowed our stay down to two: The modern, European-styled Hôtel Jacques Cartier and the awarded-winning boutique hotel, Nuits Saint-Pierre (see my review of Nuits Saint-Pierre here).
Breakfast is included at most of the hotels and ours was no exception: Eggs, bacon, hot, crisp (crackling crisp), buttery croissants, fresh creamery butter, and FRENCH coffee steaming from porcelain cups. To be sure, the islands present food and drink that is some of the best we’ve had anywhere, certainly on par with France and Europe. (Our room in the Jacques Cartier was stocked with a diverse selection of French wines. There was at least one shop marketing close to 600 bottles of vin from every provence in France, all reasonably priced.)
Our post-breakfast waddle led us down a cobblestone street, past cheerfully-painted shops as bells from the town clock chimed and bonged the quarter hour towards the Saint-Pierre and Miquelon Tourism Office.
The agency was large, comparatively, with several English-speaking staff who offered extensive options for our visit; everything from a morning guided tour, to a four-day exploratory tour that integrated travel by bus, a trip in a zodiac to scope out Miquelon (and other parts of the archipelago), a guided walking tour of landmarks, and sailboat tours. Prices for guided tours ranged from 15 to a couple hundred Euros. Or just hit the beach. Or drink FRENCH coffee. Or stuff yourself with French pastry AND drink FRENCH coffee.
Customized Walking Tours
Aiko customized our walking tours to incorporate local sights such as:
- The Musée de la Prohibition — The islands played a big role in supplying booze to the U.S. during prohibition.
- The Saint-Pierre Cathedral – A “Modern” replacement for the one that burnt down in 1902.
- The Pointe aux Canons Lighthouse and Battery — Look for the upright canon which dates back to the Crimean War.
- The Les Salines Fishing Stations
- The Galantry Lighthouse
- The Saint-Pierre Post Office
- General Charles de Gaulle Square — Note the Old Fountain and Gazebo.
- The Fronton “Zazpiak Bat” – Scene of a Basque sport played against a massive outdoor wall.
- The Government District
- Saint-Pierre Cemetery — Thousands of monuments built above ground a la Bermuda.
- The Cross – On a hill providing some of the best views of Saint-Pierre.
- The War Memorial
- The Saint-Pierre Fort
- The Lebailly Blacksmith Shop — Saint-Pierre’s last remaining blacksmith shop.
Of course, two days touring demanded stops for copious quantities of FRENCH coffee – not to mention lunch and dinner. Almost a dozen restaurants and cafes plate dishes like Risotto Aux Légumes et Fruits de Mer (Risotto with pumpkin and seafood) to Magret de Canard aux Plate Bières (Duck breast with plate beer). Absolutely not to be missed is the Chocolate Fondant (a flourless chocolate soufflé-like pudding-cake from the Les Délices de Joséphine café: It is to die for.
A quick trip to the northern island of Miquelon was on the agenda as well. The fifteen-minute flight from Saint-Pierre on Air Saint Pierre cost 30€ (the ferry ride takes 55 minutes and costs just over half that rate.) Of particular interest is the Miquelon Museum and local food specialties such as the variety of jams, foie gras and meatloaf terrines. Miquelon is remote, tranquil and starkly beautiful.
If you want quiet charm, history, and awesome food this is for you. If you want the French Riviera, this isn’t for you. To us Saint-Pierre and Miquelon were scaled down versions of Brittany, Normandy, and Basque, Spain. The people, like their European cousins, were warm and gracious.
- Most shops close between noon and 2 pm. Make reservations for dinner. There are roughly 10 restaurants in all of Saint Pierre (not including cafes).
- Because the area is in the North Atlantic, summer days can run from wet and cool, to sunny with temps near the 80s. Bring rain gear, but also bring swim gear. Private Scuba diving is supposed to be incredible.
- The official currency is the Euro.
- Not everyone speaks English. Don’t expect it. Be polite in asking if they speak English.
- Electrical voltage is 220. Some hotels offer adapters. Bring one just in case.
- There are no “official” rental car agencies; however taxis and buses are cheap.
- Tourism staff usually meet incoming flights and help with directions, taxis, and other information. They are an excellent resource.
- Passports are required for entry. There is no TSA. The police conduct arrival and departure control. They are armed and they are VERY thorough.
- If you want a combined Eastern Canada/French adventure, visit Halifax, Peggy’s Cove, and Lunenburg, a shipbuilding town where the Bounty replica and Bluenose schooners were built. Halifax is English Canada’s oldest city. Titanic rescue operations were conducted from here and there are a number of places of historical interest not only specific to the Titanic, but to English history as well.
- If you want a Quebecois/French adventure fly to Montreal first then to Saint-Pierre. (See the InterContinental Montréal review at https://www.wanderwithwonder.com/2013/03/01/hotel-profile-intercontinental-montreal/.)
Air Saint Pierre: www.airsaintpierre.com (flight times vary depending departure city)
Saint Pierre Ferry: www.saintpierreferry.ca (just over an hour)
Marine Atlantic: www.marine-atlantic.ca (For private vehicles, but this is not recommended. There are only 70km of paved roads.)
Saint Pierre Tourism: http://www.tourisme-saint-pierre-et-miquelon.com/en/