The flight to Saint Pierre was perfect for me – forty minutes, start to finish – and we left 10 minutes early! Between takeoff and landing there didn’t seem to be much flying at all and in very little time we could see the islands of the archipelago. Saint Pierre and Miquelon are officially the Territorial Collectivity of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. The French overseas collectivities are first-order administrative divisions of France so are part of France, not Canada.
Located at the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, only 12 miles from Newfoundland, the archipelago consists of several islands, primarily Saint Pierre (population approximately 5,500), Miquelon-Langlade (population 600) and Île aux Marins (with a small number of people living there on a seasonal basis from May to November). There are also several small uninhabited islands in the archipelago. Together the islands are the only piece of France in North America and remain a beautiful mix of cultures to explore.
The tiny airport seemed very efficient to me given the limited resources at their disposal. All levels of airport activity are attended to by the local police and in baggage claim they are assisted by sniffer dogs. That poor pooch went absolutely bananas when he got to one of our bags. He wouldn’t leave it alone, scratching and biting at it as the officer removed it from the carousel immediately. We walked over nonchalantly as if we knew what we were doing. The officer asked us if there was any medication or food in the bag to which we replied no! He seemed cool with that, perhaps thinking these old folks are not a threat. It wasn’t until we were unpacking in our room at the inn that I realized there were two single-serving boxes of Fruit Loops in the bag. Maybe the dog has a sweet tooth.
The first thing I wanted to know was what time it was, all the clocks I had seen since leaving St. John’s were different. Pierre, our host, explained that Saint Pierre was in the Greenland time zone, different from Newfoundland and the Atlantic Provinces, two hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. That clears that up – so what time is it?
There had been subtle signs that we were no longer in Canada since we landed. Although the colourful houses and all the boats in port made it easy for me to believe we were still in Newfoundland, as time passed there was more reason to believe we were indeed in France. The first was the key to our room; a single metal key dangling from an immense carved piece of ornate wood beautifully stained and finished, just like the one we had in Venice years ago. The next thing I noticed were the car license plates, yet another reminder we were no longer in North America.
An early morning trip to the docks in Saint Pierre was a journey I knew would entail numerous stops for photos so built in extra time for the two kilometre trip. It was a beautiful morning, well before sunrise and there was absolutely nobody around. That’s a perfect start to a day for me.
It was pretty well all downhill from the inn to the docks. Sounds good eh? All I could think about was the fact that it would be all uphill returning. We were making excellent time – it appeared that Pierre was correct and it would only take about 20 minutes to get there. With that in mind we took a quick detour to St. Pierre Cathedral. It’s an early 20th century church located close to the harbour front. The current structure dates back to 1905.
I’m convinced the Arche Museum exists to punish school children on field trips. Having said all that, I was fascinated with the story of Prohibition in Saint Pierre. Between 1920 and 1933 an amendment to the American constitution banned the consumption, manufacture, transport and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. In Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon the low price of alcohol encouraged trade and trafficking, especially with the island of Newfoundland, only 25 kilometres (16 miles) away. During Prohibition alcohol became the main source of income for the islands’ inhabitants, surpassing even fishing.
Thanks to quirks of geography, history and law, the cold, fogbound and windswept tiny islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon served up much of the booze that Prohibition was supposed to keep Americans from drinking. More than four million litres of whiskey flowed into the islands’ warehouses and along with hundreds of thousands of cases of wine, champagne, brandy and rum flowed right back out again to quench an insatiable American thirst for the prohibited booze.
The ban on booze did not prevent millions of Americans from wanting to drink. Canadians were willing to supply their needs and when the Canadian government tried to halt the bootlegging trade, the French citizens of Saint Pierre and Miquelon sailed to the rescue. Fishermen pulled their dories up on land and hung up their nets and lines while their home islands floated on a sea of whiskey, wine and money.
Prohibition can be blamed in part on the Temperance Movement, a very active social-religious movement advocating sobriety. It was also supported by feminist associations. According to this movement without alcohol, there would be no more domestic violence and men would no longer waste household money, unemployment would disappear, as would crime and poverty. How’d that work out for you?
The town of Saint Pierre is built around a cove sheltered by several small islands. As early as the 16th century its natural harbour attracted large fishing and trading vessels. There are still vestiges of those times remaining. The harbour surrounds the downtown area so is the hub of the island for all practical purposes.
We had been told seals could often be seen basking in the sun on the rocks surrounding the end of the harbour. When we returned to the inn for lunch Pierre surmised the seals may not have been there because it was high tide so we’d give it another try around 3 PM. Even then it seemed someone tipped the seals off about us because they were not to be found on either side of the harbour.
On our way to the lighthouse we passed the battery. The history of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon was marked by the successive wars between France and England throughout the 18th century and the First Empire. From the battery the walk to the pier where the lighthouse stood was not much longer than the walk out onto the pier itself. The Pointe aux Canons Lighthouse is a lovely old landmark with a long history of guiding boats to safe passage.
I loved our time in Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon; a little taste of France just off the shores of Newfoundland.
Much more travel writing by this author in his book, That Road Trip Book.