On a clear day on Canada’s Newfoundland, if you stand on any westward-facing beach near Point May on wind-scoured Burin Peninsula and gaze seaward, you’ll see France.
Paris lies 2,700 miles to the east, but just 16 miles away, the eight small islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, the last remnant of France's once-vast colonial empire in North America, seem to float like rocky lily pads.
But this wasn't a clear day. Thick fog, a constant presence in June and July, obscured the islands as we prepared to board the ferry at Fortune that would take us to St. Pierre.
The only hint of what lay ahead were a pair of eyebrow-raising signs, one in English and the other in French, that hung over the entrance to the customs office in the ferry building:
So, yes, a little more than an hour after the ferry left the dock, we were in France. Hello, baguettes and fragrant cheese; goodbye poutine and Tim Hortons.
The 5,500 residents are French citizens and can vote in French elections. French license plates adorn the Peugeots and Renaults that share narrow, hilly streets with Fords and Chevys. Flagpoles bear the French tricolor. The signs are in French, the official currency is the euro (though Canadian dollars are cheerfully accepted), and the local patois is closer to the French spoken in Brittany than in Montreal.
The center of tourism here is the Musee de l'Arche just off downtown St. Pierre, the largest of four museums on the islands. Seven walking tours organized by the museum explore the town and its colorful history.
The most popular chronicles St. Pierre's architecture and its French roots. Another highlights the town's notorious Prohibition years.
Visitors can take a motor launch across the narrow harbor channel to a restored fishing village on L’Ile-aux-Marins (Sailors’ Island). Private operators offer the more adventurous dory tour of the island or a trip on a 30-foot sailboat to smaller nearby islands. Or visitors can take the ferry to Miquelon, St. Pierre’s sister island, for a Zodiac boat ride to the breeding ground of seals and seabirds.
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, visitors can stay inside the museum and view the exhibits, which include the only guillotine ever used in North America. It was shipped from Martinique to St. Pierre for the execution of convicted murderer Auguste Neel on Aug. 12, 1889.
Tour guide Hélène Girardin introduced herself as she rounded the corner of the reception desk on the third floor of the Musee de l'Arche.
Like the village itself, Girardin, 27, makes a striking first impression. She smiles easily and often through multiple lip piercings. Her hair is dyed fluorescent blue, green, and yellow and pulled back into a relaxed bun. Her black coat and loosely fitting trousers with their black-and-white vertical stripes, tucked into black combat boots, spoke to her formal training as a costume designer.
We left the museum and walked past wooden houses painted purple, yellow, and pumpkin orange that lined a narrow terraced street above the harbor. “These two are typical fishermen’s houses,” she said, pointing to two striking clapboard-and-shingle houses that stood side by side, one gray and one painted plum red, that were built in the last half of the 19th century.
"In the basement of this gray house," she said, "we found the hull of a ship."
Beaten by the North Atlantic winds, trees on these islands rarely grow taller than head-high. To build their houses, residents imported wood from Canada or scavenged it from shipwrecks; more than 600 ships have been lost in these treacherous waters since 1816.
"All the houses were built together," Girardin said as we passed a grape-colored house shoehorned between yellow and coffee-brown ones. "With all the houses made of wood and so close to one another, you can easily guess that it catches fire easily."
The most destructive fire broke out in September 1867, burning 177 buildings; villagers destroyed 50 more in their attempt to contain the flames.
We turned right and climbed a steep street to an imposing dark-brown stucco house. A statue of the Virgin Mary looked down from a large window box just beneath the roofline. As the inferno advanced, the homeowner had placed the statue facing the flames.
"The fire stopped right here," Girardin said.
Cod fueled the St. Pierre economy for more than 200 years. The rich waters of the Grand Banks are just offshore. Acres of gutted cod once lay split and drying in the sun where downtown shops, restaurants, and the La Place du General de Gaulle waterfront park now stand.
Overfishing sent the cod population crashing. By the turn of the 20th century, the fishery had largely collapsed, and along with it the island's economy.
Prohibition in the United States temporarily rescued St. Pierre. Canada did not ban alcohol, but laws prohibited distillers from selling to countries that did.
"St. Pierre was French. There were no laws,” Girardin said. They could sell all the alcohol they wished and it was completely legal."
So liquor flowed to St. Pierre, where it was stored before being loaded aboard smugglers' boats bound for the United States.
"Before Prohibition, people basically had nothing," Girardin said. "When Prohibition started, all they had to do was store alcohol in their basement, and they had money flowing. Even the big leading fish company turned its back to the sea to import alcohol."
The morning fog had lifted when we boarded a launch for L'Ile-aux-Marins. Lying at its closest point just a few hundred yards off St. Pierre, the island protects the harbor and town from the worst of the North Atlantic's fury.
In the island’s heyday in the 1900s, 600 fishermen and their families lived there. As the cod stocks declined, so did L’Ile-aux-Marins. One by one, residents dismantled their houses and rebuilt in St. Pierre. Few people remained by the 1950s – the last resident was removed in 1964 by town officials as a storm approached – and today there are no permanent inhabitants.
The old houses and buildings, including the City Hall, school (now a museum and cafe), and the magnificent but seldom-used Notre-Dame-des-Marins Catholic church are maintained as a tourist site. A few St. Pierre residents have weekend retreats or vacation homes on the island.
The ferry from Fortune to St. Pierre operates in each direction once daily during summer months, three days a week from October through May. Adult fares are about $55 one way and $90 round-trip; reduced rates for seniors, disabled persons, and children. Information: spm-ferries.fr/en/home
Musee de l'Arche: arche-musee-et-archives.net (in French)