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Visiting St. Pierre and Miquelon in Canada

Chris Chapman

Photo: Chris Chapman

When you tell people you're going to the islands of St.-Pierre and Miquelon, your destination will require some explanation. You can't say "France," even though the islands are officially French — that's evading the truth. And you must not say "Canada," even though the islands are 12 miles south of Newfoundland — Canadians and Frenchmen alike will get snippy. So you sort of have to say, "All of the above."

Once that's settled, people will undoubtedly ask why you're going to St.-Pierre and Miquelon (populations 5,800 and 700, respectively)—meaning, of course, that they can't think of any earthly reason to go there. They don't know the half of it.

Reasons to Skip St.-Pierre and Miquelon:
1. It's hard to get to.
2. The weather is iffy.
3. It's not tourist-friendly.
4. It's hard to get around.
5. It's French.

Heck, France itself is easier and cheaper to reach (it cost me almost $1,000 and eight hours to fly from New York to St.-Pierre). France, where high season lasts longer than three months and the temperature doesn't peak at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. France, where people are more willing to speak English—and they speak it better. France, where the arrogance is backed up by exquisite culture and cuisine. In St.-Pierre, when the shops close for lunch, or the restaurants don't serve dinner until 8 p.m., it comes off as undeserved hauteur. Mon dieu, even France has ATM's!

As for the general French humorlessness, I had planned on chatting up a few locals and winning them over but, boy, was that not happening. When I did manage to make an inroad, it felt as if I'd earned it: these are people who live on the edge of the world, and expecting them to be pushovers (or to trust outsiders) is unrealistic.

You can't really blame them for being wary. For centuries, France and Great Britain stole the islands from each other, wreaking havoc in the process and leaving the inhabitants somewhat like that poor kid in Kramer vs. Kramer (1693: sacked nine times, burned twice; 1715: evacuation; 1768: famine; 1793: deportation). Eventually, St.-Pierre settled into its peaceful, cod-fishing ways as a territorial collectivity of France—it has a degree of administrative autonomy and two representatives in the motherland's parliament. Then, in 1992, Canada enforced an international moratorium on cod fishing. In what must have seemed like a stretch—the islands saw 15,400 visitors during the 1992 season—the French government decided that St.-Pierre's best hope lay in tourism.

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