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Visiting St. Pierre and Miquelon in Canada

Chris Chapman

Photo: Chris Chapman

It sounded like a joke; at least I thought so. I was looking forward to having serious fun, mocking the locals and their petit attempts to build an industry in the middle of nowhere. Fish in a barrel is one of my favorite games!

The joke was on me. Naturally, it took awhile to figure that out: this glamorous American travel writer had planned on gracing them with his presence; I thought they would be interested in me. They weren't. I did eventually break through here and there, however. A hotel clerk spoke little English, but when I arrived sans francs, she let me have a few beers on credit; the next morning, unasked, she drove me in the rain to the guy who rents cars. But my favorite exchange came when I donated books to the library. Four Blondes, Candace Bushnell's tales of ultra-jaded New York women, is certain to give the librarian, lithe and catlike, far too sophisticated for this town, something to dream about.

And so I will now rebut myself and my petty, snarky list of reasons to skip St.-Pierre. It's weird to rebut yourself, but you try to find someone else who's been there.

Reasons to Visit St.-Pierre and Miquelon:
1. It's close to getting the hang of this tourism thing.
2. You can take a cruise there.
3. It's definitely an exotic stamp in your passport.
4. You actually get three destinations for the price of one.
5. It's French.

Being French can be a good thing; besides, the islands' Frenchness is its main draw. St.-Pierre is—despite its geographic location, despite the Detroit TV stations beamed in and the country music playing on the radio of my rented car—as French as can be. I smoked (when in Rome . . . ); I realized I speak more of the language than I'd thought; I indulged in a lot of pain au chocolat. The women dress well, the men less so. Peugeots and Renaults line the streets. France Telecom is a perennial mal à la tête. And just as in France, people leave the boulangerie with baguettes tucked under their arms, and the pâtisserie carrying white boxes tied up with string. Not one bit of it is affectation.

If a baguette falls in the street, and there's no one there to hear it . . . What I'm trying to say is, all this Frenchness means nothing if no one comes to visit. Jean-Hugues Detcheverry, director of tourism in St.-Pierre, explained that the bureau is working on getting air charters from Toronto and New England, which would cut down on the cost and hassle of traveling to the islands. (The new $56 million airport is already spiffy.) They've also focused on luring cruise ships to stop here: 14 will come this summer, including Silversea, Seabourn, and Clipper.

Cruisers, alas, will turn up only for the day, and St.-Pierre fails the day-tripper test. You don't go there for the quick hits like food, shopping, museums—you have to explore. The St.-Pierre and Miquelon museum isn't ready for prime time, especially with its French-only exhibits; anyone who has an extra half-day, however, should tour ële aux Marins (Sailors' Island), trapped in amber, right in St.-Pierre's harbor. People lived there without electricity until 1963. A cable was laid across the harbor, but when it was accidentally cut three years later, the government decided not to try again, and the remaining residents moved out. The houses on the grassy, rocky island are still used as summer residences.

The joy is in the details, the way of life in a place that's neither France nor Canada—or, rather, France and Canada. (Canada! France! Canada! France! I feel like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.) To use an overused word, the islands can be very charming. On St.-Pierre, there's a funny little bus tour with a guide who points out the sights in a Pepe Le Pew accent. We saw the government buildings and the cemetery, sure, but we also saw islanders flying kites, taking walks, and tending their gardens (provoking oohs and aahs from the Canadian seniors on board). Someone had built a little yellow house in the middle of a pond. "What is that?" I called from the back. "Eeet's a duck-owse," he answered. In some circles quaint is a four-letter word; I defy anyone to keep from smiling at the duck house.

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