On a reconnaissance to the last remaining French territory in North America one Francophobe finds he has to give up some Gallic ground

Chris Chapman
| Credit: 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.

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.

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.

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.

Miquelon, the other major island, is a small-town version of St.-Pierre. Langlade, an almost-island attached to Miquelon by a stretch of dunes, is the country—a few houses in a fairly wild setting, with a road that doesn't even try to get to the heart of the place. I saw enough of Langlade—water that goes from emerald to jade to blue, people playing pétanque on the beach, cranberry bogs, tall grasses bending in the breeze—to know where I'll end up if I return to these islands.

But if I do go back, my St.-Pierre may no longer exist. Here, then, is the tiebreaker on my to-go/not-to-go list: See it before it goes the way of all undiscovered places. There's been a late-breaking oil rush in the region, and ExxonMobil is drilling for black gold in an offshore region called "the French Baguette." It seems the oil companies find it easier to negotiate with St.-Pierre than Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. Being French in North America has its advantages after all. St.-Pierre's ship—be it the Love Boat or an oil tanker—may finally be coming in.

To get in the mood, watch The Widow of Saint Pierre, possibly the only major motion picture ever set in this locale. It stars Juliette Binoche and will be released on video later this year. For general information, including air, ferry, and tour schedules, call 800/565-5118. And remember, there are no ATM's.

Hôtel Neptune Place Général de Gaulle, St.-Pierre; 800/563-2006, fax 709/738-3775; doubles from $92. Kind of like a Best Western, it's the islands' top hotel.

La Brasserie de l'ële Hôtel ële de France, 6 Rue Maître Georges Lefèvre, St.-Pierre; 508/41-03-50; dinner for two $43. The most popular restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Guillard & Fils 23 Rue Maréchal Foch, St.-Pierre; 508/41-31-40. Excellent croissants, brioches, and pastries.

Girardin 16 Place Général de Gaulle, St.-Pierre; 508/41-41-97. Serves tasty panini and quiche.

Snack Bar à Choix 2 Rue Sourdeval, Miquelon; 508/41-62-00; lunch for two $22. A quirky lunch spot.