- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

There’s no need to cross the Atlantic to visit France. A little more than 14 miles off Canada’s Newfoundland is a bit of continental France in the New World. The 6,700 residents of 10-square-mile St. Pierre and 83-square-mile Miquelon, a French collectivite territoriale, are citizens of France, with all the rights and privileges of any resident of the French mainland. They speak Parisian French, vote in French elections and send their children (more than 100 of them last year) to France to university.

Just across the water in Newfoundland, the houses are undistinguished white clapboard. In St. Pierre, they are green and red and pink and golden yellow and are trimmed gaily in complementary colors. French joie-de-vivre is in the air; French cuisine on the tables and French wine and perfume in the shops.

Exactly how it happened that the English who conquered Canada never took control of these two little French islands is hard to explain. By the Treaty of Paris in 1763, England agreed to leave them alone and let them be a French codfishing base, as they had been since their discovery by Jacques Cartier in 1536.

In 1778, when France sided with the Americans in the American Revolution, the English burned virtually all the houses on the islands in retaliation. They did the same in 1793, and all the population returned whence it had come — to St. Malo, Brest, Le Havre and Nantes in France. The English never took possession of the islands, however, so the French returned in 1816, rebuilt their homes and went back to their codfishing.

Through the centuries, Grand Banks codfishing has been the residents’ economic mainstay — except for the Canadian and American Prohibition years of the 1920s and early ‘30s. Then the whiskey produced in Canada (whose laws prevented consumption of alcohol except for medicinal purposes but did not interfere with its production) was shipped to St. Pierre and stored there for a fee.

Because as many as 350,000 cases of liquor a month were put into St. Pierre warehouses and there was a storage fee, the two little islands profited grandly and with this money were able to build a harbor, a water reservoir and roads.

When the time was right, the liquor was transferred to old World War I sub-chasers or to boats specially built for the Mafia just for rum-running. The precious cargo was then sailed down to Rum Row off New York’s Fire Island. There, on moonless, starless nights, it was transferred to still smaller boats that slipped it into American ports. To confuse the ever-watchful U.S. Coast Guard, boats always carried more than one nameplate so a suspect boat’s name could be changed quickly.

To oversee the operation in which he was a kingpin, Chicago mobster Al Capone came to St. Pierre once; a little museum in the Hotel Robert displays, along with empty whiskey crates and bottles, his straw hat. It is said that he decided to end the shipping of liquor in wooden crates because transferring them from vessel to vessel was noisy. Instead, burlap bags were to be employed.

St. Pierre and Miquelon profited grandly from his decision. The wooden liquor crates either became firewood or were turned into houses. One of these, the Cutty Sark Villa — built of Cutty Sark whiskey crates — still stands on St. Pierre.

Today, with Prohibition long ended and the Grand Banks almost depleted of cod, the islands’ residents have had to look elsewhere for their income. Much of it comes from mainland France; about 30 percent of the population of St. Pierre is in the direct employ of the national government, and more of the population is hired seasonally for construction.

From time to time, snow-crab trapping has been tried, and lumpfish have been caught for their eggs. For a while, when llamas were the rage in Canada and the United States, Chilean llamas were kept in quarantine on Miquelon before shipment.

None of these enterprises was profitable for long. Now there is hope that offshore oil drilling eventually will employ island residents, and, increasingly, tourism is playing a role in the economy.

St. Pierre is a good place for duty-free shopping for Canadians if they stay 48 hours or longer. They are allowed $200 worth of goods, including one bottle of liquor or two of wine. The islands also, of course, are curiosities for Canadians, Americans and the mainland French. Occasionally, cruise ships put into the harbor at St. Pierre.

Tourists begin coming in June and continue to arrive until mid-October. They find steep-roofed, brightly painted houses with tambours — glassed-in entryways — in front, lace curtains at the windows and boats either in the street in front of the houses or in the yards.

Although there is scheduled boat service in the archipelago, residents need their own boats to go about conveniently. There are fine viewpoints out to the sea and, on clear days, across to Newfoundland from the hills around St. Pierre town. Often sleek sailing yachts are moored along the quay, and each summer there is a sailing yacht race to France.

In shop windows, striped sailor shirts, a French Basque tradition, are for sale for young and old. Occasionally, one sees the Basque sport petanque being played, and the fragrance of genuine French cuisine wafts from restaurant kitchens.

Year-round courses in Parisian French are offered at the French Language Institute, and islanders provide accommodations in their homes for students.

A particularly popular time for a visit is July 14, Bastille Day, when the 1789 storming of the Bastille prison in Paris is commemorated with band-playing and tricolor-raising in the Place du General Charles de Gaulle. The general, the World War II head of the Free French government, came to St. Pierre in 1967 to thank the islands for their support of Free France during the war.

Although the islands’ governor had declared his support of Vichy France, most of his population would have none of it. Seventy young men left the islands to join the Free French. On Christmas Eve 1941, the de Gaulle government sent three naval corvettes with many of these St. Pierre and Miquelon sailors aboard to take possession of the islands. The conquest was made, and the governor was put under house arrest, but two of the corvettes were destroyed by German U-boats a few days later.

Most travelers, in addition to visiting St. Pierre with its population of 6,000, take a day trip to Miquelon, home to 700. They also visit little Ile aux Marins — Sailors’ Island — five minutes away from St. Pierre by boat.

The boat to Miquelon puts its passengers ashore in Zodiacs at Langlade, site of a few cabins and home to rabbits and mountain goats, deer and wild horses. In autumn, it is a popular hunting destination for locals.

A tourist bus goes across a 10-mile sandy isthmus to Miquelon. Among that island’s highlights are its lighthouse, the church and a small museum of Prohibition memorabilia and artifacts of the more than 600 shipwrecks that have occurred on the islands. There have been so many wrecks on the isthmus, which was built up on the debris from shipwrecks, that locals delight in spinning tall tales about it.

They insist it is haunted by a yellow dog with blazing eyes that shine in the night. A treasure chest from a shipwrecked vessel is said to have been buried in isthmus sands. Even if that tale is not true, goods aplenty from wrecked vessels have been carted home by locals. When a cargo of musical instruments washed ashore once, several islanders soon were playing the violin.

The church pillars in Miquelon’s Eglise de Notre Dame de Ardilliers are the masts of the Ali Baba, which came afoul of the isthmus in 1900.

Miquelon’s low-slung houses, precisely laid out in a grid, often have attractive gardens or hothouses for growing vegetables. Harbor and gray seals often sun on the island’s vast expanse of sand and water, known as Le Grand Barachois, in summer after the June birthing season has ended.

On the boat trip coming or going, one may get a glimpse of mountain goats climbing the gray rocks of the island. Sometimes an eagle soars overhead. For the true nature aficionado who would like to see puffins and petrols and kittiwakes, dolphins and whales, Zodiac tours close along the shore are offered.

On lle aux Marins, an abandoned fishing settlement just off St. Pierre, the colorful houses are occupied only in summer. In the 18th century, however, they were the homes of dory fishermen.

The houses were constructed of wood that came as ballast on vessels from France. The ballast was replaced for the return journey by the cod that had been salted on the rocky fields of Ile aux Marins. In 1892, the population of the island (about two miles wide and less than that long) was 865. Then fishing declined as a livelihood, and work was more profitable off the island during Prohibition. By 1938, its residents began to leave. By 1965, all had gone. Today, except for summer houses, Ile aux Marins is a museum island. In recent years, the film “The Widow of St. Pierre,” based on a murder committed there in 1888, has revived interest in it.

An elderly fisherman was found stabbed to death and mutilated in his little cabin. Two men were found guilty of the crime, and one was condemned to death. However, there was no guillotine in St. Pierre. The closest one available was on Martinique, and it took eight months for it to arrive. The romantic film version has the condemned man become a hero during the long wait.

• • •

St. Pierre can be reached year-round on Air St. Pierre from Halifax, Nova Scotia; St. John’s, Newfoundland; and Montreal, and in summer from Moncton, New Brunswick, and Sydney, Nova Scotia, or by boat from Fortune, Newfoundland. More details are available from Air St. Pierre, 877/277-7765, or visit www.airsaintpierre.com; from St. Pierre Tours, 709/832-0429; and from the Tourist Office of St. Pierre and Miquelon, 800/565-5118. Both islands offer hotel, motel or bed-and-breakfast accommodations.

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