The scene is familiar, but nothing is quite the same. The rocky curve of the beach, the cold splashes of the North Atlantic, the line of fishing sheds – each with its own bright color and here called a saline. The scrupulously maintained wooden boats, painted in combinations of red, blue and white, some hoisted on the shore, others floating on the quay, under the flying French tricolor.
Squint your eyes and you might think you are in Newfoundland – which is actually just across the road, the dark rise of the Burin Peninsula visible like a pencil line on the horizon. But chat with one of the the zigotos, and you’ll know it’s a whole different country – a quirky little slice of France, a sprinkling of islands known as Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, just off the coast of Atlantic Canada .
Meeting nightly, these men and women restore dories, drink wine, and chat with anyone wandering around their beloved boats, which they sometimes row to distant places, just to demonstrate that it is possible.
« Zygotes – that means like a funny guy, even if you have to be serious, on the sea ”, explains Marc Dérible, a former teacher, by showing me around the small impeccably organized dory museum that he created as a training project. passion in his saline, with translations in English.
How long has her family lived here? “I’ve always thought,” he says, very seriously. And these islands form a unique place, he adds. “Our history is bigger than our geography, because of fishing, because of Prohibition, because we are surrounded by North America and we only speak French.
Located less than 20 kilometers south of the Newfoundland coast, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the territory of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon presents itself as the last small bastion of the former colony of New France. Nearly 4,000 kilometers from the mother country, this archipelago of eight islands is today an autonomous community of France, inhabited by approximately 6,000 people.
A stroll along the port of Saint-Pierre is like a stroll through Normandy or Brittany, with the buildings and seaside squares looking like mini mirror images of what you’ll find across the Atlantic .
The prices are in euros. Renault and Peugeot parade. Bordeaux mixes are a bargain at the corner store. Small grocery stores offer incredible French cheeses, some coming directly from these islands, others from mainland France. Every day, bakeries welcome the morning with hot baguettes and croissants.
In most cases, the language is in French please. Eating can be simple but spectacular. A small restaurant with four tables, at the Auberge Quatre Temps, combines French techniques with spices and dishes brought by a chef / owner from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Another, Le Select, offers upscale classics like tuna steaks and a creamy seafood gratin. European colonization dates back to the 16th century and a mix of Basque, British and (of course) French influences continues to this day.
And then there’s Newfoundland, just a 90-minute ferry ride away. Saint-Pierre Airport has direct flights to Paris, and some, especially those who come from Europe to work, never visit Canada. But you see signs of their big friendly neighbor everywhere, both on Saint-Pierre and on its sister island of Miquelon.
Home to just around 600 people, a 90-minute ferry ride (or 15-minute flight) from the territorial capital, Miquelon is much wilder, the main small town sandwiched on flat land surrounded by broad mountain shoulders. It has a distinct sense of estrangement – a collection of tidy homes and small shops, driven by their own determination, huddled against the wind on a wide expanse of beach.
While staying in a small inn, I cross the street to Mayou’Naise, a local restaurant with a wooded and rustic atmosphere, where Molson is served with snails and where 80% of the ingredients come from this island. (The name is a play on words: the inhabitants call the inhabitants of metropolitan France “Le Mayou.”)
About 20 minutes south of the city, seals swim in the Grand Barachois lagoon and I visit them in a zodiac, the playful marine mammals sticking their heads out of the water to discover our little boat. At the northern end of the island, I walk through dizzying ridges. And I make the trip to Langlade, even wilder, where many locals spend summer weekends in their cabins, crossing a winding road that runs along the dunes and beaches bordering the 12-kilometer isthmus connecting the two islands.
Back in Saint-Pierre, Jean-Claude Fouchard explains that the links between France and Canada are even deeper here. Owner of a small travel agency, he drives me around Saint-Pierre in his bright red minibus, showing me a list of standard sights. He points to the Robert Hotel, where Al Capone used to stay when these islands exploded with ill-gotten gains from Prohibition, alcohol coming in from France and then commuting to Canada and the United States.
Our walk takes us to the Anse à Pierre belvedere, where we can contemplate the whole city, as well as L’Île-aux-Marins (“the sailors’ island”) just opposite. The island – a collection of wooden houses, shops, and a church – once flourished with fishing families, being just a little closer to cod stocks at a time when you had to row to get them.
Having no more permanent inhabitants, the village has been restored as an open-air museum. The guided tours take you back in time and, if you book in advance, can end with a hot lunch at La Maison Jézéquel, a former family fisherman’s house, which still houses boats and gear on the first floor, with steaming salmon. or beef bourguignon served on the second.
We follow seaside trails including a popular beach walk, then head back to town as the afternoon light begins to fade. A chocolate bread is in my near future, some fried mussels maybe later tonight. And everything is within sight of Canada. “At night, you can see the lights of houses in Newfoundland,” says Fouchard. “So close, but to a world further away. “
Writer Tim Johnson traveled as a guest of Tourisme Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, which has neither reviewed nor approved this article. Travelers are reminded to check for public health restrictions that may affect their plans.