Teleporting to France! A Journey to St. Pierre and Miquelon Islands
Ever since we hatched the plan to embark on our circumnavigation by exiting out the St. Lawrence River, we've been giddily anticipating our pit stop at the quirkiest islands ever – St. Pierre and Miquelon.
We found the secret backdoor to Europe, and it's not even hidden behind a bookshelf.
15 miles off the coast of Newfoundland is France in the shape of the archipelago of St. Pierre and Miquelon.
Vive la France
The islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon are vibrant and full of young families. A stark difference from the aging towns of Newfoundland. The cod moratorium impacted St. Pierre and Miquelon's economy, however, their lifestyle is heavily subsidized by France. Young families are thriving here and don't need to leave for work,
Miquelon is actually composed of three distinct areas: Grand Miquelon, Langlade, and Petite Miquelon. These islands are connected by sand dunes and are surrounded by pristine beaches and rugged hills and valleys. Miquelon is much less populated than St. Pierre. Most of it is open, unspoiled landscapes. There are lots of horses around, not wild horses, but horses let out by their owners to roam the pastures in the summer sunshine.
When we arrived, the customs officers, or in French, Douane (I thought that was the guy's name sewn on his pocket) were very friendly. They hurried us through the process so we would have time to get to the village square for the Bastille Day Celebration.
Miquelon village is small. It is built on the flattest part of the island. It has an open plaza surrounded by a visitor center, supermarket, three restaurants, a hardware store, and a church. Spreading out from the center in two arms, are the residential areas. One ends at the foothills of a mountain, the other at an inlet. Behind it all is an airport. The houses are colorful and well-kept. The lampposts are concrete, hinting at the hurricane force winds the island receives in the fall and winter.
The town square was covered in confetti and draped in French flag decorations. The children were celebrating Bastille Day with squirt gun wars which devolved into throwing cups of water at each other. The adults visited the local soccer team's beer tent, smoked lots of cigarettes, and chatted with each other.
Fun for All Ages, Bastille Day on Miquelon!
After hanging out there for awhile, we followed the crowds to a large tent at the end of the street. We were befriended by a local who explained the evening events to us, including the fact that the party included free beer, which we happily partook.
He happened to be one of the promoters for a really cool music festival called Dunefest that was taking place in two weeks on the island. It would have been fun to stay for it.
A band played, everyone danced, we met more locals and had a great time. At one point, a man approached us and told us to follow him outside. We were greeted with a spectacular fireworks show.
By evening's end, the beer and lack of food had caught up with us and we decided we had better walk back to the boat. We weren't exactly sure how to get there. I could see the masts of the sailboats peeking over the houses but Dave refused to turn down the street I wanted.
I thought it would be funny to race down the street and be waiting for him at the end when he came around the corner. It turned out to be the least funny thing I could do because I tripped and fell hard. I skidded across the road on my hands, knees, and face! Dignity shredded, face bleeding, teeth hurting I limped back to the boat in pain with Dave who was very confused about what exactly happened.
I woke up with a bruised face and ego.
We still took a walk (I took a limp) around the island and stopped for lunch at a bistro. I'm sure the locals were terrified. It looked like I went ten rounds with Mike Tyson (ok, one punch).
Miquelon would have been a lovely place to rent a car or e-bikes and tour the island but everything was closed for the holiday and I didn't feel (or look) great so we decided after the weekend to sail down to St Pierre.
Emergency Room in a Foreign Country
We pulled up at the dock in St. Pierre and were greeted by a fellow cruiser, Luc. Luc and his lovely wife, Isabelle, had just completed a four-year circumnavigation of the world and were on their last stop before heading back to their home in France.
He took one look at me and asked if he should call the police. I gave the standard reply, "You should see the other guy." Upon tying up, he and Isabelle encouraged me to visit the ER. After dragging my heels for a day or two longer, I finally did.
The triage nurse didn't speak English but my face explained the visit. The doctor's English was pretty good but he did need to consult Google Translate a couple times. We really wished we could speak French! He checked me over and said I was fine. Nothing broken. We expected to pay an exorbitant fee for having no insurance coverage in France. The ER visit ended up costing $25 euros, which is about $27US. The three medicines the doctor prescribed cost another $14 euros. We were happy to pay.
Our Dock in St. Pierre, full of cruisers
Our dock had turned into a real little cruisers' village. We had nine sailboats join us, most with full-time cruisers on board. There were a lot of retired couples, many of whom had already circumnavigated. One couple had been sailing for the past 8 years and had gone around Cape Horn, the holy grail of "real" sailing. There was a crew of three friends and a family of four. We had our celebrity boat Falken of 59 North. This is an offshore sailing instruction boat captained by Andy Schell. He's kind of famous in sailing circles, he has a very popular podcast.
Two of the cruisers on the dock were both retired dental hygienists. They both urged me to go to a dentist and get my teeth x-rayed after my fall. I wasn't sure how I was going to get in to see a dentist but they both insisted I do it immediately.
I asked the woman working at our marina if she would help me call a dentist and speak French for me and she sharply answered, "No."
I was a bit taken aback. She grabbed a map instead. "No, I will not call because they will just say they are too busy. You will go there in person and they will see you because they can't refuse." She circled two offices on the map and off we went not too sure this would work.
In France, the entire country shuts down (everything-every store, gas station, business, restaurant, school-everything) from 12-2 pm every day for an extended lunch break. Never try to cross the road at 12:01 because the drivers are speeding like maniacs to get home.
We left for the dentist's office at 11:40 am. I questioned whether it would even be worthwhile to go so close to lunch. Again, the receptionist at the dentist spoke no English but my face explained it.
I saw the dentist immediately. She examined my teeth and took x-rays. Everything looked fine for now. Trauma to teeth can show up later. (Now a month later, I know I need to go see one in Annapolis). She told Dave to go pay the bill as it was 11:59 while she finished up. My emergency dentist appt, complete with xrays, cost $25 euros and took 15 minutes. I began to sense a pattern. I started thinking that if we need any medical work done in the future, it might be cheaper to fly to France and have it done there rather than use my high deductible American insurance in the US!
I reported back to the dock that my teeth were x-rayed and the results were encouraging. Denise, one of the dental hygienists, immediately wanted to see my x-ray but I didn't get a copy. She sent me walking back to the dentist to pick one up. I took her Swiss husband who speaks perfect French, German, Italian and English with me to translate. Denise carefully checked over the x-ray.
I profusely thanked the woman at the marina office and our fellow cruisers for their help. Thus ended the Face Plant in France debacle. Now I could enjoy St. Pierre.
St. Pierre, the smaller but more populated of the two islands, is like that cozy bistro where you'd want to curl up with a good book and a glass of red wine. Cobblestone streets wind through colorful houses that look like they've been picked straight out of a postcard. It's as if Monet decided to try his hand at painting a fishing village.
Speaking of fishing, seafood here is fresher than a morning croissant (and boy were those morning croissants good!). The local seafood scene is so amazing that even the seagulls seemed to have a taste for the finer things in life.
The locals are as warm as a freshly baked baguette (we visited the bakery every morning, can you tell?), ready to share their joie de vivre with visitors. We may have been lost in a sea of French vocabulary, but a friendly smile and a "bonjour" worked well for us (it usually made them switch to speaking English).
The weather here was a bit capricious, switching between sunny and foggy like a game of peek-a-boo but it added to the island's quirky charm.
St. Pierre's Boozy Past
We learned on our visit to L'Arche Museum and Archives about St. Pierre's heady rum running days. The residents of St. Pierre got wildly rich during the US Prohibition era (1920-1933).
Being a French territory, they had a more lenient stance on alcohol production and distribution. This made it an attractive location for smuggling alcohol into nearby regions, particularly the northeastern United States.
They were so successful at bootlegging, every single resident on the island was being paid to store alcohol in their homes. The warehouses were overflowing, more storage areas were needed. Imagine being paid for doing nothing but having crates stacked up in your spare bedroom! That was quite a break for those hard-working fishermen.
US citizens may have been celebrating the end of prohibition but in St. Pierre it was a very sad day indeed. Back to catching and salting all those cod fish for everyone.
We also learned at the museum that the first permanent French fishing settlement was established in 1604. Of course, natives already lived here but were shortly wiped out by disease. The islands were exchanged between the French and British several times until restored permanently to France in 1816 under the Treaty of Paris.
The first European residents were mainly from Basque, a region of southwest France and northwest Spain. We were lucky enough to watch a Basque celebration with music, dancing, and the welcoming of a traditional whale hunting boat.
We hiked all over the island including up to the top of the hill. We were greeted by 8 fingered Jesus (or St. Peter, we don't know, he wasn't labeled). He looked a bit rough.
But we enjoyed the view in the brief time before the fog rolled in.
St. Pierre is so inviting. You can walk everywhere. It is very affordable. It has a full social calendar. The marina has a very active sailing school for all ages. It was great fun watching the tiny 4 and 5 year olds in their full offshore sailing suits come down to sail their little boats. I could easily see being here for an extended stay, enrolling in the French language immersion school across from the marina, and being a part of the community. That is until winter and reality set in!
Like all good things, our time in St. Pierre and Miquelon had to end. We left for the town of Fortune, Newfoundland to clear back in to Canada. We had a lovely sail. The beautiful sunshine made the water look Caribbean blue! We had the delightful bonus of being greeted by flocks of puffins swimming near our boat!