The isle of St. Pierre looks like Greenland and sounds like Brittany.
Geographically, it’s part of Canada. And it’s worth knowing about if you are, like many of my friends and readers, a dedicated Francophile.
St. Pierre and Miquelon, an eight-island archipelago off Newfoundland, is a French overseas territory — the only one in North America, outside of the Caribbean. Despite its proximity to French-speaking Québec, this rugged outpost of boulangeries and Peugeots is proudly part of France, not Canada.
As such, it’s the only part of Europe you can drive to from New York. Catch a half-hour ferry from the western tip of Newfoundland’s peninsula to St. Pierre, which faces Nova Scotia across a rough, stormy stretch of the North Atlantic.
In the 1990s, a new commercial airport opened on St. Pierre; Air St. Pierre connects travelers to Canadian cities and even Paris.
But why, you may ask, would anybody want to go?
Because it’s France — without the tourists, the crowds, or the seven-hour plane flight and inevitable jet lag (though St. Pierre and Miquelon actually have their own time zone).
From quaint window boxes to bakeries fragrant with Old World aromas, St. Pierre offers an authentically distilled version of provincial France. The curiosity of such ambience on a remote, barren landscape is the chief allure for diehard Europhiles.
As in much of rural France, Jewish life is virtually nonexistent. The nearest Jewish communities are hundreds of miles away (though more Jewish travelers are discovering St. Pierre and Miquelon by sea; more cruise ships stop here each year as the word gets out).
Many French locals trace their heritage to the Basque region, a legacy evident both in place names (Miquelon is adapted from the Basque and Spanish versions of Michael) and in popular pastimes like Basque pelota, a sort of paddleball-baseball hybrid that is a highlight of the islands’ August Basque Festival.
In 2016, St. Pierre and Miquelon threw a lively year-long fête to celebrate the 200th anniversary of French settlement on these isles and to inaugurate a public plaza, the Square Joffre on the waterfront in downtown St. Pierre.
The 10-square-mile island of St. Pierre is the territory’s cultural and logistical hub. Overlooking a harbor full of sturdy fishing boats, St. Pierre has a village feel, with brightly-painted, low-slung buildings and tidy, flower-bedecked roundabouts.
Throughout most of its two French centuries, St. Pierre and Miquelon has been a fishing enclave. The decline of that industry, due to both overfishing and limitations imposed to protect local cod stock, has led to high unemployment among the 6,000 current inhabitants — an unfortunate status shared with the Continental mainland.
Indeed, to spend time on these islands is to feel the languid rhythm of small-town France, a distinct contrast even from rural North America. Locals cherish the European way of life, which often frustrates travelers who find shops closed after 4 p.m. and on the weekend.
More than one person pointed out to me that St. Pierre has all the simple pleasures of France with none of the touristic obligation. There are a few small museums for those who must check off a cultural activity, but if you skip them, you won’t miss much. (Pro tip for philatelists: Stamps from the St. Pierre post office are a highly coveted souvenir.)
Exploring on foot, meanwhile, is de rigueur. The brick-paved pedestrian alleys of St. Pierre have a charm with few parallels this side of the Pond. And the tourism office has a list of easy hikes that take in the wide, unspoiled Atlantic vistas along St. Pierre’s coast, where brilliant green moss and lichen are picturesque but little else grows.
Most of the archipelago is actually uninhabited, including at least one island, Isle-aux-Marins, where French settlements once existed; but there is evidence that Inuit tribes roamed this territory centuries earlier.
The largest island, Miquelon-Langlade, might have more seals than people, along with abundant waterfowl and seasonal whales that attract gawkers for their springtime migration.
Miquelon and Langlade are actually two islands connected by miles of fragile, shifting dunes; the former, with red and yellow wood-frame houses and summertime wildflowers along the beach, is becoming a magnet for summer vacationers.
Truly, the great pleasure of St. Pierre and Miquelon is just wandering — by the storefronts where locals pop in for baguettes, and along the wide, windswept beaches where faded red and blue boats lie propped against the elements.