Wednesday, August 06, 2014

St. Pierre and Miquelon

I don’t know about you but as a Canadian kid growing up in the 60’s we were required to take Canadian history and geography.  The islands that are located about 25 km off the coast of Newfoundland that belong to France always seemed rather mysterious and exotic.  We visited them last week and both Barry and I looked at each other and said “I never thought we would ever visit St. Pierre and Miquelon”. 
We set out from the coast of Nfld, intending to land in St. Pierre, the more populated and developed island.  The wind was capricious, blowing in our faces, making it necessary to tack back and forth to make any progress.  My brother is onboard for a sailing holiday so we indulged his wishes and gamely tried to make some headway.  When it was Barry’s shift later in the afternoon and we still had 10 miles to go he exercised the Captain’s prerogative and started the motor.  St. Pierre was still 30nm away so we pulled into the much larger but more rural island of Miquelon.  The harbour is very narrow and there was quite a wind blowing by this time so we dropped anchor just outside it’s mouth.  It was exposed to prevailing winds and we spent two very rolly nights. 
Once ashore the next morning we checked into France and then we went exploring.  The French seem to have kept their hands on islands in various parts of the world, Tahiti, New Caledonia, Reunion, Martinique, etc, etc.  It must be a colonial throwback thing, why would they want to have a base in the St. Lawrence in this day and age?? But I digress; we found a very small spread out town, based on a windswept flat plain which had wonderful soil.  In almost every backyard there was a beautiful garden with lots of potato plants that were thriving, we also spotted carrots, beets, spinach, zucchini, lettuce and onions, and my mouth was watering! Barry tried out his French on some pre teen kids that were hanging about the main square and was able to effectively communicate with them.  We bought some postcards at the post office and then caused great consternation as we tried to pay for them with Canadian money.  Fifteen minutes later, after several phone calls and many calculations we received some Euros in return and posted our cards. The wind was still on our nose so we stayed an extra day and I completed some much needed cleaning in the galley. 

St. Pierre was a surprise; after visiting the very small Nfld outports for almost 2 weeks, the bustling town of 4,000 was a bit of a culture shock.  There was a very large grocery store, a wonderful sailing school, which offered showers, free laundry, and wifi when you paid for a mooring buoy, and a plethora of shops. Bob headed ashore the next morning and managed to procure some wonderful croissants and we munched on them as we sipped our café aux laits, how very Continental of us!
 The fog rolled in and out of town, clothing the brightly painted buildings in misty curtains.  Many of the buildings were attached to one another, having a common wall but the height could be different and the roofs different pitches.  We wandered about the streets heading up hill until we had a great view of the town and the very protected harbour. The local museum was on the agenda for the afternoon and there we learned a bit of the history of the islands. 

The French and the English fought over them continuously throughout the 18th century, at one time the hardy islanders were all deported and there was a wonderful celebration once they were allowed to return.  The islands played a vital part in rum running during the prohibition years.  The U.S, was not allowed to make liquor or import it and Canada could manufacture it but they were not allowed to export it to the US.  There were no restrictions on the French so a huge trade in the demon rum soon became a part of St. Pierre’s story.  There were pictures of boatloads of crates of liquor being unloaded at the pier.  Here it was transferred to smaller, quicker vessels and smuggled into the US.  The young fellow looking after the museum showed us furniture that had been made on St. Pierre that used the lumber from the rum boxes for drawers in a buffet and hutch for the dining room. Bob and I realized that time was passing when we recognized a wringer washer quite like the one my Mom used to use back in the early 60’s, we are aging!
A new twist on the cannon pictures, one with my brother in it!!
I wish we had more time to explore these French islands but we needed to keep moving in order to achieve our goal of visiting the capital of Newfoundland.
This is what St. Pierre looks like in the winter, brutal!!