The sail from Francois, Newfoundland to France was about 55 nautical miles. Actually, there are places on the Newfoundland coast that are even closer to France, say about 35 nautical miles.
Yes, you read that right.
Saint Pierre & Miquelon is a small French territory of 6,000 people located off the Canadian coast. After a spring and early summer of fog, damp, cold, loss, and sickness, we learned that sailing to France was the cure for what ailed us. Vive la France indeed!
The cruising guides told us that entry into the territory would be easy, warm and welcoming. They also suggested we make a dinner reservation?! Thanks to the Starlink, Alex was able to get on the phone and stumble through her high school French to get us set for dinner at Le Select. A few hours, many whales, dolphins and puffins later, we pulled into St. Pierre. The sun was out, the winds were fair and the crews from the handful of boats tied to the public wharf stood by to catch our lines. Once tied up it was only fifteen minutes or so before a pair of Customs agents walked down the dock to board Sundance. Filling out paperwork while learning about the best bakeries (Boulangerie des Graves) and restaurants (Les P’tits Graviers) was a definite change of pace. We alternated between bad French (Alex) and better English (the guards). We had changed time zones yet again and were now 2 hours ahead of New York. By the time the Customs agents had left and the Immigration officer had come to stamp our passports we felt fully changed, as though we had stepped out of time and place into something utterly new.
Our dinner that night was sublime, and we could fill the whole blog just by listing the gorgeous things we ate and drank over the course of our six days in St. P & M. Bread, cheese, pate, French wine, locally brewed beer, croissants, fresh caught scallops, steak Bavette, Sole Meunière, cassoulet, charcuterie, creme brûlée, mousse au chocolat, tarte tatin, and every other kind of sweet and buttery pastry we could get into our mouths. We even found the French version of Cheetos in the grocery. Made with gruyere, naturellement.
After arriving into the archipelago in the 1500’s, fishermen from the Basque, Breton and Norman regions in France formed permanent settlements in the islands in the early 1600’s. Life was centered around cod-fishing (salt cod in particular) and remained that way until local bans on cod fishing in the early 1990’s.
The territories were kicked back and forth between France and England for another 100 years or so, until France regained permanent possession in the 1760’s. Around the same period, the Expulsion of the Acadians – which was the forced removal (by the British) of people in parts of the Canadian-American region then known as Acadia – was happening. St. P &M became a haven for deported Acadians.
Technically there are eight islands which comprise the archipelago, only two of which are inhabited. We continued to walk and explore Saint Pierre for the next couple of days. Most of the people live here, and we were keen to visit all the shops as sailors always have a list of things they need. For Alex: rubber shoes, as one half of the last pair somehow managed to bounce out of the dinghy on the crossing. For Chris (Sundance?): inflatable fenders. And of course, more bread, another croissant, and a glass of something crisp and cold might be found along the way.
Like every thing in St. P & M, the rhythm of the day is unmistakably French. Little is open on a Sunday, and in the big supermarket, which IS open, you can wave at the lady from the wine shop and the young man who waited on you at the restaurant last night as they shop for their groceries. Most, if not all businesses close every day for lunch between 12 and 2, and the restaurants close after lunch and re-open for dinner between 6 and 7:30. The Canadian dollar and the American dollar are not in vogue here, the currency is The Euro. And in case you still don’t get it: during summer there are direct flights to Paris, offered by the local airline… Air Saint Pierre.
Here at Eagle Seven Sailing, we have a theory that all ferry rides everywhere last exactly 45 minutes. Leave it to the French to prove us wrong. The next couple of days had us ferrying to the other islands in the archipelago. First up: Ile aux Marins, or Sailor’s Island, which was a 15 minute ferry ride across the harbor on a perfect, sunny day.
Coming ashore on the Island was like a technicolor mash-up of an Andrew Wyeth painting with the pictures we have in our memories of sailing into Monhegan Island, Maine or Cuttyhunk at home in our beloved Buzzard’s Bay. The landscape was altogether familiar and unfamiliar. All at once, if such a thing can be true.
Once inhabited by as many as seven hundred people, the island now has only a small number of seasonal residents, many of whom are descended from the fishermen who settled there. On our return ferry we met just one such man, whose father and grandfather before him had been fishermen and whose family home, that perfect salt box pictured below, he now owned and visited whenever he had a day off from his work at the Heritage Museum in Saint Pierre.
The island is both wild and beautifully maintained. With many of the buildings having protected status from the French Ministry of Culture, there are trails to walk and placards with all kinds of historical and geographical information. During the summer, local kids come for a soccer camp and we watched them on their pitch, and later as they jumped off the dock, shrieking, into the cold water below.
We read at one point that 70 percent of the population in Saint Pierre worked for the government in some form or fashion. Say what you will about big government, at every turn we had these exceedingly pleasant and helpful encounters with the locals, whether we were checking in at the sailing center or checking out the Bureau of Tourism. It was there that we went to ask about traveling to Miquelon and Langlade.
We had originally planned to sail ourselves to Miquelon, but weather intervened (and gave us and excuse to stay longer in Saint Pierre, which we were happy about). So we went to see about taking the ferry (this ride clocks in at 90 minutes each way. A new record for us). The woman at the Tourism center suggested a tour since there’s so much ground, relatively speaking, to cover on Miquelon and we would be on foot. Happily, the tour would be preceded by lunch at a local B&B called Auberge de l’Ile. We would have time before lunch to tour the Nature Interpretation Center, where we could learn all about the stunning natural environment in the islands AND take a hike up the big hill to Cap de Miquelon.
After a most perfect lunch of lobster stew, we met our tour guide Flor, and set off in her minivan to see the rest of Miquelon, and the even more distant Langlade, which is connected by an isthmus. For three hours we explored this gorgeous place and frankly the pictures we took didn’t do it justice (and that’s no knock on Eagle Seven Sailing’s official photographer, Chris Birch, who is talented). It’s just that the landscape was so vast and varied that it was hard to get it all on film. But trust us when we say it was a most beautiful place.
As we reached the outlying stretches of marsh and sandy road leading to the beaches of Langlade we encountered groups of roaming horses everywhere. Flor explained that many of the 500 or so inhabitants of Miquelon had horses and all of them followed the long held custom of letting them go free for the summer. Once upon a time the horses on the island worked, but they got the summer off when the farmers turned to fishing. Every now and again, Flor would stop the car and peer out the window and mutter…”is that my horse?”
As you can see from the chart below, our time in St. Pierre and Miquelon was bookended by time in Newfoundland. Stay tuned for an update on that magical place in an upcoming blog post.
One of the best things about St. P & M – and sadly one for which we don’t have any pictures – was the little community of boats we stayed with on the dock for that week. The crews from Southern Cross, Sea Room and Pangolin became our friends. We had meals and visits on each other’s boats. We met up in town and raised a glass. We traded sailing stories. We even took turns picking up fresh croissants in the morning for each other. You knew it was Chip’s day when you could hear the thunk of a bag full of warm pastry in the cockpit whilst YOU were still warm in your bed.
One of the best parts of living the way we do now has been the people we’ve met along the way. What a thing.