This is partially because my brain temporarily switched into Français mode, but also because I have so much to say about this short but jam-packed trip that I truly don’t know where to start recounting the adventure.
I’ll start at the beginning, when I reached out to the SPM tourism board to fandangle my way over to the islands on their dime. Successful in my quest, the excitement quickly set in — I was returning to French colony for the first time in 14 years, to celebrate Bastille Day, the national holiday, with the townsfolk. SPM tourism ensured that I would make the most out of my visit, by creating a stacked itinerary that would bring me all around St-Pierre, L’Île-Aux-Marins and Miquelon, with numerous boat tours, van tours, museum visits and guided walking tours.
I arrived in St-Pierre early Wednesday afternoon, amidst a monsoon of rain. By the time I checked in at the Hôtel du Vieux Port, the rain stopped. Sunshine and high temperatures would continue for the next four days, a surprising rarity, the locals said. A Bastille Day miracle, I joked.
Day 1 kicked off with a boat tour to L’Île-Aux-Marins, a short but highly educational adventure led by a young French tour guide. The semi-abandoned village, once a bustling community of independent fishers and their families, would end up being one of my favourite parts of the trip. I recommended the little excursion to every tourist who would listen.
I returned to St-Pierre with just enough time to snag a pizza from Pizzeria Chez Alain before linking up with Jean-Claud Fouchard of Le Caillou Blanc for a scenic and again, educational, mini-van tour. Fouchard, a wealth of information, would become a good pal throughout the trip.
A nightcap at a French bar was a must, so I linked up with a friend’s friend at Le Bar Joinville. Communicating only en français, we strangers would soon become friends, aided by local beer and spirits. This then-winning combination did not extend its warm embrace to my early rise for the Miquelon ferry, but an espresso at the Maison de la Nature proved helpful.
Thursday’s tour guide, Anja Gaspard, brought fun and humour to another educational museum tour. The day was rounded out with a walking tour and auto tour, showing off the intense beauty of the sparsely populated island. Miquelon is to St-Pierre like Labrador is to Newfoundland — it’s under-appreciated, under-sold, and highly deserving of more tourists to admire its breathtaking landscapes and local flair.
Returning to St-Pierre around 6 p.m., I was left with just enough time to prepare for an evening dinner date. A dinner at Les P’tits Graviers was the perfect ending to a long day in the sun, especially since I was eating cold pizza for days on end as I battled with the very long French lunch hour, when the town and its restaurants shut down for lunch.
Instead of rising early for Bastille Day on Friday, July 14, I caught up on missed sleep, opting instead to wake up just in time for the “vin d’honneur” at Place du Général de Gaulle, the town square. Local volunteers filled hundreds of glasses of free wine, while children played mini-games and rode the merry-go-round.
The highlight of the day for me was not just the cheap alcoholic punch, but the ‘Mât de Cocagne,” or the “meatpole.” Picture this: a large metal pole, with sealed charcuterie dangling high from a hula-hoop-esque device.
Competitors strapped into a safety harness and attempted to shimmy up the pole to snag a chunk of meat, while spectators cheered them on. It was a spectacle unlike any other, and the excitement was contagious. As the town continued to drink all day long, the sunset would lead into live music and fireworks — a perfect finale for the fête nationale.
The bars were packed Friday night, with Bar le Rustique exceptionally packed with locals and tourists ranging from 18 (their legal age) to 88, it seemed. When Le Rustique closed, the discotheque opened. I was nearly first in line, happy to end my night on the dance floor.
I wrapped up that very European adventure early, as my Saturday evening departure was preceded by two museum visits and a walking tour, my final taste of local history.
The icing on the gâteau came shortly before my ferry arrived, when I lucked into finding the local stash of LPs, including French ’80s hair metal records – the perfect souvenir.
I boarded the Cabestan with an “I don’t want to go home” feeling.
Despite the constant annoyance of awkward restaurant hours of operation, the weak Canadian dollar versus the strong Euro, and the unfortunately unimpressive musical acts at the local bars, I’m already thinking about returning to the French islands. Here’s hoping the dollar improves, along with my ability to parlez en français. À bientôt, SPM.
In Wendy Rose’s travel piece “St-Pierre-Miquelon — ‘incontournable’ (must see),” published July 21, she said of her visit to the French islands for Bastille Day that she had been “eating cold pizza for days on end as I battled with the very long French lunch hour, when the town and its restaurants shut down for lunch.” In fact, the town does not shut down completely for lunch, it’s just that hours of operation may differ from the standard North American lunchtime.
The Telegram regrets any confusion caused.