Text as appeared in Business Jet Traveler Magazine,October/November 2011
A Taste of France in North America
Even many of the world’s savviest travelers have yet to discover pristine Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, two sleepy but thoroughly enchanting islands 15 miles south of Newfoundland. They swirl in fog and mystery and boast the anomaly of being France’s last foothold in North America. Don’t confuse these isles with neighboring Canada–residents on these shores carry the euro, use 220 voltage and savor Brie, baguettes and Bordeaux.
Visitors come to this charming maritime province to slow down and escape, and savor an authentic taste of France. You’ll drive alongside Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots, hear French spoken, see lace curtains hanging in windows and, perhaps best of all, enjoy the aroma of oven-fresh French bread and pastries.
Relative inaccessibility deters most tourists from even contemplating a visit to these isles. A ferry runs from Fortune in southern Newfoundland, although the journey by water often includes choppy and rough seas. Flights on Air St. Pierre connect from St. John’s, Newfoundland, as well as Halifax and Montreal, but schedules are erratic. However, aircraft owners can land at the modern airport, which can accommodate large business jets. It stands just a few miles from downtown Saint-Pierre–by far the archipelago’s most densely populated settlement as well as the capital. A five-minute taxi drive skirts past colorful frame homes reminiscent of those in Burano, Italy; some are painted in neon crayon hues that look exceptionally radiant on foggy days.
Downtown Saint-Pierre nestles against the banks of the harbor like a European village on a San Francisco incline. Cobbled brick lanes, alleys and street lanterns evoke the French Quarter of New Orleans. Canadian Dale Fuga, who vacationed here with his wife Cynthia, said, “We did not need to rent a car, as we were able to walk to all of the restaurants, shops and other attractions.”
Place de Gaulle, the town square, is near the wharf, ferry terminal and the post office, which is topped with a gabled tower. Decorative Saint-Pierre and Miquelon postage stamps attract fervent collectors who make the post office their first stop.
Thirty Paris-trained gendarmes patrol the crime-free environment. They readily volunteer for two-year stints, claiming the quaint atmosphere suits family life.
A must-do walking tour includes the red- and white-striped Point Aux Canons Lighthouse and three sentinel canons, which were formerly used to guard the harbor from British attacks. Nearby rests a poignant memorial dedicated to island sailors lost at sea. Hundreds of shipwrecks lie scattered around the treacherous rocky shores. A Catholic cathedral built in 1906 from rocks quarried on Saint-Pierre lies behind the memorial. Adorning the sanctuary are two stained-glass windows brought by President Charles de Gaulle when he visited in 1967.
Feel like a Francophile and follow your nose to the bakery and several gourmet food and wine shops up the street. Browse over bottles of French wines and champagne at European Union prices, a real bargain for many tourists. A glass cabinet displays fine chocolates and shelves are lined with imported foodstuffs such as haricot verts, escargot, white asparagus and jellies and jams. The selection of croissants and fromage is fantastic. And, don’t miss the foie gras made in Miquelon–it’s scrumptious enough for export to Parisian cafes.
Portuguese explorer Joa Alvarez Fagundes discovered the islands in 1520. On Cartier’s 1536 voyage, he claimed the territory for the king of France. For the next few centuries, the British and French squabbled over the holdings. France eventually lost its North American empire but the tiny islands were conceded by the Treaty of Paris in 1814. Since then, the French have celebrated Bastille Day on these shores.
The archipelago, which includes eight smaller islands, totals 93 square miles–about the size of Martha’s Vineyard. Miquelon, the largest in area, supports a petite village with one main street. The population of only 500 includes numerous Acadian descendants who were driven from Canada’s provinces by the British during the 18th century. Langland, another of the tiny islets, remains the most wild and green. A seven-mile-long strip of sand connects it to Miquelon–drivable depending on sea conditions. Langland serves as a summertime getaway for by about 400 Saint-Pierre residents.
The islands remain important fishing grounds due to their proximity to the legendary Grand Banks. While the French government continues to dispute the territorial fishing zone, it has no intention of abandoning the outpost. Today, the colony’s infrastructure and 6,000 residents are highly subsidized. Cod fishing copiously sustained the economy until 1992, when a ban on cod dried up the time-honored occupation. A majority of citizens now work at government-related jobs. Tourism is beginning to emerge, however, with the arrival of cruise ships that offer curious passengers a chance to touch French soil.
Be sure to visit the Heritage Museum, which showcases the island’s history. The highly visual exhibits offset the sparse English signage. Displays showcase the early 17th century Catholic immigrants and their religious practices. You’ll see models of sailing ships, old marine tools and gadgets, photographs, bottles of bootlegged alcohol and an amusing array of ’40s, ’50s and ’60s household appliances.
L’Arche, a public museum, features the infamous guillotine used to behead a murderer in 1889, the only one ever employed in North America. L’Arche also houses the territorial archives and displays the monumental canvas by Gaston Roullet for the 1900 Paris Exposition depicting cod fishing and drying on Saint-Pierre.
A few entrepreneurs offer guided driving tours to Pointe de Savoyard, the fringes of Saint-Pierre where horses roam free. Both humble cottages and several large homes dot the sparsely inhabited hills and bogs while ponderous surf crashes against the rocky coastline and beaches–reminiscent of coastal Maine. The view could easily be a movie set for a Scottish or English seacoast saga. As the oversized crustaceans caught by fishermen suggest, it is an excellent locale for lobster pots. Stiff Atlantic breezes blast the inland water, making Savoyard Pond a popular windsurfing spot.
During Prohibition, when alcohol was forbidden in the U.S., it was perfectly legal to import liquor to the French-owned Saint-Pierre. Thus, the island became a warehousing shop for huge stocks of Canadian whiskey. Al Capone ran a major smuggling operation, employing residents to repack 300,000 cases of alcohol each month. The noisy uncrating process was too risky state-side so workers wrapped the bottles in straw and packed them into jute sacks. Rumrunners would secret the contraband into the U.S. while locals seized the emptied cases to fuel stoves and build houses. Life truly roared on Saint-Pierre in the years before the U.S. repealed Prohibition in 1933.
Be sure to search for the Cutty Sark House, built from wooden whiskey crates hidden among overgrown scrubby brush in the Savoyard area. Local lore says bootlegging persists and formidable old warehouses remain by the harbor, but no one offered inside tours. Another legend claims that Capone once slept ashore and St. Pierrais, as the people call themselves, seem to enjoy keeping that story alive.
An authentic and lovely souvenir awaits you in Isabelle Lafargue-Ruel’s studio, La Butte. She hand-paints china in the traditional French Limoges fashion, a technique that requires several 16-hour firings. Born on Saint-Pierre, Isabelle left to study in France and returned in 2006 to manage her studio, which houses intricately designed and signed porcelain pieces.
A short Zodiac (schooner) journey to Ile aux Marins, Sailor’s Island, whisks you to the desolate property sans cars, streets and full-time residents. The island–formerly dubbed Dog Island because of plentiful dogfish–was once home to 700 seafarers. Now, only a picturesque church and old fishing shacks remain.
Food beckons many to this unspoiled French fantasyland. Awaken for a breakfast of cafe au lait and petit pain au chocolat, or enjoy a mid-morning meal at a sidewalk cafe. Dinnertime begins around 8 o’clock and adheres to the French custom of unrushed enjoyment over multiple courses. Why hurry when a cozy Basque bistro, Ongi Etorri, sends out piping hot escargots swimming in melted Roquefort cheese, encased by fried bread crumbs? Choose from a variety of fish such as Coquilles St. Jacques, halibut (a local favorite), or lobster and snow crab. Menus also include juicy beef entrees. Desserts look sinfully delicious, but mon Dieu, it is difficult to indulge in a peach melba or crème brulée after all those croissants!
Joie de vivre and the French lifestyle abound on Saint-Pierre with its amiable partial-English speaking residents. Sojourners relax and slow down to island time with a French twist. So, why not fly over and collect one of the least-seen passport stamps available. Afterwards, you can say, “I had lunch in France.”
Traveler Fast Facts:
What It Is:
A territory of France in North America, including two inhabited islands: Saint-Pierre and Miquelon are located near the shores of Newfoundland, roughly 800 miles northeast of Boston. American visitors will need a valid US passport. The official language is French, currency is the euro and most major credit cards are accepted. Clocks are two hours ahead of Eastern standard-time. Canadian dollars are accepted but change is given in euros. www.tourisme-saint-pierre-et-miquelon.com
June and July are typically wet and foggy, August is clearer and September offers the best weather. Very cold winters with an average annual snowfall of 118 inches and rainfall often exceeds 40 inches.
The Saint-Pierre airport (FSP) can handle small jets up to a Boeing 737 or Airbus A319/320. Miquelon also maintains a regional airport (MQC) with a 1,000-meter runway for turboprop and small jet aircraft.
The territory’s official carrier, Air Saint-Pierre, operates flights from the Canadian cities of St. John’s, Newfoundland; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Moncton, New Brunswick; and Montreal. The only other regularly scheduled transportation is two-hour ferry service from the port of Fortune in southern Newfoundland.
Traveler Report Card
La Taie n’Art d”Hier, a chic B & B high on the hill overlooking the town; run by the charming husband and wife team. C’est bon. www.lataienartdhier.com Hotel Nuits Saint-Pierre, a gracious boutique style hotel conveniently located downtown. Suitable for a romantic getaway. www.nuitssaintpierre.com Both rate 4 stars.
Restaurant l’Atelier Gourmand – offers harbor views and inventive French cuisine showcasing seafood. Prix fixe option and English menus available. www.lateliergourmandspm.com
Ongi Etorri, a cozy Basque bistro (the name means welcome in Basque) where owners Dominique and Cecile Hacala personally greet patrons. Reservations are necessary, as they fill every night. Many consider this the best restaurant in town.
Restaurant Creperie de Vieux Port- perfect for lunch. Crepes, of course.
Les Delices de Josephine offers exquisite baked goods and coffee plus pizza, quiches and baguette sandwiches.
Salon de THE La Ruche- coffee, tea and fresh French pastries.
Guided Mini-van Tour – Lifelong resident Jean-Claude Fouchard offers group or individual tours with the insider scoop. www.lecailloublanc.fr
L”Arche, the staff of the public museum offer guided museum tours of artifacts and sightseeing tours, usually by appointment. www.arche-musee-et-archives.net
Cathedral St. Pierre – To see the interior, locate the rear side entrance as the front doors, with interesting fish door knobs, remain locked.
Heritage Museum – Take a step through St. Pierre’s history. Worth a visit. Only euros accepted for admission. www.musee-heritage.fr
Miquelon Day-Trip– Leave Saint-Pierre at 8 am and return at 7 pm via a 55- minute ferry ride to Miquelon. You’ll cross a strait known for its strong currents, so motion sickness medicine is suggested. Why not fly!
Langland- You’ll need a tour guide in the summertime to visit this rugged and sparsely populated island.
Franco Forum- French language immersion school www.francoforumspm.net
La Maison de Cadeau – Floor to ceiling French wares: wines, foodstuffs, dinnerware and linens. Also a wonderful selection of historic photos and postcards.
La Tire Bouchon – fine wines and food, gifts and French Quimper ware. www.letirebouchonspm.com
La Butte- Hand-painted porcelain using the traditional French Limoges technique. www.labutte.com
Just off Georgia’s coast, this historic isle offers elegant lodging and an escape from modern civilization
Indians, soldiers and ghosts of Camelot docked upon her marshy shores. Turn-of-the-century multi-millionaires built castles, and commanding women protected their estates.
The history of Cumberland Island reads like steamy, romantic fiction. Its mansions now stand in ruin–wild horses as their guests. Former slaves haunt Stonehenge-like chimneys, aristocratic families’ feud (often with the government) and visitors spin their own tales.
The pristine preserve belongs to Georgia’s Golden Isles, a string of small barrier islands that dollop the Atlantic border. Cumberland, the group’s largest, rests between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida, flaunting diversity among three different ecosystems: saltwater marsh, maritime forest and beach. The island, a National Seashore, limits visitors to 300 each day.
“Don’t tell anybody about this place,” whispered the visitor. “It’s total relaxation.”
The elegant Carnegie-built Greyfield Inn offers the only lodging (other than primitive camping) on an isle larger than Manhattan. Overnighters experience 19th century ambiance in a wilderness setting–just seven miles from the mainland, but remote from hustle and bustle. John Kennedy, Jr. chose Cumberland Island as the romantic spot to take his bride and the press never discovered or invaded their privacy.
Visitors to the Southeast are attracted to former blue-blood enclaves–Colonial Coast vacation resorts including Jekyll, Amelia, Sea and St. Simons Islands–to golf, swim, boat and laze. But Cumberland stands apart–her natural splendor remains untouched by modern development. No convenience stores, beach homes, high rises or condominiums; in fact, nothing rests in between; first class or the floor, grandeur or green.
Her first chapter began with the Timucuan tribe, then the Spaniards, followed by Britain’s James Oglethorpe (Savannah’s founder) who built forts and a hunting lodge and re-named the area Cumberland.
After the American Revolution plantations prospered. Stafford Plantation, an 8,000-acre tract, reputed as the most productive–and exploitive with over 350 slaves. The owner William Stafford kindled a clandestine affair with a mulatto, who birthed four daughters and two sons. Today, the only remnants are the chimneys of their rustic cabins- and some say their ghosts.
In 1783, Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene and wife Caty moved near Oglethorpe’s lodge. Greene, however, died before they could build on the chosen site– an Indian burial mound. Caty remarried and constructed a four-story, 16-fireplace tabby (coquina) mansion. Her home, Dungeness, and twelve acres of formal gardens became renowned as a luxurious retreat among colonial patricians.
The Civil War brought plantation lifestyle to a halt. Freed slaves moved to nearby Amelia Island, but some returned to their birthplace and established The Settlement, on Cumberland’s northern tip. Dungeness deteriorated and was destroyed by fire.
The 1880’s brought a new infatuation. Thomas Carnegie, brother and business partner of millionaire steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, purchased the old Dungeness property and constructed a far grander mansion. Unfortunately he, like Oglethorpe and Greene, suffered a similar fate. Carnegie died soon after the house was finished, further connecting legends of the plagued site to the Indian burial ground.
Nevertheless, Thomas’ wife Lucy and their nine children stayed on in the 59-room Scottish castle with turrets, an indoor pool, squash court, beauty salon, golf course and 40 out buildings.
Guests–including the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers–stayed for a month at a time. Thomas Carnegie’s widow employed 200 servants to take care of any whim.
Guests, like the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, stayed at her retreat for a month at a time. They threw lavish soirees, picnicked on the lawn with crystal and fine china, and entertained with shooting, fishing, and beachcombing parties. Lucy employed two hundred servants to take care of any whims. Dungeness danced with merriment and carefree abandon through the Gilded Age.
When the matriarch died in 1916, her trust funds provided enough for upkeep- until inflation struck after WWII- pushing even the wealthy to cut back. Additional property taxes forced the family to close Dungeness. Thirty years later, a fire, apparently started by arson, burned the mansion. Now a highlight of a trip to Cumberland includes viewing the ruins.
The Great Depression and higher taxes further dwindled the Carnegie inheritance. The family held onto acreage and the Greyfield home, eventually opening it in 1962 as an inn. Today, Inn guests find casual elegance—dress for dinner and follow the rules of etiquette, but no phone, TV or WiFi.
In 1968, Hilton Head developer, Charles Fraser, wanted to purchase and develop Cumberland. Landowners–the Carnegies and Candlers (Coco-Cola heirs)–battled to halt commercialization. They met with the National Park Service (NPS) and, in 1972; the government declared Cumberland a National Seashore.
Heated debates over park usage followed. Ten years later, the central tract of forest and beach were designated as “official wilderness–a conservation class that outlaws mechanical devices like cars, bicycles and chains saws.”
The Park Service now controls ninety percent of Cumberland with just 2,000 acres remaining in private hands. Political struggles continue over management and development, historic preservation and driving privileges.
Lucy Carnegie built white-columned Greyfield in 1901 for daughter Retta. The three-story stucco mansion, with a raised basement and 11 bedrooms, sits on 200 acres. A graceful staircase descends from the first floor porch to the lawn.
Retta’s child, Lucy R. Ferguson, opened the house as an inn. Today, Mary Ferguson, wife of Mitty- who is the great-great-grandson of Thomas Carnegie, manages Greyfield, listed among the Historic Hotels in America.
A stay affords uncommon privacy ands tranquility. Upon arrival– via Greyfield’s own ferry–the staff escort guests through a cathedral high canopy of magnolias and immense southern oaks. A genteel, unhurried lifestyle immediately descends. Greyfield guests may also fly in and land prop planes on a grass strip runway with permission. However, no airport facilities exist.
House tours mention personal touches; staying in the gracious manor feels like a visit to a wealthy aunt, old family photographs line the walls. Look for Uncle Richard’s collection of shark teeth and Margaret’s favorite conch shell. All rooms are decorated with Carnegie originals or antique furnishings. The library contains hundreds of first editions; the old gun room became the bar. Guests pour for themselves on the honor system.
The one-hundred-foot front porch vies as favorite for its sweeping veranda and bookend bed-like swings. Rocking chairs line the front rail and creak on the wooden floorboards. Hummingbird feeders attract a bevy of those tiny, twittering creatures.
Hors d’oeuvres, graciously served in the living room, are typically enjoyed with cocktails on the porch. Jane Walsh, a guest from Palm Beach, calls Cumberland, “a slice of heaven.” She and her husband Michael celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary with a return visit and hope to come back every year.
Michael whispers, “Don’t tell anybody about this place. It’s total relaxation.”
Dinner at 7:30 PM is an elegant affair. Men must wear jackets. The dining room features one long board, beautifully set with flowers and heirloom silver candlesticks, and two side tables. Honeymooners often sit by themselves, but most prefer chatting with others and discussing the day’s activities.
Blessedly cool, air-conditioned guest rooms on the second or third floor include private baths or shared amenities. Guests may also take advantage of the state-of-the-art bath house behind the Inn. The master suite includes a spacious 15 x 20-foot sitting room, a pineapple-post king bed and views out the front, side and back of the house. A claw foot tub dominates the bath, with shower accommodations.
Complimentary fat-tired bicycles, good on the sand, become a real bonus. A ten-minute pedal to the beach at sunrise makes an ideal start to the day. Cyclists often ride to the Dungeness ruins, via Grand Avenue, a dirt road beneath overhanging trees. Old photos show the gutted frame engulfed in vines. But, the NPS removed the foliage- and some of the mystique, to reinforce the crumbling bricks.
Don’t miss another highlight, an outing with a naturalist. By special permission, Greyfielders ride in open air seating for an exhilarating three-hour adventure. Stops include the salt marsh; the bluff- highest point on the island at 80 feet; the shallow, 83-acre Whitney Lake (home to gators); The Settlement and First African Baptist Church.
The teensy old slave church with red doors rose to Notre Dame fame following the 1996 Kennedy wedding. Venturing inside uncovers stark, whitewashed walls and windows and rough-hewn pews. Visitors must stretch their imagination to envision candlelight and flashlights used during the hush-hush Kennedy service arranged by Carnegie granddaughter, GoGo Ferguson.
The island tour stops for a peek at Plum Orchard, the Greek revival home of George Carnegie. The NPS recently spent $5.3 million on renovation to the decaying shell and interior. The extravagance of the era crystallizes with the realization that this grandiose home and indoor pool–built in 1898- sits in the enchanting wild, 45 minutes from Georgia’s mainland.
The exotic forest surrounding Plum Orchard feels like a gnome’s sanctuary. Cool, dark, shadowy branches are home to mosses, lichens and emerald green resurrection ferns. The outside world seems shut out except for sounds like yellow-throated warblers or pileated woodpeckers. An afternoon shower presents a squawking chorus, compliments of green tree frogs.
From the dim jungle, you emerge to the blinding flat, sandy beach that stretches as far as the eye can see. There’s not a person, beach towel, umbrella or chair on a shoreline that’s almost 1,000-feet wide at low tide. What can compare?
Thousands of sandpipers, sanderlings and other shorebirds dodge waves. During raptor migration, enthusiasts may see hawks and peregrine falcons. Soaring above the dunes lurk vultures and bald eagles. The entire island is on the Colonial Coast Birding Trail, with more than 277 identified species.
Loggerhead turtles return from May to September creeping just over the dunes’ high-water mark to lay eggs. The NPS attempts to police feral pigs that forage the nests. Non-native wild horses and hogs disrupt and endanger the sea oats and sand dunes.
According to naturalist Fred Whitefield, “sea oats are the most important plant on the island because their deep roots slow dune erosion.” But…the tourists love the beauty of the ponies.
Dusk brings raccoons and armadillos, and a variety of critters whose beady eyes and acute sense of smell make them nocturnal scavengers. Night falls and the place has the magnificent feel of solitude on a remote private island.
A weekend at Greyfield lets you flip back the pages of history and return to the privileged days of Jay Gatsby, or camp like early settlers who slept under the stars. Just slow down like the turtles on her shore, roll with the tides or escape in the thick of her forests. Retreat like the former elite or use your own feet. No matter which adventure you choose, Cumberland is an open book waiting for you to write a chapter.
This article also appears in the February 1, 2010 issue of Business Jet Traveler. View it now on Business Jet Traveler Online.
How many activities can one stuff into 5 days on an island only 3.5 times the size of Washington, DC? Well, I found enough on St Lucia to fill my plate, in fact there’s plenty more for super-sized appetites.
From Miami, connect directly to the Caribbean isle. All-inclusive resorts abound; my choice was Coconut Bay. You’ll arrive in time for a drink and a walk along the beach before dinner.
For starters, I decided to explore the island on an All Terrain Vehicle (ATV). Within a few minutes, I mastered the four-wheeled bike. I zoomed through grassy fields and up rocky ledges, peering at the Atlantic pounding the shore. I scooted onto sandy beaches where wild horses were grazing and then over to a banana plantation. Row after row of trees hung with bunches of green bananas. Having satisfied my taste buds, I returned my big-wheeled bouncing cycle.
For my entree, I spent the afternoon in one of the most glorious sites I’ve ever visited– Jalousie Beach. I snorkeled under the shadow of the pyramid-like Petite Piton, gazing up at its nearby twin, the Gros Piton. These famous mountains are St Lucia’s landmarks, rising like textbook drawings of volcanoes out of the sea. They blossom in lush foliage and are often shrouded in mist.
Scuba diving was an option, and St Lucia ranks with some of the world’s best. But the Caribbean shines so clear; you can see to great depths without the hassle of air tanks.
The next day I took the ultimate island challenge: a hike to the summit of Gros Piton, almost 3,000 feet. The trail of treacherous loose and moss covered rocks rises near vertical in places. The UNESCO World Heritage site requires guides to safely lead groups through the climb.
Stop at the halfway point. The view is as gorgeous as I imagine the Garden of Eden. Light crystals bounce off the water like shards of glass. The Pitons, in sharp contrast to the turquoise water, shine in ebony beauty. The arduous hike took five to six hours roundtrip. I returned to my hotel exhausted and aching, but wearing an “I Conquered” tee shirt.
On day four, I chose to kayak. Aah, tranquility is silently gliding by the mangroves in a sleek shell. The sapphire lake permitted clear visibility of the colorful tropical fish. My group stopped at Scorpion Island, and fortunately, we didn’t encounter any venomous arachnids. I did find a spectacular conch shell with a radiating fuchsia interior.
Returning once more to Coconut Bay, I rocketed down the water slides in their CocoLand Water Park, coming up with a big grin. To completely relax, I floated twice around the man-made Lazy River until massage time. Indulgence? You bet, but necessary! The Kai Mer Spa enveloped me in jasmine scents as my body soaked in the therapeutically applied oil.
On the last day I squeezed in my dessert: a morning excursion to the Tree Tops Zipline. Letting loose my inner child, I gleefully traversed the rainforest canopy over majestic rivers and plunging ravines. To soar like a parrot was an exhilarating way to end my island extravaganza.
By afternoon I boarded a plane and returned to Jacksonville at nightfall.
Some travelers vacation to escape life; others seek to engage the physical, mental or spiritual challenges. The tiny island of St Lucia offers a lavish banquet to satisfy both hungers. Her natural wonders are a menu in themselves. And, for those who want soup to nuts adventure, she offers a bountiful buffet of eco-friendly options. Fly away and feast on St Lucia.