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Saint Pierre and Miquelon

The tiny archipelago of St. Pierre et Miquelon is a territorial overseas collectivity of France, just 16 miles from the coast of Newfoundland, but nearly 2,400 miles from continental France. The islands were unoccupied when a Portuguese explorer stumbled on them in 1520. But by the time Jacques Cartier claimed them for France in 1536 they were already being visited by Basque and Breton fisherman exploiting the fertile fishing grounds of the Grand Banks. The intermittent dominion and tenuous but tenacious history of the islands is explained at L’Arche Museum in St. Pierre. Suffice it to say that the British and the French quarreled over and ceded control between themselves for centuries. However the population remains mostly descendants of Basque, Breton and Norman fishermen. They speak a metropolitan, rather than Canadian form of French, and their customs, foodways and personalities are firmly Gallic. Stroll the sloping streets, marveling at the vividly colored houses with bright, contrasting trim. The economy of the islands has traced the roller-coaster path of the fishing industry, with a healthy surge during the American era of Prohibition, when whisky and wine smuggling thrived. Lashed by the North Atlantic winds and chilled by the cold Labrador Current, the islands have a severe beauty enhanced by panoramic seascapes. The tiny island of Ile aux Marins is being rehabilitated into an open-air museum recalling the traditional life of the fishermen. Miquelon Island, and its conjoined sister Langlade were once separate by a channel, called the Mouth of Hell, which claimed over 600 shipwrecks before Nature closed the gap with a sand isthmus. Jaunty red-and-white lighthouses add photogenic accents. The official currency is the Euro, and though Canadian dollars are widely accepted, change is given in Euros. In the museum, a place of distinction is set aside for the only guillotine ever used in North America. It was imported from Martinique in 1889 to dispatch a murderer and then retired.