Local color

In St.-Pierre, clapboard houses painted in bright colors have small, enclosed front porches to keep out the cold. (Beverly Beyette / LAT)

THE French tricolor flew above Place du Général de Gaulle on a misty morning as white-gloved gendarmes in snappy blue uniforms, rifles across their chests, stood at attention and the band struck up "La Marseillaise." It was July 14, Bastille Day.

I was in France, surrounded by patriotic French, yet I was 2,800 miles and an ocean away from Paris, in St.-Pierre and Miquelon. The two islands, 18 miles off southern Newfoundland, are the only remaining French outposts in North America.

For three days, as the thermometer hovered around 55, I had been peering through a low-lying fog that blanketed St.-Pierre and its harbor. But someone up there must love the French, because on Bastille Day, the sun broke through and by midday, when a sizable number of St.-Pierre's 6,000 residents gathered in the plaza to toast the motherland, the temperature had climbed to 70.

Twenty degrees more and I could almost have been in Iowa on the Fourth of July. Red, white and blue balloons floated skyward. The Rotarians and Lions staffed food booths. Burgers and hot dogs sizzled on grills. Children with red, white and blue-streaked hair queued up for carousel rides.

But, this being France, there was vin rosé for washing down those dogs, and plenty of barbecued demi coquelet (half-chicken) and gateaux (cake).

St.-Pierre and Miquelon — the two, separated by six miles of ocean, are referred to as one — once was a thriving cod-fishing community. St.-Pierre, the capital and home to most of the islands' population, is French to its core. There are good French restaurants serving escargot and frog legs. Pâtisseries sell plump, flaky croissants. Peugeots, Renaults and Citroëns dash through the narrow, potholed streets. (Unlike in Paris, they brake for pedestrians.) Restaurant patrons puff away on their Gauloises. When friends meet, they kiss on both cheeks. French is, of course, the native tongue, and many locals speak little English. (Fortunately, my French was good enough to get by.)

It's not the easiest place to reach, which may help account for the paucity of first-rate lodgings. I flew to New York, connecting to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Fog and rain had caused cancellation of most flights into Halifax airport. (As the Halifax Chronicle-Herald headlined, "Tensions rise, jets don't…. ") We were one of the few that got in.

The next day, I boarded a high-wing twin turboprop for the 350-mile trip to St.-Pierre, where I'd arranged for a rental car. Because of a mix-up, Garage Marie Norbert knew nothing of my booking but could offer me a car. The credit card machine wasn't working (a common problem on the island), and I had no euros, but they handed me the keys — no questions asked — and asked me to drop by in the morning.

I decided I was going to like this laid-back place that calls itself terre insolite (unusual land).

Tip of the hat to Big Al

I checked into Auberge de l'Archipel, a bed-and-breakfast on a residential street uphill from the harbor, one of several similarly modest accommodations. The no-frills room — no phone, no TV — had just enough space for a bed and small chest, but it was clean. (Nearby Chez Hélène, which was highly recommended, looked more upscale but was full.)

For a different experience, I also spent two nights at Hôtel/Motel Robert on the waterfront, where a little lobby museum in the original 1920s building is testament to St.-Pierre's onetime prosperity as a transfer point for Canadian liquor smuggled into the United States during Prohibition. There's a straw hat that belonged to Al Capone, who was heavily involved in same. I wondered whether public enemy No. 1, whose criminal enterprises included liquor smuggling, actually stayed at the hotel. "Oui, oui," said the woman at the desk, holding up an index finger. "One night" (in 1927).

At St.-Pierre, the liquor was taxed and warehoused — legally — until it was picked up by American rumrunners who smuggled it — illegally — by boat into the United States. As many as 300,000 cases a month passed through. When wooden cases proved too noisy, alerting authorities during offloading in New York, they were abandoned in St.-Pierre in favor of jute sacks with straw. The wood helped build many a house, including a cottage called Villa Cutty Sark, made entirely from whiskey cases.

It's said that flags here were flown at half-staff upon repeal of U.S. prohibition in 1933. The island went into economic decline and has never again been as prosperous.

Before there was whiskey smuggling, there was cod fishing. Its zenith was in the late 19th century; by 1992, overfishing had seriously depleted cod in the Grand Banks off Nova Scotia, and Canada imposed strict quotas. Today, diners will find fresh local scallops, mussels and salmon on menus.

At the contemporary Musée de l'Arche overlooking the harbor, visitors can gain an understanding, through old-ship memorabilia and vintage photos, of life in the heyday of fishing.

Just in back of the museum is a plaque dedicated to Gen. Charles de Gaulle, with his words of June 1940, when Germany occupied mainland France. "France has lost a battle but not the war." The islands were not occupied, but collaborationist Vichy France had control over French territories, which at the time included St.-Pierre and Miquelon. St.-Pierrais, as residents here are called, recount that on Christmas Eve 1941, four ships of De Gaulle's Free French forces landed at St.-Pierre and, without a shot being fired, liberated the islands. A plebiscite was held, with residents overwhelmingly voting to join the Free French.

Nearby is a World War I monument. St.-Pierre and Miquelon sent more than 400 men to that war. One-fourth did not return.

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