Why some corners of Canada will be forever France

Philip Sweeney explores two islands off Newfoundland that are proud to be French outposts

As a collector of arcane holiday destinations, I've found a real humdinger. Which North American territory has as its national symbol a kakawit seagull holding in its beak the flags of Normandy, Brittany and the Basque country?

As a collector of arcane holiday destinations, I've found a real humdinger. Which North American territory has as its national symbol a kakawit seagull holding in its beak the flags of Normandy, Brittany and the Basque country?

St Pierre et Miquelon is the answer, the last vestige of French sovereignty in North America. Though a set of obscure islands with a population of 7,000 people, a great many seals and some wild horses, it is a fully integrated French collectivité territorial with its own deputy and senator in Paris. It is as French as the Dordogne.

But to get to St Pierre you must pass through Anglophone Canada: the islands are flanked by Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. An hour and a half out of Halifax - with the Newfoundland coast a dozen miles ahead - Air St Pierre's turbo-prop descends over a little blob of an island with cliffs, a wide sheltered harbour and a low plateau covered with stunted trees and scrub. You notice a pair of gendarmes standing on the airport apron, and inside the terminal (opened by Jacques Chirac in 1999) you are struck by the speech - not the drawled mixture of Americanisms and French of Quebec, but French as heard in any part of the mother country. Outside, Jeeps are outnumbered by Peugeot 206s and Renault Clios.

Four minutes' drive past the Centre Commerciale supermarket, the Francoforum arts complex and a skating pond, and you are in Centre Ville: the Place du General de Gaulle, with its Poste, Crédit St Pierrais bank and a boulangerie/patisserie where they certainly don't call the crÿme patissiÿre "costar'", as Quebec's Francophone cake shops do. As the St Pierrais point out: "We're not Francophone, we're French."

How St Pierre came about is a footnote to the long story of France's ousting by Britain from Canada. French settlers were progressively dislodged from Quebec and finally Acadie (now Nova Scotia), whose former inhabitants wandered on to become the Cajuns of Louisiana, and still form a big proportion of the 700 inhabitants of Miquelon, St Pierre's bigger but emptier neighbour.

The original St Pierrais were visiting Norman, Breton and Basque fishermen who set up permanent settlements in the early 1600s. Their regional identities are still clearly stamped on St Pierre's names - the Gloannecs, the Le Huenens and, above all, the Detcheverrys filling up half of Miquelon's phone book, all apparently the descendants of one Pierre Detcheverry of St Jean de Luz in the Basque country.

Indeed, Basque iconography abounds in the narrow streets of St Pierre, lined with neat little clapboard and wood-tile houses and old-fashioned shops. Cod lured all these western French seamen, the huge Atlantic stocks which later attracted fleets from Spain, Russia and even Korea. Until the 1980s, St Pierre's harbour was crammed with visiting fishing boats, and the bars and little hotels did a roaring trade. In the 1950s, there were so many Spanish trawlermen that the territory even had its own consul. Today, St Pierre ticks over business-wise, but signs of the old boom days are everywhere. The wooden walls of the Hotel Robert's bar display pennants from the Murmansk trawler fleet, and in the half-dozen bars I met ex-seamen, on the dole and whiling away the afternoon with cheap Antillean rum, who reminisce about the days when you could cross the harbour walking from deck to deck.

Now, St Pierre's harbour is almost empty. A handful of stubby little boats go out for line-caught cod, scallops, whelks and snow crab.The occasional inter-island ferry chugs in, and a pair of sleek Spanish ocean racing yachts on a prototype transatlantic race bob at their moorings.

The great days of St Pierre's fishing came to an end in 1992, when the Canadians imposed a draconian quota on the over-fished cod. Its livelihood collapsed overnight. But huge French subsidies - and a population of whom 40 per cent are civil servants on overseas salaries - keep St Pierre going. It has half a dozen respectable if very provincial restaurants, and wine shops crammed with a compendious stock.

At night, the brasserie of the Hotel Ile de France is full of St Pierrais stopping at each others' tables and tucking into entrecote frites and lapin à la moutarde. During the day, the proprietors of Le Bouchon or La Cave or Le Comptoir Alcools restock their groaning shelves with Bordeaux and Muscadet, and big containers of cheap Canadian whisky.

The prosperity of the shops is also explained by the island's history as a centre for booze smuggling. During American prohibition in the 1930s it was notorious - Al Capone lodged at the Hotel Robert, and Henri Morazé, St Pierre's biggest rum-runner, built a fortune; his old house is now the Maison du Cadeau souvenir shop.

I took the mini-ferry over to the Ile aux Marins, a small island in the mouth of St Pierre's bay and once a key fishermen's haunt. Now wind-blown grasses cover the shallow banks that were formerly carpeted with drying cod. The wooden church is still used occasionally and the Old School House museum is crammed with everything from early Miquelon brand frozen cod wrappers to objets trouvés from shipwrecks. Prominent among these is a 1971 Wurlitzer jukebox from the cargo of the German freighter Transpacific, whose broken bow still juts out of the beach.

I took the thrice-weekly motor launch over to Miquelon, which is larger than St Pierre, with woods, rocky coves and beaches. Miquelon's tiny museum is crammed with inhabitants' cast-offs and, again, shipwreck detritus. I had an excellent lunch at one of the island's three restaurants, Chez Brian. Most of the houses have pens of gun-dogs in the garden, and the Miquelonnais are avid consumers of wild duck, snipe, rabbit and venison.

Afterwards, I wandered through dunes where men played boules, and took a boat trip out to the sand banks. Herds of basking seals wriggled into the water and popped up all around the boat. Charming as they were, their proliferation since hunting was stopped has its critics. A retired fisherman complained that they ate huge quantities of cod. Even here a French problem with a French cause, it seemed: Brigitte Bardot's TV campaigns for the bébé seals, he snorted.

Next to the fisherman was a pair of gendarmes, politely bored young men from Nancy on a three-month posting. Was there much crime on Miquelon? "None," was the reply. The murder rate in the territory is one a century, though when murders happen, they are to the usual high French standard. The dismemberment with cod knives of a retired mariner in 1888 has just provided the plot of a film starring Juliette Binoche, La Veuve de St Pierre. It is the story of the long wait for execution of one of the two convicted murderers while a guillotine was specially shipped in from Martinique. The guillotine is still there, in the museum. Since the film's release, the islands' website has apparently received unprecedented numbers of visits by cinephiles curious to know more.

As Jean-Hugues Detcheverry of the Agence de Tourisme told me, St Pierre and Miquelon are keen to encourage visitors - at present a mere 15,000 a year.

The week I was in town, a group of Newfoundland pensioners and a Canadian Air Force helicopter crew seemed to be the only other strangers. The 400,000 French who flock to mainland Canada each year do not seem very interested in some dowdy and hard-to-reach corner of their colonial past. This is a pity: St Pierre et Miquelon may lack the vivid exoticism of other lost island colonies such as Cap Vert, but the more you allow its life story to reveal itself, the more fascinating it becomes.

But its unique selling point remains this: there are not many places left to visit which you can be sure nobody's ever heard of. Especially when they are in France.