Nearly 16 years ago, a few days before the start of the new millennium, my husband and I left St. Louis for Quoddy Head State Park in faraway Lubec, Maine. We could have waited at home for the sun to reach St. Louis 1,600 miles west, but for fun we wanted to see that historic ruddy dawn where it arrived earliest in the United States. The 541-acre park, with candy-striped West Quoddy Head Light, one of more than 60 lighthouses on the state’s rugged coast, lies at the tip of the country’s easternmost peninsula, and thus is first to see the morning sun.
We were rewarded for our efforts with clear skies. Beginning just after 7 a.m. on January 1, 2001, a thin band of bright pink light spread slowly along the horizon over the Gulf of Maine: dawn on the first day of the 21st century.
At the time, remote Lubec, a quaint fishing village in a dramatic landscape of craggy coastline, sky-blue lakes and dense pine forests, was clearly down on its luck. Not so anymore.
We came back in June this year for a couple of days — camped at lovely Sunset Point RV Park, where every site overlooks Johnson’s Bay — before continuing to Campobello Island, New Brunswick. We were amazed at the transformation. Time has been good to Lubec, no longer the “smoked herring capital of the world,” but now a vibrant resort town with 1,400 year-round residents, twice that in summer, and many attractions.
Longtime resident Dianna Meehan, who owns Betsy Ross Lodging on Water Street, an elegant bed-and-breakfast (and replica of Betsy Ross’ Pennsylvania home), jokes that “sixteen years ago tumbleweeds were blowing down the streets.” Now, every storefront in the small downtown is occupied.
“You won’t find shopping malls, theme parks or fast food here,” Meehan says with a smile. “But we’ve got gift shops selling things you might not find anywhere else, great seafood restaurants, museums, galleries — a lot of artists come here to work. There’s bird watching — at the (Quoddy Head) state park, and you can take a boat out to Seal Island to see the largest nesting colony of Atlantic puffins on the Maine coast.
“We’ve got whale watching, hiking trails, beach-combing — sometimes you find sea glass, though now with rules against throwing bottles into the ocean it’s getting rarer.”
After giving us a tour of the bed-and-breakfast, each of the four rooms decorated in patriotic or nautical themes, Meehan gestured across Water Street to a complex of five weathered mid-19th century buildings. Up on stilts like all buildings on the street’s east side — because the Gulf tide sweeps in high through Lubec Narrows — this was, until it shut down in 1991, McCurdy’s Herring Smokehouse. Now it’s a museum to the industry that was once the life blood of the town. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, McCurdy’s was the last of Lubec’s 40 herring smokehouses to close.
Museum director Marjorie Krull says, however, that “the industry was nearly gone 30 years earlier, victim of changing markets and regulations.” The smoking process, she explained, was introduced here in 1796, unchanged since it was developed in Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages. Photos and exhibits at the museum explain. Half a mile north on Johnson Street, another historic shuttered fish factory has been renovated into the Inn and Restaurant on the Wharf.
Monica’s Chocolates, opened 15 years ago on Highway 189 by Monica Elliot of Peru, is a chocolate-lover’s dream. The shop also sells Peruvian sweaters, eye-catching-though-inexpensive jewelry, local jams, jellies, mustards and coffees — but the main attraction is the chocolate, 90 different varieties, milk, dark and white, all made here. Tours include samples of such delicacies as blueberry truffles drenched in blueberry wine, and dark chocolate-dipped bonbons made, curiously, of mashed potatoes and shredded coconut, a Peruvian specialty, says Elliot.
Elsewhere in town you can sample local beer and dine at Lubec Brewing Co., “America’s easternmost brewery”; wander through Art Works of Maine Gallery, where local fine art is on display; or explore Lubec’s rocky coast (the town claims nearly 100 miles of it) on Downeast Charter Boat Tours’ “Lorna Doone,” a 25-foot lobster boat. Wildlife is abundant — eagles and ospreys cruise the skies, seals lie draped over rocks in and out of the water, and the brief shiny-wet arc of a porpoise or whale may appear, though whales are generally seen later in summer and early fall.
And there are lighthouses — Lubec’s Channel Light (aka the Spark Plug), Mulholland Light across Lubec Narrows on Campobello Island and West Quoddy Head, which includes a museum, art gallery and even lodgings in a former Coast Guard station.
The original West Quoddy Head Light, built in 1808, was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, says Shawn Goggin, manager of Quoddy Head State Park. It was replaced a half-century later by the 83-foot tall tower and dazzling Third Order Fresnel lens you see today, It was automated in 1988, he adds, noting that every lighthouse beacon has a distinct on-off pattern.
Views there are spectacular. Pointing out to sea, Gogginidentified Grand Manan Island, the three Wolf Islands and Campobello, all blue with distance and barely distinguishable from the water, and nearby Sail Rock, the absolutely easternmost chunk of U.S. land.
Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, is just 300 yards north of Lubec across the “Narrows.” To get there, take Maine Highway 189 to Roosevelt International Bridge (you’ll need a passport).
Roosevelt International Park, a memorial to Franklin Roosevelt, established in 1964 and jointly managed by the United States and Canada, occupies 2,800 acres on the island’s south end. The park is open from mid-May until mid-October.
Campobello, named two centuries ago for Lord William Campbell, governor of Nova Scotia, became popular as a summer resort for wealthy Americans in the 1880s. James and Sara Roosevelt and their 1-year-old son, Franklin, first visited in 1883, and the same year bought property on Passamaquoddy Bay for a vacation home, she said.
For nearly 40 years, unil he was stricken with polio in 1921, FDR spent his summers here with his parents, then in the “cottage” Sara bought for him and his wife, Eleanor, in 1909. The “cottage,” with 34 memorabilia-filled rooms, is lovely though not opulent. But the grounds are magnificent with rose gardens and exquisitely manicured lawns that slope to glittering Friar’s Bay.
After he fell ill, Roosevelt was unable to stay on his “beloved island” — the cottage wasn’t wheelchair friendly — and he visited briefly only a few times. But Eleanor loved the cool summers and stayed on the island frequently with their children. The family continued to visit until Eleanor’s death in 1962.
Now the cottage is open for tours, with guides available to answer questions.
Eleanor Roosevelt was famous for many things — as a politician, diplomat, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, activist and more — but also, on a lighter note, for her love of serving tea to guests. Five years ago the park began offering Tea with Eleanor twice a day, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. at Hubbard House near the Roosevelt cottage. There’s no charge, but seating is limited to 20, tickets required (available at the park visitor center).
The tea was a highlight of the trip. If you don’t already love Eleanor, you will by the time you’ve finished the tea and cookies, and listened for an hour as two knowledgeable volunteers tell her fascinating and poignant story.
Another park attraction is Eagle Hill Bog across Highway 774 on Glensevern Road. Self-guided tour brochures available at the parking lot explain that originally the “cloud-fed” bog was a pond. But over some 10 millennia it has become choked with sphagnum moss, now so dense that “surface plants” can’t reach either ground water or mineral soil. All moisture and nutrients come from rain, snow or fog.
A 0.6-mile boardwalk, an engineering marvel, built through the bog leads to an observation deck for dramatic views to Herring Cove off the Bay of Fundy. Placards along the boardwalk identify plants that grow here: sheep laurel, cranberry, rhodora and candy-apple-red pitcher plant, an “insectivore,” among others.
Other Campobello Island attractions are the 1884 Mulholland Point Lighthouse on Lubec Narrows (the 44-foot lighthouse is not open to the public, but the grounds are, and include placards with extensive information about the area’s history and wildlife); and the Marine Life Interpretation Centre in a historic red-brick former bait shed nearby. Right whale artifacts are displayed and interpreters introduce visitors to the highly endangered species. Scientist Moira Brown, member of a rescue team that frees whales trapped in fishing lines, explains that the right whale population has recovered somewhat since the Canadian government moved shipping lanes away from the creatures’ critical habitat.