CAMPOBELLO ISLAND — Located on this tiny island off the Down East coast — and we’re talking way east and about two hours north of Bar Harbor — Roosevelt Campobello International Park is free for visitors. “It takes so much effort to get here, we won’t charge you to get in!” quips park spokesperson Vern McKimmey. Equally funded by the United States and Canada, Roosevelt Campobello is in New Brunswick province, the only international park located solely on Canadian soil. This park is off the beaten path even for Canadians: For seven months of the year, until the summer ferries are running, the only way Canadians can get onto Campobello is by entering the United States and crossing the bridge from Lubec, Maine. In other words, to get from Canada to Canada means a quick trip into and out of the United States — passport required.
So why would you go to the trouble? Surrounded by the chilly waters and legendary tides of the Bay of Fundy, Campobello Island would be just another pleasant fishing village — more familiar to grazing whales than tourists — but for one thing: Roosevelt Campobello International Park. This 2,800-acre property draws visitors for tours of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s lovely memento-filled family cottage, a new restaurant, and hiking trails that lead to rocky coves, ponds, and a fog-shrouded forest. Founded by a treaty between the United States and Canada in 1964, Roosevelt Campobello Park is a symbol of friendship between the two countries. It turns 50 this month, with special events to mark the occasion and, we’re guessing, cake.
And the park has another reason to celebrate: a seven-part PBS documentary series by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” set to premiere on Sept. 14. In 2-hour-long segments it highlights the lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, members of one of the most influential families in US politics. It’s an important production for PBS, and a big deal for Roosevelt Campobello International Park. Burns and his crew filmed here three years ago, and island residents (many of whom work at the park) can’t wait to see the results. Some eager viewers won’t have to wait that long, since preview events will be held in St. Andrews by the Sea, New Brunswick, and Bangor and Portland, Maine. Renewed interest in the Roosevelts — plus lovely shots of piney islets and deep-blue bays — should mean more visitors to Roosevelt Campobello park. “We expect a bump in visitation,” McKimmey says, noting that Roosevelt-related sites such as Hyde Park, N.Y., and Warm Springs, Ga., are likely to draw more guests too.
Even now, visitation is up 47 percent since 2009, with an estimated 130,000 visitors coming from the United States and Canada. A four-year-old program called “Tea with Eleanor” has been wildly popular, and the park has opened some of its historic cottages to host educational conferences.
Although it has been decades since Franklin (1882-1945)and Eleanor (1884-1962) lived, interest in the Roosevelt family remains strong. And Roosevelts still visit the island: Since 1883, there’s hardly been a summer without a Roosevelt on the property, and two of the Roosevelts’ grandchildren are on the Park Commission. “On this little island, we loved the Roosevelts, and they changed us,” says ninth-generation islander Theresa Mitchell, a guide at the park. A visit to Roosevelt Campobello Park brings this remarkable couple to life — and it also reveals why this quiet little island, far from the intrigue of Washington, D.C., was so cherished by the country’s original power couple.
THE FDR SUMMER HOME
As a child, Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed idyllic summers on Campobello Island, sailing and fishing with so much enthusiasm that a family friend labeled him a “sardine-sized seaman.” As an adult, he often retreated to his “beloved island” home with Eleanor and their six children to relax and enjoy the outdoors. The family spent summers at the family cottage from 1909 until 1921, when Franklin was stricken with polio. He left Campobello on a stretcher. Eleanor, too, loved Campobello, and continued to visit her entire life. She was on hand for the opening of the FDR Memorial Bridge between Lubec and Campobello in 1962.
Open for tours, the Roosevelts’ Arts and Crafts-style shingled home (circa 1897) has 34 rooms and seven fireplaces, and all but five pieces of furniture are original. With a pile of blocks on the floor, and a Wedgewood tea set in the living room, the house looks like the occupants just stepped away for a few minutes — an ambience that worked well for the PBS film crew, McKimmey says.
TEA WITH ELEANOR
Eleanor liked her tea at 3 p.m., “and you never knew how many people to plan for, since [she] would invite everyone she met, including local school girls, to attend,” guide Mitchell explains. And so the tradition continues. Tea and cookies are served in Hubbard Cottage, featuring recipes used by the Roosevelts’ cooks (Eleanor was no baker, they say), and available to guests in a booklet compiled by granddaughter Chandler Roosevelt Lindsley. Tea is free on a first-come, first-served basis, or $12 if you reserve in advance, which guarantees admittance. During teatime, park guides share stories about how Roosevelt transformed the role of first lady from hostess to activist, working for women’s rights, children’s rights, and civil rights. “By the time of her death, Eleanor was considered to be the first lady of the world,” Mitchell says.
A WALK IN THE PARK, AND BEYOND
To get a feel for why the Roosevelts, and other wealthy families, loved this island, spend some time wandering the park’s 10 miles of hiking trails. A short (.8 mile) walk to Friar’s Head leads to pretty views of the bay and cove, along the beach (depending on the tide), and a stacked rock that rises from the beach. Hike to an observation deck above Friar’s Head for scenic overlooks. The park offers bog walks and beach walks in season; ask at the visitors center, or pick up a trail map.
If you’re keen on lighthouses, you’re in luck. Campobello offers two that are worth a visit, Mulholland Point Light, on the south side of the island near the park with a small marine museum, and Head Harbour Lightstation to the north, a great spot for whale watching if you bring binoculars. (Look for “Godzilla,” a minke whale known for breeching.) Two local outfitters run whale watch excursions, and you’ll probably see seals and eagles if you drive around the island. Have dinner at the park’s new Fireside Restaurant, where a stone fireplace and log walls create a wonderful atmosphere, and the food is terrific.
WHERE TO STAY (and other details) Since you can’t stay at the park unless you’re part of a conference, where do you sleep? The best choice on Campobello is Owen House Country Inn & Gallery (11 Welshpool St., Welshpool, 506-752-2977, www.owenhouse.ca; from $115 Canadian with private bath, including breakfast), a large Colonial built in 1835 featuring watercolor paintings by innkeeper-artist Joyce Morrell.
On the Maine side, just a quick drive over the bridge, is Lubec, the easternmost town in the United States. Lubec has a couple of restaurants, all the lobster you can handle, and an interesting place to spend the night: the Inn on the Wharf (69 Johnson St., 207-733-4400, www.theinnon
thewharf.com; suites $100), which is connected to a seafood restaurant and sardine fishery. Good local stops include Monica’s Chocolates (100 County Road, 207-733-4500, www.monicaschocolates.com) for a “sea cucumber” and West Quoddy Head Light (Quoddy Head State Park, 973 South Lubec Road, 207-733-0911, www.mainelgov/doc/parks).
All of this will get you primed for “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” For information on Roosevelt Campobello International Park, call 877-851-6663 or visit www.fdr.net. For information on New Brunswick, visit www.tourismnewbrunswick.ca.