More to Campobello Island than FDR’s summer home

An observation deck at Roosevelt Campobello International Park.
An observation deck at Roosevelt Campobello International Park.

CAMPOBELLO ISLAND, New Brunswick — When I crossed the bridge spanning Maine’s Lubec Narrows I felt the last kinks of stress deflate. If Down East is remote, then Franklin D. Roosevelt’s beloved Canadian island is one step farther removed. This sparsely populated, nine-mile-long spot seduces with its soaring cliffs plummeting to churning seas, calming vistas of lobster and fishing boats chugging around nearby isles, and a gentle network of hiking trails and carriage roads.

Tethered to Lubec by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Bridge, Campobello Island is accessible from its motherland only by seasonal ferry. Tide and weather govern life on Campobello, which lies in Passamaquoddy Bay at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, home to some of the world’s biggest tides. At high tide whales can by spotted from shore.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Campobello, like Newport, R.I., and Bar Harbor, Maine, was a summer colony for well-to-do families. The island is perhaps best known for its long association with Roosevelt. He summered here during his boyhood and later with his wife, Eleanor, and their children, and it was here that he was stricken with polio in 1921. The 34-room Roosevelt Cottage, built in 1897 and located about 1½ miles from the bridge, along with four other restored cottages and a visitors center, are part of 2,800-acre Roosevelt Campobello International Park, administered jointly by the United States and Canada. Most visitors come just to see the Roosevelt Cottage, but there’s far more here.


The visitors center gives an excellent overview of the island and the Roosevelts, and a self-guided tour through the house offers a window into their lives. It appears as if they’ve just stepped out, perhaps for a picnic or a sail. A hand of cards is facedown on the table; a hat rests on a bench; a knitting basket is topped with an unfinished project; toys are scattered about the playroom. Interpreters, stationed throughout, answer questions and help tell the story, but to become less like voyeurs and more like invited guests, my husband and I signed up for the morning Tea With Eleanor.

The Roosevelt Cottage.
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A park interpreter suggested we fill the hour until teatime by walking the Friar’s Head Trail. The easy 1.2-mile round trip loops to the distinctive coastal land formation, where an observation deck provides expansive views over scalloped shorelines and fir-trimmed islands. Upon return, we settled into the Hubbard Cottage for a real treat. We sipped tea and nibbled cookies as two park interpreters shared anecdotes and stories of Eleanor’s trials and triumphs in an engaging presentation.

Later, armed with maps from the center, we walked the park’s gravel carriage roads, making a note to bring or rent bikes the next time we visit. We could have spent days exploring the boggy ponds and lush woodlands, rocky beaches and soaring headlands. From observation decks we gazed over to mist-shrouded West Quoddy Head (Maine) and Grand Manan Island (New Brunswick).

A cliff-edging path linking Liberty Point with Raccoon Beach headlines the park’s 8 miles of hiking trails, but we couldn’t resist the boardwalk looping through Eagle Hill Bog. Trails also connect the international park with the abutting 1,049-acre Herring Cove Provincial Park, with four additional miles of trails, a mile-long sand beach, freshwater lake, restaurant, campground, and nine-hole golf course.

A view from the nine-hole Herring Cove Provincial Park golf course.

The international and provincial parks are located on the southern end of Campobello, but another treasure, Head Harbor Light, lured us to the northern tip. The 51-foot-tall beacon, with its distinctive red cross, can be seen from the shoreline, but it’s even better up close. It’s located on an islet and accessible only during a four-hour window around dead low tide. Our timing was perfect, but I had second thoughts when confronted by a sign:


“Extreme Hazard. Beach exposed only at low tide. Incoming tide rises 5 feet per hour and may leave you stranded for eight hours. Wading or swimming are extremely dangerous due to swift currents and cold water. Proceed at your own risk.”

We proceeded, and clambered up and down metal ladders, crossed wooden bridges, followed paths across islet cliffs, and navigated the ocean floor through slippery, often rockweed-covered boulders. It was worth it. The keeper’s house and tower are undergoing restoration by The Friends of Head Harbour Light station. Guide Deanna Baldwin explained the restoration’s challenges, as she led us through the house and up to the lantern room. Volunteers brought almost all supplies and furnishings during those four-hour windows, except on the few occasions when the tides allowed a full day. “This is the most magical place in the world,” Baldwin said. “You can sit here and watch the whales: minke, finbacks, humpbacks, sometimes even right whales.”

I glanced at my watch and realized we had to go to avoid flirting with the rising tide. After a quick visit to Head Harbor Wharf where the island’s fishing fleet docks we returned to the other end of the island. Acting on a local’s tip, we detoured to Mulholland Light, just before the mainland bridge. Seals cavorted in the boils, eddies, and whirlpools of the turning tide and eagles soared overhead. We lingered, savoring the sunset before dusk gave way to darkness and called us home.

Hilary Nangle can be reached at hila