ADVERTISEMENT

At the easternmost point of the United States, it stands sentinel.

West Quoddy Head lighthouse is striped like a candy cane. It looks a lighthouse in a children's book.

Twenty thousand people visit every year, not too bad for a lighthouse on the edge of forever.

"That's pretty good for where we are. We're not on the way to anywhere," says Debora Bridges, manager of the West Quoddy Head museum and visitors center.

This little spot is one of three in Maine where the sun first rises in the United States.

This region has the biggest tides in the country -- a difference of up to 16 feet every 6 hours -- so strong you actually can see the water push in and out of nearby bays.

It's so far east that summer sunrise at 4 o'clock finds the roosters still abed.

Geography tourists come from around the world, just to say they've been here. This year the lighthouse museum has started to sell fancy certificates for $3 that visitors can take home to prove they came.

"People told me the other extreme geography points have similar things and it might be a good way to raise money. It's working," Bridges says.

West Quoddy Head, 2 1/2 hours east of Bangor, is the easiest extreme geography point in the United States to reach. It also has the most civilization -- paved roads, easy public access, and an unearthly, serene walking trail along the rocky ocean cliffs.

It wasn't always that way. West Quoddy Head lighthouse, built in 1858, was occupied by a Coast Guard lighthouse keeper until 1988. Then the light was automated.

"Between 1988 and 1999, it was left to fall apart, pretty much," says Bridges. After that, it became Quoddy Head State Park. The state owns the building and the land, and the Coast Guard still runs the light and the foghorn.

The local lighthouse keepers' association opened the museum and visitors center with volunteer help in 2002.

Now, more people are finding their way here, drawn by word-of-mouth. The lighthouse can be climbed only twice a year -- the Saturday after the Fourth of July and during Maine Open Lighthouse Day (this year Sept. 18). The park will close for the season Oct. 15 and reopen in May.

"I grew up here all my life, and no one ever asked us where the lighthouse was, ever," says Junia Lehman, owner of West Quoddy Gifts just down the road. "There is so much more interest in lighthouses now."

One common question: If the easternmost point in the United States is called West Quoddy Head, where's East Quoddy Head? It's in Canada. If you look at a map, it's on Campobello Island, New Brunswick -- east of Maine.

>Tourism on the rise

Just a few miles from West Quoddy Head is the small Down East Maine seaside town of Lubec. Given up for dead when its herring and sardine smokehouses and canneries closed a few decades ago, it has been reborn -- very slowly -- as a tourism town.

This summer, two new restaurants opened next door to each other -- Water Street Tavern and Frank's Dockside Restaurant. Try the fish chowder at Frank's and the lobster at Water Street. Cohill's Inn across the street has been open for four years, a homey nine-room inn and pub with windows that look straight out on the Bay of Fundy. Other bed-and-breakfasts in town expand the lodging choices. There are a handful of gift shops, art galleries, two chocolate shops, a hardware store, a library. The closest Walmart is 25 miles away.

There's still a lot of room to grow. All of Washington County has only 32,100 people in it, many of them descendents of the Revolutionary War soldiers who settled here after that long-ago fight. Some people here are well off. Most aren't.

"But things are starting to come around. There are a lot of writers and a lot of artists," says Bobbi Ivan, who with husband Paul spends summers in Lubec and winters back home in Cottrellville Township, Mich. They bought a house facing Cobscook Bay 10 years ago and can sit on their back porch and watch the tide rise and fall. They see eagles, whales, moose, fox, porcupines, bears.

"The air is unbelievably fresh, maybe from the salt in the air," says Paul Ivan. "The people are like what people were like when I grew up by City Airport back in Detroit. We didn't lock our doors. People waved at you."

There may not be a lot of action in Lubec, but that's fine with the Ivans. Says Bobbi: "You just sit here and say, 'Is the tide going in? Or is the tide going out?' "

West Quoddy Head's first lighthouse was built in 1808. It is easy to see why. Its location is a strategic outpost that kept the British pushed back to what's now Canada after the Revolutionary War. From here, a sharp-eyed sentinel might spot maritime treachery on the Bay of Fundy. The lighthouse still is a reassuring presence, its light a beacon in the frequent thick fog, keeping ships away from harsh tides and boulders.

A coastal trail winds two miles south from the lighthouse, but it's possible to walk just part of it. It smells of balsam, like a Christmas candle. It is dotted with ferns, bog lichens and shimmering green moss, jewels of the coastal ecosphere. At low tide, you can walk out onto the rocks, but take care -- a visitor had to be rescued in July when he got stranded as the tide came rushing back in.

Many think of Down East Maine as ritzy Bar Harbor, scene of the recent Obama family vacation. This is two hours beyond that. A humble place. A moving place. A geographically significant place.

And a red-striped lighthouse place.

***

>If you go:

Five insider tips:

People from Maine are Mainers. People not from Maine are "from away." In some small towns like Lubec, "from away" can also mean anyone not born and raised in that town.

*Watch your pronunciation. Lubec is Lu-BEC. Nearby towns? Calais is CAL-is. Machias is Match-EYE-us. Bangor is Ban-gore, not BANG-er.

*Down East Maine runs from the Blue Hill Peninsula northeast to Lubec. "Down East" is a nautical term -- ships sail downwind and east from Boston to Lubec. People in Maine still "go up" to Boston.

*Maine's coastal waters are not for swimming unless you are a lobster. Too cold.

*West Quoddy Head has the nation's earliest sunrise, but only March 7 to March 24 and Sept. 19 to Oct. 6, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. Earliest sunrise is at Maine's Cadillac Mountain Oct. to March 6 and at Maine's Mars Hill March 25 to Sept. 8.

Getting there: Fly to Bangor and drive about 2 1/2 hours east.

Lodging and dining: Cohill's Inn, nine rooms, breakfast included, overlooks Bay of Fundy ($95-$135, 7 Water Street, www.cohillsinn.com, 207-733-4300).

Peacock House Bed and Breakfast, three rooms, four suites, overlooks Bay of Fundy, breakfast included ($95-$135, 27 Summer Street, www.peacockhouse.com, 207-733-2403).

Water Street Tavern just opened in June and serves lunch and dinner; also has outdoor waterfront dining (12 Water Street, 207-733-2477).

Frank's Dockside Restaurant opened in May and serves lunch and dinner, Italian specialties (20 Water Street, 207-733-4484).

Attractions: Quoddy Head State Park includes the West Quoddy Head lighthouse; open May 15-Oct. 15 (visitors center is free (www.westquoddy.com, 207-733-2180).

Shopping in Lubec includes West Quoddy Gifts, Dianne's Glass, Northern Tides Art and Gift Gallery, Wags and Wool and more.

Tours: Try whale watching, cultural tours, kayaking, water taxi to Eastport or drive over the bridge to Campobello Island, New Brunswick, to see President Franklin Roosevelt's summer home, now a museum. Tourist information at Lubec Historical Society, 135 Main St., or see www.visitlubecmaine.com.