CALAIS, Maine -- Down East may seem to some a tourist colloquialism for this state, where many visitors get no more northerly than Bar Harbor and so never imagine the 700 miles of Atlantic coastline from there to the St. Croix River and Canada. But ''down east" originated in nautical weather, referring to the direction in which the prevailing winds blow sailing vessels along the coast.
The new $6.6 million Downeast Heritage Center is inarguably northeast, in Calais (pronounced like callous), just across the St. Croix from the town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick. It's here because 400 years ago, a small island 8 miles downstream was settled by a party of Frenchmen.
Rarely mentioned in American histories, St. Croix Island looms large in Canadian and French history. It was the first European settlement north of Florida and the beginning of the French presence in North America. Thirty-five men died there in the winter of 1604-05; the 44 survivors, who included Samuel Champlain and the expedition's underwriter, Pierre Dugua, sailed off the following summer to settle Port Royal in what is now the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia.
At the Downeast Heritage Center, this saga is told in French and English. One learns that the houses and storehouses in the settlement were half timbered and with brick chimneys, far more substantial than those the Pilgrims built two decades later at Plymouth. One also learns that the entire group would have perished had it not been for help from the region's indigenous tribe, the Passamaquoddies.
''People of the Dawn," the center's second big exhibit, tells another long-overdue story about the Passamaquoddy people who have managed, against the odds, to maintain their language, music, and crafts. Displays include replicas of local pictographs, some dating more than 3,000 years, one depicting a 17th-century sailing vessel, probably Champlain's, which must have moored in Machias Bay within view of the artist.
The Passamaquoddy exhibit is not large but attempts to be authentic. The mannequins' faces depict actual tribal members. The 18-foot oceangoing birch-bark canoe was built by David Moses Bridges exactly as his great-grandfather would have built it, and the centuries' old wampum belt belongs to Donald Soctomah, preservation officer of the Passamaquoddy tribe.
According to Soctomah, the tribe now has 3,300 members, many in Indian Township north of Calais, at the Pleasant Point reservation near Eastport, and nearby in surrounding Washington County.
Washington County itself is as large as the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, but home to just 35,000 people (the two states have 1.9 million). Many still survive by fishing, lobstering, clamming, digging worms, and processing seafood, and by serving as hunting and fishing guides. With 3,600 residents, Calais is the county's largest community.
It's easy to understand why this glacially sculpted landscape -- with rivers, lakes, and wandering coastline -- appealed to travelers exploring it by canoe and sailing vessel. It was easy to sail and easy to navigate, as one body of water often leads to another. It's also easy to see why the area appeals less to tourists, given that views from the two main roads, Route 9 from Bangor and coastal Route 1, are few and fleeting.
''Some 80,000 visitors pass through here every year but just 4 percent stop," says Soctomah. His hope is that the Downeast Heritage Center will trigger interest in the area. A tidal pool here, filled with starfish, crabs, and sea cucumbers, suggests the wealth of sea life in nearby Cobscook and Passamaquoddy bays. The center also offers daily lectures on area history and a lobster boat cruise around St. Croix Island.
Numerous excursions are also available in St. Andrews, New Brunswick's liveliest resort town, 19 miles from Calais at the confluence of the St. Croix River and Passamaquoddy Bay. If it were a few hours nearer a big city, or perhaps if New England maps included the Canadian shore, this magnificent bay might be mobbed. As it is, the seasonal car ferries are surprisingly small and uncrowded.
Off and on over many years, we have made it a summer ritual to ''do the Quoddy Loop," a route that entails crossing the border at Calais and driving to St. Andrews, then taking ferries across Passamaquoddy Bay to Eastport or Campobello. Each time, we expect that this will be the year that finally, inevitably, word of this wonderful circuit will have gotten out and the ferries will be jammed.
On a recent, foggy morning we wolfed down breakfast at Owen House on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, which is linked by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Bridge to Lubec, Maine. Our hosts assured us that we need arrive at the beach (there's no dock) just a quarter-hour before departure, but we didn't believe them. In fact, we could have had more coffee.
Based on Deer Island in the middle of Passamaquoddy Bay, the two vessels operated by East Coast Ferries Ltd., are lashed to barges, each carrying fewer than than 20 cars. One runs from Eastport, Maine, and the other from Campobello. Both feed into the larger, free Canadian ferry that leaves every hour from the opposite end of Deer Island for L'Etete on the New Brunswick shore, a half-hour drive from St. Andrews.
Settled by loyalists from Castine, Maine, and developed as a summer resort in the late 19th century, St. Andrews is Canada's Bar Harbor but with a grand old hotel similar to those Bar Harbor lost in its 1947 fire. Add to this superb public gardens, a wide choice of inns and bed-and- breakfasts, fine dining and shopping, whale watching, and other cruises, all priced in Canadian dollars. (At press time, one Canadian dollar cost just 75 US cents.)
In St. Andrews, the 400th anniversary of the St. Croix Island settlement is marked by a special exhibit at Ross Memorial Museum. ''Qonasqanq Monihkuk, Echoes of Drums" explores the Passamaquoddy heritage, focusing on tribal members in recent history.
St. Croix Island itself, midway between the Maine and New Brunswick shores of the river, is unprepossessing and accessible only by private boat. The best view is from a new viewing area on Route 127 in Bayside, New Brunswick, roughly halfway between Calais and St. Andrews, but the new, more heavily wooded overlook on Route 1 in Red Beach, Maine, is more interesting. There, a path leads to a bronze replica of the settlements; along the way are a half-dozen haunting, life-sized bronze statues, here an elaborately dressed Frenchman, there a young Passamaquoddy girl.
Route 1 continues south along the St. Croix with views of St. Andrews just across the river, and in Perry, Route 190 angles off toward Eastport, threading through the Passamaquoddy reservation at Pleasant Point.
Christina Tree is a freelance writer in Cambridge. She is coauthor with Elizabeth Roundy Richards of ''Maine, An Explorer's Guide."