DEER ISLAND, New Brunswick -- "It's not what you usually think of as a ferry," says Velma Lord about the shape of the two vessels her family operates in summer to Campobello Island and Eastport, Maine.
Bay of Fundy and Island Hopper are tugs with long, hydraulically operated steel arms linked to barges. Passengers and bicycles, cars, and even buses board on ramps lowered to the beach. Once the vessel is back in deeper water, the arm reverses the tug's direction.
These are the East Coast Ferries , a little-known, hassle-free shortcut and a relaxing way to cross Passamaquoddy Bay .
From Deer Island many passengers continue on to the New Brunswick mainland on larger, toll-free, provincial government-run ferries serving L'Etete , little more than a dozen miles east of St. Andrews, the Bar Harbor of Maritime Canada.
Campobello Island is a quick walk across a bridge from Lubec, Maine, but from there to mainland Canada is an hour's drive around the bay, frequently slowed by a line at the Calais-St.-Stephen border crossing. Both sides of the border promote the Quoddy Loop, the idea of driving Route 1 and ferrying by way of Deer Island.
Roosevelt Campobello International Park , with President Franklin Roosevelt's summer home as its centerpiece, is a big draw. On our most recent visit we stayed at The Owen House in Welshpool , minutes from the landing point for the 15-car Island Hopper.
Figuring we needed to be in line well before the ferry's 9 a.m. departure, we worried about the leisurely pace at breakfast, and arrived at the ferry with just 10 minutes to spare. That turned out to be plenty of time; the innkeepers arrived at the last minute.
On the 30-minute ride from Campobello to Deer Island , chances are you will see eagles, dolphins, seals, and maybe a whale or two. Old Sow , billed as the largest tidal whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere, is best viewed on the 20-minute Eastport run.
Passamaquoddy is known for the extremity of its tides, which flow in and out every six hours. According to Robert Godfrey , a veteran Old Sow watcher, the vortex is most dramatic two hours before the incoming tide during new and full moons.
"Seventy billion cubic feet of water move into the bay on the incoming tide and slam into outgoing currents that are surging down from the St. Croix River and funneling through deep troughs between Eastport and Deer Island, encountering a pinnacle in the middle of their route," Godfrey explains.
Despite all this, the eight-passenger Bay of Fundy, departing Eastport every hour on the half hour, 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., frequently runs at less than capacity. We have pulled up to its departure point, a beach beside the Eastport Chowder House , and figured that the ferries weren't running because no one was waiting -- and then suddenly, rounding a point, the ferry appeared.
"It is definitely one of those stepping back in time things," says Lord, whose family goes back at least four generations on Deer Island.
Seven miles long with a year-round population of 900, the island boasts "the world's largest lobster pound" and offers a choice of seasonal rentals and places to stay along with a few restaurants.
For most ferry passengers Deer Island is just a stepping stone in the bay. East Coast Ferries docks at Deer Island Point and the Provincial Ferries at Butler Point, at opposite ends of the island. Both operate on a first come, first served basis.
There is rarely a wait on the way to Canada. Over the years we have taken these ferries about a dozen times and the only wait we have encountered is on Deer Island, heading back from the Provincial Ferries, the 24-car Deer Island Princess II and the 18-car John E. Rigby . Cars line up in the kind of rocky cove beloved by artists and birders.
Just remember that New Brunswick is on Atlantic Time, an hour later than Maine.
Theoretically the ferry ride from Campobello is 100 miles shorter than the drive around the bay to St. Andrews, but the two trips may well take the same amount of time. The difference is more about enjoying the trip.
"You can see the difference between the people on the roads and those taking the ferries," says Lord. "Most of those on the ferry are out of their cars the minute they get on board. It's really quiet and you can watch them start relaxing."
Christina Tree, a freelance writer in Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.