A ROOM WITH A VIEW | June 21st 2008
It is hard to imagine a finer room with a view than the keeper's dwelling at a lighthouse. Rebecca Willis scans the horizon, and suggests some fine spots for a summer getaway ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Summer 2008
It's hard to imagine a more potent symbol of man's eternal struggle against the elements than the solitary white finger of a lighthouse pointing up to the sky. Today many of them have a more prosaic existence as holiday rentals: as the lights themselves became automated, the redundant keepers' dwellings were an obvious tourist opportunity.
By definition most lighthouses are in exposed coastal spots with wrap-around views of sea and sky, and for anyone who loves weather (and there are a lot of us out there) it is a thrilling drama to watch the fronts approaching from miles off in the salty air. And as well as being poignant reminders of the rigours of our seafaring past, lighthouses can provide a great perspective in a spiritual as well as a literal sense.
The type of accommodation on offer varies from hotel to hostel, from self-catering to bed and breakfast, and is often in the adjacent cottages rather than the tower itself (so choose carefully if your fantasy is based on readings of Rapunzel). Some lighthouses are more remote than others, some are unsuitable for children and (inevitably) acrophobics, and some have more attention paid to their interiors--though not in a hip hotels sort of way--while others are appropriately spartan. None of them will break the bank. Here is a whirlwind, worldwide tour of a handful of them.
Cape Otway Lightstation, Australia, has been in continuous use since 1848. The towering cliffs on which it sits were, for many immigrants, the first sight of land since leaving Europe. The Great Ocean Road, which runs along the coast here, is one of the world's great drives. Cape Otway is two-and-a-half hours' drive from Melbourne, and you can rent either the Head Lightkeeper's House or the newly renovated Manager's House; some B&B is also available.
The East Brother Light Station, California, was due to be torn down after the lighthouses in San Francisco Bay were automated in the 1960s, but local residents saved and restored it. Guests arrive by boat at the one-acre island, where five rooms are available for B&B stays from Thursdays to Sundays. The light tower is part of the Victorian-style house, and proposals of marriage have been made in the lens room.
The archetypal lighthouse experience--where you stay in round rooms in the tower itself--is available at Burnham High Lighthouse in Somerset, England. This 33-metre (110ft) red and white tower overlooks the Bristol Channel and was the first fully automated lighthouse in England. Each room--including the three en-suite bedrooms--is on its own floor, there are 120 steps to the kitchen at the top, then a steep ladder to the lantern room, where you can eat and gaze at the view.
Saugerties Lighthouse (pictured below) in New York state is 150km north of Manhattan on the Hudson River, surrounded by wetlands. It's a square Victorian brick house with a light on the roof, which today is solar-powered, and it survives thanks to a rescue mission which included reconstructing the massive stone base. Guests can arrive by boat but most approach along a half-mile trail, parts of which may be submerged at high tide There is a small museum and shop, and two double rooms on the second floor offering B&B from Wednesdays to Sundays.
Wicklow Head Lighthouse (pictured at top of page) is one of four lighthouses owned by the Irish Landmark Trust and the only one in which you stay in the tower itself. An hour south of Dublin, it was built in 1781 and gutted by fire when struck by lightning in the 1830s. Inside the metre-thick walls with their 27 arched windows, the trust has created six octagonal rooms, for up to six people.
Veli Rat Lighthouse is one of 11 lighthouses on Croatia's beautiful Adriatic coast which between them offer 20 apartments for rent. Built in the mid-19th century, it sits on a little-populated island reached by a 75-minute ferry journey from the town of Zadar, where you can buy provisions. The two apartments are very simple and the keeper and his family take care of the guests. Surrounded by pine trees and bays with pebble beaches, it is a total escape from the modern world.
The Punta Delgada Lighthouse, in a remote corner of Patagonia, has guided ships around the sandbars of the South Atlantic since 1905. It also used to be the casino of the Argentine navy. Today it is a 27-room hotel complex, complete with restaurant and pub, offering not the solitary experience of some other lighthouses but a chance to explore the natural wilderness around it. The beach below has a colony of elephant seals, you can trek or ride along the windswept cliffs, visit a colony of Magellan penguins and go whale-watching.
Closer to home, but also with a feeling of being at the end of the earth, are the keeper's cottages at Cantick Head Lighthouse on the Orkney island of Hoy. On the tip of the Walls peninsula, the lighthouse overlooks Cantick Sound and the southern entrance to Scapa Flow, and visitors can walk, cycle, go fishing, keep a weather eye out for whales, porpoises and seals, and savour the exposure to big, uninterrupted nature.
- Perhaps Britain's best-known lighthouse rentals are on Lundy Island and belong to the Landmark Trust.
- Rural Retreats offers 30 keeper's cottages for rent around the coast of Britain--some provide earplugs because the foghorn sounds automatically in misty weather.
- The book "Staying at a Lighthouse" by John Grant (Insiders' Guide, $11.95) is a comprehensive guide to more than two dozen lighthouses at which you can stay in the United States, including several on the Great Lakes.
- And if you really get the bug, this website attempts to list all the lighthouses in the world where you can spend the night.
(Rebecca Willis is an Associate Editor at Intelligent Life. Our last "Out There" feature was about William Mackesy's ten favourite walks, from the foothills of Scotland to the remote islands of Indonesia.)