By Kirsti Scott
Shore lovers who flock to San Francisco Bay in Northern California often want to experience life on the Bay itself. There are boat trips under the Golden Gate bridge, all-day sailing adventures, visits to Alcatraz, and even swims for the bravest. But there’s another more genteel option: Spend a night in an island lighthouse, right in San Francisco Bay.
My husband and I planned a weekend trip with his parents to San Francisco and we thought it would be interesting to start the weekend with something unique—a night on East Brother Light Station, about 30 minutes north of the city.
After enduring the usual Friday-afternoon Bay Area traffic, we exited the freeway right before the toll plaza to the Richmond-San Rafael bridge and in a few minutes arrived at Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor. On the way, you get a sneak peek of the lighthouse, which is only a few hundred yards from the shore. After lunch at the harbor—and a bit of sea glass hunting—we met innkeeper Tyler Waterson, who took us for the 10-minute boat ride to the East Brother Island dock. There, it’s a short climb up a ladder and ramp to arrive on the tiny island. Basically a rock, the island contains only a few buildings, including the iconic, beautifully restored Victorian lighthouse.
The perfect location for a lighthouse…and romantic vistas
East Brother Island is only ¾ of an acre, so don’t expect to take any long walks. Built in the late 1800s to support growing bay traffic, contractors blasted sandstone from the top of the island to create about half an acre of level ground for the lighthouse. Lighthouse keepers lived and worked here from 1874 until 1969, when the lighthouse became automated to save on salary and upkeep.
Talk of tearing down the quaint, historic buildings led to a non-profit citizen group pushing for restoring the landmark and the opening of the truly unique bed & breakfast in 1979. Visitors stay in four bedrooms in the main house and Walter’s Quarters—a favorite of returning guests—in the separate fog signal building. Though the Coast Guard owns the island and lighthouse, a non-profit manages the island with innkeepers (see right) who operate the bed-and-breakfast as their own business for a set period of time.
The views are amazing. You can see the San Francisco skyline (unless the fog is heavy), Mount Tamalpais, and the Marin coastline; watch passing ships and boats (on both sides of the island), and view equally small West Brother island, a favorite hangout for birds and harbor seals. Our wonderful dinner was interrupted as many of us went outside to take in the beautiful sunset.
Highlights of our stay
What makes a bed & breakfast stay memorable? Responsive, friendly innkeepers (check); fun, talkative fellow guests (check); and spacious, quaint rooms (check). Once you’re on the island, you’re there for the night. We met our fellow guests with late afternoon champagne and hors d’oeuvres as Tyler answered questions about the unique locale. Each course of our gourmet dinner, cooked by Tiffany, was delicious—and the conversation among the guests was lively. You can get to know the other guests in this beautiful, relaxed setting—while the spacious, comfortable rooms offer any privacy you seek. The night sounds of water, birds, and faraway ships seem to rock you to sleep even though you’re not moving.
In the morning, we took a walk up the circular staircase to the light at the top of the main building for a 360-degree view of the bay. After breakfast, Tyler gives a history lesson followed by a blasting of the old steam-powered fog horn. Don’t worry—he provides earmuffs. Sit at benches perfectly situated to romantically watch the sights in the distance and the passing ships close by.
A warning for light sleepers: The modern, automated foghorn sounds every 20 seconds from October 1 to April 1—one of the reasons we went in September. Unless you are renting the entire island for a family reunion, children are not allowed. You need to be strong and steady enough to scale a steel ladder from the boat to the dock—something accomplished by my 80-something in-laws. And due to only accessing water from the on-island cistern, guests are asked not to shower unless they are staying for two nights.
Want to imagine living as a lighthouse keeper? East Brother: History of an Island Light Station provides a fascinating history covering all the lighthouse keepers—and innkeepers—through nearly 150 years of history.
A once-in-a-lifetime job
Tyler Waterson and Tiffany Danse are the proud innkeepers of East Brother Light Station. They applied for the job, and they were chosen over hundreds of other applicants for a two-year stint on the island. They had been living on and restoring their sailboat, and they wanted a chance to re-charge on land with more space. As they joke, “Three-quarters of an acre is a lot to us after a 30-foot sailboat!” From the minute they visited the island, they loved it, and they consider themselves very lucky to call it home.
Tyler has an education in marine biology, and spent the previous ten years working as a whale-watching naturalist, crewing on sailing charter boats and commercial fishing boats, and working as an adventure tour guide on Kaua’i. Tiffany grew up in a big family, where she spent lots of time with her mother in the kitchen, developing a deep love for cooking. These experiences help them tackle the challenges of running and maintaining the lighthouse and boat while providing an unforgettable experience for guests.
“We love waking up every morning out here—it feels special every day,” says Tiffany. “There are beautiful sunsets, lots of wildlife. The pelicans have just come in, and we could watch them for hours!”
They love meeting people, and when they have guests who are really into the experience, it reminds them of how special it is. “We feel like we get to be a part of this long tradition, part of something grand and worthwhile,” Tyler says. “It’s a lot of responsibility and hard work, but at the end of the day it’s incredibly fulfilling.”
When asked what they miss most from their lives before, they simply laugh, “Free time.”
This year, they held a Thanksgiving feast with Tyler’s parents as guests, and they are planning holiday-themed parties in December with carolers and other festivities. They’re kicking off the new year with ten guests and a small two-day wedding event. They have a few nights where all five rooms are still available for your private lighthouse stay.
Once their two-year job as innkeepers is up, Tyler and Tiffany plan on sailing their boat through the Panama Canal to stay with family in New England, and enjoy some R&R before their next adventure. They’re going to keep their options open just in case another once-in-a-lifetime job comes up for them!
For complete information about East Brother Light Station, visit www.ebls.org.
Save the lighthouse
On April 1, 2021, the power cable to East Brother Light Station failed and the island is now without electricity! If you are interested in saving this beautiful spot, consider making a donation to help save East Brother Lightstation.
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2020 issue.