By Kirsti Scott
The life of a lighthouse keeper is mostly something from days gone by, but thanks to lighthouses opening their doors to guests, you can get a taste of what life was like...but with the modern amenities.
Visiting a lighthouse is a great way to spend time gazing out to sea and imagining the ships going by. Spending a night…or a week…at a lighthouse gives you a chance to immerse yourself in the life and rhythms of those who maintained these guardians of the shores.
Lighthouses have helped to keep ships from crashing into shores and foundering in shallow waters for centuries. Their lights, bells, and horns serve to help maritime pilots navigate seas and inland waterways safely. The earliest known lighthouse, the Pharos of Alexandria, was built in Egypt in the 3rd century B.C. and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Lighthouse keepers tended lighthouses, keeping the equipment in order, lighting the flames or lights, operating the fog horn or bells, and keeping things, well, shipshape.
At one time, there were nearly a thousand lighthouses operating in the U.S. alone. Today, the use of electronic navigational systems and the cost of maintaining lighthouses has removed the need for many beacons that formerly marked dangers along the shore. Additionally, automation of regular tasks has eliminated the need for a lighthouse keeper to live full-time at the site of the building. Many lighthouses are now non-operational, and the lighthouse keeper homes stand empty.
Fortunately, many of these lighthouses and keeper homes are finding a new life as hotels and bed and breakfasts. Instead of staying in an inn in town near a lighthouse, you can book a room in the lighthouse or the keeper’s home. Accommodations range from deluxe rooms with thousand-count sheets and Wi-Fi, to hostels with bunk rooms and a shared kitchen.
Belle Tout Lighthouse, East Sussex, England
Built in 1832, this beautifully restored lighthouse has 360-degree views of the English Channel and the surrounding countryside, including the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs, a long stretch of undeveloped coastline. Pick from six rooms and get ready for a delicious breakfast before you head out to explore the coast. Don’t miss the lantern room with its view, compass rose stained glass, and a telescope to watch for passing ships. www.belletout.co.uk
East Brother Light Station, Richmond, California
A quick boat ride brings you to this romantic 1874 lighthouse, which sits on an island in San Francisco Bay. Victorian furnishings, the sound of the antique fog horn, and gourmet multi-course dinner and breakfast will have you feeling like you’ve stepped back in time. www.ebls.org
Rose Island Lighthouse, Newport, Rhode Island
Sail away to this 1868 beacon, which sits a mile offshore in Narragansett Bay and is accessible only by boat. You’ll work as the “keeper” of this working lighthouse. Five rooms to choose from, but bring your own food and drinks for your getaway! www.roseisland.org
Saugerties Lighthouse, Saugerties, New York
Relax in this 1869 lighthouse that sits in the Hudson River. Accessible only via a half-mile trail at low tide, this brownstone has two rooms heated by a coal stove in winter and cooled by river breezes in summer. www.saugertieslighthouse.com
Corsewall Lighthouse Hotel, Stranraer, Scotland
Designed and built by the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, you can imagine pirate ships sailing by this 1817 lighthouse overlooking the North Channel of the Irish Sea. Today, you’re more likely to see porpoises playing in the waves and gannets diving for fish. This hotel with 11 suites and rooms is a beautiful spot to explore the outdoors. Don’t skip the five-course table d’hôte dinner and full Scottish breakfast so you have energy for exploring seaside towns, pony trekking, bird watching, or tasting whisky at the local distillery. www.lighthousehotel.co.uk
Two Harbors Light Station, Two Harbors, Minnesota
The oldest continuously operating lighthouse in Minnesota is now home to a four-room B&B with beautiful views of Lake Superior, the jetty, and harbor. Go to sleep to the sound of gentle waves and start your day with a hearty breakfast. www.lighthousebb.org
The Lighthouse on Cape d’Or, Nova Scotia, Canada
The lighthouse keeper’s house, perched on the cliffs overlooking the Bay of Fundy, is the perfect place to disconnect and enjoy this rugged piece of wilderness. Four hotel rooms and a superb restaurant, drinks and a bonfire on clear evenings, stunning sunrises and sunsets, and the world famous tides on the beaches below make this a great getaway. www.capedor.ca
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Pescadero, California
The tallest lighthouse in America sits on a cliff on the central California coast and welcomes guests in hostel-style cottages nestled at its base. Relax in the hot tub, watch the pelicans fly by, explore tide pools teeming with wildlife, and check out the small museum. www.norcalhostels.org/pigeon
If you reserve a stay at a lighthouse today, you probably won’t be asked to polish the lens, a weekly task Fanny May Salter performed at Turkey Point Light in Maryland. Fanny was the only woman lighthouse keeper in the U.S. Coast Guard service. She lit the light and rang the fog bell with her husband—and then alone after he died—for a total of 45 years.
Jeremy D’Entremont of New England Lighthouse Tours has compiled a great list of lighthouses worldwide where you can stay overnight. Check it out, and add any that he’s missing, at bit.ly/lighthousestay.
This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine November/December 2018 issue.