Lighthouses usually are thought of as solitary and remote structures, warning the mariner of dangerous rocks, shoals or reefs, or marking the entry to a river or harbor. Today most light stations have been automated by the Coast Guard, and the proud coastal structures of former years have been replaced by sterile rotating aerobeacons on monopoles. However, by staying overnight in lighthouse inns or hostels, you can recapture the heyday of the manned lighthouse era, when mariners' lives depended on the skill and fortitude of the keeper.
The narrow chambers with slanting walls, the spiraling steps to the top of the tower, the great prism, with its somber rotating light, the panoramic water view -- all evoke the years when keepers, without modern amenities, often lonely and sometimes stranded by storms for weeks at a time, kept their beacons flashing to avert maritime disaster.
Four lighthouses, three in the United States and one in Canada, offer luxury accommodations either in the lighthouse or the keeper's house; four others, operated as youth hostels, offer more Spartan, though no less scenic, lodging.
The Keeper's House, Isle au Haut, Maine
This inn, run by Jeffrey and Judy Burke, is unique on the East Coast. The lighthouse station was built by the Coast Guard in 1907. The Burkes bought it in 1986 and have remodeled it as a living museum where guests can experience the beauty and solitude of an earlier period. Jeffrey Burke explains the reason for their project: "The lighthouse is symbolic of a whole era of American history. . . . The fact that they're threatened to some degree now strikes a chord in most people's hearts."
The Burkes have kept the way of life once led by the keeper intact, and there are no telephones or electric lights. The mail boat from Deer Isle to the Isle au Haut brings guests directly to the inn. Lodging at the Keeper's House includes mail boat passage and all meals. A typical gourmet dinner begins when the fog bell summons guests to dinner at sunset. Candlelight and gas lights provide evening illumination. There are six rooms plus a cottage. The light is still maintained by the Coast Guard.
East Brother Light Station, Point Richard, Calif.
This light station is on one of four rocky islands marking the straits separating San Francisco and San Pablo bays. It is one of the earliest lighthouses on the West Coast (built 1873-'74) and is the oldest of the 17 lighthouses built in and around San Francisco still in operation. In 1969, the light and fog signal were automated and the buildings closed. At this time, East Brother was successfully nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, but the buildings remained boarded up for another decade.
In 1979, East Brother Light Station Inc. was formed as a non-profit organization to preserve the Light Station for perpetual use. The island's facilities have been beautifully restored. East Brother actually is a self-contained environment with living quarters, lighthouse, fog signal, machine shop building, storage building, cistern and pier-tramway. The buildings have a turn-of-the-century appearance, and the facilities, as much as possible, are self-sufficient, relying on natural resources.
There are four guest rooms, furnished with Victorian antiques. All proceeds go toward maintaining the buildings. In addition to the bed-and-breakfast program, activities include picnics, educational tours, classes, seminars, retreats, fishing, wildlife observation and historical research. There is a game table and plenty of reading material.
Big Bay Point Lighthouse, Big Bay, Mich.
This 1896 lighthouse is owned and operated as a bed-and-breakfast inn by Norman (Buck) Gotschall, a former teacher and real estate broker, and his wife Marilyn. The lighthouse contains a 9-foot-high, 1,500-pound Fresnel lens, which is of great interest to specialists.
The Gotschalls have entertained lighthouse aficionados from as far away as France and India; 85 percent of the guests are from out of state. It has a one-mile shoreline on one of the world's largest freshwater lakes, Lake Superior.
Several years ago, the Coast Guard announced it intended to destroy the lighthouse, but a group of preservationists rallied and prevented it from being torn down. Although it is privately owned, there are provisions made for free public visitation for two hours each Sunday. There are 19 waterfalls within 10 miles of Big Bay.
The sense of being divorced from civilization is strong on stormy nights; sometimes the moan of the Marquette Horn, 25 miles away, can be heard every 30 seconds around the clock. The lighthouse is situated on a rocky cliff. The interior has exposed brick; there are six guest rooms and 7 1/2 baths.
West Point Lighthouse, Prince Edward Island, Canada