Sam and Barbara Dawson use binoculars to get close-up views of whales and seals as they swim just offshore. Dick and Mary Beatty prefer to get up close to schools of colorful fish while they snorkel and dive. For Tom and Jean Coss, the big thrill is hanging out with a friendly ghost named Maggie.
As disparate as these experiences may seem, they share a common trait. The three couples spend the night in a lighthouse that was built long ago to help ships avoid dangerous hazards and guide them safely through ports.
Various forms of ship’s warning lights were first used thousands of years ago. Some geologists believe that a sunken platform along the Indian coast, which they date to around 2000 BC, supported a fire to mark the entrance to a harbour. A similar structure indicated the port of Piraeus in Athens in the 5th century BC.
Given their variety and beauty, lighthouses serve as magnets for people to see, enjoy, climb – and in some cases to sleep on. in the stories they have to tell and enjoy the activities that are available.
The lighthouses offer a combination of history, education and just plain fun. Some people are fascinated by the technology used to build lighthouses in their precarious environment and to build the lenses that send their beams of light for many miles.
Those who spend one or more nights at a flagship getaway can delve into its past, leave behind the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and often enjoy an inviting list of other activities.
Race Point Lighthouse in Massachusetts, where the Dawsons watched whales and seals, is one of many sites that offer opportunities to commune with Mother Nature’s creatures. Eagles sometimes fly near the Little River Lighthouse in Rockland, Maine.
Perched on an island reachable by a short boat ride, it also offers excellent stargazing in the inky black sky unmarred by light pollution.
The Saugerties Lighthouse on the Hudson River in New York State is popular with birdwatchers who have recorded nearly 200 species sighted there. They include some with colorful names such as ring-billed gull, black-capped chickadee, and crested chickadee.
The fish tank the Beattys swam with was under a structure inspired by oil rigs. The lighthouse was built off North Carolina to warn ships of the Frying Pan Shoals, which caused a large number of shipwrecks. Guests who stay in the tower also enjoy world-class fishing and breathtaking views of the Milky Way. Getting there is part of the adventure as it is only accessible by a long boat ride or helicopter flight.
Two historic lighthouses share Daufuskie Island off the coast of South Carolina. Haig Point Lighthouse was built in 1873 and Bloody Point Lighthouse 10 years later. Haig Point Tower is said to be inhabited by the daughter of the first lighthouse keeper, Maggie, who was heartbroken over a lost love.
Speaking of romance, the Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn on Lake Superior in Michigan was selected by American Historic Inns as one of America’s 10 Most Romantic Inns. It has also been highly rated for serving exceptional cuisine. Its Victorian charm is expressed in architectural and decorative touches, with amenities such as a fireplace, air conditioning and whirlpool baths.
Some flagship accommodations act as mini-museums that tell their story and that of the industry. Brown’s Point Lighthouse, an art deco structure in Washington State, has an interactive museum where guests can ring the original 1903 fog bell. Besides its birdwatching reputation, Saugerties Lighthouse houses a small museum.
The red brick tower of the Two Harbors Lighthouse in Minnesota’s Lake District houses historical exhibits. A popular element in the collections is the Fresnel lens, a composite glass that makes light beams visible from great distances. Developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel in 1822, it has been called “the invention that saved a million ships”.
Those who prefer to do rather than just see have the opportunity to participate in the chores of certain lighthouses. The duties of tenants at Brown’s Point in Tacoma, Wash. include raising the flag, keeping a journal and opening the facility to day visitors. At Rose Island Lighthouse in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, guests who fulfill the role of lighthouse keeper perform the many tasks necessary to keep the facility in good working order.
This introduction includes several of the many lighthouses across the United States that welcome guests for one night or more. The list changes occasionally as facilities are modified or closed for repair, decommissioned or become unavailable, so it’s important to check the latest information before travelling.
When you go
The United States Lighthouse Society (www.uslhs.org) has a catalog of lighthouses located throughout the country. another website, www.lighthousefriends.comoffers a state-by-state list of lighthouses and a map showing which ones offer overnight accommodation.