Lighthouses have been more or less the same since ancient times, quietly reminding us we don’t have nature under control. They represent so much: safety, maritime history, old bearded men with impractical ways of storing their lunch …
Everyone’s dreamed of living in a lighthouse. Maybe because the idea of being a lighthouse keeper, battling the elements and saving souls, all while wearing rubber boots, is weirdly romantic. Maybe because we all watched Round the Twist.
The ratio of lighthouses to people makes this career unlikely (except for whoever lives in the privately owned keeper’s cottage of the Split Point/Round the Twist lighthouse). But you can stay in one. (Well, not in one – as Heather Pillion, assistant manager at Cape Otway Lightstation points out. “You wouldn’t want to. It’s just the lantern room!” And a lot of stairs.) Restored keepers’ quarters in lightstations around the country await, and some of the most beautiful are quite close to home.
Cape Otway, Great Ocean Road
Halfway between Apollo Bay and Port Campbell, built on the traditional fishing route of the Gadabanud people, this tower began operating in 1848. It is the oldest surviving lighthouse on mainland Australia. “They called it the Beacon of Hope. It’s a bit romantic,” Pillion says wistfully. “It used to be the first landfall sighting for the boats of immigrants arriving from Europe in the 19th century.”
The “beacon” is now solar powered, but the station feels as desolate and lovely as it must have back then. “It was a very isolated life,” says Pillion. More ships came to grief in the treacherous conditions and bitter winters of the aptly named Shipwreck Coast than anywhere else in the country. Still, between May and October the windswept lighthouse is a whale-watching mecca; it’s right on the migration paths of more than 20 types of whale, including humpbacks, blue whales and orcas. It’s also a key stop-off on the Great Ocean Walk.
The Head Lighthouse Keeper’s cottage, and the Manager’s House, have open fires and can be rented completely or in part. The best bit, Pillion says, is staying on after the day-trippers go home. “It’s magic. You have the whole cape to yourself.” Also, there are koalas everywhere. (Author’s note: everywhere.)
From $150 per night.
(03) 5237 9240
Lady Bay, Warrnambool
These two lighthouses were built in 1859 and then moved stone by stone about a decade later to a better view up on Flagstaff Hill, where they still function as a navigation beacon over Warrnambool Harbour – if you line up their fluorescent lights out at sea, you know you’re in the right place. “The boats rely on them,” says Peter Abbott, manager of tourism services for the Warrnambool Council. “Even now in the modern world of GPS, they are such a symbol; they give that sense of safety.”
Flagstaff Hill was also a garrison, keeping an eye out for the Russians. Volunteers keep the original cannons in working order, which is good to know.
Visitors stay in the Lighthouse Lodge, the original dwelling of the harbour master (updated with wi-fi), and can book individual rooms or the whole house.
From $155 per night.
03 5559 4600
Point Hicks, East Gippsland
“I think we have the most stunning location in Victoria,” says Rob, who’s been a part-time caretaker at the station in Croajingolong National Park for seven years with his daughter, Jayne. “We get the marine park, the [humpback and southern wright] whales scooting past. It’s a biosphere.”
A local story says it is haunted by Kristofferson, a keeper who disappeared in 1947. People claim to hear his boots climbing up the spiral staircase to light the lamp – which is still intact, complete with the lens and clockwork mechanism that once sent a light beaming across the Tasman. “There’ve certainly been some strange goings on”, says Rob. “The wind-up phones in the old cottages are disconnected, but they’ve been known to ring.”
One of the keepers’ cottages is divided into two three-bedroom accommodations, which each sleep eight. The team prefers you bring your own linen if you can, due to limited power and water. There are no TVs and you need to bring all food and drink with you – but there is a wood stove. Just like the old days. “You get some mobile reception,” Rob says, “but not everyone wants to know about that out here.”
The (relatively) nearby Gabo Island Lighthouse is accessible only by sea or air, and has just one cottage. The view from the lighthouse – a striking tower made from pink granite – gives sweeping views of the coast and national park from another perspective.
From $120 per night.
(03) 5156 0432
From $359 per night.
This lightstation might be the most inaccessible of them all, perched on the southernmost tip of Australia’s mainland. The old lighthouse keepers’ cottages here can only be reached on foot: visitors can take the scenic route (23.8 kilometres) or the presumably-not-that-much-less-difficult “inland route” (19.1 kilometres) from the Telegraph Saddle carpark. Those distances are one-way, and you need to carry in all bedding, towels and food. (Spare a thought for the lighthouse keepers and their families back in the late-1800s, who received supplies by ship just once every six months.)
But it’s worth it – even if you find yourself sharing a room (individual and group bookings are made by bed), you don’t have to share much else. It’s basically just you, the bush and Bass Strait. “You don’t see the lighthouse until you’re about two kilometres away,” says Graeme Baxter, district manager for South Gippsland. “That first sight of it standing on the headland, surrounded by wild ocean – it takes your breath away.”
Baxter observes that remoteness of the station makes it a “fantastic piece of habitat” for wombats and wallabies, in addition to local seals and passing whales. His best tip? Make sure you go out after dark and watch the light flashing out over the sea. “It’s a very special place.”
From $137 per night.
1800 350 552
Cape Schanck, Mornington Peninsula
This lighthouse is still fully operational, keeping shipping lanes safe along the peninsula. The station offers guided tours of the tower in action – from where you can see all the way across Port Phillip Bay. “People’s families come back,” says caretaker Kirstie Johnson. “Children and grandchildren of lighthouse keepers.”
One visitor grew up at Tarbat Ness Lighthouse in Scotland.. “His father used to make him climb up and polish the weather vane,” Johnson says incredulously. “As soon as he walked into the tower here, he said ‘All lighthouses smell exactly the same’ – it must be something about the stone, and the ocean.”
The three historic cottages, built over the years for various keepers, are prettily furnished with creature comforts. You bring your own food, but you can heat it in a microwave, if that’s your thing. Positively urbane, as far as lighthouses go.
From $140 per night.
03 5988 6184