Ever consider staying overnight in a lighthouse?
By Kathy Shiels Tully
Photography by Dan Cutrona
Three on the Cape—Race Point, Wings Neck, and the Lighthouse Inn—open their doors to a unique and relaxing adventure.
“Do you sleep standing up?” People usually ask this question, their faces puzzled, when I tell them my family and I have slept in a lighthouse.
It’s not the actual lighthouse tower where you spend the night, I explain, but inside the keeper’s house, where he (almost all lighthouse keepers were men) and his family lived. The living quarters either attached to the lighthouse or sat mere steps away from the tower to ensure the light stay lit 24/7 to guide mariners in pre-GPS days.
Vacationing at lighthouses is not common. Of the 14 lighthouses dotting the Cape’s coastline, three open their doors to overnight stays. This marvelous experience draws people from throughout New England, the world, and yes, even the Cape. Each lighthouse stay is distinct, but the reasons people go are the same: off-the-beaten path locations, the beach’s proximity, the intertwining of history and nature, stunning sunsets and imagined “ownership” of the beach after the day-trippers depart.
WINGS NECK, POCASSET
“The lighthouse found me,” says Kelly Blanchett of Attleboro. After losing her husband in her 40s, she was looking for a place to heal with her two young daughters. Suddenly, she remembered Wings Neck. Blanchett and her husband used to sail past it while vacationing nearby.
Other guests find it online, like Stephen Kubinec, a self-described lighthouse aficionado from Milford, Conn. He and his wife, Joan, visited one weekend in October 2010. “It rained the entire time, but we got hooked.” They’ve returned every summer since, bringing their daughters and grandkids.
From London, Nicholas “Nicky” Minter-Green and his wife, Jaime, “fell in love” with Wings Neck, discovering it on Airbnb while planning a four-month sabbatical. Even though the couple and their two young daughters had never visited a lighthouse before, they booked three weeks.
“People are usually searching for a Cape vacation rental, but this is not typical,” says Christina Stevens of Cambridge. Her grandparents, Frank and Irene Flanagan, bought the 1849 lighthouse property from the government in 1947. The property is rentable year-round after major renovations in 2003, which included new plumbing, electric and extra insulation, making it toasty warm. “It’s great to go back in time,” says Stevens, “but nice to function with modern amenities.”
A stunning, round-stone fireplace anchors the living room. The cottage’s nautical colors—blues, red, sandy-beige, gray and seagrass green—shift throughout the day as changing light pours in from water views of the Cape Cod Canal and Buzzards Bay. A private beach is mere footsteps away. From the back porch, guests watch sailboat races and ocean liners heading into Boston. At night, there’s amazing stargazing.
Though no longer operational, the lighthouse can be accessed by through an attached breezeway. Guests must bring sheets, towels and food, but Stevens supplies WiFi, TV, DVDs, board games and toys and bikes to borrow.
“Mostly, you just sit around and talk,” says Blanchett, who brings her now-grown daughters and grandkids. “You read, sip wine, cook steaks, walk the beach, fish and kayak.”
“It’s a very special place,” says Minter-Green of London. “But I don’t want it to get
RACE POINT, PROVINCETOWN
A two-mile drive through the dunes sets the tone for your visit to the Cape’s northern tip, says Tom Miller, who visits from Pennsylvania. Amazed by his first visit in 1998, Miller kept returning, bringing more family and friends, and eventually becoming a volunteer keeper for the past 16 years. “No shoes are needed the whole time,” he explains, “except to go into the lighthouse.”
One of many volunteers with the Cape Cod Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, Miller acts as a resource for the guests and also helps maintain the still-operational light, the Keeper’s House, and the Whistle House properties. Though it is open to the public, access to Race Point Beachand the lighthouse requires 4-wheel drive and overland permits from National Park Services. If needed, volunteer keepers provide rides for guests upon arrival and departure.
Like a B&B, common areas such as the kitchen, living room and bathrooms are shared. Guests must bring their own food, sheets, towels and drinking water. The 1950s-era house sleeps 10 in three, color-coded bedrooms upstairs, while the keeper’s family stays in the first-floor bedroom. A recent renovation included adding a windmill and solar panels, making the historic property 100 percent off-the-grid.
Communal living in a remote location isn’t for everyone. “But the lighthouse turns everyone in it into family,” says Miller. “People end up hanging out together, even if they’ve met for the first time—sharing dinner, playing games like charades or cards or making a bonfire on the beach. To me, this is what Cape Cod is all about—being immersed in sand dunes, the ocean, fishing.” It’s not usual to spot seals and whales—minke, finbacks, right whales and humpbacks.
Miller also gives tours of the lighthouse, which is open to the public. “They see people around the keeper’s house and ask, ‘You can stay here?’”
LIGHTHOUSE INN, WEST DENNIS
Overlooking a long strip of Nantucket Sound, the West Dennis Light in the Lighthouse Inn is the only privately owned, privately maintained working lighthouse in the country.
In its 78th season, Greg Stone and his wife, Pat, are the third-generation of the Stone family running the historic property, which draws guests from as far as Germany and the U.K. “For international guests, this is more representative of a true New England experience versus a motel or big-name hotel,” says Pat. “Lighthouses are historic and an iconic image of Cape Cod.”
The lighthouse was first lit in 1855 as Bass River Light. Guests can stay in the keeper’s original tiny, three-bedroom house, which encases the light. One keeper’s family included nine children, says Pat. Two larger bedrooms were later added.
Referred to as the “main” house, the inn mixes a genteel past with modern amenities, like TV and air conditioning. In addition, there’s a heated outdoor pool, private beach and restaurant. The 1940s-style decor is reminiscent of when the rooms were first used as an inn. Everything’s here. If not, the staff is willing to help you find it.
It’s like a home away from home for Ronnie Polanski and her husband, Larry, from Greenwich, Conn. They first came 20 years ago with their then four-year-old son, staying in a room on the first floor. Returning each of the next 10 years, they rented a cottage for more space. But with their son now grown, Ronnie, a physical education teacher, stays for one week herself in the main house, in a room located near the stairs to the lamp room.
“I’ll call my husband and say, ‘Guess where I am now? Drinking coffee and looking out onto Nantucket Sound,’ ” as she sits on the small deck outside her room. “I love the quiet of the mornings.” Mid-August, the couple return together to the same room where, she says, “We have the best seats to watch the Dennis Day fireworks.”
Which Lighthouse is Right For You?
For inn-style service and amenities:
Sprawling inn is wrapped around original keeper’s three-bedroom house and still-operational light.
Amenities include: Private beach, heated pool, full restaurant. Easy access to town and Cape.
Rents Memorial Day to Columbus Day, 68 rooms total, including 2- and 3-bedroom cottages
For B&B ambience:
Race Point Lighthouse
100 percent off-the-grid, with solar and wind power. Operating lighthouse, no foghorn. Three bedrooms, sleeps 10 upstairs; volunteer keeper’s family sleeps on first floor. Volunteer-driven ride, upon arrival and departure from P’town.
Rents May through November; BYO sheets, towels, food and drinking water
Separate whistle house, rents May through October; sleeps eight. Requires oversand permits from National Park Service
For the ultimate beach house experience:
Wings Neck Lighthouse
Built in 1849, renovated in 2003. Lighthouse, not operational, accessible from house. Rents year-round; three bedrooms, plus queen sleeper couch, sleeps up to eight. Drive right up; BYO towels, sheets and food. Rustic, summer-seasonal, Driftwood Cottage, is next door.
Sleeps nine, loft-style