Taking a shine to a little bit of history off the coast of Rhode Island

By Renée Bacher
January 07, 2015
Credit: Getty Images

Watching my husband venture into nesting territory, I experience a Hitchcockian tingle. We've been warned about the birds by Charlotte Johnson, executive director of the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation, who picked us up at Newport in a lobster boat and dropped us on this 16-acre island so that we could spend the weekend in a 19th-century lighthouse. She suggested that we stay away from the more remote egg-strewn beaches or—if curiosity got the better of us—that we take hard hats.

"Hard hats?" Of course, Ed has forgotten.

It's only for a couple of weeks in May that the black-back gulls are temperamental, but Charlotte has spoken words as dire as dive-bomb, whiplash, and stitches. She is a true naturalist, one of those people who revel in the shape of a blueberry, the buffed texture of sea glass.

The wind whips across Narragansett Bay, tipping kayaks and clanging buoy bells, as my three-year-old daughter and I stand in the tower, peering down at Ed on the beach below. I say a little prayer for Ed's head and distract myself by gazing at the Rhode Island coast. Turning 360 degrees, I see Newport Bridge straddling the bay; the lawn of Hammersmith Farm, where John F. Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier; the shoreline of Jamestown; and the cobblestone streets of Newport. It wasn't until recently that non-seafaring folk could climb these stairs and take in this extraordinary view.

A two-story white cottage, the Rose Island Lighthouse was built in 1869 and first beamed its fixed red light a year later. In the late 18th century the British and French took turns occupying this strategic eastern passage to Narragansett Bay, and during World War I the island was used for storing explosives. But nature has been doing its best to blend the vestiges of war into Rose Island's landscape. Herring gulls perch on the crumbling barracks. Tangles of Rosa rugosa twist about the metal framework, upholstering it in pink pom-poms. And from mid-October to mid-April, seals bask on anything concrete that juts into the water.

The Coast Guard deemed the lighthouse obsolete and deactivated it after the completion of Newport Bridge in 1971 (the bridge's red light is navigationally superior). For 13 years this salty old queen of the sea stood vacant, the ocean air taking its toll. The wrecking ball seemed inevitable, but then enthusiastic locals formed the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation and raised more than a third of the 1.2 million dollars needed to restore the landmark.

Today an overnight visit to the lighthouse is comparable to a stay at a spruced-up Girl Scout camp—no musty cots or outhouses, but adventures galore and plenty of chores. Guests are asked to record the weather, add chlorine to the rainwater in the cistern, and check the windmill-powered generator to see how much electricity is available.

There are two distinct choices in accommodations, and we spent a night in each, finding them about a century apart in style and convenience. The modernized keepers' quarters upstairs include a large bedroom with a Scandinavian-style queen-size bed, a kitchenette, and a living/dining area with a sofa bed. Guests come for a week and agree to do one hour of heavy-duty chores daily.

Staying downstairs will give you a taste of how old-time lighthouse keepers lived. The two bedrooms have brass beds with patchwork quilts. There's a player piano in the living room, and the kitchen cupboards are filled with china used by the original inhabitants. Wall sconces hold candles, a wooden coffee grinder sits on the counter, and against one wall is a Wehrle coal stove. Romantic, yes; but bear in mind that here one must pump the toilet, cook on a hot plate, and bathe using a pitcher and basin.

Furthermore, there aren't any guest services. You're expected to bring your own food, make your own bed, and tidy the bathroom. Consequently, the place is only as clean as the previous visitors have left it (which on our stay was pretty clean). Cooking facilities downstairs are limited, so we brought a picnic dinner from Kathleen's Catering in Newport for the night we stayed there. The upstairs kitchen, however, was fine for preparing a seafood pasta feast. We stopped at the supermarket in Newport for our shellfish, but in the summer you can gather fresh mussels, surf-cast for bluefish, or try your luck with the lobster pots right in front of the lighthouse.

Since the wind was cold and violent and the birds were downright grouchy, we spent a good deal of time inside the lighthouse reading, surveying the landscape through binoculars, and playing board games. We gathered catnip and seashells from the safety of the nearby beach, and Charlotte ferried us one afternoon into Newport, where we had brunch and browsed the antiques shops.

as it turns out, ed survived his hard-hatless walk among the birds without a peck. A lone oystercatcher peeping a bon voyage followed our boat out as Charlotte transported us back to Newport. "I don't want anyone to take our cottage away," pleaded our daughter, who had collected more tiny golden periwinkles than her small hands could hold. "Don't worry, honey," my husband reassured her as Rose Island receded in the distance. "I bet this little lighthouse will be here forever."

Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation Box 1419, Newport, RI 02840-0997; 401/847-4242. Downstairs double rooms $110‚$140 per night; upstairs quarters (sleep four) $400‚$800 per week. Transportation to the mainland is erratic, so plan on staying put once you are there. That means bringing your own food. You can also pick up a picnic basket with dinner and continental breakfast at Kathleen's Catering for about $50 (212 Broadway, Newport; 401/849-9869).

Renée Bacher writes for the New York Times and Redbook.