A Little Light Housekeeping
Sleep in a Rhode Island lighthouse. It's illuminating.

By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 28, 2002

The world is divided into two camps: those who think spending a night in a lighthouse sounds like fun, and those who value room service. I've always stood in the former group, my husband, alas, in the latter. Until recently, that is. After one night on Rose Island, he saw the light.

The lighthouse on tiny Rose Island, in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay, is one of the few authentic lighthouses in America (and the closest to Washington) that routinely accommodate overnight guests. The island and restored lighthouse are open to tourists from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. But when the last ferry departs, the island becomes a private paradise for a sleepover few.

The nonprofit Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation, which rescued the lighthouse from years of vandalism and neglect in 1984, maintains the island without taking a cent of government money. Much of its funding comes from fees it charges those who stay in the house, either overnight or for a full week.

Weekly guests are known as keepers, and the title is far from honorary. Keepers pay as much as $1,600 per couple for the privilege of performing tasks large and small, from stirring the cistern to mowing the grass, from dusting the windowsills to painting the trim -- and, most of all, making sure the windmill generates enough power to keep the light burning through the night. It's hard work and a big responsibility. Sound great? Well, you'll have to wait: Demand is so high for spots on the keeper's calendar that the place is booked through the end of next year. After that, weekly keepers will be chosen through a lottery system.

But it's far easier to get a slot on the overnight schedule; we booked in March for our late-summer, mid-week date.

Our adventure began in Newport, a bustling beach town that's home to the Breakers and other Gilded Age mansions. Arriving in the afternoon, we didn't have time for tours. Instead, we loaded our cooler with groceries, Gatorade and wine and rode the Jamestown/Newport ferry across Narragansett Bay, past historic Fort Adams, to Rose Island, a mile offshore, where a young (okay, everybody seems young to me these days) guide met us at the dock with a rustic cart to haul our luggage up a path lined with wild roses to the lighthouse.

Her quick tour briefed us on the island's history (it was used for military purposes from the Revolutionary War through World War II and held explosives during both world wars; the lighthouse sits on the site of Fort Hamilton, built from 1798 to 1800) and the rules governing our stay. Most of the land, she told us, is off-limits to humans in the summer, when it's a sanctuary for nesting birds -- most audibly sea gulls.

We'd barely gotten settled in the overnight guests' half of the house (on which the light tower is built) when the guide took the last boat out. At this moment, tourists are officially unwelcome, and we were alone on our island.

Except, of course, for the keepers. As your only companions, your sole contact with the rest of the world and the folks who know the ropes well enough to help solve any problem that might arise, the keepers can pretty much make or break your stay. We lucked out: Rich and Jan, from outside Chicago, were just what you'd want in a pair of keepers: welcoming but not intrusive, confident (by the time we arrived, anyway) in their abilities to keep the place from sliding into the ocean during their tenure.

Rich and Jan had shopped for the week and were down to eating hot dogs cooked on the foundation's outdoor grill for dinner. Some ambitious keepers dine on mussels collected from the beach, steamed with herbs from the lighthouse garden and served with a salad also culled from the fertile patch. We had a bucket of takeout chicken, fruit salad and rolls, which we ate while lounging in white Adirondack chairs, watching boats sail in the bay.

After dinner, Rich invited our kids to help set some lobster traps, baiting one with a smelly old fish and the other with pungent squid. Jan asked them to help bring in the flag, showing them how to unhitch the rope to lower the banner and fold it with respect.

Surrounding the lighthouse is a plot of green grass with a hill perfect for running down with gleeful abandon. The beaches are strewn with shells to collect (next time we'll bring beach shoes, not just flip-flops) and orange starfish to hold in your hands. There's an abandoned barracks with a railroad track running alongside, a weather station where the keeper takes readings several times each day, a kayak to paddle, rocks to climb, sea gulls to mimic in the summer (and seals in the winter). And then there's the ladder-climb to the light tower, where you can stand next to the beacon while it does its thing and enjoy a 360-degree view of the bay.

Perhaps the best part, for parents and children alike, was that we felt comfortable letting our 8-year-old Sophie and 5-year-old Charlie run free. We hadn't been there five minutes before the kids asked, "Can we come here every year?" That sentiment had escalated within hours: "I wish we lived here." Me, too.

As the sun set over the water, the children drew pictures on rocks they'd found on the beach while the grown-ups sipped wine, our feet propped on the stone retaining wall surrounding the lighthouse. Come 10 p.m., the children asked to go to bed, hoping for a glimpse of the ghost of Christina Curtis, the original keeper's wife, who is rumored to bake sugar cookies while guests are sleeping. We put the kids into sleeping bags on the upstairs bunk beds and went back out for more wine under the stars, the beacon atop the lighthouse -- our lighthouse -- blinking every six seconds.

Not that it really needs to blink these days. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1970 when the nearby Newport Bridge was completed, its bright lights providing plenty of navigational guidance.

The wine depleted, it was time for a pit stop before bed. There's no fresh water on the island, other than the rainwater that's collected in the cistern, so conservation is key. If you want a shower, you fill a plastic bag with cistern water and hang it in the outdoor stall; the flow is strong enough to rinse the salt from your skin.

And don't think you can get away with flushing whenever you use the toilet: Each time you go, you move one shell along a piece of twine strung on the wall. Not until you move the third shell is it time to flush, and then only after you pump the tank full enough to do the job.

The night we were there, another couple was expected but never showed, so we had the overnight-guest half of the house to ourselves. I can't say it was the best night's sleep I've ever had: The gulls never shut up, and man, are they loud. But lying in our tall bed, in the room where the Curtises and, later, hundreds of temporary keepers of this lighthouse had rested, I felt connected to a rare tradition.

We joined in all the rituals: We inscribed our wine cork and added it to the rows of corks lining the kitchen pantry. The kids autographed a flat stone to place with hundreds of other signed stones lining the foundation and decorated a seashell for the bunkroom. My husband removed the potted Christmas cactus that conceals the single gas burner from tourists and percolated a pot of coffee, which we drank -- where else? -- sitting in our bay-view chairs.

As mere overnighters, we had as our only real directive leaving the place as clean as it was when we got there, which meant washing our dishes, changing the sheets and putting the cactus back in place. We raised the dock flag to hail the ferry and said goodbye to our new friends, Rich and Jan.

"Can we come again next year?"

This time, it was my husband asking.

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