Words by Sandy Guy
Lighthouses have helped navigators find their way since the third century BCE, when Egypt’s Lighthouse of Alexandria, also known as the Pharos of Alexandria, first lit up the night sky. For centuries light stations around the world were secluded outposts manned by lightkeepers and their families, but today many historic beacons have been turned into luxury holiday getaways in some of the most spectacular oceanside destinations imaginable.
With some destinations, getting there is part of the appeal. My partner and I felt that way as we boarded a ferry at Roonagh Pier, 230 kilometres north west of Dublin, for the 20-minute crossing to Clare Island and its legendary lighthouse.
The sun was shining across emerald green hills and golden beaches as the ferry pulled into the island’s small harbour, called The Quay, dominated by an ancient stone tower. The tower was the onetime home of 16th century pirate queen Grace O’Malley we’re told as the ferry chugs into port. Situated off the coast of County Mayo, today the 16 square kilometre island
is home to around 140 people, most of them still O’Malleys.
We drive along windy gravel roads in the island’s only taxi (you can’t bring cars onto the island) to the northernmost tip, where Clare Island Lighthouse soars 118 metres above the Atlantic with incredible views across the ocean – there is nothing between here and Canada.
Built from 1806, the lighthouse guarded the entrance to Clew Bay and its 365 islands, of which Clare Island is the largest, until it was decommissioned in 1965. Goesta Fischer, a German pathologist, bought the run-down light station in 2008 and set about reroofing, rewiring and replastering, while his business partner, interior designer Roie McCann, created warm, light-filled interiors.
“The property was in pretty bad shape when we took it over. Some of the ceilings had collapsed,” says McCann. “Restoring Clare Island Lighthouse was a labour of love.”
After five years of careful restoration, the heritage-listed building now features luxury accommodation with incredible views. Plunging sea cliffs are alive with seabirds and vivid green pastures criss-cross a web of ancient stone walls.
Ireland’s west coast is known for ferocious storms, with gales up to 125 kilometres per hour, and the lighthouse cops the worst of it, with monsoon-like rains that McCann describes as horizontal lashing its metre-thick walls.
“It’s awe-inspiring to witness extreme weather at this isolated location,” she says as she serves coffee and fresh-from-the-oven scones. “On calm days it’s altogether different; the ocean sparkles like sapphires, the blue sky is endless. It’s simply magical.” The lighthouse accommodation features six individually designed rooms, some in the main building and some in outbuildings, attracting everyone from rock stars to business tycoons.
McCann shows us around the public areas, including a lounge with overstuffed sofas and an open fire, formal dining room-cum-library, and stylish breakfast room.
Our room, Cliff Corner, is a cottage-like building right on the edge of a precipitous cliff – fortunately there’s a broad stone wall between us and the sheer drop to the churning ocean 100 metres below. Black guillemots, storm petrels and kittiwakes wheel across majestic cliffs as we take in the ocean views from our private grassed terrace. Here, you feel as though you’re standing on the edge of the world. Our room has a deeply comfortable bed dressed in quality linens and is made snug by a peat-burning stove, cocooning us from winds whipping across the cliff.
On a tour we’re told about the history of the islanders who clung tenaciously to life on this storm-battered yet captivating island. A megalithic tomb suggests a settled farming community about 5,500 years ago.
We pull into The Quay which, aside from Grace O’Malley’s tower, has a scattering of houses, the Sailor’s Bar – a welcoming pub with dazzling views across Clew Bay to the holy mountain Croagh Patrick on the mainland – and equally popular community centre, which also has a bar where Guinness is king. A few kilometres east, past fields where black-faced sheep graze, is the village of Kill, home to O’Malley’s store – Clare Island’s answer to Aldi, laughs our driver Humphry – and a small abbey built in the 14th century.
The abbey is adorned with rare medieval paintings recognised as among the most important in Ireland. Beneath the paintings is a canopy tomb believed to be the burial place of Grace O’Malley. Lovers of nature, history and hiking can’t beat this magical island of turquoise-coloured bays, sandy beaches, silent moorlands, Bronze Age mounds, kilometres of hiking trails and, as we found cosied up at Cliff Corner, serenity.
Clare Island is 7.5 kilometres from Roonagh Pier, north-west of Dublin.Rates start at AU$400 per person per night (minimum two-night stay), which includes transfers, accommodation, breakfast and dinner.
From Cagliari, the vibrant and ancient capital of the Italian island province of Sardinia, it takes about an hour to get to Chia, a sleepy resort town famous for its aquamarine waters and peach-coloured sands. Chia gives its name to a series of spectacular bays in Sardinia’s south, from the ruins of the ancient Phoenician site of Bithia to Capo Spartivento, situated at Sardinia’s southernmost point. Perched on a steep bluff on an isolated, sun-baked promontory 15 minutes from Chia is Faro Capo Spartivento, a terracotta-coloured lighthouse built by the Italian Navy from 1854.
While the lighthouse still illuminates the way for mariners, it now also doubles as five-star accommodation. The two-storey beacon, boasting panoramic views of the Mediterranean, is situated in a completely wild and unpolluted area, where there are no nearby buildings. The lighthouse features six suites with simple, yet stunning interiors that include Murano chandeliers and deep baths. Some suites overlook the ocean while others enjoy views of the verdant Sardinian hills. There’s also a library, alfresco dining area, infinity pool that seems to fall into the deep blue Mediterranean, and a wide terrace that’s perfect for enjoying a chilled wine.
An onsite chef spoils a maximum of 12 guests with classic Sardinian cuisine that may include spaghetti with sea urchins, lamb with artichokes, octopus salad, and seadas, fritters filled with fresh cheese and honey.
Faro Capo Spartivento is 57-kilometres south-west of Cagliari International Airport. Doubles from AU$640 per night, including breakfast and transfers
When Belle Tout Lighthouse was built in 1832, high on a chalk cliff 106 metres above the churning English Channel, it was more than 30 metres from the almost vertical cliff face.
After being decommissioned in 1902 the lighthouse changed hands several times until it was purchased by the BBC in 1986, who used it in the production of the television series of Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil. By 1998 erosion meant the three-storey lighthouse lay a mere nine metres from the edge of the cliff and it was feared the 600 tonne granite structure would tumble into the ocean.
A year later the lighthouse was perilously close to the eroding cliff when the South Downs Lighthouse Trust launched a roughly AU$440,000 rescue package to save the unique building, which was subsequently pushed back 17 metres from the edge of the crumbling cliff.
Following extensive renovations, Belle Tout opened to the public in 2010 and now features six ensuite bedrooms including themed rooms such as Old England and the Captain’s Cabin, and a guest lounge in the upper level called the Lantern Room, with wonderful views of the sea and rolling green hills of the glorious South Downs National Park. It’s a place of verdant pastures, ancient woodlands, river valleys, fine old pubs and old-world villages.
Belle Tout Lighthouse is 120 kilometres south of London. Rates from AU$285 per double per night, including breakfast (minimum two-night stay).
Built on a jagged cliff overlooking the stormy confluence of the Southern Ocean and Bass Strait in 1848, Cape Otway Lighthouse is the oldest surviving beacon of its type in Australia. Located 90 metres above the ocean, the lighthouse was constructed on this isolated stretch of coast as an essential aid to navigation – more than 80 shipwrecks were recorded along a 130 kilometre stretch of coast between Port Fairy and Cape Otway alone.
While the ocean off the cape can be relatively tame during the warmer months, it’s exhilarating to experience this secluded slice of coastline off-season, when winds up to 130 kilometres an hour tear across the cliffs and colossal waves crash onto the saw-like rocks of Otway Reef, two kilometres offshore.
When tempests rage, the snug interior of the lightstation buildings (Lighthouse Lodge which sleeps up to 13; Lightkeeper’s Cottage which sleeps eight; and the very romantic Light Station Studio for two) couldn’t be more alluring. Among Australia’s most upscale lighthouse accommodation, Cape Otway features comfortable lounges, modern chef’s kitchen where you can cook up a storm, spacious dining rooms and open fireplaces.
Rambling around the light-station grounds when the gates have closed for the night and we have the place to ourselves, we spot koalas, wallabies and echidnas. From June to September, southern right, pilot and killer whales are also regularly seen passing the cape.
Cape Otway light station is 230 kilometres south-west of Melbourne. Studio from AU$330 per double per night, including breakfast; Lightkeeper’s Cottage from AU$280 per double.
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