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Weekend Escape: Bay Area : Sittin ' On a Rock in the Bay : A working lighthouse offers bed, breakfast and--ignoring foghorn blasts--utter tranquillity

March 26, 1995|LAURA BLY | Bly is special projects editor and writes the Electronic Explorer column for the Travel section

EAST BROTHER ISLAND, Calif. — It was calm, cloudless and flirting with 70 degrees when skipper and innkeeper John Barnett welcomed us aboard his 20-foot cabin cruiser and headed out of San Pablo Yacht Harbor, a funky, backwater marina just north of the Richmond-San Rafael bridge.

Hair and spirits flying, we skittered along in the late afternoon sunshine, past good old boys angling for rockfish and sailors trying to get a jump on the weekend. A few minutes later, as 29-year-old Barnett pointed to the two-story Victorian that straddles little East Brother Island at the northern end of San Francisco Bay, I half expected to spot a couple of swimsuited sunbathers lounging behind its white picket fence.

Foghorn weather? Hardly.

But the four-room bed-and-breakfast inn we were aiming toward that balmy Friday in late October is also a working lighthouse--one of 17 built in and around San Francisco Bay in the mid- to late-19th Century, and the oldest still in operation. Which means its electronic, U.S. Coast Guard-installed foghorn runs 24 hours a day between Oct. 1 and April 1. Every 30 seconds. Right outside our window.

"Most guests do not find it objectionable," notes the "IMPORTANT RULES AND CAVEATS" section of East Brother Light Station's brochure, "but for those disturbed by it, the only mitigation we can provide is earplugs."

We'd packed our own, just in case. But as my husband, John, and I clambered up a steep ladder from the boat to the island's landing dock for a greeting by Barnett's partner and fellow innkeeper, Lore Hogan, we weren't worrying about the foghorn.

Like the three other couples who would share our gingerbread-trimmed quarters for the next 17 hours, we'd come for the novelty of bedding down in a living museum of California maritime history . . . and for the inherent romance of being voluntarily stranded on a three-quarter-acre island with drop-dead views of Marin County's Mt. Tamalpais and a 10-miles-distant San Francisco skyline.

Though it's only about a quarter of a mile from East Brother's landing dock to the nearest shore, the outpost has an unmistakable "Gilligan's Island" feel. Opened in 1874 on the largest of four rocky islands that mark the straits separating San Pablo and San Francisco bays, East Brother Light Station served as a crucial navigational aid for cargo ships headed up the Sacramento River. It was manned continuously, by up to four lightkeepers at a time, until the Coast Guard boarded up the buildings and automated the light and fog signals in 1969.

As Barnett told us over glasses of white Zinfandel, wheat crackers and cubes of Cheddar cheese in the lighthouse's cozy, second-story parlor, East Brother remained forlorn and largely forgotten until 1979, when a group of local preservationists formed a nonprofit corporation to restore the island for public use. Several backbreaking months and innumerable gallons of paint later, East Brother emerged as one of about a dozen lighthouses across the country to be run as a bed-and-breakfast inn.

Today, East Brother Light Station Inc., rents out four queen-bedded rooms Thursday through Sunday nights. The cost of $295 per couple, per night includes wine and hors d'oeuvres, a four-course dinner with wine, a full breakfast, and a boat ride to and from San Pablo Yacht Harbor, and rooms are often booked months in advance. About 40% of the nightly tab is earmarked for maintaining the lighthouse much as it was during its 19th-Century heyday--from the flashing beacon at the top of the dizzyingly steep, spiral staircase to the well-worn journals in the parlor that chronicle the daily lives of the island's "wickies" (lightkeepers).

Cheese devoured and history lesson complete, we followed Barnett outside, past a large white dome that covers East Brother's cistern. It's the island's only source of water and the reason guests are warned before arrival that showers are available "only under special circumstances and by prior arrangements."

*

It was time for the nightly entertainment: a demonstration of East Brother's old diesel-powered diaphone (foghorn), preceded by a Pavlovian chorus of whines and barks from Barnett and Hogan's long-suffering black Labs, Max and Beacon. The blessedly short-lived blast was powerful enough to send Max and Beacon into a tizzy--and make us grateful for its automated replacement.

While Barnett and Hogan readied dinner, we settled into our first-floor quarters. Dubbed West Brother after the large, sea gull-covered rock a few yards to the west, it shared a bathroom with the Two Sisters Room and was comfortably furnished in a style I've come to call "guest-proof Victorian": brass bed, Oriental rug and liberal sprinkling of lace, but none of the delicate lamps or china trinkets on which a swinging, overstuffed duffel bag could wreak havoc. And, we were happy to note, no television or phone marred the alone-on-a-deserted-island ambience.

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