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British Isles

To the LIGHTHOUSES

Succumbing to the romance of the shoreline beacons--some with bed and breakfast

May 25, 1997|ALAN JABEZ | Jabez is a London-based freelance writer

ISLAND OF SKYE, Scotland — The woman behind the counter at a local shop warned that I still had a long hike ahead before I reached the lighthouse. "You'll have to leave your car at the end of the road and walk from there," she said.

More than half an hour later, having descended a punishingly steep row of steps built into the hillside, I was rewarded with my first glimpse of Neist Point Lighthouse: a bright white tower standing atop a small cluster of buildings on the edge of a sheer cliff, the roaring sea just yards beyond.

It had taken two hours by land and by bridge to drive from the Scottish mainland to this lighthouse on the western edge of the Island of Skye. It was well worth the effort. Around me were sea, sky, rocks and grassland, creating what may well be one of the most dramatic vistas in Britain.

Neist Point is one of an increasing number of old lighthouses that have been converted into vacation accommodations. After visiting Neist Point, which I first learned of in a Scottish tourist brochure, I became intrigued by the notion of lighthouses as lodgings and set off to find a few. I soon learned that there is no guidebook or tourist office to turn to. So I made it my mission last summer to leave my London home and tour the very edges of the rugged British coastline to find them.

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Neist Point was built in 1909 to guide ships around the Little Minch strait that separates the Island of Skye from the Outer Hebrides islands along Scotland's northwestern coast. It was staffed by professional keepers until 1987, when it became fully automated.

Since then, as with many of Britain's other lighthouses, the collection of buildings surrounding (but not including) the tower have been purchased by a private individual. These structures are owned by Roy Stoten, a big, burly Englishman who bought them about four years ago.

As Stoten and I climbed the narrow steps of the tower into the lamp room, where the working lighthouse's giant beacon is contained, he told me the story of buying the surrounding buildings. In 1993, he was sitting in a cafe in Fort William, Scotland, reading the paper, when he saw an ad for the lighthouse. Almost immediately he hopped into his van and made the three-hour drive west to offer his bid in person. "I was excited about the prospect of living on the very edge of the country," he said.

A property developer by profession, Stoten has spent most of his time since then renovating the buildings into three cottages: one a bed and breakfast, rented on a per-night basis, the others self-catering cottages with kitchens, rented a week at a time.

All the cottages are comfortably furnished with color TVs, microwave ovens and modern showers, and all have views from the windows that are simply sensational. To protect guests from the intensity of the lighthouse beacon, there are thick, heavy curtains cloaking each window.

Such solitude does have its drawbacks. The nearest shop is four miles away, and the nearest town of any size is 35 miles away. And with such a steep access path, you would never be tempted to go out for a pint in the evening--even if there were a local pub. But I spent an excellent evening walking along the cliffs, with the silhouette of the Outer Hebrides clear against the setting sun.

After leaving Neist Point, I drove back down the west coast and headed for Corsewall Lighthouse, a few miles from Stranraer in southwestern Scotland. In the early 1990s, owner Jim Nielson spent nearly two years transforming the old lighthouse into a small luxury hotel. Nielson masterminded the work, which involved totally gutting the buildings and scouring Scotland for the various artifacts he has displayed within. Model ships in bottles are everywhere, and even the carpeting has a lighthouse motif.

I first encountered Nielson returning from an early morning dip in the blustery sea. He told me he had wanted to own a lighthouse since he was a child and that he spends most of his time trying to think of ways to make the lighthouse more comfortable. Among his ideas are binoculars and telescopes distributed around the building, including one telescope made in the 1820s and kept in the reception area for patrons. The lighthouse also has a nice 12-table restaurant, as well as library of videos and books. There are plenty of healthy walking experiences waiting nearby, with excellent views in every direction.

Although the lighthouse is only a 15-minute drive from Stranraer's busy ferry terminal (the main ferry port between Scotland and Larne, Northern Ireland), it offers wonderful solitude. I spent several hours sitting on a cliff, watching the ferries pass and the waves splash onto the rocks.

Corsewall's six guest rooms are in the main building next to the lighthouse tower. (Nielson lives in a converted cottage next door.) Two rooms are on the ground floor; the remainder are on the floor above. All the rooms have been elegantly decorated and equipped with TV, telephone and trousers press. Most have views of the sea.

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