Just off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island, a 130-year-old lighthouse beckons travelers to a rare and charming experience: a week as keepers of a historic landmark.

By Maile Carpenter
January 09, 2007
Kindra Clineff

Compared with other waterfront inns, the Rose Island Lighthouse isn't big on amenities. Electricity comes from a windmill. Water comes from the sky. And vacationing guests―such as the members of the Weatherbee family―well, they come to work.

The Weatherbees are Linda, husband Warren, and children Justin, 13, Dana, 11, Trevor, 8, and Casey, 6, from Lancaster, Massachusetts. As temporary keepers of this Rhode Island lighthouse, they tend the garden, track the weather, test the water, change the sheets, raise and lower the flag, and handle whatever else needs to be done around the place. "The kids think of this as their home," Linda says.

Just as at home, chores are part of the deal at the 130-year-old Rose Island Lighthouse, a year-round living museum where guests can stay for a night or a week as keepers. It's only a mile off the coast in Narragansett Bay, a 15-minute boat ride from Newport. But Linda will tell you that it's a world away. "We get over there, and no one wants to go back," she says.

So the family arrives every other year (the lighthouse is so busy, guests must wait a year between weeklong visits) with a stockpile of Pop-Tarts and other foods that'll get four kids and two adults through a week on an island.

The Weatherbees have been keepers three times. They even weathered a hurricane during their first visit. They have the retired, tattered lighthouse flag at home to prove it. The storm kept the kids off the lighthouse catwalk for a while, but it didn't keep the family from coming back.

"Can you think of a more picturesque place to spend a week?" Linda asks as they pull up to the island on a breezy, sunny day. "It's just ... heaven."

The Weatherbees don't mind that there's no television. Instead, they enjoy the rosebushes. The seagulls. The waves crashing over the island's rocky shore.

At this hideaway, pleasures come in simple forms. Justin scribbles the day's events in the lighthouse log. Casey pumps the old player piano. Trevor plucks tomatoes from the garden for a dinner salad. Dana climbs the lighthouse tower to read. The rooms smell of cedar, old books, and fresh linens. Handmade quilts cover the beds. Pictures on the wall tell tales of keepers past.

The two-story lighthouse has been restored to its look at the turn of the century, with antique furniture, a phonograph in one of the bedrooms, a coal stove in the kitchen, and an authentic pitcher pump at the pantry sink.

Justin, Dana, Trevor, and Casey forget about video games for a week and collect sea glass instead. "When we first came here, I thought, 'How are we going to do this?'" Linda says. "These are typical kids. They like TV." But pumping water from a cistern? Recycling? Harvesting mussels from the beach for dinner? "It was all part of the fun," she says.

The kids don't even mind their daily chores. Dana zips down to the basement to show off her chemistry set, which she uses to test the lighthouse water supply every day. "I feel like I'm in science class when I do this," she says, taking a water sample from the cistern.

The kids may have fun with the chores, but they're also getting a lesson in history and ecology. "We're trying to get to kids at a young age," says Charlotte Johnson, executive director of the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation and tireless crusader for the lighthouse. She and other foundation members have been restoring the lighthouse for more than 15 years.

The building was left to deteriorate in 1971 when the Newport Bridge replaced it as a navigational aid. The foundation began rescuing the lighthouse in 1984 and relit the light in 1993. It now manages the entire 18.5-acre island and protects it as a wildlife habitat for migratory birds. With no animal predators and little disturbance from humans―lighthouse guests aren't allowed on the rest of the island―Rose Island is a nesting spot for little blue herons, black-crowned night herons, glossy ibis, and other wading birds. Hundreds of schoolchildren come every year to learn about island wildlife and the lighthouse's history. "People think of us as a historical foundation," Charlotte says. "But we're here for an educational purpose―and an environmental purpose."

All the lighthouse keepers become schooled in conservation while they're here. The Weatherbees use an outdoor shower and candles rather than lamps. They get by on about 10 gallons of water a day. Even Wiggins, a golden retriever and part-time Rose Island resident who stays outside in a miniature doggie lighthouse, lives by the rules. His water bowl gets filled up by the rain, and the light atop his doghouse is solar-powered.

Most of all, the Weatherbees learn how much they enjoy spending time together. "It's really nice to be stuck somewhere for a week," Linda says. "Here, I can sit and talk to Dana for hours about school and summer. I can spend two hours with Casey casting a fishing pole into the ocean. This is a place where I can stop―and remember what I love about my kids."

What's a kid to do without TV for a week? Chores, such as Trevor's faithful tending of the flag. As the following pages show, Trevor, Justin, Dana, and young Casey found plenty of fun as well. So did mom and dad, Linda and Warren―and Wiggins the dog.

The weekly rate for the lighthouse keeper's apartment (Sunday-Sunday) is $900 April-May and October-November, $1,200 June-September, and $650 December-March, plus one hour of chores per person per day. It sleeps up to four adults, or two adults and four children.

Overnight lodging is available in two downstairs rooms. Rates are $100-$155.

During the summer, you may reach Rose Island by ferry from Newport and Jamestown, Rhode Island. When the ferry is not in service, the foundation transports guests by lobster boat for a small fee.

The Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation also offers public tours of the lighthouse during the summer months and special events throughout the year. For lodging reservations, transportation arrangements, or information on lighthouse events, call the foundation at 401/847-4242 between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. weekdays, or visit the Web site at www.roseislandlighthouse.org.