One of my favourite places is Smoky Cape, about five hours north of Sydney. A holiday there is what I picture when I picture summer. The sun streams through it like a Corona ad and it tastes like salt and wine. That summer, 10 of us piled into a lighthouse keeper’s cottage, with eskies and a pack of cards and a bottle of gin wrapped in tea towels.
We were 19, so it was kind of an aspirational holiday – let’s pretend to be adults and hire this holiday house and drink wine and eat cheese. But also someone drank so much they decided the house was haunted by a piece of wet toast and chased people around waving it about, so not that grown up I guess.
The back verandah looked all the way along the beach to Hat Head, and there were kangaroos right up to the gate. Late at night people would slip away and have Very Serious Conversations under the spinning light at the top of the hill. There’s nowhere in Australia where they let you sleep in the body of the lighthouse itself, but there are keepers cottages all along the coastline. They’re old, usually isolated, on top of a blustery cliff to be avoided by ships, and are full of weird stories. And if none of that interests you, maybe you’d just like to imagine you were in ’90s kids show Round The Twist. Or have an excuse to sing this song.
1. Sugarloaf Point Lighthouse – Seal Rocks, NSW
Sugarloaf Point Lighthouse is in the northern corner of Myall Lakes National Park, in Seal Rocks, a tiny town with about 130 people living in it. The lighthouse was completed in 1875, and it perched up on this steep red cliff with waves crashing white into jagged rocks at the bottom. It also has an awesome external staircase which wraps around the outside of the lighthouse tower.
There are sand dunes on the beach, rockpools, rainforests, and walks to do along the coast. While the beach is obviously way better in summer, it would be pretty awesome in winter, to stand on that cliff and feel dramatic and cozy at the same time.
There are a few options at Sugarloaf Point Lighthouse. You can hire the Headkeeper’s Cottage or one of two Assistant Keeper’s Cottages, which are a bit less fancy but still have four poster beds with ocean views. They can accommodate six guests, starting at $340 a night, depending on the season.
2. Cape Otway Lightstation – Cape Otway, VIC
Cape Otway Lightstation bills itself as “Australia’s most significant lighthouse”. I didn’t give the other lighthouses right of reply, but it is the oldest surviving lighthouse “on the mainland” built in 1848. It’s a good stop on the Great Ocean Road, 50 minutes from Apollo Bay, in the Great Otway National Park.
This lighthouse is big on history, and runs ghost tours. It has a WWII radar station – so secret during the war that there are no pictures of it from that time – and has no less than eight shipwreck tours for vessels named Champion, Martha, Marie, Joanna, etc. This makes me think it can’t have been a very good lighthouse, but the keeper’s cottages sure are pretty.
At this one you can stay in the Headkeeper’s Cottage or the Manager’s cottage. Each are made for six guests, but can be converted to accommodate up to 16 people. So it’d be awesome for a big group of friends who love shipwrecks or talking about World War II to stay in, nerd it up, sit around the woodfire and sip whiskey. Prices start at around $450 a night, depending on the season.
3. Swan Island Lighthouse – Swan Island, TAS
Swan Island is off Cape Portland, in Tasmania’s North-East. The lighthouse was built in 1845, and was at first manned by convicts, who lived in the keeper’s cottage and got really mad about being left alone on a snake infested island to tend to a lighthouse. In 1850 a new cottage was built, and named after the wife of Charles Chaulk Baudinet, who was the lighthouse’s longest serving keeper. His wife, Eliza, is buried on the only marked grave on the island.
While you won’t technically be staying in the lighthouse, if you opt to visit you will actually be renting the entire island, so your exploring will be uninterrupted (just make sure you bring enough snacks to last you!).
If you can handle the snakes and the ghosts, then the Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage seems like it would be an interesting, secluded getaway. It sleeps up to six, with four bedrooms and ten beaches on the island.
4. Troubridge Island Lighthouse – Troubridge Island, SA
How many lighthouses actually look like this, like what you want a lighthouse to look like, striped red and thin and poking up out of flat blue water like a freaking painting? This one is on Troubridge Island, which you get to via Edithburgh in South Australia. On Google Maps the whole island is just a blank grey blob in the middle of the ocean, and it doesn’t change as you zoom in close.
So what will you do while staying with friend and family on nothing but a grey blob of island? Birdwatch! Troubridge Island is full of “little penguins, black-faced cormorants and crested terns”, which are all birds. There are also awesome rivers, lakes and beaches, fishing, and cool walks. You’ve got to get a permit from the Innes National Park Office or Troubridge Island Hideaway and Charter, and bring your own food, drinks and linen.
5. Cape Don Experience – Cobourg Peninsula, Arnhemland NT
This is kind of the antidote to Troubridge Island’s candy-cane 1880s wonderland lighthouse, in that is it kind of like a concrete pylon with a light on top to look at. But what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up in practicality. This is a lighthouse for fishermen and women – in fact, there are more pictures of giant fish on the website then there are of the lighthouse.
But I guess, if you often find yourself the somewhat reluctant accomplice of a really keen angler then this would not be the worst place to find yourself. It’s still a lighthouse. The scenery looks spectacular – you’re surrounded by bright green mangroves and blue ocean. I can definitely image sitting on the sprawling porch that wraps right around the keeper’s cottage, reading a book as the light falls, swatting mosquitos away from my beer and feeling the thick air hug me.
Twelve people can fit into this place. Two of the keeper’s cottages are being used as a wilderness lodge. So even if you don’t catch any fish at least you can eat the tuna, barramundi or mackerel that the other, better fishers have caught in the evening.
Jess O'Callaghan is finishing up her media degree and producing the Meanjin podcast. She writes for Right Now, Something You Said and Farrago.