Strikingly tall structures perched on rough windswept coastlines hearkening back to an earlier seafaring time in history, lighthouses are a constant source of fascination for travellers. Some are shuttered and crumbling, others are still in full-time operation and some are open to the public and climbable, so you can experience the vantage of a lighthouse keeper yourself. Several historic lighthouses have been converted to hotels as well, so you can voluntarily become a light sleeper (so to speak).
If you're a fan of these bright beacons from a bygone era, these top light spots around the world are guaranteed to dazzle.
The great granddaddy of lighthouses, Hook Head is arguably the oldest working light in the world. The site had humble beginnings, reportedly as far back as the 5th century, with monks lighting a beacon there. The structure as it stands today has existed for 800 years. It’s an automated light, squat and a little…plump (they say horizontal stripes emphasise a thick waist, so it might just be an illusion). Access to the light is by tour, organised through the visitor centre. A historical teaser – have you ever wondered where the phrase ‘by hook or by crook’ comes from?
2. Creac'h, France
The black-banded Creac’h, standing tall (seriously tall, at 54.85m) on Isle d’Ouessant (Ushant), is one of the most powerful lighthouses in the world. The French Atlantic coast is famous for its churning, storm-swept oceans, made treacherous by the numerous granite outcrops that lie off the Brittany shore. The Creac’h cuts across the waters with a beam reaching 60km. A lighthouse museum provides an insight into the workings of the light. As a bonus, a visit to the Creac’h is an opportunity to visit the nearby Stiff Lighthouse, one of the older lighthouses still in use, built in the late 17th century.
3. Green Cape, Australia
Where else would you expect to find a lighthouse, but at the tip of a bay bearing the name Disaster. Green Cape lighthouse, in New South Wales, has seen a few wrecks in its time, most significantly the SS Ly-ee Moon which ran aground in 1886, just three years after the lighthouse was lit; 71 sailors died and 15 were rescued by the keeper. Disaster Bay is at the border of two national parks (Croajingalong and Ben Boyd), and the lighthouse is perched above the epitome of an Australian bush beach: chalky, fine sand, rugged cliffs festooned with tea trees, wild blue waters and the lingering scent of eucalyptus.
The lighthouse on the Eddystone rocks is the fourth such structure to bear the Eddystone name. The Great Storm of 1703 (a hurricane that blew for a week) destroyed the first incarnation, lit in 1698. The second structure was a wooden wonder, lit in 1709 but destroyed by fire in 1755. The third attempt was made from stone and lit in 1759, but the rock it was built on was unstable, so the structure was dismantled 120 years later – today, you can visit the reassembled lighthouse at Plymouth. In 1882 the current structure was lit, a sleek, modern-looking tower built near the stumpy remains of Eddystone III.
You’ll know it by the barbershop spirals coiling around the tower. And possibly the height – Hatteras is the tallest lighthouse in the USA at 63m. An earlier incarnation was completed in 1803 but was damaged during the Civil War. The current building was first lit in 1871. Due to erosion of the shore, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was moved, in 2000, from its original location at the edge of the ocean to safer ground approximately 800m inland. There’s a visitor centre and museum at the site. It remains an active lighthouse, guiding vessels past the treacherous Diamond Shoals off the North Carolina coast, cause of some 2000 wrecks over 400 years.
Looking out from the infamous Cape of Good Hope, Slangkop was built in 1914 but first lit after WWI, in 1919. A few years prior to its construction, the SS Maori was wrecked, highlighting the need for a beacon. The brilliant white of the structure has you pondering the repainting cycle, which must be constant – you can ask the keeper on a guided tour. This cast-iron lighthouse overlooks Kommetjie, a village about 30km from Cape Town, where you can combine your lightspotting with some crayfishing – crayfish is a local speciality.
In a country most would associate with English colonialism, Pondicherry (Puducherry) is a strongly French-influenced town in the south of India. It grew from sleepy village to significant trade centre for the French East India company, which eventually replaced a log fire on a hill with a lighthouse to give ships fair warning. The lighthouse shot out its first beam in 1836 and remained in use for 150 years. It stands now as a monument, but is being restored as a museum to the French architecture of the town.
8. Cape Palliser, New Zealand
The 1897 Cape Palliser Lighthouse, resplendent in its wide red bands, is a cynosure to ships navigating the Cook Straight, off the southern tip of New Zealand’s North Island. Inland it looks over fine wine-and-food country, so it’s a gourmet lightspotter’s paradise and, as you’d expect in New Zealand, the adventure activities in the region are many. The light is still in service – though you can still climb up the 250 steps to get a light’s eye view of ocean and land.
9. Marjaniemi, Finland
To get a good feel for the romance of lighthouse-keeping – the storms, the constant wind, the tumult of crashing ocean – spend a night in one. The pilot station at this 1871 lighthouse is now a hotel. Getting to Hailuoto Island by ferry adds to the nautical adventure. Hurry, though; continental rebound (the earth rising back up after being compressed from the glacier-weights of an ice age) will eventually see the island join the mainland.
The Gibbs Hill Lighthouse stands high on a hill in Southampton, and climbing to the platform gives you a view of the entire island, with Caribbean splendour all around. Early in the year you might catch a glimpse of migrating whales. At such a height, the beacon can be seen up to 60km away. Back on ground it’s more standard tourist fare, with a café and gift shop; the owner’s grandfather was the last keeper before the lighthouse was automated, so the romance is not all gone.