Chronicle Recommends a Night in Richmond at East Brother
September 17, 2006
When the lighthouse was built on East Brother Island at the entrance of San Pablo Bay in 1874, nobody would have guessed that a hundred years later it would become one of the most peaceful bed and breakfast getaways on the West Coast. That's because the foghorn, which during the foggiest days of winter blew every 20 seconds 24 hours a day, sounds like Satan blowing the lowest note on a giant rusty saxophone from hell.
"It's really loud, isn't it?" says the island's innkeeper Elan Stewart, as he demonstrates what life was like when the old steam tank engine powered fog signal was used before it was replaced in the 1960s. Nowadays Stewart, who co-runs the bed and breakfast with his wife Katy, uses the deafening technology in horn-blowing contests with passing container ships. He always wins.
The East Brother Light Station still uses a fog signal in the winter, but its electronic beep is so faint that hardly anyone besides those on ships who are supposed to hear it ever notices.
"Every once a while," says Katy, "a guest will show up to breakfast with their hair standing up on end and you can tell they've been up all night counting to 20 seconds. But that's unusual."
Spending the night in an historic lighthouse with a 360-degree view of the Bay Area is pretty unusual too. But the nearby getaway experience is within reach thanks to group of volunteers who got together to save the lighthouse in 1979. That's when the Coast Guard, which officially overseas the operation, was considering tearing down the dilapidated 1873 duplex home where the lighthouse operating family lived and replacing it with a zero-maintenance light atop a pole.
Led by Walter Fanning, grandson of a lighthouse keeper, philanthropist Lucretia Edwards and a young architect named Thomas Butt formed a non-profit group to restore the landmark. About 300 volunteers came together to raise $300,000 and transform East Brother Light into a fancy bed and breakfast.
A five-minute boat ride aboard the Lucretia E. from Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor takes guests to the island where they are greeted with champagne and hors d'oeuvres, feeling worlds away from traffic and supermarket lines.
The least expensive room ($266-$295 a night depending on day of week and season) is the Walter's Quarters, which has a nearby bathroom and adjacent sitting room that staring at the Richmond Bridge. It's also the most popular room because of its privacy.
The other four rooms (up to $415 for the biggest and on peak days) are in the old duplex where up to eight guests share dining, living and bathrooms. Since water source on the island is dependent upon rainwater, guests aren't supposed to take showers and usually only stay for one night. Those who do take in the island for two nights can stay in the San Francisco room (the $415 one), which has a private shower and bathroom.
Skipping a bath is about the extent of roughing it on East Brother Island, as guests spend the rest of their time showering themselves with lots of wine in between hours of reading, relaxing and enjoying gourmet meals prepared by the Stewarts. There are some intense Scrabble games too.
Winter is the off-season when a night in the Lighthouse is cheaper and sometimes a couple can end up with the 3/4-acre island to themselves. It's not a bad place to be if you're a fan of sleeping to the sound of a wave-crashing storm while cozying up in bed after a couple glasses of cognac.
But even though East Brother Light Station is the recipe for a romance novel, it's not necessarily a perfect fit for a romance novelist.
"Danielle Steel stayed here once, around 1991 or 1992," says Katy of a story that gets shared whenever the lighthouse torch is handed over to new innkeepers. "It was a big fiasco for her. She wrote like an 11-page letter about how miserable her experience was. And it was so obviously written by a novelist, describing things like an 'aura of terror.' I think she likened it to spending a night on Cape Fear."
For the amateur novelists, moonlighting mariners and weekend sea captains in the Bay Area, it's a lot of fun.
EAST BROTHER LIGHT STATION: Rooms on the island range between $266-$415, depending on day of week and season. Limited day trips are available, too. (510) 233-2385, www.ebls.org. Go to sfgate.com for more pictures of the Light Station.