We wanted to see if the lifestyle of a lighthouse innkeeper might be in our future. We arranged for a visit to East Brother Island and its popular light-station located just 30 minutes from San Francisco. Join us, this just might be your cup of tea.
Where are we
East Brother Island is in San Pablo Bay, which connects to San Francisco Bay.
East Brother Light Station is managed by a Richmond nonprofit preservationist group, which in 1980 obtained permission from the Coast Guard to renovate and maintain the active light station.
The organization has many volunteers to help with the constant maintenance, and pays most of the bills by renting out the island’s five bedrooms, four days per week.
Getting to the island
After a series of email communications, we arranged to meet and interview the lighthouse innkeeper couple on East Brother Island.
On Monday morning, we were waiting at the less than luxurious Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor when our Captain/innkeeper pulled up to the dock in the island’s aluminum tender.
Before we could board the boat, the Captain first assisted the guests that were leaving the island. The visitors must have enjoyed their island experience because they were all laughing and carrying on as if they were old friends.
After introductions, our host started the engines and headed out of the harbor for a short 10-minute ride to the island.
He immediately gave us a briefing about what to expect when we arrived dockside. He described how we would be required to climb a very vertical stainless steel pool type ladder that extends from the boat deck to the landing pier that is joined to the island. Depending on the tide, the climb can be as much as 12 feet. Think about that before you make reservations if you are not physically able to climb a ladder. Also, the island is unfortunately not able to be ADA compliant.
Buildings and facilities on the island
The one-acre island has two vintage buildings in addition to an 1874 Victorian Lighthouse. The old work shed has been converted into a cozy innkeepers’ cottage, and the other out-building houses the machinery necessary to power the working foghorns.
The island has electric power supplied by an underwater cable from the mainland, and a self-contained water system that holds about 90,000 gallons of rainwater stored in a white-clad underground cistern and an above-ground redwood water tank.
Because of the ever-present danger of water shortages in the Bay Area, there are no showers available for guests staying only one night. No one seemed to mind the inconvenience.
After gathering our photo equipment and walking up the steep ramp between the pier and the island, the Captain gave us a tour of the first building we encountered, which houses the machinery to operate the foghorns. For our benefit, he cranked up the diesel generator and gave us a live performance of the horns.
Becoming an Island Innkeeper
We soon found that our hosts had only been lighthouse keepers for ten weeks, and as of this writing they have already moved on to their next adventure. Lighthouse keeping is fun, but demanding work, and the turnover is quite high, but that’s apparently not a big problem for the stakeholders.
How many folks would love to run a Victorian Bed and Breakfast on a small island in California complete with a good salary, room and board, seals, pelicans, and a five-star view of the San Francisco skyline? Lots, that’s how many.
We are told that the number of applicants for the job is usually large, but there are serious knockout factors in the innkeeper application.
One of the applicants must be an excellent cook and capable of preparing and presenting food for a table of ten.
Another qualification is that one of the applicants must have a Coast Guard commercial boat operator’s license.
Lastly, both of the prospective innkeepers must be charming. Now we are getting somewhere.
About the work
In the case of East Brother Light Station, the island is open for business four nights per week starting on Thursday.
Prepping for the guests
On Wednesday morning, the innkeepers are on land shopping for provisions for up to 40 guests (5 rooms x 2 guests x 4 nights). They select the food for the menu, pick up the mail, laundry, fuel, and anything else they will need for the coming week on the island.
On Thursday morning, they boat back to the island with the supplies, unload their cargo into a large wire cart waiting on the pier, and winch the cart up a steep ramp that connects the pier with the island. They unload and store the supplies, and get the island ready for visitors.
A day with guests
On Thursday afternoon promptly at 4pm, the designated Captain/innkeeper returns to the marina dock at Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor to board the guests for Thursday night.
Upon arrival back at the island, the hosts provide a tour, hors d’oeuvres with champagne, and show the guests to their rooms.
The visitors then have ample time to explore the small island and enjoy the sea birds, animals, and fabulous views before dinner.
At dinner, the visitors are served an exquisitely prepared multi-course meal of the finest fresh ingredients.
All the guests are seated at one large table, which makes for a convivial atmosphere and an opportunity to socialize.
Friday morning would come all too soon, but a sumptuous gourmet breakfast would await all guests. Pity those one-night guests who must now head back to the mainland to resume their everyday lives.
After transferring the guests and their baggage to the mainland dock, the captain returns to the island to help his partner clean and prepare for new guests on Friday afternoon.
Saturday and Sunday are a repeat of Thursday and Friday.
After bidding farewell to the last guests for the week on Monday morning, the innkeeper heads back to the island and the chores that couldn’t be completed during the workweek.
Later in the day, the innkeepers load the laundry along with the empty bottles and trash into the island wire cart. The cart is pulled to the opposite end of the island and hooked and lowered by winch down to the island’s waiting boat. The innkeepers depart for the harbor, unload the cargo, and start a well-deserved Tuesday day of rest.