“Don’t look him in the eye,” said a fellow guest, as a seagull the size of a raccoon stepped slowly toward me. I was sitting in an Adirondack chair overlooking the ocean with a homemade blueberry crumble bar in my lap. Although I hid the cookie in a napkin, the bird somehow sensed it was there. There was naked ambition in his eyes.
Beware of giant seagulls when staying on Rose Island. Located a mile off the coast in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, the place is home to a wildlife refuge for nesting birds as well as a historical working lighthouse and old military barracks, both of which accommodate overnight guests. The birds rule the island, flying low over human visitors’ heads and even, on occasion, casually strutting into bedrooms like they own the place. Their fearlessness around people reminded me of the birds in the Galapagos.
Also beware of ghosts. Rose Island was featured on an episode of the Syfy channel’s “Ghost Hunters.” Since the show aired, various ghost-hunting groups have come to visit, bringing “all kinds of strange contraptions” with them, said our boat captain. Rumor has it the ghost of former keeper Charles Curtis haunts the lighthouse.
I found the gulls scarier than the stories of ghosts. But I can see why visitors come to sense the presence of spirits from the past on Rose Island. The main attraction on this 18-acre circle of land is Rose Island Lighthouse, which still functions as a beacon for ships. The rooms of the 19th-century lighthouse are decorated with period furniture, and appear just as they would have 100 years ago. There’s an antique wood-burning stove, a heavy desk with a typewriter. Handmade quilts lie on small beds, and the floors creak when you walk on them.
Guests essentially live as if they’ve escaped to a bygone era. While the island does have electricity—by way of a windmill—the energy is used to power the beacon. There are no other electric lights, and you have to use a flashlight or a battery-operated lantern to see after the sun goes down. Bathrooms are outdoors, in an outhouse. Flushable toilets (the best of modern conveniences) are, thankfully, available. But visitors must wash hands using a jug of water over a wide bowl. And bathing happens with the help of a solar-heated camp shower bag that hangs upside-down in an outdoor stall; the shower bags are left in the sun during the day, so the water is comfortably warm.
The rugged accommodations are a fair trade for the rare privacy and beauty of this place. Rose Island can only be reached via ferry between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Once the last boat sails away, the handful of guests who have reservations to stay in rooms in the lighthouse or 18th-century barracks are alone for the night on the island. I watched the sun set on a secluded rocky beach—and a deserted beach is not something one typically finds during the busy summer season in New England. It was equally special to have an unobstructed view of the fireworks above Newport that night. (We stayed over July Fourth weekend.)
We spent our day on the island kayaking around its perimeter and playing Travel Scrabble, eating blueberry bars, and watching boats while sitting in those seaside Adirondack chairs. Guests must supply their own food, so we brought a cooler of cut and washed vegetables, some loaves of bread, and a bottle of wine. For dinner, we grilled vegetables. Our more resourceful neighbors picked mussels from the bay, which they cleaned and grilled. Guests may also bring saltwater fishing equipment or use lobster traps to secure fresh seafood.
Rose Island Lighthouse has four rooms and one apartment, which cost $100 to $185 a night during summer. We didn’t sleep in the lighthouse. Instead, we stayed in the older abandoned army barracks that sit nearby, which have stone walls that are three feet thick. It was dank and creepy, and the sound of seagulls and various unidentified nighttime noises cut through my sleep a few times. But I am happy to report that no unwelcome visitors—fowl or phantom—appeared inside the barracks during the night.
Rose Island is one of New England’s best kept secrets. Stay there if you can. You can sign up to be a keeper for a week and help maintain the property while taking care of various small tasks around the island. (The cost of keeper accommodations is tax-deductible.) Or just spend the night like I did.
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