There’s a certain romance about lighthouses. They’re beacons to ships at sea, alerting mariners to potential danger or signalling safe harbour. Whether perched on soaring cliffs or standing next to the sea, they are lone sentinels that guide the way through the darkness.
Since the early days of maritime navigation, lighthouses have played a vital role. The Lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the first. Built in 280 BC to mark the entrance to the city’s port, it towered some 140 metres and remains one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was destroyed by earthquakes and its remnants were used to build other structures. Although some remains of its floor were found as recently as the 1990s.
In the early days lighthouses were manned. Light was produced by fires or candles. Then oil and kerosene lamps were used before most lighthouses switched to electricity.
Flashing and rotating lights not only help make lighthouses more visible, they help identify a particular lighthouse. Some lights use colours to mark dangerous waters. And most lighthouses have radar deflectors with unique signatures to help identify them. Foghorns are used when weather conditions obscure the light.
New technology, advances in marine navigation and automation are making people obsolete. Budget cuts don’t help. Will the lighthouse become obsolete, too? Maybe. These days many lighthouses are being decommissioned and left to crumble. But not all. Coastlines around the world are still dotted with these friendly beacons and, for now, many can be visited. Where is your favourite lighthouse?
Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse, Nova Scotia
The lighthouse is very close to the spot where Swissair Flight 111 crashed in 1998. A memorial to the flight's 229 victims is just a short drive up the road.
If it's a cold day, grab a hot cup of coffee and some warm gingerbread at the nearby Sou'Wester Restaurant.
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Portland Head Lighthouse, Maine
Fort of St. Nicholas Lighthouse, Rhodes, Greece
The lighthouse tower is just 6 metres tall (standing on St. Elmo Tower), but the light is about 24 metres above the water. Over the years, the tower deteriorated and was fully rebuilt in 2007.
Slangkop Lighthouse, Kommetjie, South Africa
Slangkop is located south of Cape Town in Kommetjie and, at 30 metres, is the tallest cast iron lighthouse on the South African coast. It was automated in 1979.
Visitors to the area take long walks or go horseback riding along Noordhoek Beach. It's where you'll find the wreck of the SS Kakapa, a ship that ran aground in 1900 (and one reason to have a lighthouse here). The area is also renowned for birdwatching.
Beachy Head Lighthouse, England
There is a lighthouse at the top of the cliffs and a little off the west of Beachy Head. But the Belle Tout lighthouse is often obscured by fog and low cloud. So, in 1902, the Beachy Head lighthouse was built.
The lighthouse stands an impressive 43 metres. Originally three keepers ran the light, but it was automated in 1983.
In 2011, the owners (Trinity House) announced that there was no money and no need to repaint the fading stripes on tower. The community banded together to raise more than $41,000 for the paint job, which is scheduled to be done this spring.
La Lanterna, Genoa, Italy
La Lanterna is the tallest lighthouse in the Mediterranean and the second tallest in the world (built of masonry). It was renovated between 1995-2004.
One lighthouse keeper in the mid 1400s was an uncle of Christopher Columbus.
Old Baldy, Bald Head Island, North Carolina
The lighthouse, now affectionately known as Old Baldy, stands 34 metres tall and is today a big tourist attraction on Bald Head Island, near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Visitors can tour Old Baldy, climbing the 108 steps to the top.
Old Baldy is so sturdy that when a powerful hurricane struck the island in 1996, many folks survived by taking shelter in the tower.
Le Phare de Biarritz, France
The city started as a whaling settlement, but became a popular destination when doctors and con men said that the local waters could help cure one's ills. It remains a top destination for the rich and famous.
Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, Australia
The lighthouse itself is about 12 metres high, but its location on a cliff means the tower is much higher than the water. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1967 when a navigational light was placed atop a nearby radio tower.
The site was restored in 2001 and is now a popular tourist destination. It's a great place to watch the sunset.
Cape Hatteras, North Carolina
The original lighthouse on this spot along the dangerous North Atlantic coast was built in 1803 and was just 27 metres high. It soon became apparent that this was far too short for it to be effective and 18 metres were added to its height.
The current lighthouse was built in 1870 and the old lighthouse was demolished a year later. The distinctive black and white stripes were added in 1873 to differentiate it from other lighthouses in the area. Its light sequence is also different from that of its neighbours. Inside a cast iron stairway climbs 269 steps to the top.
In 1999 erosion was threatening the lighthouse and the decision was made to move it further inland. Engineers carefully cut the tower from its base and placed it on a platform. The platform rested on railway tracks and this enabled workers to move the lighthouse to its new location almost a kilometre inland. The "move of the century" took 23 days.