Treasure in the Backyard: International hospitality at Point Montara Lighthouse
by Heidi Trilling
May 2012— There’s an old folktale about a fisherman who dreams of finding a treasure in the battlements of a far-off city. He travels to that city only to meet a soldier who once dreamt of finding a treasure in the backyard of a fisherman’s cottage. But the soldier scoffed at his dream’s message. The fisherman, on the other hand, promptly returns home and begins to dig in his backyard. Sure enough, his shovel unearths a chest of gold.
Like the fisherman in the story, Coastsiders have a treasure in their backyard, too: the Point Montara Lighthouse.
Sitting on a parcel of five acres of breathtaking blufftop coast, and perched above a pretty little private cove, the 1881 lighthouse is only 30 feet high and was originally constructed and utilized in Massachusetts. No one quite knows how it came to be transported out west. It’s the only lighthouse known to have stood watch on both coasts of the United States.
The Point Montara Lighthouse is not only a historic landmark, its adjacent buildings have been unique lodgings since 1980, now operated by the Golden Gate Council of Hostelling International USA.
In other words, you can stay there overnight.
What used to be known as “youth hostels” — no-frills accommodations for backpacking college kids— are now simply “hostels” which cater to international families, elders, school groups, students, corporate groups — in short, everyone.
Accommodations at the Point Montara hostel are either shared dorms or private rooms. Two well-outfitted kitchens, a central gathering room with comfy seating, reading material, children’s books and toys and a generous dining area are all made for sharing.
“Our mission,” says Christopher Bauman, general manger of the Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel, “is to help all people gain a better understanding of the world through hostelling and traveling.”
Bauman and his wife Janice Pratt are keepers of the lighthouse. Prior to this, they ran the Redwood National Park Hostel for six years. Bauman and Pratt are gearing up to celebrate their 10-year anniversary managing the Montara lighthouse in the fall of 2012, with their annual Halloween festival. The event features Bauman’s whimsical dragon sculpture, which towers over the hostel’s multi-purpose room.
There’s also a “non-profit monster” sculpture stationed outside, which collects donations for the upkeep of the property. Donors place their dollars and coins in the mouth of the monster and are usually very surprised by the realistic feel and stretchiness of the monster’s tongue.
“Kids love this,” Pratt says, smiling. “And it teaches them about supporting organizations that they visit and enjoy.”
Another of Bauman’s creations — a shark with a toothy smile — welcomes visitors and points them toward the check-in office. Its painted fins offer up another handy box for donations.
“I was a freelance artist and my background is in sculpture, so this is a playground for that sort of thing,” Bauman explains, “but it’s really about educating the next generation. Grade school kids will be our next independent travelers and hostel guests, and then later, if they are able to, they will become donors and give back to the organization.”
Pratt adds: “We work hard with our great staff to make everyone’s experience of the lighthouse as enriching and informative as it can be. We emphasize travel and education … but make it fun for kids — and adults — too.”
Bauman and Pratt also emphasize environmentalism.
The hostel at the Point Montara Lighthouse is a certified green business featuring water-conservation aerators, Energy Star appliances, solar lighting, biodegradable cleaning materials, and on-site recycling and composting. There are also selections of organic, fair-trade products in the espresso bar.
“We’re promoting well-being through travel, through environmentalism, and through understanding people from other places,” Bauman says. “But underlying all of that is the idea of stewardship, of responsibility. Be a responsible traveler in the environment you’re traveling in, to the culture you’re visiting, and to each other. It’s the key to building a harmonious community.”
Education is another key.
Bauman and Pratt have made the lighthouse property a veritable museum, library and information center all in one, with educational panels on the walls, a flatscreen TV displaying documentaries of migratory birds and other coastal wildlife, and plenty of informative books, pamphlets and brochures on natural history and points of local interest. Bauman also compiled a meticulous history of the lighthouse, available as a downloadable PDF on the website.
“We also have several courses offered through our Hostel Adventures Program,” Bauman adds, “like World Travel 101 and Cultural Kitchen. Groups can also hire a naturalist to take them on coastal or inland hikes to learn about the surrounding environment.”
The hostel hosts over 10,000 travelers a year, in addition to regional school groups and youth organizations.
Richard Cable, leader of Boy Scout Troop 53 from Sacramento, organized a trip to the Point Montara Lighthouse hostel in February 2012. “It’s the perfect place for us: far enough away to be an adventure, close enough to be convenient for all the boys’ families. … It’s a beautiful spot, the rooms are great. It’s probably the best kept secret on the coast.
Boy Scout dad Sean Tracy adds: “The staff here have been really helpful. Being able to stay right on the coast for such a reasonable cost is amazing. It’s so good for the boys to be able to enjoy and explore nature like this. The dads love it, too.”
At any given time, one might be staying at the lighthouse with a French professor studying marine biology, students from Japan, a family from the Ukraine, newlyweds from Finland, or a mom and daughter from Silicon Valley getting away from it all for a long weekend
“That’s the quintessential travel experience,” Bauman says. “It’s the joy of travel: going to places you’ve never seen, meeting new people. … It’s your story, your adventure, the stories you will tell later in life. I’m so glad I’ve had the privilege in my life to do that. … And so, I want to help people have that here, have them embrace the full experience of being here.”
Greta Becker, a German exchange student from Berlin, is fully experiencing as much of California as she can. Her one-week stay at Point Montara has been transformative. “I learned to surf and kayak, and have been enjoying the most beautiful sunsets and delicious organic foods. This is one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at in the U.S. So well-kept! And the view is simply stunning.”
As Bauman, Pratt and their staff can attest, the upkeep of the lighthouse hostel property is a lot of hard work, but it is a treasure for both travelers and locals on the coast.
“You know, one of the things that’s so amazing about the little cove here is that on a high, high tide, it completely disappears,” Bauman says. “It’s like those mysterious places in legends: Shangri-La … or Brigadoon. And if it’s one of those days with the fronts moving through, there are big clouds and the sun peering … and occasionally you’ll get a rainbow. It’s just beautiful.”