Restored lighthouse keepers’ cottages a historic retreat in St. John’s

The Canadian Press ~ staff The Cape Breton Post
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ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Dawn first breaks in North America over the Fort Amherst lighthouse on the continent’s most easterly gateway at the Narrows leading to St. John’s, N.L.

The view of the property from Signal Hill National Historic Site.

That’s where you’ll find, on a rocky ledge hanging over the mighty North Atlantic, two cottages that once belonged to the head and assistant lighthouse keepers. For more than 200 years a beacon has shone from that cliff each night. During stormy or socked-in weather, the baleful sound of its foghorn rings out over the sea.

For more than a decade after the light was automated in the early 1980s, the humble homes were left to deteriorate. They were very nearly beyond repair when Jack Power, son of former lightkeeper Leo Power, fixed up one of the houses as his private retirement home and turned the other into a museum.

Ten years later in 2006, his nephew Peter Gill agreed to take over the property. He and his wife, Nicole Gill, spent years turning the two- and three-bedroom cottages into a unique oceanside retreat where rustic history now meets modern comforts as waves crash on the rocks below.

The little white clapboard houses are known today as Fort Amherst Vacation Homes. And with virtually no paid advertising, they have become a popular destination for visitors from across Canada and the world.

“If you really want to experience what Newfoundland has to offer and you’re a little bit on the adventurous side, you might want to check this out,” said Peter Gill. “In one direction you’re seeing the city over here,” he said, pointing to the colourful skyline of St. John’s, which promotes itself as North America’s oldest city.

“In the other direction you’re staring out at the great Atlantic Ocean where you can see all kinds of different wildlife. I’ve seen many different species of whales, even killer whales, sea turtles, sea otters. You never know what you’re going to see.”

In addition to being the site of the province’s first lighthouse, Fort Amherst’s long military history stretches back to British-French warfare in the 1700s. Battlements later built to help defend the highly strategic harbour from German U-boats in the Second World War are still visible.

Earlier fortifications were named for William Amherst who recaptured St. John’s from French forces in 1762, ending a century of colonial fighting over Newfoundland’s rich fishing grounds.

“Waking up in the morning when you see the sun coming up, every single time you really could be the first person in all of North America to see the sunrise,” Gill said. The much photographed point of land jutting out into the ocean is also an ideal place to watch icebergs drift past in spring.

Nicole Gill described heartfelt inscriptions in guest books that offer thanks from visitors from as far away as Albania and Sydney, Australia.

“Day 1 and it feels like a fantasy,” wrote one. “Couldn’t ask for a more beautiful setting.”

Gill laughed when asked how guests react when the foghorn next to the houses goes off.

“We don’t shy away from the fact it’s an active lighthouse,” he said on a rainy day as the horn’s muted wail called out at intervals. “But you know we raised our first daughter here and it was never an issue.

“The lighthouse points straight out to the ocean so it’s more of a dull sound and where it’s every 21 seconds, it gets a little cyclical,” he added. “For some people, it will put them to sleep.”

Nicole Gill said the lighthouse perch overlooking arrivals and departures of vessels ranging from fishing boats to massive cruise ships is a big part of the experience.

“Being from Newfoundland, I think we’re inherently tied to the ocean. Just being so close to it, and being able to observe the comings and goings and the connection to the sea, is something that’s really unique.

“Usually the only regret people have is that they have to leave. So that’s not a bad complaint.”

If you go:

For details on year-round rates and reservations:

For details on how to get to St. John’s, N.L.:

Geographic location: Newfoundland, North Atlantic, North America Canada Atlantic Ocean Albania Sydney Australia

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