‘This is like living in an Andrew Wyeth painting’: Cuckolds Light rebirth fulfills restorationists’ dream

Posted July 08, 2014, at 12:03 p.m.
Last modified July 08, 2014, at 12:41 p.m.

SOUTH OF SOUTHPORT, Maine — Dream job: Lighthouse keeper. Must have Coast Guard license and be handy with a paint brush.

The ad in Points East magazine caught Barbara Aube’s eye. It was the summer of 2012 and the human resource manager was returning to Connecticut with her husband, Dan, after a visit Down East. With visions of early retirement in mind, they applied.

“It is nothing that we ever in our wildest dreams planned to do,” said Barbara, who went to high school in Portland and summered in Old Orchard Beach.

Fast forward two years, and the couple is readying The Inn at Cuckolds Lighthouse for its first guests this weekend.

The restored 1892 Cuckolds Fog Signal and Light Station straddling a pair of islets called The Cuckolds at the mouth of Boothbay Harbor is not your typical bed and breakfast. And the Aubes are not your typical innkeepers.

Guests will plunk down $500 on weekends and $350 during the week to stay in a deluxe lightkeeper house with WiFi, LED TVs, soaking tubs and the ocean lapping outside their windows. The innkeepers, both in their 50s, offer gourmet breakfast, afternoon tea and private boat service from the mainland, but won’t reap a dime for their efforts.

It’s all part of the mission to keep this artifact, part of Maine’s coastal history, from becoming a fiberglass pole with a blinking light. The lighthouse that has sheltered keepers and their families for decades, not with cushy comfort, but secure from the storms and vagaries of the sea, is primed for a new chapter.

After a decade-long restoration effort spearheaded by a nonprofit group, for the first time in 122 years, Cuckolds Light is open to the public. The threadbare keepers quarters that was destroyed in the blizzard of 1978 is now a modern, high-end coastal escape with an inviting living room and updated kitchen. It could have been lifted from the pages of House Beautiful. Upstairs, two suites with sitting rooms await guests looking for a solitary retreat.

“For the last 10 years I’ve been working on this every day,” said Janet Reingold, a Southport resident who sent a letter of intent to the federal government to save the ravaged lighthouse under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

To call the Cuckolds rescue mission an odyssey is not an understatement. The application process alone took two years and 542 pages before a band of locals, including her husband Philip Yasinski, could form a council to take control of the ailing lighthouse in 2006. Construction is ongoing and costs have not been made public, though several business like Hancock Lumber have donated time and materials.

The journey to welcome guests this summer has been as rocky as Cuckolds’ foundation.

Neighborhood opposition has ranged from concerns about noise to worries about increasing the lighthouse footprint, which, according to Reingold, was an edict from the state fire marshal. With construction ongoing for four years, “every part of this has been slightly more challenging than we thought,” said Reingold. “I’m proud and I’m exhausted. I had no idea there would be people against saving and restoring a lighthouse.”

But days before the first guests will lie down in high-thread-count comfort watching schooners heel on the horizon, she lets out a big smile.

“This is like living in an Andrew Wyeth painting,” said Reingold, peering out a window with 360-degree water views from an upstairs suite. “You are spellbound.”

The Aubes were selected from an applicant pool of 75 for their role welcoming guests and overseeing the newest Boothbay Harbor island attraction.

Because the deed requires the lighthouse to be self-sustaining, the money from inn overnights will not go into the innkeepers’ or owners’ pockets, but poured back into lighthouse preservation for public enjoyment in the coming decades.

A group of four can book the entire island for $3,000 for two weekend nights or $2,500 during the week. Because this is a destination stay, the innkeepers are offering lobster bakes for $65 a person and boat tours can be arranged.

Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine Office of Tourism, knows of only two other Maine lighthouses where guests can bed down — Little River Lighthouse in Cutler and the Robinson Point Lighthouse Station in Isle au Haut. In Cutler, tourists have to bring their own linens, towels, sustenance and water. No homemade scones or freshly roasted coffee to cut through the morning fog.

“There is a mystical magic around lighthouses, about what they represent. They inspire and intrigue visitors because they are quirky and scientific,” she said. “It’s a very iconic New England symbol.”

Ouellette is often asked by domestic and international travelers for lighthouse stays. Now she has one more to add to the list.

“This is very exciting that these folks have been able to do this. Maine is known as the lighthouse state. We have the most coastal lighthouses of any state in the nation,” said Ouellette. “There is something about the solid lighthouses and their Yankee ingenuity.”

That ingenuity has kept this icon afloat.

To avoid annual fundraising, Cuckolds Lighthouse will welcome tours, and the nonprofit is working with historians to build a museum in the original lighthouse tower.

It will include artifacts from past residents and a plaque with keepers names from 1892 to present. The light is still a working navigational aid.

The council is exploring ways to use their trademark name and image on more than complementary terry-cloth robes. A Cuckolds Lighthouse beer is one idea being kicked around.

Far from roughing it, the modern suites with sitting rooms, original art, tasteful furniture and marble bathrooms, are in demand.

“Last night we got a 2017 reservation from a woman who is turning 60,” said Barbara Aube, who has 97 bookings and is almost full for the season, which runs through Oct. 15. “They are seven sisters that want to take one here for a birthday surprise. She sounded so excited.”

The Aubes, who will live in the lighthouse from April to October every year, are also fulfilling a dream. Dan, who studied at Maine Maritime Academy and grew up in Old Orchard Beach, will captain a 1969 Navy whaleboat to pick up guests. The retired naval officer and his wife share a love of the sea.

Barbara, a skilled home chef, will be cooking in a state-of-the art kitchen with epic views.

“You look outside and you pinch yourself,” said Barbara. “I’ve had this on my bucket list for a long time. It’s not something we ever contemplated as a possibility.”

When the season is over, the couple will return to Old Saybrook, Connecticut. But for the next few summers they will return to Cuckolds to welcome the adventurous.

“After 20 years we are wending our way back toward Maine,” said Dan.

Since the couple was selected for the role in May 2013, they have been working diligently to help crews get the house in shape and meet requirements to captain the launch from the shore for guests. All the time in awe by their luck.

“We could never own an island in the ocean in Maine,” said Barbara. “When you look at that place and think of living out there … it’s extraordinary. ”

Beyond crossing “live in lighthouse” off their wish list, they are fulfilling a “desire to make a contribution to a meaningful community undertaking in Maine,” said Barbara.