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LOOKING FOR LIGHTHOUSES? TRY CALIFORNIA

Carol Vestal's mornings begin with a routine we all should be so lucky to enjoy.

"I pour myself a cup of tea and sit by the window to watch for any whales that might swim by," says Vestal, who cares for the small stone lighthouse that caps Crescent City, Calif.'s Battery Point.The lighthouse is accessible only during low tide. So there are days when Vestal can linger at the window and wait for the sea to drop enough to allow tourists to reach her front door.

It's an idlyllic life that's fading in California. Few of the state's 30 or so lighthouses still have keepers. They've been replaced by automated beacons. As a result, many of these silent sentries now suffer from neglect and the corrosive breath of the sea.

And yet, the seductive charm of the California lights, as many call them, endures. Lighthouses are places to slow down, to catch your breath, to marvel at a sea that has lifted ships from the water and cracked them like walnuts against the shore.

I spent a few days recently bouncing among these outposts, mostly in central and Southern California. Here's the lowdown on a few you might enjoy. And by the way, don't forget to look in on Carol Vestal if you get up to Crescent City.

East Brother Island

The perfect getaway for lovers. This well-preserved, Victorian-style lighthouse sits on a stamp-size island in San Pablo Strait, near Richmond, where it doubles as a bed-and-breakfast inn. The view of San Francisco Bay is spectacular. And the rooms are adorned with antiques, giving visitors a sense of traveling back in time.

The inn charges $295 per couple for a single night's accommodation. The fee covers round-trip boat transportation from Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor, a five-course dinner, champagne, a guided tour of the grounds, and breakfast. Typically, you need to make weekend reservations several months in advance. To do so, call (510) 233-2385.

A new electric foghorn has been installed. It produces a low beep that reportedly won't disturb your sleep. You may, however, have your view of the bay ruined by fog, a frequent visitor.

Pigeon Point

Home of one of the tallest and prettiest lighthouses in America. The 124-year-old tower rises like a spike 115 feet above a broad, low-lying cliff just off Highway 1, at the southern tip of Pescadero.

The tower's automated beacon reaches far out to sea, guiding sailors along one of the stormiest stretches of the California coast.

The lighthouse is flanked by four dwellings that provide some of the most inexpensive seaside lodging anywhere. Members of Hosteling International can stay overnight for $11. Nonmembers pay $14. There's an outdoor hot tub. And the point is a prime viewing spot during the annual gray-whale migration.

Reservations are required May-September. Call (415) 879-0633.

Point Sur

There may be no better place in California to witness the raw power of the sea than from the Point Sur Lighthouse, a squat stone edifice that sits 272 feet above the ocean, on a gumdrop island 19 miles south of Carmel.

On a clear day, you can watch massive ocean swells roll several miles across the continental shelf and explode against the island and the sandy elbow of beach that connects it to the mainland.

The island often disappears behind a curtain of fog, which is the main reason a lighthouse was built there. State park guides lead tours out to the light two or three days a week, sometimes at sunset or during a full moon. Call (408) 625-4419 for details.

The tours are open to the first 40 people who show up at the gate to the property, near the Point Sur Naval Facility on Highway 1. From the base of the island, you must hike up a half-mile-long road that rises 300 feet in elevation. There are two more staircases beyond that. The site is often bitterly cold and windy, especially during the summer.

But the view - wow.

San Luis Obispo

Easy to miss, impossible to forget. That's the story of the three-story wooden lighthouse on San Luis Head, just north of Avila Beach. It's not a particularly imposing building. But you'll love its weathered face. And it sits on a rounded promontory bordered by sandstone cliffs that take on the color of gold bars at sunset.

The lighthouse sits far off Highway 101. You have to hike in. Fortunately, the Nature Conservancy conducts regularly scheduled hikes that guide you safely along the coastal terrace. To inquire about reservations, call Nancy Warner at (805) 545-9925.

Point Vincente

Follow the twisty coast road north out of San Pedro and eventually you'll reach a concrete candle rising from a clutch of palm and cypress tress. It's the Point Vicente Lighthouse, a humble sentry perched on a broad promontory on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

I first noticed the lighthouse in January when a friend invited me to see what a great spot the point is for tracking migrating whales. I've been back twice since and often daydream about the place when I should be getting some work done.

The lighthouse opened in 1926 to guide mariners along the Southern California bight. It's still on the job, flashing twice every 20 seconds a bright light that's visible at least 20 miles away.

The 67-foot-tall cylinder dominated the point until World War II, when the nearby hills were settled. Soon, people were complaining that the light shone onto their bedroom walls at night. Part of the light's lantern was painted white, solving the problem. It also gave the beacon a ghostly quality that led to the rumor that the building is haunted.

"Some say the light is the ghost of a lightkeeper's wife," jokes Marion Seaman, the affable Coast Guard Auxilliarywoman who leads tours of the lighthouse.

To make reservations, call (310) 541-0334. To reach the lighthouse, go to Gaffey Street in San Pedro and follow it toward the ocean. Turn right on 25th Street (which becomes Palos Verdes Drive South) and travel about 7 miles.

Old Point Loma

Travel to the tip of Point Loma and you'll find a short, stubby lighthouse rising from the middle of a Cape Cod-style dwelling. The lighthouse is sort of homely. And it was built in the wrong spot. At 422 feet above the ocean, it's too high to be seen by mariners navigating in fog.

Even so, the lighthouse has become a beloved part of Cabrillo National Monument, helping lure nearly 1 million visitors per year. Its attraction lies partly in the fact that the light station offers a breathtaking view of San Diego Bay.

From the Santa Ana (I-5) Freeway, get off at the Rosecrans Street exit and follow the signs. Questions? Call (619) 557-5450.