'We'll leave the light on for you'

N. California's brightest escape

It's not every hot tub that offers a view of frolicking seals, otters, sea lions, sharks, and even an occasional whale. This is indeed the high point of a stay at Hi-Pigeon Point Lighthouse, an hour south of San Francisco. The majestic 115-foot-tall lighthouse, perched on a 35-foot cliff, has been guiding mariners since 1872. And for the past 28 years, as one of 200 US hostels, it has also been hosting travelers with tight budgets and a generous love of the outdoors.

Despite its many years as a hostel, however, Hi-Pigeon Point Lighthouse remains somewhat of a secret hideaway. It is a college-dorm-style destination with spectacular natural beauty and no frills - except for that hot tub. And it's easy to drive right by, admiring the lighthouse, but clueless about its accessibility to travelers. The hostel's location is ideal for the nature lover. Guests won't want to miss the elephant seals at Ao Nuevo State Reserve, just seven miles south of Pigeon Point. From December through March, about 3,000 of these enormous, blubbery mammals come ashore to give birth, breed, and molt before returning to sea. The pups stay behind in March and April to bask in the sun and learn to swim.

Also nearby are northern California's legendary redwoods at Butano State Park. Of course, the long, windswept beaches are always an option for those who'd rather work on their reading list and suntan than ogle wildlife. Or visitors to Hi-Pigeon Point hostel may just want to hunker down at the site. That's what Emily Sederholm and Gillian Jacobson chose to do on a recent afternoon. The schoolteachers from Berkeley, Calif., have visited many hostels around the world, but Pigeon Point is a particular favorite.

"In Europe, hostels are often just a place for a party," says Ms. Jacobson, who has stayed at Pigeon Point every year since 1996. "Not here. Since alcohol isn't allowed, it has more of a family atmosphere."

Diana Marcum and Shellee Nunley are also fond of the hostel at Pigeon Point. Old friends from the days they worked at the same newspaper, the women chose to meet here for a weekend. They figured it was a halfway point between their respective homes in Palm Springs, Calif., and Seattle, and they could explore the area while catching up on each other's lives. "There's so much to do here," says Ms. Marcum. "And the rooms aren't bad. They're actually cute!"

Of course, what's cute to some travelers may a bit too cozy and communal for others. Pigeon Point's accommodations, which are in outbuildings surrounding the lighthouse, are indeed dormitory-style. Separate male and female "bunkhouses" sleep three to four linen-toting travelers.

Families or couples can request a private room for $44 per night rather than the regular rate of $13 for hostel members and $16 for nonmembers.

Then there are those chores. Not everyone wants to spend vacation time sweeping floors or taking out the trash. But for travelers with minimal cash looking for maximum rewards, Hi-Pigeon Point Lighthouse hostel is a rare find. Guests just might take home a renewed appreciation for the natural environment, says Jana Freston, a mother of three who staffs the front desk. For her, working at such a place is a "good mission" in this day of high-priced, lavish resorts.

"Here people get back to nature," she says, looking out at the white-capped waves. "And hopefully, they will realize the importance of preserving places like this."

For more information, call (650) 879-2120 or visit Hi-Pigeon Point's Web site at www.pigeonpointlighthouse.org

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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