There is something about lighthouses. Remote and inaccessible when seen from the shore, they promise both romance and drama. And my first glimpse of the Grebeni lighthouse, through a mantilla of spray as waves crashed against the rocks, did not disappoint.
Once the swell had subsided, a boat from the Dubrovnik Palace Hotel sped me off to the rocky reef on which the lighthouse stands, 900 yards from the mainland. The sun was floating on lilac water as we docked, at dusk, and climbed the steep steps cut into the barren limestone outcrop. On the terrace above, chilled champagne awaited, along with a complement of staff that had come out from the hotel before us to prepare dinner al fresco: a four-course feast of tuna tartare with scallops, spicy clam chowder, a toothsome dentex with grilled vegetables and succulent carob cake with fig compote.
There are lighthouses available to rent all along Croatia’s coast, but this is the only one to benefit from the services of a luxury hotel. As well as daily housekeeping, chefs and butlers arrive in speedboats on request, to ensure that castaways suffer no privation. As welcome receptions go, it doesn’t get much better than this.
The lighthouse itself squats on a limestone platform, green-shuttered and solidly four-square as is typical of the region, with a short tower raising the beacon to 27 yards above the sea. Built by the Austrian navy in 1872 as part of their chain of eastern Adriatic lighthouses at a time when the Dalmatian coast was part of the Habsburg empire, this is one of 48 lighthouses in Croatia. Most were automated in the 1960s, when the Grebeni’s lighthouse-keeper was retired. To the west, however, I can make out another beacon on the islet of Sveti Andrija, one of the few lighthouses still to be manned, with two keepers alternating every 15 days. Whereas they must brave all weathers, the Grebeni lighthouse is available to guests only from May to October – with access dependent on the elements. It is reassuring to know that, in the event of a squall, the Palace Hotel will come to the rescue with more orthodox accommodation on land.
While breakfast is delivered daily, for those wishing to self-cater, there is a fully-working kitchen – possibly the best-equipped room in an otherwise fairly simple set up of blue-and-white furniture. The lighthouse accepted a few guests during a “soft launch” last year but this summer is its first full season following a major refurbishment. Due to strict regulations governing lighthouses, the work was undertaken by a state-owned company, from whom the lighthouse is leased by the hotel, and the results are pleasantly functional, if not hugely inspired. A vast stone cistern for collecting rainwater has survived, with pride of place in the hall, but most of the beautiful old limestone- flagged floors have been replaced by tiles, and partition walls have created a quirky internal arrangement.
There is one single and three double bedrooms, of which one is accessible only by walking through another (thankfully the lighthouse is only rented out for exclusive use, rather than by room). There are two bathrooms with showers and a small, Ikea-esque sitting room with satellite TV.
But the joys of the lighthouse are best experienced outdoors, on its two huge terraces totalling 3,500 sq ft, which are shared with a cackling colony of yellow-legged seagulls – a protected species in Croatia. The birds provide a constant challenge to the housekeepers, who have the Augean task of cleaning after them; and entertainment for guests as the gulls vie for airspace with flocks of wheeling swifts.
Lest one tire of contemplating the beauty of the surroundings and swimming off the rocks in deep, crystalline waters, there is plenty of activity on offer. While the Old City of Dubrovnik, three miles to the south-east, holds cultural and gastronomic delights, water-babies can enjoy ocean kayaking around the natural reserve of Lokrum island, crowned with its Napoleonic fort and Benedictine ruins, fishing in well-stocked waters, and scuba-diving into caves of red coral, or – for advanced divers – into the wreck of the Taranto, which sank just off the reef in 1943. I opted for a thrilling two-hour jet-ski safari (actually, a Sea-Doo, the jet-ski’s grown-up and more silent cousin), exploring the nearby Elaphite islands at speeds of up to 60mph.
After dinner, the birds, thankfully, retired to neighbouring Kolocep island for the night, leaving behind silence in which to contemplate an inky, star-studded sky and the silvery dance of moonlight on the ocean; the only sounds those of a distant, insomniac seagull, and the rhythmic lap of waves against the reef.
I loved my craggy outpost. With only a mobile phone (provided) to connect you to civilisation, this is the ideal hideaway for writing that unwritten novel, a wonderful retreat in which to chill – and, of course, the perfect place to throw an unforgettable party.
The Grebeni lighthouse (www.alh.hr) sleeps up to seven and costs from €700 per night, rising to €1,100 during the summer peak season, including breakfast. Essentially Prestige (www.prestigeholidays.co.uk) offers a seven-night package from £514 per person, based on six people sharing, including airport and boat transfers