Danielle Wright meets the littlest lighthouse keepers as they carry glitter-covered lanterns at the annual Manukau Heads Lighthouse re-lighting ceremony.

A couple of toddlers sit guard over a dozen glass jars, painted with pink and silver glitter and embellishments. The children shiver in the cold air, staunchly refusing warm jackets as they wait for instructions.

A mum from the Manukau Peninsula Playcentre tries in vain to light the tea lights in the wind, finally managing to get them to catch alight more than momentarily in the jars.

Each child is given a lantern of a different shape, size and colour before heading hesitantly up creaky wooden floorboards in the dark to where lightkeeper Paul Dixon is waiting. He is good-natured as he coaxes the lanterns from their hands and places the jars close to the prisms.

"Most children will never forget this event," says Dixon, who's counting on moments like these to forge a lifelong connection between local children and his beloved lighthouse, one of the few you can climb to the top and walk around.

"Even in a gale, when everything's banging and clattering, this ceremony is still special: it's a rare and raw night."

"The children are the future keepers of the light," says Dixon's wife Sue.

All the children who bring a lantern up the stairs are presented with a wrapped wooden lighthouse back at the bottom and they run around, climb up the large tree stump seat and play tag in the near-darkness.

With so many kids bustling about in the early evening hours, a lighthouse suddenly doesn't seem such a lonely and remote place.

We follow the others to the viewing platform, overlooking the keeper's house and the spot where the HMS Orpheus sank in 1863, in our country's greatest maritime disaster. The white caps on the ocean act like crosses and flowers at a roadside memorial, marking the spot where 190 sailors lost their lives.

Back at the lighthouse, we're waiting for darkness. Tonight, the sun is staying up well past its bedtime and we don't see the glimmers of the tea lights in homemade lanterns poking through the heavy glass before we leave, but the effect is still heartwarming: the children's faces - frozen in wonder as they huddled with their lanterns - are etched on our memories.

The winding road leading to the lighthouse through the Awhitu Peninsula is worth the drive in itself, with its rolling hills and farmland separated by snatches of sea poking above the hills. The sights from the viewing platform, and at the top of the lighthouse overlooking Whatipu and beyond, are awe-inspiring - on one side rough ocean, on the other a safe harbour, still and shining.

After a few windblown hours at the lighthouse, we head to our accommodation - Castaways, overlooking Karioitahi Beach, which is a wild west coast black sandy beach, with incredible rolling hills worthy of a Don Binney painting.

We heat up next to the fireplace at the onsite restaurant Agave, and surprise the kids by cooking our own meat on the stone-grill at our table. They find the Valrhona chocolate fondue almost as interesting as the fish in the tank by the door.

From our room, we watch horse-riders in proper droving coats ride along the beach, while quad bikes circle nearby. A car parks up on the long, isolated stretch of beach and seagulls crowd around, hoping for dinner.

I'd like to say the kids, tired and happy, fell to sleep easily, but in reality, they raced around with their wooden lighthouses until the stormy sounds of the ocean finally lulled them to sleep.

A room with a view
Castaways is a modern retreat with absolute waterfront views and total privacy. The onsite restaurant, Agave, serves nostalgic gourmet food. We found it family-friendly, but it would also be the perfect place for a weekend away from the kids.

Castaways' "Chill Out Package" is $344 for two nights' accommodation, dinner and breakfast for two. Ask for the family rate if you'd like to bring kids. It's 50 minutes' drive from Auckland CBD.

The Manukau Heads Lighthouse is open daily 9am-5pm, gold coin donation. Guided tours available. Just over 100km from the CBD, around an hour and 45 minutes' drive. Phone: (09) 235 1458.