The World’s Top 10 Stargazing Spots
The Atacama Desert, Chile
The Landscape: One of the driest places on earth (it receives no more than a millimeter of rain each year), northern Chile’s stark Atacama Desert has optimal conditions for stargazing: high altitude, few clouds, and virtually no radio interference or light pollution.
The Skyscape: The near-perfect visibility here gives stargazers crystal-clear views of the legends of the Southern Hemisphere sky—including the Tarantula Nebula and the Fornax Cluster of galaxies.
How to Experience It: QuasarChile Expeditions (www.quasarchile.cl) runs myriad astronomy-themed tours through the Atacama. Guests stay in hotels or have the option of camping under a canopy of stars, and visit renowned astronomical observation sites like the Paranal Observatory—home to the Very Large Telescope (actually the biggest in the world). Visits are also made to the construction site of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, which when completed in 2012 will be the world’s most powerful radio telescope.
Yangtze River Valley, China
YANGTZE RIVER VALLEY, CHINA
The Landscape: While modern China’s big cities usually have poor viewing conditions, the country has a rich tradition of stargazing (one of the world’s earliest observatories was built in Beijing during the 15th-century Ming Dynasty). The dramatic Yangtze River valley, with its monumental Three Gorges Dam project, offers both stunning daytime scenery and comparatively clear night skies.
The Skyscape: The Chinese have kept meticulous records of solar eclipses for thousands of years (traditionally interpreting them as inauspicious omens), and on July 22, 2009, a five-minute total solar eclipse will cast its shadow over the Yangtze River valley.
How to Experience It: The stargazing-themed tour operator MWT Associates (www.melitatrips.com) offers a two-week China trip in July 2009 to coincide with the solar eclipse; the itinerary includes explorations of Beijing and Xian, and a cruise up the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Shanghai.
The Landscape: The rolling hills of Tuscany—already well known for their terrestrial beauty—are one of the first places where 17th-century astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei first turned his seminal invention, the refracting telescope, to the sky.
The Skyscape: Tuscany is the perfect place to view some of the very space phenomena that Galileo first observed—like sunspots, the mountainous surface of the moon, and Jupiter’s four moons (now known as the Galilean moons).
How to Experience It: In October 2009, Smithsonian Journeys (www.smithsonianjourneys.org) offers a weeklong “In the Footsteps of Galileo” tour, which brings participants to the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory outside Florence (on the very hill where Galileo spent his final years in exile). The tour also includes a visit to Florence’s Institute and Museum of the History of Science (where Galileo’s telescopes and compasses are displayed) and to a variety of other Galileo-related sites in Padua, Venice, and Pisa.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH AFRICA
The Landscape: The largest game reserve in South Africa, Kruger encompasses more than 7,300 square miles—and is home to the famous “Big Five” (lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, elephants, and water buffalo), along with many high-end safari lodges.
The Skyscape: Kruger’s flat savanna and bushveld, far removed from pollution and sources of artificial light, make excellent terrain for training binoculars on the Southern Cross, Scorpio, and the rings of Saturn.
How to Experience It: At Singita Game Reserves, set in the far eastern reaches of the park, guides trained in astronomy lead game drives in open-air Jeeps every day at dusk. These give guests the chance to enjoy champagne and hors d’oeuvres under the stars, often accompanied by the roars of not-so-distant lions.
The Landscape: More than 2,300 miles from the U.S. mainland and studded with high volcanic peaks, the islands of Hawaii have evolved into one of the world’s premier astronomy destinations.
The Skyscape: Celestial Northern Hemisphere favorites—including the Milky Way, the bands of Jupiter, and the constellations of Ursa Major and Orion—can be seen with a wonderful clarity here.
How to Experience It: At Maui’s Haleakala National Park (www.nps.gov/hale), which is dominated by 10,000-foot Mount Haleakala, rangers lead star-watching walks many evenings from May through October (visitors can also pick up “star maps” at the park headquarters). Oahu’s Astro Tours Hawaii (www.astrotourshawaii.com) hosts stargazing programs at its private observatory near Waikiki. And on the Big Island, high above the town of Hilo on the slopes of 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (www.maunakea.com) offers stargazing tours beneath the mountain’s snowcapped peak, using portable telescopes to navigate the solar system.
The Landscape: About 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, not far from Sweden’s border with Norway and Finland, remote Kiruna will soon become the center of space tourism in Europe. It’s home to Esrange Space Center (www.ssc.se/esrange), a space research center responsible for everything from satellite design to rocket and stratospheric balloon launches. Plans are under way to develop Esrange into a spaceport, from which private companies will one day sell journeys into space to curious (and wealthy) customers.
The Skyscape: The biggest draw this far north is, naturally, the awe-inspiring aurora borealis, or northern lights—glowing, colorful, wavy bands of light that ripple across the night sky. (These occur when particles driven from the sun by solar wind become trapped and magnetically charged in Earth’s upper atmosphere.)
How to Experience It: Wintertime guests at the famous Icehotel (www.icehotel.com/Winter)—set 11 miles from Kiruna in the village of Jukkasjärvi—can, in addition to snowshoeing and ice-sculpting, take guided tours of Esrange; they can also “picnic” outside while gazing up at the northern lights through high-powered binoculars.
The Caribbean Sea
THE CARIBBEAN SEA
The Seascape: Hundreds of miles from major light and pollution sources, the southern Caribbean islands—St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent, and the Grenadines among them—make for outstanding stargazing. Getting off the land entirely, though, and out into the open sea, is even better.
The Skyscape: Given its proximity to the equator in the Tropic of Cancer, the Caribbean offers a particularly bright view of objects in the celestial equator—like the constellations of Canis Minor, Aquarius, and Eridanus.
How to Experience It: On four different Caribbean cruises throughout late November and December, Cunard Line (www.cunard.com) is partnering with Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) to present a series of astronomy programs on board the iconic ocean liner the Queen Mary 2. Cruise guests can attend “star parties” hosted on deck by distinguished RAS Fellows, along with lectures about everything from the cosmic history of water to the Greek mythology rooted in the constellations. Guests can also take advantage of the QM2’s onboard planetarium, the only floating one in the world.
The Landscape: Roswell jokes aside, New Mexico really does have a distinct relationship with space exploration. Blessed with high altitudes and clear, vapor-free skies, the state is home to the series of massive (82-foot-diameter) radio astronomy antennas known as the Very Large Array—featured in the movie Contact—as well as Spaceport America, a 27-square-mile commercial spaceport under construction near White Sands Missile Range.
The Skyscape: New Mexico’s soaring mountains allow exceptional views of Venus and Mercury, along with many constellations popularized in local indigenous art and lore (like Orion, Gemini, and Taurus).
How to Experience It: To watch the night skies, guests staying in the simple, contemporary cabins at New Mexico Skies (www.nmskies.com)—an overnight guest observatory in the pine-scented Sacramento Mountains 130 miles northeast of El Paso—can rent high-powered, pier-mounted binoculars or other visual-use telescopes (which allow them to view through an eyepiece), or book one of six private observatory domes equipped with state-of-the-art imaging telescopes (which transmit sky views to a computer screen).
La Fortuna, Costa Rica
LA FORTUNA, COSTA RICA
The Landscape: The 5,436-foot Arenal Volcano, in northwestern Costa Rica, is one of the world’s most active. Though the last major eruption took place in 1968, rivers of bright-orange lava often pour down Arenal’s precipitous slopes (anywhere from several times daily to several times monthly).
The Skyscape: Astronomically, Costa Rica is one of the few places above the equator where the Magellanic Clouds, two galaxies first identified by explorer Ferdinand Magellan in the 1520’s, are visible. Visitors during the dry season, from mid-December through mid-April, have the best chance of seeing them.
How to Experience It: At the Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort (www.tabacon.com), set right at the base of the volcano’s western slope, guests can soak in one of the dozen thermal hot springs while taking in the nightly light shows—not just stars, but colorful lava eruptions.
The Landscape: Known primarily for the other kind of stars (celebrities), and for its blanket of smog, L.A. might not seem like an ideal place to constellation-gaze. But the presence of the iconic Griffith Observatory (www.griffithobs.org), perched high atop Mount Hollywood, makes it a worthwhile astronomical destination.
The Skyscape: Depending on the time of year, visible objects that can be seen from the observatory include Jupiter and Venus, assorted double stars, clusters, and nebulae. And with the facility’s powerful telescopes, you can get an incredibly detailed view of the moon and its craggy surface.
How to Experience It: Originally famous for its star turn in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, the observatory completed a $93 million renovation and expansion in 2006. Among the new offerings that visitors can take advantage of: shows in the reconstructed Samuel Oschin Planetarium, which uses the world’s most advanced star projector to present dazzling shows about the cosmos; evening telescope-viewing on the lawn; and monthly free “star parties” hosted by members of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society and Los Angeles Sidewalk Astronomers association.