Jour­ney over land and sea to visit the stars

Tourists are seek­ing stel­lar views of the con­stel­la­tions

Waterloo Region Record - - Record | Travel - ELAINE GLUSAC

Like watch­ing the sun­set, seek­ing out the Big Dip­per in the night sky is a va­ca­tion rit­ual. But in the past five years, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, the term as­tro­tourism has evolved to de­scribe more in­ten­tional travel to places with dark skies and more vis­i­ble stars.

“As­tro­tourism is any kind of tourism that in­volves the night sky or vis­it­ing fa­cil­i­ties re­lated to as­tron­omy like ob­ser­va­to­ries, and com­bin­ing that with a broader sense of eco­tourism where in­ter­ac­tion with na­ture is what the vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence is about,” said John Bar­en­tine, di­rec­tor of pub­lic pol­icy at the In­ter­na­tional Dark-Sky As­so­ci­a­tion, a Tuc­son, Ari­zona-based non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion de­voted to bat­tling light pol­lu­tion and cer­ti­fy­ing dark sky pre­serves where stars and plan­ets shine brightly.

In its 30-year his­tory, the as­so­ci­a­tion has des­ig­nated more than 60 In­ter­na­tional Dark Sky Parks in pro­tected ar­eas, such as Grand Canyon Na­tional Park. In­ter­na­tional Dark Sky Re­serves, 13 so far, have pro­tected land at their cen­tre, such as a na­tional for­est, and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in their buf­fer re­gions that have agreed to re­duce light emis­sions. Its four In­ter­na­tional Dark Sky Sanc­tu­ar­ies tend to be re­mote; Pit­cairn Is­lands in the Pa­cific, for ex­am­ple, has ap­plied for sanc­tu­ary sta­tus.

Sim­i­larly mo­ti­vated by light-pol­lu­tion abate­ment, the Royal As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety of Canada des­ig­nates Canada’s Dark-Sky Pre­serves, of­ten in na­tional parks.

Given that any­one look­ing up from a camp­fire to spot the con­stel­la­tion of Orion could be con­sid­ered a stargazer, their num­bers are hard to quan­tify, but anec­do­tal ev­i­dence sug­gests the pas­time has a grow­ing fan base.

In March, the pub­lic li­brary in Ran­cho Mi­rage, Calif., opened an ob­ser­va­tory with a 23.5-foot dome as well as a 2,000-square-foot pa­tio

where vis­i­tors can at­tend stargaz­ing events. In June, Vik­ing Ocean Cruises launched its new ship, the Vik­ing Orion, fea­tur­ing a plan­e­tar­ium and a res­i­dent as­tronomer who of­fers lec­tures, guided stargaz­ing and in­door night-sky tours.

The Na­tional Park Ser­vice has adapted its slo­gan “Find your park” to “Find your park after dark” to in­crease aware­ness of its night sky pro­grams, which in­clude star par­ties, fes­ti­vals, in­ter­pre­tive talks and chil­dren’s night ex­plorer pro­grams.

Eclipse pil­grims chas­ing the path of the 2017 so­lar eclipse caused traf­fic jams along the path of to­tal­ity in Au­gust 2017, and des­ti­na­tions from Texas to Maine are gear­ing up for a sim­i­lar mi­gra­tion when the next North Amer­i­can eclipse takes place on April 8, 2024. Vis­i­tors to South Amer­ica won’t have to wait that long; on July 2, 2019, one will track across Chile and Ar­gentina.

“The eclipse last sum­mer raised so much aware­ness — peo­ple got re­ally jazzed about look­ing up from that,” said Sa­muel Singer, the owner of Wyoming Stargaz­ing who guides pub­lic and pri­vate stargaz­ing in Jack­son Hole and Grand Te­ton Na­tional Park. Founded in 2014, the com­pany has grown from one high-pow­ered tele­scope to 10 to meet de­mand.

“In ev­ery cul­ture there’s a myth about the stars and sto­ries there,” he added. “Peo­ple have al­ways looked up for an­swers.”

Many of the best stargaz­ing ar­eas in North Amer­ica lie near pop­u­lar moun­tain re­sorts, ski des­ti­na­tions and state and na­tional parks, adding a cos­mic won­der to trips there; along with stargaz­ing events and fes­ti­vals, they are ex­pand­ing the galaxy of as­tro­tourism.

Parks and at­trac­tions

Last De­cem­ber, the Cen­tral Idaho Dark Sky Re­serve be­came the first In­ter­na­tional Dark Sky Re­serve in the United States, cov­er­ing a 1,400-square-mile (3,626-kilo­me­tre) swath of cen­tral Idaho in the Saw­tooth Moun­tains, from Ketchum in Sun Val­ley to Stan­ley. The In­ter­na­tional Dark-Sky As­so­ci­a­tion calls cen­tral Idaho “one of the last large ‘pools’ of nat­u­ral night­time dark­ness left in the United States” on its web­site.

Ketchum and Stan­ley are both gate­ways to the re­serve. The Saw­tooth Botan­i­cal Gar­den in Ketchum and the Stan­ley Mu­seum both of­fer pe­ri­odic as­tron­omy pro­grams. Idaho Con­ser­va­tion League has held overnight treks in the re­serve.

This sum­mer, Na­tional Geo­graphic and Au Di­able Vert Moun­tain Sta­tion, a Dark Sky Pre­serve in Glen Sut­ton, Que., near the U.S. bor­der, opened L’Ob­serv-Étoiles, the first ope­nair aug­mented real­ity plan­e­tar­ium. The the­atre, with 184 heated seats, plans to op­er­ate nine months each year, pro­vid­ing vis­i­tors AR head­sets fea­tur­ing dig­i­tal over­lays of 17th-cen­tury il­lus­tra­tions that align with the stars and plan­ets over­head (pro­grams cost $45.99 CAD).

Walk­way Over the Hud­son, the bridge-turned-lin­ear-park be­tween Pough­keep­sie and Lloyd on ei­ther side of the Hud­son River in New York state, added Star­walks this sum­mer, de­ploy­ing sci­en­tists and teach­ers to talk about spe­cial themes, of­fer night­time pho­tog­ra­phy tips and staff the tele­scopes (free).


Gath­er­ings of stargaz­ers abound, from star par­ties in state parks to week­long star sa­faris in Aus­tralia. The on­line mag­a­zine lists global cos­mic gath­er­ings.

The Rock­ies in Al­berta are home to six Dark Sky Pre­serves. One of the world’s largest, the 1,622-kilo­me­tre Jasper Dark Sky Pre­serve of­fers prime stargaz­ing and North­ern Lights watches Septem­ber to May, in­clud­ing ski sea­son.

For those seek­ing to take bet­ter pho­tos of the night sky, the Astropho­tog­ra­phy Con­fer­ence is held in the fall at the Adiron­dack Pub­lic Ob­ser­va­tory in Tup­per Lake, N.Y.

The Man­ning Park Re­sort in eastern British Columbia’s Man­ning Pro­vin­cial Park held its first As­tron­omy Week­end, Oct. 12 to 14, fea­tur­ing as­tronomers, ses­sions for chil­dren and more ad­vanced sci­en­tific talks.


Re­sorts like the Hy­att Re­gency Maui Re­sort and Spa in Hawaii, with three high-pow­ered tele­scopes on its roof ca­pa­ble of spot­ting 80 con­stel­la­tions, and Prim­land in Vir­ginia’s Blue Ridge Moun­tains, home to its own ob­ser­va­tory, have set a high bar for ca­sual as­tron­omy. But even the less equipped are bring­ing sci­ence to nightlife.

In Mex­ico, the Four Sea­sons Punta Mita has re­cently be­gun of­fer­ing com­pli­men­tary stargaz­ing on its driv­ing range where a guide uses a laser to point out stars and con­stel­la­tions over­head. Pri­vate stargaz­ing tours may take place at the beach and in­clude wine and cheese.

Guests of Westin Grand Cay­man Seven Mile Beach Re­sort & Spa in the Caribbean can re­serve an ocean­front beach ca­bana at night in a stargaz­ing up­grade that in­cludes a pri­vate firepit with s’more fix­ings, tele­scope, night sky map and din­ner.

In Se­dona, Ariz., L’Au­berge de Se­dona Re­sort & Spa has added com­pli­men­tary “star bathing,” an adap­ta­tion of for­est bathing, the Ja­panese con­cept of med­i­ta­tion in na­ture. The guided night­time ver­sion has par­tic­i­pants ap­pre­ci­ate all that is around them, as well as twin­kling over­head.


Some of the 66 mov­able an­ten­nas of the Ata­cama Large Mil­lime­ter/ sub­mil­lime­ter Ar­ray, ALMA, in the Ata­cama Desert in Chile. The $1.4 bil­lion fa­cil­ity sits on a plateau at 16,000 feet and, be­cause of its clean­li­ness and un­for­giv­ing ter­rain, has the feel­ing of a space colony.



Vis­i­tors atop Mauna Kea, a dor­mant vol­cano, near Hilo, Hawaii. The 14,000-footh­igh sum­mit holds 13 tele­scopes. The Fou­cault pen­du­lum, left, at the Grif­fith Ob­ser­va­tory, in Los An­ge­les.


The Grif­fith Ob­ser­va­tory, in Los An­ge­les is fre­quently spot­ted in movies and TV shows, and es­pe­cially known for its star­ring role in “La La Land.”


The Hall of the Eye at Grif­fith Ob­ser­va­tory charts the progress of hu­man ob­ser­va­tion of the sky.

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