Journey over land and sea to visit the stars
Tourists are seeking stellar views of the constellations
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 AmSky.com 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.