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Starlight in Abundance at Primland Observatory in Blue Ridge Mountains

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By Joe Bargmann
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 18, 2009

I'm not an astronomy geek. Not that there's anything wrong with being one; I've met about a dozen, and at least six didn't bore me with arcane rambling about this or that new telescope, the trip they took to the Florida Keys to gaze at the winter sky with 600 other astronomy geeks, or the tragedy of urban sprawl and light pollution of the night sky.

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My interest in the cosmos is more pedestrian. It started when I was 6 and sat transfixed in front of the television, watching Apollo 11 crawl into space. I also remember punching a hole in a piece of cardboard when I was a kid so I could "watch" the total eclipse of the sun without scorching my retinas. (The actual term for that, I learned from Wikipedia, is the pinhole projection method. If I were an astronomy geek, I wouldn't need Wikipedia to discover such terms.)

As I got a little older, my mother nurtured my interest in the stars. She pointed out the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and Orion's Belt, and she sent me scrambling to the astronomy section of the morning newspaper to find out which planet had been so bright and close to the moon the night before. I learned to love looking at the night sky. Once, when I was driving across Nova Scotia, I saw the aurora borealis and found it so profoundly beautiful I pulled over and got out of my car, teary-eyed and a little breathless as I stared at the shimmering curtain of light.

To be honest, though, none of that was on my mind when I first visited a resort named Primland, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia near the North Carolina border. The initial draw for me was earthbound: The place has a great new golf course. I will travel just about anywhere to play a great new golf course.

But when I got to Primland, in a town called Meadows of Dan, I saw something even more interesting. The resort's 26-room lodge, whose architecture is like that of a rustic Swiss chalet, has a four-story silver silo appended to one corner. On top is an observatory, 30 feet in diameter and with a door that slides open to allow for high-tech stargazing via a computer-controlled, state-of-the-art, deep-space telescope. The silo looked funny to me; its sleek design is incongruous with the rest of the building, and, well, I couldn't help thinking of scenes from an Austin Powers movie. Since the lodge was under construction when I visited, in mid-May, and the observatory not yet functioning, I vowed to return.

Now that I've gone back (twice) and seen the observatory in full operation, I may never look at the heavens the same way again.

A 12,000-acre hunting and fishing preserve, the resort is ultra-luxe, now that the lodge is up and running, complete with a cushy spa, superb restaurant, glass-walled wine vault, great room with twin fireplaces -- and above all, so to speak, the observatory.

You certainly don't have to stay at Primland to see a spectacular night sky; the views from southwestern Virginia, more than an hour from the nearest (small) city, are pristine. But thanks to Primland, four centuries to the year after Galileo invented observational astronomy with his crude wooden telescope, stargazing has officially become luxurious.

"There are precious few places where an ordinary person can get access to a really good telescope, and have a really exciting astronomical experience, while in a resort setting," says Rick Fienberg, press officer of the American Astronomical Society in Washington. Having visited many astronomy resorts in the past two decades and checked out Primland via its Web site, Fienberg is duly impressed. "It's a bigger and more elaborate spread than any other astronomy resort I've seen, and it's put together by someone for whom money was no object," he says. "Those things distinguish it from all the others."

* * *

The money behind Primland -- a fortune in the billions of dollars -- belongs to the Primat family of Switzerland. The patriarch, Didier Primat, died on July 6, 2008, survived by his estranged wife, Martine, and their eight children. He was a board member and large stockholder of Schlumberger, the largest oil-services company in the world, founded by his family in the early 1900s.

In fall 2007, stricken with the throat cancer that would claim his life, Primat called his top managers, including vice president Steve Helms, for a meeting with the architects of the lodge at Primland. According to Helms, Primat pointed at the dome of the scale model in front of him and said, "That would make a great place for an observatory."


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