7 Top Destinations for Stargazing Travelers

Sunday, October 18, 2009

This is the International Year of Astronomy, marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo's initial documentation of his telescopic observations of the moon, stars and Jupiter. In that spirit, here are seven of the world's best destinations for stargazing travelers.

Kona Village Resort, Big Island, Hawaii, 808-325-5555, http://www.konavillage.com. Resident astronomer Jon Lomberg is also a well-known space artist, with work in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. He leads free stargazing sessions once a month -- and more in-depth private programs on request, from $410 a night -- at this 82-acre beachfront resort, where guests stay in well-appointed, thatched-roof cottages. Big Island visitors who wish to take their astronomy to a higher level -- 9,000 feet above sea level, to be precise -- can enjoy the free nightly program at the Keck Observatory (http://ifa.hawaii.edu/mko/visiting.htm), on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano about an hour's drive from Kona Village. Resort rates from $660 a night, double occupancy, including meals.

Sun River Resort, Bend, Ore., 800-801-8765, http://www.sunriver-resort.com. With its pristine natural setting and on-site observatory, Sun River is something like Primland, albeit much less exclusive: The sprawling resort features six accommodation options, including two- to six-bedroom condos. Astronomy programs start at just $6 a night for adults and $4 for children, with advance booking required. Accommodation rates from $165 per night, tax included.

New Mexico Skies, Mayhill, N.M., 575-687-2429, ://www.nmskies.com. Serious astronomers will feel at home at owners Mike and Lynn Rice's compound of comfortable wood cabins bordering the 500,000-acre Lincoln National Forest. Four bubblelike domes house an impressive array of equipment, including telescopes hooked up to CCD (charge couple device) cameras to capture stellar images digitally. Single-room to duplex accommodations are suitable for individuals, couples or families. Rates start at $155 per night, with a two-night minimum, plus equipment-use fees of at least $100 per night; observational guidance is optional and costs $50 an hour.

National Optical, Astronomy Observatory, Kitt Peak, Ariz., 520-318-8726, http://www.noao.edu. In the heart of black-sky country about 40 miles west of Tucson, the NOAO -- commonly known as Kitt Peak for the mountain on which it sits -- has been a magnet for stargazers since its first public observatory opened in 1996. Two more observatories have debuted at the site since, drawing 7,000 visitors annually to what has become the largest optical observatory in the world. The nightly observing program books up weeks in advance, despite the $46 fee. Motels and B&Bs abound within a short driving distance of the observatory. With rates starting at $115 per night, including breakfast, Paca de Paja (http://www.pacadepaja.com) is loaded with western charm.

Four Seasons Resort, Scottsdale, Ariz., 480-515-5700, http://www.fourseasons.com/scottsdale. Telescopes are available upon request -- and stargazing charts are part of the turndown services -- at this recently renovated, luxurious haven in the Sonoran Desert. Dabblers in astronomy will enjoy the DIY approach, not to mention the 400-thread-count sheets and in-room fireplaces. Fall rates from $380 per night; winter rates are higher.

Explora Atacama/Hotel de Larache, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, http://www.explora.com. On the outskirts of a remote village in the Andes, Hotel de Larache is for travelers who like the contrast of vigorous exploration and super-plush accommodations (in an award-winning building, no less). Among the many offerings at this recently renovated 50-room hotel are horseback riding and hiking excursions, and a first-rate observatory with a powerful 16-inch Meade telescope. Three-night minimum stay required; rates from $1,920 per person, double occupancy, include three meals a day.

Pic du Midi, Observatory and Hotel, La Mongie, France, http://www.picdumidi.com This is the spot, high in the Pyrenees, where NASA astronomers mapped the surface of the moon for the first landings. Getting to the remote mountain location entails two cable-car rides. Three domes house an array of telescopes, available at no additional cost to the mere 19 guests the hotel can accommodate. It's mainly a skiers' retreat, but the stargazing is nonpareil. The accommodations are spare, with concrete-walled guest rooms and bathrooms down the hall. Overnight stays with dinner and breakfast are about $250 per person.

-- J.B.

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