There's nothing like a starry sky to add romance to any evening. Who can resist wishing on a star or being drawn in by the rippling waves the Aurora borealis? Stars have served as a map to guide our way and they've been the subject of awe to scientists and artists alike.
However, these natural wonders of the sky are getting harder to see thanks to the ever growing problem of light pollution. Even of we're lucky enough to spot the brighter stars and planets, nothing can equal a truly dark sky where even the most distant stars sparkle.
Looking for a stargazing getaway? Here are some top places to watch the skies.
Northern Canada. Remote destinations offer the best views because they're far away from city lights, but Canada's territories have an additional advantage. With long nights from August to May, they're one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. Many travel companies offer overnight excursions to watch the skies -- complete with creature comforts like heaters and hot chocolate.
If the Arctic Circle makes you shiver, you can catch the action online on the AuroraMAX website which broadcasts replays the nightly highlights as seen from Yellowknife.
Mont-Mégantic National Park, Quebec. Nestled among rivers and mountains, the park is part of the first International Dark Sky Reserve -- an area where local efforts have significantly cut light pollution. The park is also home to the ASTROlab and the Mount Megantic Popular Observatory, both of which offer activities for all ages. Take a day time tour, or swing by for an Astronomy Evening. If you go during the summer, time your visit to take in the Popular Astronomy Festival and stick around for the Perseid Evenings where you'll have ample opportunities to make a wish. (Visit the park website for more information.)
Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site of Canada, Nova Scotia.. Recommended by one of our readers, Phaedra, this site received its official Dark Sky Preserves designation in 2012. Located in Nova Scotia's interior, the sunsets at the park are matched only by the dome of stars hovering over the protected land. Its Dark Sky Preserve status nicely compliments its natural significance as protection from light pollution helps the areas nocturnal residents thrive. The park's natural heritage complements its cultural heritage -- visitors are invited to explore the area's rich Mi’kmaq heritage. (Check out the Parks Canada website for more information.)
McDonald Observatory, Texas. Party with the stars atop Mt. Locke, located 2040 metres above sea level in Texas's Davis Mountains. The observatory's family-friendly Star Parties offer a tour of the sky while special viewing programs pair extras like dinner with a look through one of its massive telescopes. Or, get better acquainted with the Man in the Moon on a Lunar Viewing Night. Of course, there are daytime tours as well and a special Twilight program to catch the sunset. (For more details, visit the observatory website.)
Hawai'i, Hawaii. While there is much to see on the Big Island, don't forget to look up! The island's geographic location, elevation and clear air make it a prime star spying spot. Get a close-up look at the Onizuka Visitor Center, or venture higher up the mountain with a star-gazing tour -- complete with dinner, transportation, warm clothing and great stories. At the summit, you'll find 13 research facilities from 11 countries, and a new one under construction too. (Visit GoHawaii.com for more information.)
The Caribbean Sea. Always a hot spot for winter getaways, the islands are also a popular choice for sky-watchers. If the warm weather and sunny beaches don't lure you in, the location near the Equator and Tropic of Cancer provide a chance to see some bright constellations including Aquarius and Eridanus. Experts agree that one of the best ways to see the skies is from the seas so watch for cruise packages that specialize in this pastime, especially around special events like eclipses.
Pisac, Peru. When you've had your fill of Incan culture in Cusco, venture to nearby Pisac next. While known for its Sunday fairs and fine Incan ruins, it's also a top place to view the Milky Way (according to Lonely Planet). This galaxy was once thought to map the way for Incan priests. Don't forget to look at the negative space between the stars too -- the Incans saw shapes like a fox or snake in the dark cloud constellations.
Hotel Elqui Domos, Paihuano, Chile. This astronomic hotel -- one of just seven in the world -- is a destination in itself. A stay in one of its seven geodesic domes lets you enjoy a 120 degree view of the sky over the Elqui Valley -- right from your bed. In addition to a retractable roof, each room has an ample terrace and telescope. Check out the view from the outdoor hot tub after enjoying a night time horse back ride, and don't miss the specialized astronomy tours to help you make the most of your visit. (Visit the hotel's website for more details.)
Kruger National Park, South Africa. There are a lot of flora and fauna we don't see at home, but the skies here are different too. It's one of the top places in Africa to safari, and the expansive space, multitude of activities and variety of lodging options practically beg for multi-night stays. Enjoy the starry sky on an overnight camping adventure, or step outside your luxury lodge to spy the Southern Cross and the rings of Saturn through your binoculars. (Visit the park website and park guide for details.)
New South Wales, Australia. To say stargazing is popular in this province would be an understatement. After all, 90 per cent of the country's astronomy infrastructure is located here, along with popular spots like Sydney and Coonabarabran (known as Australia's astronomy capital). However, venture a little further and you'll find Wiruna where the Astronomical Society of New South Wales has turned a 107 acre stretch of land into a Dark Sky Observing Site. In addition to annual South Pacific Star Parties, the society also hosts AstroCamps each weekend the New Moon approaches. The site is also a haven for bird watchers and wild flower enthusiasts during the day. (For more information, visit the ASNSW website and VisitNSW.com.)
Valentia Island, Ireland. This country's west coast is home to some of the darkest skies in Europe, according to the International Dark Skies Association. While Connemara, West Cork and Kerry are highlights for amateur and expert astronomers alike, the IDSA also recommends the quiet island of Valentia. During the day, tour the historic small towns and time your visit with one of the many cultural festivals throughout the year. (For more information, see www.visitvalentiaisland.ie.)
For more stargazing spots across the pond, tour to sites in Scotland and England as well -- including Stonehenge, which many believe is one of the oldest spots from which to watch the heavens.
Kiruna, Sweden. There's still time to enjoy this remote town before space tourism takes off -- plans are in the works to turn the Esrange Space Center into a port for private space flights, according to Travel + Leisure. Well north of the Arctic Circle and near the border to Finland and Norway, the big attraction is the Northern Lights. A tour of Kiruna and Esrange is the perfect add-on to a stay in Sweden's famous Ice Hotel in neighbouring Jukkasjärvi. Guests can bundle up for a picnic and enjoy dark skies by day during the winter. (For more information, see the Ice Hotel and Esrange Space Center websites.)
New York City, New York. City lights may obscure the sky but the Big Apple has one of the most famous starry nights around -- Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, in fact. On display at the MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art), this famous work is worth a trip to see the colours and textures. If you've ever seen a Van Gogh up close, you know reproductions don't do it justice. (View it online on the MoMA website.)
ON THE WEB
Naturally, this is just a small selection of the many sky-worthy sites around the world. For more options, see the International Dark Sky Association's Dark Sky Observing Sites & Destinations.
Additional sources: Forbes.com, Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2009, TravelandLeisure.com, USA Today and local tourism websites.
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