Holidays with the Stars

Astronomy and holiday are two concepts that are increasingly being combined with great results, as Paul F Cockburn discovers.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array is a revolutionary astronomy platform located in the thin, dry air of northern Chile’s Atacama desert that has been providing new insights into star and planet formation since it became operational in 2013. But professional astronomers are not the only people to visit the remote array: it’s also a tourist attraction open to the public every Saturday and Sunday morning.

However, professional astronomers are not the only people attracted out into the Atacama desert by ALMA. The project may be an international scientific partnership—between Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Chile—but it’s also a tourist attraction, with some of its facilities open to the public every Saturday and Sunday morning.

“Astro-tourism is completely new,” Chile-based astronomer Bill Dent told The Guardian back in 2015. “You didn’t get it 10 years ago.” That’s certainly not the case now: there’s increasing choice in how you can combine your fascination with the night sky and an escape from those everyday routines—and you don’t even have to break the bank to do so.

Our most recent Reader Survey suggests that seven out of ten BBC Sky at Night magazine readers are either interested in, or have already been on, an astronomy break—strongly suggesting that astronomy holidays are something increasingly close to your hearts. But what are the most interesting options available? Here are 12 holiday suggestions that can genuinely let you see stars!

Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, England, UK.
What: Europe’s largest single area of protected night sky (1,483 square kilometres/572 square miles) was awarded gold tier designation by the International Dark Sky Association. Kielder Observatory, in Kielder Water & Forest Park, organises events all year.
When: Best between August and April, when nights are longer and darker—the only obstacles then are British weather and the Moon!
Why: Great views of the Milky Way, as well more distant objects including the Andromeda Galaxy—the furthest object visible with the naked eye.
Travel: Road: A1, A69, A66; flights to Newcastle or rail to Morpeth, Alnmouth or Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Accommodation: From inexpensive hostels to country-house hotels.

The Starmus Festival, Trondheim, Norway.
What: Fourth international celebration of science, arts and music moves from Tenerife to Norway’s third-largest city. The programme of talks, concerts, debates and parties is expected to attract up to 10,000 people.
When: 18-23 June 2017
Why: Opportunity to see, hear and learn from some of the world’s leading scientists, artists and musicians—including lunar astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Charlie Duke & Harrison Schmitt.
Cost: General ticket giving full access: €850 (£727) until 31 May; €1000 (£855) afterwards. Student discount available.
Travel: Regular flights to Trondheim from numerous UK airports.
Accommodation: Choice from Flakk camping site (11km from city centre) to city centre conference hotel Scandic Nidelven Hotel.

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Dark Sky Festival, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.
What: Festival of family-friendly activities and keynote speakers held within designated Dark Sky Preserve; past speakers include Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen and Star Trek actor George Takei!
When: 13-22 October 2017
Why: Beautiful landscape by day, and clear views of the sky at night.
Cost: Many events are free, though price of speaker events and some activities in the Jasper Planetarium are TBC.
Travel: Fly to Edmonton or Calgary then by train (VIA Rail Canada, Rocky Mountaineer) or road to Jasper (Trans-Canada Highway 16 aka “the Yellowhead” or Trans-Canada Highway 1).
Accommodation: Recommended accommodation includes Mountain Park Lodge hotels, Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, Mount Robson Inn.

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AstroFarm, Confolens, Charente region, France
What: Residential centre created especially for astronomy holidays or short breaks, offering bespoke accommodation for the “daytime sleeping astronomer”, plus a wide range of telescopes and imaging cameras available on-site so you can “travel light”.
When: Open all year round.
Why: Surrounding pastoral countryside offers an excellent choice of walking, cycling, fishing, canoeing, horse riding and bird watching activities.
Cost: €30-€60 a night for the bed;
Travel: Nearest airport Limoges (flights from many UK airports); Bordeaux Airport is 2 hour drive by motorway. Alternatively Eurostar to Paris and then train to Limoges station.
Accommodation: On site; ranges from choice of cabin beds to private rooms, B&B or self-catering.

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Berber camp, Sahara
What: Camel trek into the Sahara for an unforgettable night of stargazing at the peak of the spectacular Geminids Meteor Shower.
When: Various dates, December.
Why: During the 15 day itinerary you can also wander through the labyrinthine souks of Fes and Marrakech, explore legendary Casablanca, relax by the Atlantic coast in Essaouira and chart Roman ruins at Volubilis. Escorted by an English-speaking tour leader.
Cost: £889 per person plus single supplement £209 (2016 prices).
Travel: Return flights to Marrakech not included.
Accommodation: Succession of 3-4 star hotels in Marrakech, Casablanca, Meknes and Essaouira, one night camping at Berber camp in the Sahara; breakfasts included, along with some lunches and dinners.

. . .

Iceland Northern Lights Tour
What: Short break holidays (4 days) including opportunities to see the Northern Lights (Nature permitting) and Iceland’s unrivalled scenery.  Consist of small groups of between four and 16 people.
When: Various dates throughout the year.
Why: Tour includes visits to some of the most impressive sites in Iceland—the Glacial Lagoon, volcanic beaches, Gullfoss Waterfall and World Heritage Site of Thingvellir NP.
Cost: Currently listed as £1,699 per person, including flights to/from London. (£1,499 excluding flights.)
Travel: Fly from London to Keflavik, transfer to Reykjavik, subsequent travel by minibus.
Accommodation: Hotel Klettur in Reykjavik, then family-run Hotel Laki

. . .

Galloway Forest Park, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland, UK
What: Covering 780 square kilometres (300 square miles), the UK’s first Dark Sky Park includes an Astronomy Centre hosting events throughout the year—but especially the darkest winter month.
When: Open all year.
Why: Area also ideal for hillwalking, rock climbing, and mountain-biking, plus breathtaking scenery and wildlife including red deer.
Travel: Glasgow, Edinburgh and Prestwick Airports are within two hours travel time, with M74 and A1 running through the area. West coast rail services to Glasgow run through region.
Accommodation: Options range from campsites and Bothies to B&Bs and holiday cottages within easy travelling distance of the Park.
. . .

Singita Lebomo Lodge, Kruger National Park, South Africa
What: A safari with a star-gazing focus in the Kruger National Park, close to the border with Mozambique–offering a glimpse of the Southern Sky.
When: All year.
Why: In addition to seeing a quite different sky overhead, the Lodge is close to a rich variety of wildlife including big cats and rhino.
Cost: £X,XXX per person, not including international flights.
Travel: Fly from UK to Johannesburg, then charter flight to Lebombo Kruger Airstrip.
Accommodation: The main lodge at Singita Lebombo comprises 15 spacious cliffside suites, while the satellite Singita Sweni Lodge has six riverside suites. Built almost entirely of glass, the cliffside suites provide stunning views of the surroundings. Quality spa facilities available.
. . .

El Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma, Canary Islands
What: A 70-90 minute tour of the Observatory’s facilities, including the interior of one of the professional telescopes.
When: All trips dependent on telescope operation and weather, between 9am and 1pm most days (June to September) and Tuesdays, Fridays, and weekends the rest of the year.
Why: An opportunity to see an important Observatory close up, while enjoying the largely unspoiled rugged and forested terrain of the island.
Cost: €9 per adult. Taxi fare from Airport approx €50.
Travel: Travel to Observatory is by private car or taxi; the route from the island’s capital Santa Cruz is the most popular.
Accommodation: La Palma offers wide range of hotels, villas and apartments.

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AstroAdventures, North Devon, England, UK
What: Two two-bedroom lodges for let (2-7 days), including access to large 50cm (20”) Dobsonian telescope and dedicated imaging observatory with a 25cm (10”0) telescope.
When: Available all year round.
Why: Established by astronomy lovers for enthusiasts of all levels. Holidays include free introductory training in telescope use.
Cost: £305-£640 a week per lodge depending on time of year—(shorter stays are proportion of weekly rate). Additional charges for pets, extra beds and metered electricity.
Accommodation: Both lodges—“Jay” and “Wren”—comfortably accommodate and sleep a family of four; each has one bedroom with double bed and a second with bunk/single beds. Fresh linen supplied.
. . .

Northern Parks Discovert Total Solar Eclipse
What: Six-night adventure covers the first total solar eclipse viewable from continental US in nearly 40 years, against the stunning backdrop of two celebrated National Parks—Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
When: 17-21 August 2017
Why: In addition to the eclipse itself, an opportunity to enjoy geysers, canyons and wildlife.
Cost: $4,490-$5,590 per person (depending on room share) not including international flights to Salt Lake City International Airport.
Travel: Itinerary includes morning tour of Salt Lake City, and then journey northwards to Jackson, Wyoming—the “Crown Jewel” of the Northern Rockies.
Accommodation: Radisson Hotel Salt Lake Downtown; Homewood Suites, Jackson; Best Western Landmark Inn, Park City. Or equivalents.
. . .

Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), Valley of the Moon, Chile
What: Guided trips to the ALMA Operations Support Facility include opportunities to view the control room, laboratories and any antennas under maintenance. The dishes on Chajnantor Plateau are not included—at 5,000 feet, oxygen levels there are dangerously low!
When: Public visits are every Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Why: An excellent opportunity to see this important international project up close, as well as some astounding scenery.
Cost: Free, but passes must be booked in advance. Waiting list available.
Travel: Travel only permitted by an official bus (unless you are disabled), which leaves San Pedro de Atacama promptly at 9am.
Accommodation: San Pedro de Atacama offers a range of B&Bs, lodges and hotels.

First published in BBC Sky at Night Magazine, #141 February 2017.