7 unusual holiday ideas – how to add stargazing to your travel plans
The worst thing about going on holiday is that all too soon it will be over and you’ll be wearing those post-holiday blues like an invisible blanket of gloom. Our leisure time is limited so it’s tempting to stick to a tried-and-tested formula that you know works best. But what if your needs have changed or you want to try something a little different, yet sustainable? There are many new trends in tourism to tempt you, but if you’re not quite ready for an extreme yoga retreat or a hike to Everest base camp, there are other ways of bringing a new twist into your well-deserved time off.
One trend that has burgeoned in popularity in recent years is astrotourism. And no, this doesn’t just mean booking a seat on Virgin Galactic or a SpaceX lunar space tourist flight (although you could, if you had a spare half a million pounds). As urban populations increasingly lose sight of the wonders of the night sky due to poor and excessive artificial lighting, there’s a growing desire to rediscover the beauty of pristine nightscapes and gaze beyond our earthly boundaries. And here are 7 easy ways to add a bite-sized chunk of the universe to your leisure break.
1. Rural retreats
You don’t need to compromise on comfort and relaxation to enjoy a spot of stargazing. Many places, especially in Europe and North America, now offer self-catering and B&B countryside retreats in areas protected from the glare of excessive lighting. West Withy Farm Cottages in Exmoor National Park (which was Europe’s first designated Dark Sky Reserve) is one of the best UK examples. Here, you can hire observing equipment or even book a guided observing session with a local astronomer, plus there’s plenty to explore in the area during the daytime too. Or you could hop across the channel and enjoy the hospitality and astronomical knowledge of Andrew & Sue Davies at the as-seen-on-TV Astro Farm in Confolens, south west France.
2. Carry on camping
For the hardier among us, a regular camping holiday gives us the chance to do some DIY constellation-spotting, in addition to those nature walks or forest cycle rides. Contrary to what you may think, you don’t even need a telescope. A half-decent pair of binoculars (say, 7×50) and a basic star chart (either a planisphere or an app such as Sky View or Star Walk 2) is enough to get you started. Check out the darkest skies around the world on the International Dark Sky Association’s website and, if possible, choose a campsite within those areas for the best nocturnal vistas. Many of these protected zones even have dark sky rangers or amateur astronomers available to lend a helping hand if you’re not quite confident with your constellations.
3. Stars and the city
Museums, café culture, stunning architecture, history at every corner, theatre shows and the finest dining establishments. The glitz and glamour of a city break is exhilarating, and the senses will be working hard to take it all in. And that’s the only slight downside to a city break – finding the time and space to just be. One way to restore a sense of zen whilst the urban buzz continues around you, is to sit back and take in the wonders of the universe at a planetarium show. A great example is Berlin, with its Zeiss Groβplanetarium, a state-of-the-art science theatre offering everything from a gentle trip across our Solar System to an epic virtual adventure through a black hole. A fabulous contrast to your poignant visit to the East Side Gallery or Checkpoint Charlie, for example. So, whilst urban lighting/cloudy skies may prevent you from seeing more than the very brightest stars, there are many planetaria around the world to provide a fun and educational alternative.
Further reading: The East Side Gallery – Berlin’s cold war canvas
4. Join the experts
From the beautiful landscapes of Scotland and the high sierras of sunny Spain, to the far reaches of the Atacama desert, specialists across the world are offering astrotourism tours and events which could easily be incorporated into a wider visit. Try your hand at capturing a starry image with Jesse Beaman Astrophotography in Galloway Forest Park, or become an astronomer for a night with the astrotourism team Azimuth, based at the Calar Alto Observatory in Almería, Spain. And for the ultimate other-worldly holiday experience, a trip to South America beckons – northern Chile holds over a dozen major observatories and is widely considered to be the best area in the world for astronomy. Couple that with the stark, wild beauty of the environment and you have the makings of an unforgettable trip.
Further reading: The story of Azimuth, Spain’s astrotourism pioneers
5. Party animal? No problem!
Ahh, the fun and frolics of festivals is so infectious that even the stargazers have got in on the act. The large-scale extravanganza of Jasper Dark Skies Festival is as wow as they come. Not only are the dark skies majestic, but the event takes place in the oh-so-beautiful setting of the Canadian Rockies. But even if you’re on a UK staycation, that’s no reason to miss out on your party fix. Solarsphere, the fun-size astronomy and music festival, takes place in Builth Wells, in the heart of the Welsh countryside, each August. With fascinating talks, activities, observing sessions and an ongoing stream of live music, it’s a perfect way to slip the cosmos into your holiday itinerary.
Further reading: Solarsphere Astronomy and Music Festival
6. The next generation
Keeping your family occupied is often the key to a successful holiday, and if there’s a budding Helen Sharman or Tim Peake among you, there are several space-themed sites to consider including in your vacation. If your budget doesn’t stretch to that all-singing, all-dancing USA trip to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center/Disneyland/Everglades, Belgium’s Euro Space Center, which includes exhibitions, mission-themed weekends and spaceflight simulators, is a great alternative and would make a fabulous little stop-over on a European camping or road trip. Even closer to home, the award-winning National Space Centre near Leicester is an easy stop to fit into a day trip or weekend break.
7. Going cosmic
The universe is a really big place. I mean utterly, mind-bogglingly humongous, choc-full of bizarre and beautiful formations and structures. But two kinds of astronomical spectacle stand out for Earth-dwellers. Next year, I’m hoping to make one of my mum’s wishes come true by taking her on a Northern Lights cruise. I can already imagine our anticipation as we watch those Nordic skies, waiting for that first green or orange glimmer to herald the start of a swirling display of the Aurora Borealis. And having missed the Great American Eclipse of 2017, I’m doing everything I can to get to one of the next few total eclipses, because I know from my eclipse experience in France what unique and humbling events they are. So instead of the cosmos making only a cameo appearance in your holiday, why not let it take centre stage?
Further Reading: Top 10 reasons to take a stargazing holiday
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Disclosure: While stargazing is a great example of sustainable tourism, cruising is not renowned for its eco-friendly credentials. I will always opt for a cruise company with decent sustainable policies, such as Hurtigruten, where circumstances allow. My thanks to Travel Alberta for providing some rather gorgeous dark sky images. All opinions are my own.