travel

Nights Under The Stars (Part 1)

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The stellar mysteries of the skies have inspired earthbound fascination for millennia. As the rare sight of the transit of Venus approaches this summer, Claire Wrathall picks the best places to stay and gaze at the beauty of the heavens

Description: Stars form arcs around the North Star above the Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii

Stars form arcs around the North Star above the Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii

Captain cook may be known principally as an explorer of lands however the primary objective of his first voyage on HMS Endeavour was not, in fact, to discover Australia, but to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun from Tahiti. The timing of this rare occurrence could, so the English astronomer Edmond Halley had posited a century earlier, be used to calculate the distance of the Sun from Earth. Cook’s measurements, along with those by 137 other observers around the then-known world, led to the conclusion that it was 92,955,807.3 miles, a figure now called an “astronomical unit”.

Description: the transit of Venus across the Sun

the transit of Venus across the Sun

That transit of Venus occurred on 3 June 1769. This summer it is due to happen again, between 5 and 6 June, for only the eighth time since 1631, when Johannes Kepler predicted it would first occur. And once again, the Pacific will be the best place from which to view it. (It takes about six-and-a-half hours for Venus – visible as a tiny black dot – to travel across the face of the Sun.) The UK specialist operator Explorers Astronomy Tours (www.astronomytours.co.uk) recommends the higher slopes of Mauna Kea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island as the optimum place from which to watch it (wearing “eclipse shades”, it should go without saying). The company is running a 10-day trip (from $6 per person), including a tour of the Mauna Kea Observatory, which has the world’s most powerful telescope.

Description: Explorers Astronomy Tours

Explorers Astronomy Tours

The transit may be the major event in 2012’s astronomical calendar, but wherever the conditions are right – lack of light-spill, no cloud cover, not too bright a moon – the night sky is a phenomenon. Deserts tend to be ideal areas from which to observe it, as are very remote places: Easter Island, for example, or any of the 30 official Dark Sky Preserves, Reserves and Parks (15 of them in Canada) sanctioned by organizations including the International Dark-Sky Association (www.darksky.org) and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (www.rasc.ca).

Description: Dark Sky Preserves

Dark Sky Preserves

Those are not the only promoters of stargazing. At the end of last year Alqueva in Portugal was named the world’s first Starlight Tourism Destination by the Starlight Foundation (www.starlight2007.net), a UNESCO-supported organization founded to promote both astrophysics and “tourist activities related to the night sky”. Even hotels are increasingly looking to the heavens, investing in telescopes and state-of-the-art observatories, and hiring resident astronomers. Here are 11 of the most stellar places to stay

Description: The night sky over Amangiri, a 600-acre desert estate in Utah

The night sky over Amangiri, a 600-acre desert estate in Utah

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