5 Of The World’s Best Places For Viewing The Night Skies

milky wayIf you grow up in Southern California, school field trips to the Griffith Observatory are practically a requirement. For whatever reason, I always found the Planetarium more frightening than enlightening, especially in the sixth grade, when David Fink threw up on me on the bus ride home.

Despite many youthful camping trips with my family, I also can’t recall ever paying attention to the night skies (possibly because many of these trips were in the cloudy Pacific Northwest). Fast-forward 20-odd years, and to a solo camping trip on Kauai’s North Shore. It was my last night and the rainclouds had finally blown away. I stared up at the starry sky awestruck. It’s the first time l ever really noticed the stars, due to the lack of light and environmental pollution. I’ve been a stargazer ever since, and coincidentally, many of my travels have taken me to some of the world’s best locations for it.

Below, my picks for top-notch night skies, no student chaperone required:

Atacama Desert
, Chile

This stark, Altiplano region in Chile’s far north is the driest desert on earth, as well as home to the some of the clearest night skies on the planet. You don’t need anything (other than perhaps a great camera) to appreciate the stars, but a stargazing tour, offered by various hotels, hostels and outfitters throughout the town of San Pedro de Atacama, is well worth it.

I highly recommend the Astronomy Tour offered by the Alto Atacama Hotel & Spa, located just outside of San Pedro proper. For hotel guests only, this two-year-old program is led by one of the property’s guides, a naturalist and astronomer. The hotel has its own observation deck and a seriously badass telescope; you won’t be disappointed even if stargazing isn’t your thing. In addition to learning the constellations of ancient Quechua myth such as the Llama and Condor, you’ll have incredible views of the Milky Way, and be able to see telescopic images of Sirius and Alpha Centauri with a lens so powerful you can actually see a ring of flame flickering from their surface.

%Gallery-157717%alto atacama observatoryExmouth, Western Australia
Uluru (aka the former Ayers Rock, which now goes by its Aboriginal name) is considered Australia’s best stargazing, due to its location in exactly the middle of nowhere. In reality, the Outback in general has night skies completely untainted by pollution. But as I’ve discovered after many years of visiting Australia, the only bad places to stargaze are urban areas. The skies are also stellar above remote coastal regions, most notably in Western Australia (which is vast and sparsely populated).

The best skies I’ve seen are in Exmouth, located along the Ningaloo Reef. At Sal Salis, a coastal luxury safari camp, an observation platform and stargazing talk will help you make sense of the Southern sky. Be prepared for striking views of the Milky Way stretching across the horizon, seemingly close enough to touch.
mauna kea
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
In 1991, the year of the Total Solar Eclipse, hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the Big Island’s Mauna Kea Observatory – located at the top of the volcano – to watch the sky grow dark mid-morning. I was waiting tables on Maui, so all I noticed was a brief dimming, in conjunction with some of my tables pulling a dine-and-dash. A visit to the volcano, however, will assure you stunning views if you take a Sunset and Stargazing Tour offered by Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Day visitors can hike, and even ski in winter.

Bryce Canyon, Utah
This national park, known for its bizarre rock spires (called “hoodoos”) and twisting red canyons, is spectacular regardless of time of day or season. On moonless nights, however, over 7,500 stars are visible, and park rangers and volunteer astronomers lead Night Sky programs that include multimedia presentations and high-power telescopes; schedules and topics change with the seasons.
aurora borealis
Churchill, Manitoba
Located on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay on the fringe of the Arctic Circle, the village of Churchill is famous for three things: polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights. Its location beneath the Auroral Oval means the “best and most Northern Lights displays on the planet,” according to Churchill’s website, and you don’t need to sign up for a tour to enjoy the show. Save that for the polar bear viewing.

[Photo credits: Atacama, Frank Budweg; Mauna Kea, Flickr user sambouchard418;Aurora Borealis, Flickr user Bruce Guenter]

Summer Hotspot: Hawaii’s Big Island

With summer temperatures that rarely climb over 90 degrees and just as infrequently drop below 70 degrees, Hawaii’s Big Island is an automatic summer hotspot in terms of climate. But aside from the perfect weather, the Big Island brings plenty more to your vacation experience for summer 2012. There’s a lot to explore on the Big Island. Volcanoes, waterfalls, various shades of sandy beaches, trails and numerous other outdoor activities make the Big Island a big win for nature lovers. With increased flights for 2012 from the Continental US to Kona, it’s now easier than ever to get there. Alaska & Hawaiian Airlines began daily non-stop service from San Jose and Oakland, California to Kona.

The Big Island is the biggest island within the Hawaiian Islands. Spanning 4,028 square miles, The Big Island, formally referred to as Hawaii Island, is bigger than all of the other Hawaiian islands combined. Home of five volcanoes, this island is the go-to spot if you want to see lava in action. Waterfalls are abundant and beach sand comes in white, black, green, gray and several shades in between. Adventurers flock to the island for hiking, biking, backpacking, camping, surfing and snorkeling (and these activities are just the beginning of a long list).

Other summer 2012 incentives for visiting the Big Island:

Visit Hawaii's Big Island

Photo of the Day – Sea turtle in action

Snorkeling is one of my favorite travel activities, especially because it’s such a visual feast. Simply grab a mask and some fins, stick your head underwater and suddenly you’re staring at an alien world: bright neon-striped fish, strange wispy corals and of course, the graceful sea turtle. Flickr user kumukulanui snapped this beautiful specimen in action just off the coast of the Big Island in Hawaii. Of all the spots I’ve been snorkeling, the Big Island has to be one of the best, particularly to get up close with these amazing, beautiful creatures.

Taken any great travel photos recently? Why not share them with us by adding them to the Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Taste of the Hawaiian Range Festival celebrates local food culture, sustainability

Most people don’t associate Hawaii with cowboys, but the paniolo is an iconic and enduring symbol of the state’s ranching and agricultural heritage. On September 10th, Mealani’s Taste of the Hawaiian Range and Agriculture Festival celebrates all that is meaty and locally produced, at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island’s sweeping Kohala Coast.

Now in its 15th year, the festival brings the public together with ranchers and farmers to promote locavorism and sustainable agriculture. Join over 30 chefs and food vendors for some ono grinds, and “talking story.” On the menu: grassfed and -finished beef, pork, lamb, goat, and mutton, and wild boar, as well as produce from nearby family farms.
James Beard Award-winning chef George “Mavro” Mavrothalassitis-one of the founders of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine-will also be on hand to teach a Cooking Grass-fed Beef 101 class. No pupu platter jokes, please.

Beach-bound? Head to these best beaches on the west coast

Hanging 10 in Hawaii? Settling along the California coast? If the West is your destination this summer, don’t miss a day at one of these fabulous west coast beaches. Not only are they free, they offer plenty to do if a day in the sand gets dull (although, we can’t imagine it would)!

Kaanapali Beach – Maui – West Maui’s Ka’anapali Beach is undoubtedly is easily accessible by a concrete path. Here you’ll find Black Rock, along with some of the best snorkeling on the island. Entering right from the wide stretch of golden sand, you will be transported into an underwater world teeming with tropical fishes, a turtle or two, and if you are lucky you’ll spot a few eagle rays. At sunset, you are treated to a free torch lighting and cliff diving ceremony right off Black Rock.

Makena Beach (Big Beach) – Maui – South Maui‘s Makena Beach is a State Park, meaning there is no man-made development. Visitors concentrate on body surfing, snorkeling, or enjoying a picnic with the views of islet, Molokini, in the distance. There are no resorts nearby so there is often ample parking.

Poipu Beach – Kauai – Unlike most beaches in Maui which can get quite rough for timid swimmers, Poipu Beach’s protected area is a great option for beginner swimmers and snorkelers. With lifeguards on duty everyday and a relatively calm environment, it is considered one of the safest beaches in Hawaii.

Lanikai Beach – Oahu – Bypass the more famous Waikiki Beach for the more secluded and postcard-perfect Lanikai Beach. Divers and snorkelers alike will find delight in the reefs. As the sun sets, you could almost swear that Don Ho is strumming his ukulele in the distance. Carmel Beach – Monterey Coast, California – Anyone who has ever been to quaint Carmel-By-The–Sea along the Monterey Coast would have experienced firsthand the beauty of Carmel Beach. The best part? This beach is perfectly pet friendly! Owners and their canine companions can frolic freely on the white sandy beach, play in the water, or throw around a Frisbee.

Huntington Beach, California – Located in sunny Southern California, Huntington Beach has some of the best and most consistent surf in the U.S., making it the ideal site of the annual world surfing championships. Those hesitant to try the surfs firsthand can channel their Karch Kiraly and practice their beach volleyball skills at one of the famous stops on the renowned AVP Beach Volleyball tour.

Coronado Beach, California – Fronting the famed Hotel Del Coronado, Coronado Beach has something for everyone. With the widest stretch of sand in San Diego County, it offers plenty of space to fly a kite, fish, or explore the tide pools. It is an excellent location to swim or body board or bike along the path south of Hotel Coronado.

Pismo Beach, California – Located in California’s Central Coast, visitors can walk down the 1,200-foot Pismo Pier to try their hand at catching their dinner or just catch a beautiful sunset. Beach wheelchairs from Wheel Fun Rentals are even available free of charge to visitors.

Half Moon Bay, California – Northern California’s Half Moon Bay offers dozens of beaches along the Pacific Ocean. With its spectacular sea cliffs and beautiful shoreline, Half Moon Bay has some of the best vista points for spotting the annual gray whale migration and elephant seals, and its sandy shores are perfect for horseback riding right on the beach.

Joyce Zee is a Seed.com writer.