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

If 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%Exmouth, 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, 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.

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]

Here or there? A a price comparison of the best cities to visit this May

Planning a quick weekend away or a summer vacation? Wouldn’t you like to know where you’ll get the best value for your dollar? Sure, the exchange rate fluctuates, but we’ve tracked some of May’s best cities via a Universal Currency Converter and a little help from our friends over at Frommers.

According to Frommers, your best bets for May include:

  • Saint-Pierre, Martinique, where the exchange is $1 = €.67 and the average three-star hotel for two is $178 per night.
  • Apia, Samoa, where the exchange is $1 = 2.26 Samoan Tala and the average three-star hotel for two is $79- $176 per night.
  • Stockholm, Sweden, where the exchange is $1 = 6.01 Swedish Krona and the average three-star hotel for two is $199 – $232 per night.
  • Bad Ischl, Austria, where the exchange is $1 = €.67 and the average three-star hotel for two is $74.
  • Jeonju, South Korea, where the exchange is $1 = 1,072 South Korean Won and the average three-star hotel for two is $74 – $111.
  • Montpelier, Vermont, where the the average three-star hotel for two is $90 – $135.
  • St. Louis, Missouri, where the average three-star hotel for two is $73 – $108.
  • Wasagaming, Manitoba where the exchange is $1 = C95¢ and the average three-star hotel for two is $146.

Have cities you’d like to compare? Use the Universal Currency Converter or send us a note!

[Flickr via Tax_Rebate]

Winnipeg top three: The Forks, day trips, & engaging oddities

My final post on Winnipeg takes a gander at three remarkable features of the city and its hinterlands: The Forks; Lake Winnipeg day trips; and some engaging oddities.

1. The Forks. This multipurpose space, located at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers in Winnipeg’s downtown, today houses a market area, shops, several bars, a recreational area, a fabulous hotel, and the site of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. The fabulous hotel in question is the Inn at the Forks, an effortlessly luxurious, eco-friendly hotel where I very happily spent three nights.

The Forks site has a long history as an important meeting place. It was once home to Aboriginal bison hunters. Later it was a hub for fur trading, and then an expansive rail yard and an immigration processing center. The Forks today would be a sterling model of urban reclamation and renewal but for one fact, namely, the absence of residents. This, however, should be changing relatively soon. A proposal to build 350 condominiums and apartments in the area is currently being floated. Residents will make The Forks livelier, and may in turn help Winnipeg repopulate its downtown and usher in a central city rejuvenation of a different order.

Summer evening on Lake Winnipeg.

2. Lake Winnipeg. North of Winnipeg is the enormous Lake Winnipeg, over 250 miles long from north to south. The municipality of Gimli on the western side of the lake is the epicenter of Icelandic culture in Manitoba. Settled by Icelandic immigrants in the 1870s, it continues to function as the spiritual heart of Icelandic culture in North America, and is a great day trip destination from Winnipeg. The eastern side of the lake’s southern edge includes Grand Beach Provincial Park, with its enormous dunes and pristine beach. There are cute cottage communities like Victoria Beach as well, and a range of beaches to choose between. There is even a local nudist beach belt, with zones that cater to straight and gay visitors alike. During the summer Lake Winnipeg is lovely and rustic though, it must be acknowledged, often mosquito-embalmed.
Manitoba Museum display.

3. Engaging oddities. Winnipeg genuinely feels as if it’s on the edge of something bigger. That sense of horizon means, necessarily, that the city is not currently living through a heyday. Another heyday may materialize out of the ambition of the present, but it’s not quite here.

Today’s Winnipeg is a city of many fascinating layers, a city that feels, to this visitor at least, melancholic as well as hopeful. Take a look at Edwin Janzen’s fascinating article in Drain Magazine on Winnipeg’s status as a creative hub, and you come across a suggestive portrayal of a city in ambivalent love with itself. Janzen identifies a complex ambivalence toward the city as a primary “civic characteristic” that itself spurs intense fandom.

This dynamic alone makes Winnipeg singularly fascinating. But the pleasing characteristics and oddities of the city, some of which I touched on in my introductory Winnipeg blog post, are countless. There is a beautiful steakhouse called Rae and Jerry’s that looks as if it came straight from a Mad Men set and should rightfully provide a backdrop to a Wallpaper fashion spread. There is deep ethnic and cultural diversity, evidence of which is widespread. (To give one example, according to Statistics Canada’s Aboriginal Population Profile of 2006, over 10 percent of Winnipeg’s population identifies as Aboriginal, one of the highest percentages in the country.) There is a bakery called the Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company that sells its own sunflower oil and lists the farms that grow grains for it. And there is an unavoidable friendliness that is also intermittently ironic and irreverent.

Winnipeg presents a mish-mash that for many fellow North Americans can’t help but feel both terribly familiar and (dare I say it?) disarmingly exotic. In his Drain Magazine article, Janzen notes that Winnipeggers who have moved away can’t stop talking about their hometown. After two visits, I think I understand.

Read other posts from my road trip to Winnipeg series here.

Some media support for my stay in Winnipeg was provided by Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba. All opinions expressed are my own.

Winnipeg’s Plug In: Contemporary art on the prairie

Winnipeg’s contemporary art scene has developed an undeniable and persistent buzz, thanks in no small part to the city’s own Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art. Founded in 1972, Plug In has been central to Winnipeg’s evolution as an important center of contemporary art. Those with their fingers on the pulse of contemporary art and film will already know that the Royal Art Lodge‘s members hail from Winnipeg, as do Dominique Rey, Guy Maddin, and Noam Gonick, to name but a handful.

In addition to providing a space for exciting and boundary-pushing art, Plug In also has the distinction of having produced the only piece of art (Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller‘s Paradise Institute) to earn Canada an award at the Venice Biennale.

Plug In’s 2010/11 programming highlights include an exhibit by Eleanor Bond, a film installation shot in Winnipeg by Shezad Dawood, and work by AA Bronson, Adrian Stimpson, and Lori Blondeau.

The most exciting new development in Plug In’s world is its new gallery space, which is currently under construction and slated for a November 2010 opening. Filmmaker Noam Gonick, one of Winnipeg’s most important contemporary artists and currently President of the Board of Directors of Plug In, told me that the new building will “truly engage the public with radical contemporary art programming from Manitoba and around the world.”

I had the good fortune to tour the Plug In building site with Neil Minuk, a member of the architectural team behind Plug In. The new space is located at a busy intersection in downtown Winnipeg adjacent to the magnificent Winnipeg Art Gallery. It is shared by Plug In and the University of Winnipeg.

Architecturally, the building manages to feel austere yet resemble a confection. The outside as well as the inside of the building is covered in freezer panels, an inexpensive and funny material for a building in a city with such a cold climate. The other immediately interesting architectural feature is the building’s external tabs. These tabs cast shadows and assume different colors at different times, the latter feature due to the reflective film that covers them. A passageway through the building will permit pedestrians to pass through in warmer weather; during the winter, this area will morph into the building’s vestibule.

Once completed, Plug In’s portion of the building will include gallery space, a bookstore, and two cafes, one with an organic food focus and the other cast in a bistro-esque mold.

Upcoming in 2011 is Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years, which will be the world’s first International Aboriginal Biennale. Indigenous artists from Canada, the United States, Europe, and Oceania will show work that imagines the forms culture will take in the future. Celebrated Canadian artists Rebecca Belmore and Kent Monkman are confirmed participants.

Check out my entire road trip to Winnipeg here.

Some media support for my stay in Winnipeg was provided by Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba. All opinions expressed are my own.

Winnipeg: Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Currently under construction in Winnipeg is the very ambitious Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The museum, which occupies a part of The Forks complex in Winnipeg, was the brainchild of Winnipeg’s late media mogul Izzy Asper. It has received funding from an impressive range of federal, provincial, municipal, and private sources. The museum will emphasize human rights as a global subject, though it will apply a specifically Canadian approach to the question. In the words of the museum’s mission statement, it will proceed with “special but not exclusive reference to Canada.”

The intellectual and political underpinnings of the museum are quite bold. Exhibits will encourage political action on the part of museumgoers, and there will be a focus on contemporary human rights issues. It is expected that there will be sections devoted to the Holocaust as well as human rights in Canada. On this last subject, the museum will not shy away from a recognition of Canada’s own shortcomings in the field of human rights.

Architecturally, the building will also pack a wallop. Designed by Antoine Predock, an Albuquerque-based architect known for placing the surrounding physical environment front and center in his buildings, it will consist of several very conceptual components. Museum attendees will enter the building from between large stone arms, the building’s “Roots.” There will be an enormous glass Cloud encircling the building, as well as a surging Tower of Hope that will offer striking views across the city and the prairie beyond. There will also be an internal Garden of Contemplation, which will be characterized by the use of water and medicinal plants. Throughout, there will be careful attention to the local environment, from a foregrounding of First Nations traditions to the use of Manitoba’s home-quarried Tyndall limestone.

The museum is a multiyear project. Construction began in 2009 and is expected to continue through 2012. There are hopes in Winnipeg that this very ambitious building will trigger a Bilbao Effect for the city, a confluence of architectural innovation, dynamic local venues, and lifestyle industry to lure tourists to visit. Certainly, Winnipeg has extreme weather against it, though I’d wager that many of the ingredients necessary for such a transformation are already in place.

Free guided tours of the construction site’s perimeter can be arranged through the nearby Explore Manitoba Centre at The Forks (204-984-1731).

See other posts from my roadtrip to Winnipeg series here.

Some media support for my Winnipeg visit was provided by Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba. All opinions expressed are my own.