Star-hopping holidays

An astronomer's holiday dream list: 10 hotels, guest houses, resorts and other trips with a focus on telescopes, stargazing, star parties and astrophotography.

01 © Arizona Office of Tourism

Explore the world’s wild places for seriously starry skies (© Arizona Office of Tourism)

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Since light pollution blots out all but the brightest stars, most stargazers don’t often experience truly dark skies.

The rule of thumb is simple; when the Moon is down, go wherever humans are not.

Rural locations are the best bet, and many hotels and resorts around the globe are beginning to schedule stargazing sessions and install telescopes and observatories.

Stargazers Retreat, Brecon Beacons, Wales

Stargazers Retreat is deep in the Brecon Beacons International Dark Sky Reserve. (© Stargazers Retreat)
Stargazers Retreat is deep in the Brecon Beacons International Dark Sky Reserve. (© Stargazers Retreat)

A cosy cottage miles from light pollution, a few chickens…and a computerised Meade telescope next door.

Not only does Stargazers Retreat (from £61 per night) have its own custom-made computerised observatory, but enthusiastic owner Richard Cooke will show you how to set up your own telescope, help you take night-sky photos, or just leave you to your own devices to pick out deep-sky objects in the inky black skies.

It’s so restful, but sleeping will be the last thing on your mind in this, the darkest western side of the Brecon Beacons International Dark Sky Reserve between Crai and Trecastle.

Hotel Rangá, Iceland

Hotel Rangá's TEC 160ED APO refractor is a big attraction for astrophotographers. (© Hotel Rangá)
Hotel Rangá’s TEC 160ED APO refractor is a big attraction for astrophotographers. (© Hotel Rangá)

Far from any light pollution and in a great location for views of the Northern Lights, this luxury hotel complete with thermally-heated outdoor hot tubs has its own roll-off roof observatory just 150m from the main building.

Inside is an 11-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain and a TEC 160ED apo refractor on an Astro-Physics 900 mount, both computerised and perfect for astrophotography.

An 18-inch reflector – the biggest telescope in Iceland – can often be found outside on a platform, too.

And if you visit in summer, a Coronado Solarmax II 60 solar telescope is on-hand.

Best Served Scandinavia offers a seven-night trip to Iceland, including a two-night stay at Hotel Ranga (£990 per person including flights, car hire and accommodation).

Hotel SaharaSky, Morocco

Sun-down at SaharaSky © Hotel SaharaSky
Sun-down at SaharaSky © Hotel SaharaSky

Set at the eastern end of the Draa Valley’s palm-filled oases, Hotel SaharaSky has a rooftop observatory equipped with an impressive range of telescopes for ‘stargazing à la carte’.

The first private astronomical observatory in north Africa, it includes Schmidt-Cassegrain and Ritchey-Chretien telescopes up to 16 inches in aperture.

If that’s something truly special, so are the night skies and the 28° latitude north.

The hotel is visited by Intrepid Travel’s Night Sky and Caravan Trail trip (£799 including accommodation, ground transport, some meals and most activities).

Utah, USA

Jupiter and Venus around the Ballerina Tree, Bryce Canyon © Jamie Carter
Jupiter and Venus around the Ballerina Tree, Bryce Canyon © Jamie Carter

There are dozens of legendary places to stargaze in Utah. Bryce Canyon National Park holds a fine astronomy and night-sky programme every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, which includes 90 minutes to wander between telescopes outside.

A short drive away is the gorgeous Cedar Breaks National Monument, where the air is thinner, colder and offers even better stargazing (altitude is more than 3,000 metres). The Grand Lodge at Brian Head, from £118, is handily located.

Utah also hosts the grand Zion National Park, Arches National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, Canyonlands National Park and the northern side of the Grand Canyon.

If you use Las Vegas as a hub, consider visiting the Great Basin National Park in Nevada, which holds its annual Astronomy Festival from 29 September-1 October 2016.

The Canary Islands

Have a go at astro-photography on the island of Fuerteventura © Stars By Night
Have a go at astro-photography on the island of Fuerteventura © Stars By Night

The Canary Islands might just be the best places in Europe for amateur astronomers to head.

As well as super clear dark skies as you gain altitude inland, here at 28° latitude north you’ll get the chance to see Sagittarius, Scorpius and southern hemisphere sights like Canopus.

That makes the island of Fuerteventura – a UNESCO Starlight Reserve since last summer – perfect for a four-day night photography course with professional photographer Simon Waldram (from £509 including accommodation, meals and transfers), who hosts theory and practical sessions each evening covering star-trails, stars, time-lapses, light painting and the Milky Way.

The nearby island of Tenerife’s El Teide National Park is also a UNESCO Starlight Reserve, with Parador de Las Cañadas del Teide (from £89 per night) holding stargazing sessions with telescopes.

Or you can stay on the slopes of  El Teide at the Refuge Altavista (£19 per night for a bunk bed) and stargaze from 3,260m.

Castilla y León, Spain

Have a go at astro-photography on the island of Fuerteventura © Stars By Night
Have a go at astro-photography on the island of Fuerteventura © Stars By Night

An often overlooked region of Spain in the country’s northwest, this high plateau ringed by mountains is currently going through the process of registering as a dark sky site.

The high and dry sierra air is also home to two traditional cottages, El Caño Chico (from £450 per week) and La Fuente (from £740 per week), whose owner – a Frenchman called Fred – has three big telescopes including a portable one with a 20-inch diameter mirror.

As part of the rental he’ll take guests – for free – up the mountain (to get away from the three lights in the village!) for an hour or so of stargazing.

About an hour to the east near the Sierra de Gredos Natural Park is El Milano Hotel (from £130 per night), which has a rooftop observatory, stargazing library, and a public astro party on 11 June 2016.

Flagstaff & Scottsdale, Arizona

El Milano Hotel has a rooftop observatory. © El Milano Hotel
El Milano Hotel has a rooftop observatory. © El Milano Hotel

Flagstaff, Arizona hosts the wonderful Lowell Observatory – where Pluto was discovered – which holds nightly stargazing with telescopes (using the refurbished 120-year-old 24-inch Clark refractor!), while Sky Jewels offer astronomy tours out of Phoenix and Scottsdale.

If you’re after luxury, the Four Seasons at Troon North in Scottsdale holds regular, free stargazing sessions with a small telescope, while about three hours’ drive south – either side of Tucson – are Mount Graham International Observatory and Kitt Peak National Observatory.

The Maldives

Lowell Observatory holds nightly stargazing and telescope sessions. © Jamie Carter
Lowell Observatory holds nightly stargazing and telescope sessions. © Jamie Carter

Asia isn’t often thought of as a stargazing destination, but there are pockets of dark skies that rival anywhere on the planet – including on prices, too.

If it’s good enough for Buzz Aldrin…

The luxury Gili Lankanfushi (from £959 per night) over-water resort in the Indian Ocean is completely devoid of light pollution, has a powerful telescope and night sky-trained staff, but that’s not why Commander Aldrin likes it.

Is it the sprawling 1,700 square meter villa? Or the 24/7 butlers?

Actually, it’s the resort’s Ocean Paradise Dive Centre.

“Scuba diving in the ocean has a similar freedom to being in space,” says Buzz. “Particularly when you’re upside down!”

Indian Ocean

Six Senses Con Dao Resort in Vietnam has a 127mm Maksutov-Cassegrainian telescope. © Six Senses Con Dao
Six Senses Con Dao Resort in Vietnam has a 127mm Maksutov-Cassegrainian telescope. © Six Senses Con Dao

Another Indian Ocean choice is Soneva Kirii (from £3,360 per person), a beach resort off Thailand’s west coast whose Celestial Experience includes a private trip to the resort’s own observatory.

Six Senses’ Con Dao (from £448 per night) in Vietnam includes a private observatory (private sessions possible) with a 5-inch Maksutov-Cassegrainian telescope.

Masseria Gialli, Ugento, Puglia, Italy

Stargaze from a traditional Italian 'trullo'. © Masseria Gialli
Stargaze from a traditional Italian ‘trullo’. © Masseria Gialli

A remote countryside location, clear skies and no more than a partly-lit Moon is all you truly need to stargaze, but this hotel in Italy’s heel adds its own observatory in a traditional ‘trullo’ (dry stone hut ).

Inside Masseria Gialli’s own trullo, surrounded by an olive grove, is a Skywatcher 70/900-EQ-1, telescope, while about 20km away close to Salve is Parco Astronomico, which has several optical telescopes and even a Sun-scope.


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Jamie Carter is the author of A Stargazing Program for Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide, published by Springer. Follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.