Stargazing at a Resort, in Comfort By ELAINE GLUSAC August 12, 2010
AS the sun sets over the Atacama Desert in Chile each reliably cloudless night, dazzling ruby red and garnet hues paint the volcanic Andes Mountain peaks in the eastern skyline, deepening almost imperceptibly until they are indistinguishable from black. That would be the grand finale at many resort areas. But here, it is merely the opening act. After the nearest star had set one evening last August, I peered through the Meade 16- inch telescope in the 15-foot observatory of the Hotel de Larache in San Pedro de Atacama to see the main attraction: the doppelgänger Alpha Centauri stars that, without the benefit of magnification, look like one; the misty, yellow Swan Nebula; and the Scorpio Constellation’s bi-winged Butterfly Cluster. This remote desert, roughly 800 miles north of Santiago, offers some of the clearest views of the Milky Way in the world, making it a natural home to a cluster of high-tech research observatories used by international astronomers. With the opening of a miniobservatory at Hotel de Larache two years ago and several other resort stargazing programs, it has also become a vacation spot for amateur stargazers like me. The resorts at Atacama are no outliers. Stargazing has increasingly become an alternative to traditional after-sundown dining and drinking at hotels and resorts. Call it night life for nerds. “For people who live in the cities — and more than half the world’s population does — the only way to see the stars in safety and in comfort without worrying about what might happen in the dark is at a resort,” said Rick Fienberg, a spokesman for the American Astronomical Society, based in Washington. He noted that the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first use of a telescope by Galileo Galilei, brought out millions of people around the world for stargazing events.
I first encountered stargazing tourism several years ago at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa in Hawaii, a 40-acre resort with sweeping views of Kaanapali Beach. Instead of drinking mai tais at the bar or attending a luau, I joined Eddie Mahoney, an astronomer, who led our group of 12 to the roof of the hotel’s ninestory main building. The relatively high perch and resort lighting — designed to angle down rather than shine up — preserved the dark setting for his three 50minute nightly public stargazing sessions ($25 a person). Mr. Mahoney oriented us by pointing out the North Star, the Big and Little Dippers and the constellation Orion, all visible to the naked eye, of course. But what appeared to be a fuzzy cluster in the sky became clear with binoculars: they were the seven stars in the Pleiades Group. And moving to the 16-inch reflector telescope, far-off planets come into the sharp focus you see in Hubble Space Telescope images: Saturn and its rings, as well as a quartet of Jupiter’s moons precisely lined up beside it. Newly in possession of a 14-inch computerized telescope, Mr. Mahoney still leads stargazing sessions, which he started 10 years ago. Some 6,000 gazers a year take his sky tour, according to the resort management. Reducing light pollution and caring for a planet is an undercurrent of his talks. “I remind them that Earth is a starship, and we are just passing through,” said Mr. Mahoney, who distributes — what else? — Starburst or Milky Way candies after the show. That sense of floating through the galaxy is underscored in the western United States, where low population density and favorable weather combine to make for particularly starry skies. At Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort near Truckee, Calif., Tony Berendsen of Tahoe Star Tours leads summer stargazing programs that merge science and the arts, incorporating poetry readings, string quartet concerts and talks by a visiting astrophysicist. Near Scottsdale, Ariz., the Boulders Resort abjures the science of astronomy in favor of the lore of astrology in its “Dining With the Stars” dinners held three times each year, on the summer solstice and the spring and fall equinox dates. I had a chance to stargaze out west firsthand this spring during a visit to Colorado. After a day of whitewater kayaking I took part in a decidedly low-tech session at the new Viceroy Snowmass, an opulent 173-room resort on the Snowmass ski slopes near Aspen. Instead of using an observatory or even a telescope, guests sat around a bonfire on the pool deck, faces facing heavenward as the leader, Marieta Bialek, pointed out constellations and planets visible above the mountains. With the planet Venus shining in the west, the overall order of the night sky emerged as the evening progressed. Taking in the panoramic view of the sky was more meditative than scientific, but rewarding nonetheless, especially when a shooting star streaked by. “There’s a mystery and wonder about it,” said Ms. Bialek, leaning back in her chair to point out the constellation Cassiopeia. “Many people find comfort in the stars. As things are changing around them, the stars stay steady.”
That steadiness was evident in the Atacama region of Chile, where there is little night life to compete with the twinkling sky after dark. Nearby resorts that feature stargazing include Tierra Atacama, a stone’s throw from Hotel de Larache, and Alto Atacama lodge, which offers guided stargazing nightly, except during full moon phases that wash out the viewing. Stargazing at Hotel de Larache is no mere add-on. On my tour there, several gazers took along Pisco sours from the bar to the fireside orientation involving charts and diagrams before navigating paths to the observatory marked in dim red to minimize light pollution. Inside, the dome opened and swiveled under the computerized direction of the scope as it lined up stars and constellations, which the six of us took turns viewing over the next hour, murmuring oohs and aahs normally associated with fireworks and giving us plenty to marvel at over dinner after the show. IF YOU GO Some resorts offer stargazing sessions that focus on science and on the stars’ cultural significance. Below are a few that will enhance your understanding of the night sky. HOTEL DE LARACHE, explora Atacama, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile; (866) 750- 6699; explora.com. Five times each week a guide talks about the Southern Hemisphere sky before showing some of its highlights through the computerized 15-foot-diameter observation dome. Free for guests. HYATT REGENCY MAUI RESORT AND SPA, 200 Nohea Kai Drive, Lahaina, Maui; (808) 661-1234; maui.hyatt.com. Eddie Mahoney’s 50-minute stargazing “shows” on the roof of the resort take place three times nightly and are limited to 15 people each ($25). NORTHSTAR-AT-TAHOE, 100 Northstar Drive, Truckee, Calif.; (800) 4666784; northstarattahoe.com. Tony Berendsen’s summertime stargazing programs include poetry readings ($30). The string quartet Accent Nevada will join the star show on select dates ($75), and two August dates pay tribute to the astronomer Carl Sagan, including readings of his essays. THE BOULDERS RESORT, 34631 North Tom Darlington Drive, Carefree, Ariz.; (480) 488-9009; theboulders.com. “Dining With the Stars” dinners are held three times each year, on the summer solstice and the spring and fall equinox dates ($95). A local astrologer, Tom McMullan, and an executive chef, Michel Pieton, collaborate on the seasonal menus based on the ascending astrological sign, and Mr. McMullan talks about astrology and its roots as the philosophical side of astronomy.
TIERRA ATACAMA, Calle Séquitor s/n, Ayllú de Yaye, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile; (800) 829-5325; tierraatacama.com. A local astronomer, Hilke Meine, guides up to six people in intimate stargazing sessions that describe how indigenous desert dwellers read the stars ($25).
VICEROY SNOWMASS, 130 Wood Road, Snowmass Village, Colo.; (888) 6224567; www.viceroyhotelsandresorts.com. Marieta Bialek distributes star charts and leads stargazing sessions Friday nights through Sept. 3 at the pool deck in the after-dark hour; free.