It was my 23rd birthday when I received a gift I coveted - a telescope. My sister wanted me to take pleasure in viewing the night sky, with all its marvelous beauty laid prostrate before me. But alas, the telescope has been collecting dust, as it sits in an assembled pile of neglect. When you read about all the things that the universe has to offer us - when it comes to the visual grandeur that makes it what it is - it's only fair to appreciate and be a witness to its overlooked beauty.
I love astronomy, and I would strongly suggest that you approach this subject with ardent passion, unlike me, who never found the time to fondly engage myself. Let's take a look at the world's best stargazing destinations, that you ought to visit right away.
Top Picks of the World's Best Stargazing Destinations
Mauna Kea, Hawaii (United States)
Aloha! Hawaii may be a clichéd honeymoon destination, but it is also a picturesque location with its dormant volcano sites and verdant surroundings. The next time you sit down to plan a trip with family or friends, head over to the idyllic Mauna Kea volcano to view the starry night once the sun goes down. It also has a scattering of observatories on the island, where Gemini North Observatory provides a breathtaking view of Hawaii's lucid summer and winter skies. The best time to visit the island of Hawaii is during the onset of summer, where the weather is quite agreeable for tourists.
Atacama Desert, Chile (South America)
When you travel to Chile, do find a cozy place to set up base at the town of San Pedro de Atacama, before venturing into the desert when night falls. Although dry and barren, the Atacama desert serves up the best view of the stars. Two observatories worth visiting in the area are The Paranal Observatory and The La Silla Observatory. Head north, and you'll find the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the Coquimbo Region.
Yangtze River (Chang Jiang), Qinghai (China)
Before you take a trip to China, do watch the documentary Rediscovering the Yangtze River by China Central Television, that unravels the cultural glory, admiration, and rich history that surrounds this notable river. From Shanghai to Chongqing, through the stunning Three Gorges, you'll find yourself closer to the Yangtze river. Travelers must of course use helpful apps, like Google Translate, as well as carry a booklet with important phrases (in English) with readable Chinese lettering. Head towards the East of China to Shenzhen to check out the fairly new Shenzhen Xichong Astronomical Observatory that is open to visitors; if you're going to the South of China, you'll want to see the Shenzhen Meteorological Observatory.
Grand Canyon, Arizona (United States)
This wonder of the world holds a captivating view of the night sky as well as an awe-inspiring scenic view of the desert. Take a ride to Guano Point, which is a great spot to view the Grand Canyon in its entirety, and is a good seating area for stargazing. Don't miss the Grand Canyon Skywalk for an exhilarating experience for first-timers. The Kitt Peak National Observatory situated in the Arizona-Sonoran Desert, southwest of Tucson, holds guided tours with the opportunity to view the night sky like never before.
Uluru, Northern Territory (Australia)
Nestled within central Australia is the Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it is alternatively called, which is a large sandstone structure that swells with a deepened red coloration, just as the sun sets. The closest town to the structure is Alice Springs, where visitors will find it incredibly convenient to travel to Uluru, after sunset. The country's oldest standing historic site, the Sydney Observatory at Observatory Hill, hosts educational tours by an esteemed group of congenial employees. They conduct all sorts of interactive, modern-day, and informative sessions, complete with a homely planetarium that will make you wish you didn't have to leave. A quaint souvenir store is available for visitors, with a welcoming spread of well-kept gardens that adorn the rustic premises.
Santa Elena Canyon, Texas (United States)
Traipse the Big Bend National Park, and you'll come face-to-face with mighty, monolithic structures that make up the Santa Elena Canyon. Not only is the canyon a sight for sore eyes, but it can literally take your breath away with its imposing rock structures, lovely fauna, and winding paths. The trail leading up to the canyon is a great pathway for hikers and tourists, where the view of the sky is nothing short of remarkable from various vantage points. This should get you excited - the McDonald Observatory situated in Jeff Davis County (West Texas) is home to some of the best astronomical views, where visitors find it convenient to make bookings through their official website; impressive, quite surely. Star Parties are a favorite indulgence for the astronomy-loving staff, who will host these quite often in the successive months.
Amber Fort, Rajasthan (India)
While stifled in the sweltering heat of the state, you'll be comforted to know that a lot of prominent tourist attractions await your visit. In Jaipur, a rampant lush green location called Amer, is a favorite hot spot for tourists, where the Amber fort is located. The serene and pretty Maota Lake circles a garden that adorns the feet of the fort, giving tourists quite a visual experience. Just picture how the skies will light up once dusk sets in. Another fine attraction in Jaipur is the Jantar Mantar, which is a collection of astrological instruments that hold historic importance, where the Jaipur observatory in particular, has been the most well-preserved. The geometric devices that dot the venue are a must-see for visitors both near and far.
Portofino Village, Liguria (Italy)
The village looks like a scene straight out of a movie, with its beauteous lanes, friendly passersby, and old-fashioned, multicolored architecture that makes it so quintessentially Italian. It is located in the province of Genoa along the Italian Riviera, providing tourists an ethereal view of the river. A sight to behold is when the village transforms into a glittering vision during sundown. A quick boat ride towards a much lesser lit spot will give you an uninterrupted session with the stars above. Do pay a visit to the Campo Imperatore Observatory located in the Province of L'Aquila (Abruzzo region) in Italy, where you can reach this destination by cableway, plane, or public transportation. Because of its proximity to Rome, this makes it a great location for tourists.
Joshua Tree National Park, California (United States)
The expansive national park is a labyrinth of unique desert plants, mountain ranges, and wilderness. The odd-looking yet iconic Joshua tree, is where the national park derives its name from. Two major deserts come together as one, namely the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert. Post sunset, the desert transmutes itself into a place of tranquility, where its beauty is heightened by starlight and moonlight. The Sky's The Limit - Observatory and Nature Center (at Twentynine Palms), is not too far from the national park. For city dwellers who need a little urbanity, Los Angeles is where you should be. The Griffith Observatory at Griffith Park readily opens her doors to tourists and astronomy partisans. Its hi-tech, impressive array of telescopes and classic interiors will leave you mesmerized.
Los Gigantes, Tenerife (Spain)
The magical island of Tenerife holds a resort town called Los Gigantes, which sits amidst the cluster of Canary Islands. From here, you can be sure to enjoy a view of the night sky without the glare of city lights, or blanket of air pollution. There may not be a lot of places to keep you preoccupied for a long stay, but a sense of peace and calm will invade you, leaving you hanging on to every moment spent in Los Gigantes. You'll be happy to know that the Teide Observatory located at Tenerife will have you spending most of your time exploring its many attractions. Considered as an important observatory among the world's finest, you'll be doing yourself a lot of good by visiting Tenerife.
Jökulsárlón should be every adventurer's ultimate vacation spot, and yours too, if you want an experience with the stars that will leave you awed, emotional, and elated. Iceland is the sort of place where stars come out to play, more so than they do anywhere else. The purity of the skies will startle you, where Iceland is unmarred by human hands. Once in Jökulsárlón, tourists will have a chance to experience special boat rides (besides other activities), that tentatively take place between the months of May and September.
A small town that goes by the name Grundarfjörður, situated in the west of Iceland, faces a mountain range called Kirkjufell, that turns into a spectacle by night. How, you may ask? Ever seen photographs of gossamer cosmic wings that beat across the night sky, in iridescent hues of greens and reds? That is what is known as 'Aurora Borealis' and 'Aurora Australis', or simply put - the northern lights. That is what you will bear witness to once night falls; a sight you wouldn't want to miss for the world. For those wondering if an observatory is available, there's BGS Observatory at Virkisjökull, situated in southeast Iceland.
Observatories Worth Visiting
Palomar Observatory, California (United States)
Situated in San Diego County, the observatory houses two prominent telescopes by the names Samuel Oschin Telescope and Hale Telescope. The observatory's staff conducts tours and observations through their 200-inch telescopes on a daily basis, during daylight. For an extensive schedule of what Palomar Observatory can offer, check out their official website.
Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma (Spain)
The Canary Islands are not only a terrific place to get away to, but they provide a great location for the observatory at La Palma. The landscape is a treasure trove of nature's finest offerings, where a visit to this disregarded island is just what you need for a vacation. To make bookings that coincide perfectly with your plans, do check out their official website for details.
Gornergrat Observatory, Pennine Alps (Switzerland)
From the railway station at Zermatt, you'll chance upon the wonders that make Gornergrat the heavenly snow sanctuary that it is. Away from the troubles of the world, the Kulmhotel Gornergrat sits snuggly atop the Swiss Alps, in a lap of virgin snow and grandeur. Once you cruise through their official website, the hotel's opulence will have you desperately calculating if you can afford to visit Zermatt. The observatory at the hotel is a terrific addition, which is accessible to tourists, who wish to view more than just their snowy surroundings, by directing their gaze to the skies of Switzerland.
Haleakalā Observatory, Hawaii (United States)
Besides being Hawaii's first research observatory, the location is a sought-after hot spot for astronomical viewing. Situated in the island of Maui, the observatory has the perfect location atop the summit of Haleakalā. It can get pretty nippy once you reach your destination, so be sure to don warm outerwear, before venturing to the top. Summer is a great time to visit Haleakalā, where there is much to learn and see from this fabulous location.
The Ultimate Stargazer Guide
Before you pick a destination, set a date, and decide to pack for the adventure, you must first gather the things you'll need for the trip, to ensure you have a stellar experience. The things you'll require are - a red flashlight, a telescope (or a pair of binoculars), star maps, and most importantly, a compass. Let's state the purpose of two lesser-known things in this list; the compass comes in handy to keep track of which direction you're facing, while the red flashlight helps you view the star maps without losing focus on the night sky's details.
Using a yellow flashlight will force your eyes to readjust to the elements in the sky, making you miss out on something that may need immediate attention, like maybe a comet, transitory view of satellites, or meteor shower.
Understanding Astronomy Equipment
The basic necessity of any stargazing trip is a pair of trusty binoculars, or telescope. Either of the two will serve their purpose well, provided that you buy a tried-and-true, sturdy product that promises to give you one helluva of a good experience. So, how do you choose one? For starters, critics and those who take astronomy seriously, will have their share of opinions when it comes to what's good, and what isn't. Trust their sound judgment and compare what they have to say with others' reviews, before making a final buy. Before that, take a look at the following simple diagrams to understand how a telescope and a pair of binoculars work.
If you prefer holding a pair of binoculars instead, without having to stoop down to view the eye lens of a telescope, then choose the former. But for a steady vision of the heavens above, you'll need a stiff tripod to do the stabilizing, where opting for a telescope is befitting. In the end, the choice is yours. Some telescopes provide astronomy fans with the ability of hooking up their smartphones and other devices to its configuration, in order to view the night sky in an elaborate display of vivid splendor.
For more information on this, head over to the website Starmap, for cool apps that provide unlimited star-map access on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Spectacular stuff. Another great website that helps you navigate the night sky is Neave (created by Paul Neave). The first step includes choosing your location on a diagram of the world map, before viewing the constellations that can be seen from that particular region. Cool, right?
Also, Neave allows you to scroll over pinpoints in the sky diagram, providing a snippet of information of what you are looking at. Click-rotate the mouse, and the interactive interface on your computer screen will spin its sky display. Whoa. While the star maps contain major star formations, there are others that you'll want to see, like zodiac constellations. We'll get to those soon.
How to Locate the North Star (Polaris)
In order to fully comprehend what you see - whether you are using a telescope, a pair of binoculars, or even through the naked eye (for casual stargazers) - you'll need to know where the North Star (Polaris) is. It helps stargazers identify the constellations closest to it. Using a compass can help you find it sooner, as you distinguish stars that obnubilate the identity of Polaris. Here's an unambiguous diagram that will help you locate Polaris to aid you in your directional needs.
Seasons of the Stars
Did you know that every season, the constellations aren't the same as most of us think they are? They're perpetually on the move, as the Earth's revolution around the Sun reveals a different perspective of the night sky, every few months at a time. It's an intriguing fact, where the constellations in all their resplendence, are at our visual disposal every passing season. The following diagrams will help you understand how the seasons govern which constellations we're able to look upon.
Constellations of the Zodiac
Does astrology find itself in an essential place in your life? Viewing your zodiac sign's constellation can be a thrilling moment for astrology junkies as well as for those, who dabble in this subject.
Must-See Stargazing Events of 2013
Ever heard about the Stargazing LIVE event hosted by BBC, in collaboration with other partners? If you visit BBC's official website, you'll come across the details of this 'star-studded' event, that hosts a variety of unarguably entertaining (and informative) activities. From rocket-making and nighttime star cruises, to planetarium shows and parties, the massive event invites all sorts of devotees from astronomy societies and organizations.
You'll also love how BBC provides what they call 'Star Party Packs and Guides', to encourage astronomy enthusiasts out there to host their very own Stargazing LIVE party. It is by far the most meticulously designed packs to help you execute a memorable party. Don't miss out on being part of these worthy occurrences that call for immediate attention. Save the dates!
April 25, 2013: Lunar Eclipse (Partial)
May 9, 2013: Annular Solar Eclipse of the Sun
May 24-30, 2013: Dance of the Planets (look out for the brilliance of Venus' glow)
June 23, 2013: Magnificently Large Full Moon
August 12, 2013: The Perseid Meteor Shower
October 18, 2013: Penumbral Eclipse of the Moon
November 3, 2013: Hybrid Eclipse of the Sun
Mid November-December 2013: Comet ISON
All of December 2013: Brightly-lit Venus
December 13-14, 2013: Geminids Meteor Shower
Stargazers will find that the world holds a generous spread of destinations that one can visit and take advantage of. Maintaining a torrid love affair with the stars is a great hobby. Explore the many facets of the universe; there's always something new to learn and do. It will make you appreciate the much-neglected world above you, including life itself. Oh, and Happy Astronomy Day!