Do you have an avid astronomer in your life? If your spouse, sibling, parent, or dear friend loves star-gazing, (and you have the funds to pay for it), an astronomy-themed vacation is one gift they will never forget!
City lights and air pollution are the bane of astronomers, professional and amateur alike. For the darkest and clearest skies in the United States, send your favorite star-gazer to Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah. Natural Bridges is the world's first designated International Dark Sky Park. The stars barely twinkle there in the crisp high-desert air, and they're so big and bright, you feel like you could reach up and grab them.
Does your astronomer love to watch eclipses? Buy them tickets to St. John's, Newfoundland to view the up-coming total solar eclipse on August 1, 2008. Totality will also be visible from eastern Siberia, eastern China, and northern Greenland.
Most astronomy nuts love really big telescopes. As a bonus, some major telescopes are sited near great tourist destinations for the rest of the family. Here are some options:
1. Hawaii's Mauna Kea complex, featuring 12 telescopes, including the massive Keck Observatory with twin 10-meter mirrors. The observatories themselves are usually closed to the public, but the Mauna Kea Observatories Visitors Center features videos and displays, summit tours, and stargazing nights.
2. The historical Palomar Observatory, in San Diego County, California. This one is open to visitors from 9 am to 4 pm daily. Mt. Palomar has a single 200-inch telescope plus an engaging Visitors Center. Your astronomy buff will get chills, and not just from the altitude!
3. The Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal, Chile. The name says it all: VLT has four 8-meter scopes that can work separately or in tandem. Tourists are welcome to visit the site the last two weekends of each month- be sure to register well in advance.
For some solar action, send your friend up north to view the aurora borealis. Fairbanks, Alaska has a well-developed aurora-viewing tour industry. Guests can lounge in a mountain lodge's outdoor hot-tub sipping champagne while the aurora unfurl in the night sky overhead! If your gift recipient would prefer a more scientific, less touristy take, consider Sodankyla, Finland. This small town in the far north is home to the Sodankyla Geophysical Observatory, where aurora studies are a forte, so experts abound!
Finally, how does a party under the Southern Cross sound? If your friend or relative is from the northern hemisphere, it's a whole new sky down there! Get some tickets to the South Pacific Star Party, held in Wiruna, New South Wales, Australia. Attendees camp out under the big dark sky, set up telescopes for everyone to peer through, and engage in some serious astro-nerd discussions. During daylight hours, there are seminars and presentations... though many people prefer to sleep! This coming year, the Star Party runs April 4-6; internet registration is recommended.
Want to make 2008 a year your astronomer will cherish in his or her memory forever? Buy them an astronomy themed vacation! You'll be glad you did.