BBC science programmes like Stargazing Live have helped to make astronomy cool again. If you fancy travelling to a place with clear night skies and little light pollution, there are specialist astronomy holidays available. Keri Jones spoke with two holiday providers – one in the Scottish borders and the other in the Canaries.
Mike Alexander has operated the Galloway Astronomy Centre in southwest Scotland since 2004 – five years before Dark Sky Status was awarded to parts of Dumfries and Galloway. Mike says his visitors enjoy “the same level of darkness.” He recalls his property search and laughs that, “I was possibly one of the few people who’s ever been house hunting looking for a dark location.”
So, what does Mike offer people who want to look at the night sky? “One option is what I grandly call the tour of the universe. It’s like a planetarium but we use the real sky,” says Mike. “I first find out how much knowledge people have – you don’t need any to stay with us – and then I give an introduction to the constellations, their origins and I share some stories about Greek mythology and legends connected to stars.”
Interspersed with that is a session with his largest telescope, which has a 16 inch Newtonian reflector. Mike says he uses it to point out deep sky objects and planets that are visible at night.
The centre has another course on buying a telescope. “People find it very confusing with such a huge range on offer commercially and prices vary greatly too. Here, people can get their hands on one and have a look through, which is quite rare because most shops open during the day and are not available at night when you want to use one,” Mike says. The final course helps people make the most of the telescope they have bought. If they can’t seem to get good views through it, the team can offer advice
Mike says he’s lived most of his life in cities and you can see things incredibly clearly at night. “Our skies are so dark you can see the Milky Way stretching right across the sky, incredibly clearly. You can see the dust left from comets being lit up by the sun’s rays in the autumn and in the spring skies. The number of stars you see here are ridiculous. There are thousands and thousands,” he says.
Mike says he likes to talk to potential guests before they book because some people could be disappointed if they expect to see the stars and there’s a full moon, which would impact on their viewing experience.
For more information go to GallowayAstro.com.
Astro La Palma offer astronomy breaks centred on the observatory on that Canary Island. The trip also includes a daytime visit to the site. Dr Ana Garcia Suarez says they work with local partners to offer five nights of accommodation, where you can stay in a rural home on a trip tailored around astronomy. Each home will be equipped with a telescope or powerful binoculars, along with star maps and books.
And Ana says experts rank La Palma as one of the top three stargazing sites in the world, alongside Chile and Hawaii. The whole island is a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve and there are laws in place to prevent light pollution from spoiling the view.
For more information visit AstroLaPalma.com.
You can hear Mike and Ana discussing their holidays here: