You’ll soon be able to journey right into space to get up close and personal with the stars. But not all of us have that kind of cash just lying around. Despite the rampant light pollution, there are still places here on earth that are great for taking a break to marvel at the night sky. Here are a few of those spots, as designated by the International Dark-Sky Association.
Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, New Zealand
The park, in combination with the Mackenzie Basin on the South Island, is an international dark sky reserve and has had outdoor lighting controls in place since the 1980s. With 23 peaks around 10,000 feet or higher and city lights a long way off, the reserve is a popular stargazing spot and seeks to honor the traditional role of the stars in navigation and folklore in Maori culture.
The Ring of Kerry makes for a fabulous drive full of natural wonders in the daytime. When night falls and the daytrippers are gone, a different but just as spectacular scene plays out overhead. It’s no wonder neolithic monuments tracking the movements of heavenly bodies dot the Iveragh Peninsula. On clear nights, visitors can see the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye.
Ramon Crater, Israel
Situated in the Negev Desert, the crater is actually a geological feature unique to Israel and the Sinai Peninsula called a makhtesh formed by erosion. The desert landscape has proved much more difficult to settle than the densely packed north of Israel, and neighboring communities have made a commitment to preserving the light conditions to promote astrotourism. Interpretive programs and stargazing tours are offered on site.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
At the confluence of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, the park is just far enough away from the bright lights of Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego to put on an outstanding nighttime show. Each November, Joshua Tree is home to the Night Sky Festival. The event this year features an astrophotography workshop and astronomy sessions. At the Star Party on Nov. 10, astronomers will tell the stories of the sky while onlookers can see for themselves through the 20 telescopes on hand.
Elqui Valley, Chile
At the southern edge of the Atacama Desert, about 250 miles north of Santiago is the Gabriela Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary. It was the first — the total is now four — place to be designated as a dark sky sanctuary. Several observatories line the mountainous terrain, where outside light is kept to a minimum and certain areas are at times off-limits to the public. The sanctuary not only preserves some 90,000 acres for celestial study, but it is also home to several threatened and endangered species.
It’s 363 days until next St. Patrick’s Day, but if you still have some partying left in you after Saturday, get yourself to the Emerald Isle for an authentic Irish cultural experience. With so many regions worth checking out, Ireland is best explored by car, either driving yourself or, better yet, with a driver-guide. Fly into Dublin in the east or Shannon in the west — preclearing U.S. customs at either airport on the way home — and circumnavigate the island for an enchanting journey through the land of St. Patrick.
Visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the capital to see where the country’s patron saint baptized converts to Christianity and admire the illuminated manuscript of the Book of Kells at Trinity College. Get some fresh air in the urban oases of Phoenix Park and St. Stephen’s Green or walk in the footsteps of great writers such as Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats, or their characters, such as James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, who mused that a “good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub.” While a computer programmer has figured out that such a thing can be done, there’s no reason not to stop in for a pint at the Guinness Brewery or Temple Bar area.
Proceeding clockwise around the island from Dublin, you’ll encounter Kilkenny and Waterford. Kilkenny is home to an 800-year-old Norman castle and eye-catching architecture from several periods, including the Tudor, Georgian and Victorian eras. It’s also known for its modern cultural aesthetic, with art galleries, design workshops and theaters making it a popular destination. At well more than 1,000, Waterford retains well-preserved sections of city walls and towers. The Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre allows tour guests to see master craftspeople shape the world-famous crystal into intricate designs. On your way west, stop at the Rock of Cashel, a group of buildings at the ancient seat of the kings of Munster.
The Republic of Ireland’s second-largest city, Cork has a much more intimate feel than the much-larger Dublin and is a great place for a walking tour. One of County Cork’s best walks is the distillery trail at the Jameson Heritage Centre, where you can learn all about the famous whiskey and sample a dram or two. In the southwest corner of the island lie the 110 miles of the Ring of Kerry, a 110-mile loop beginning in Killarney that takes you through charming villages, past castles and into the ancient wilderness. Less crowded and no less beautiful is the Dingle Peninsula, a natural gem rich in archaeological sites.
Offering striking views and excellent hiking, the Cliffs of Moher rise as high as 700 feet above Galway Bay and the North Atlantic. Farther inland, the Burren is an entrancing moonscape of desolate beauty formed of the rocks that give rise to the cliffs. A dozen of large neolithic tombs is scattered throughout the area, dating back thousands of years. Continuing north, you come to the lively city of Galway, a center of traditional Irish language and music. Thanks to its status as a university town, Galway boasts some of Ireland’s best nightlife and serves a centrally located base for venturing on the 1,550-mile Wild Atlantic Way.
A mix of wilderness and quaint villages, the counties of Mayo, Sligo, and Donegal are a great way to conclude your Irish odyssey. Attractions include the mountains of Connemara National Park, Achill Island, and the 2,500-foot Croagh Patrick, a pilgrimage site dedicated to the patron saint. Towns of note are the carefully designed Westport, William Butler Yeats’ boyhood home of Sligo and historical Ballina, a key site in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.