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Stellar Vacations That Are Out Of This World

If you live in a big city, like I do, one of the things you miss the most is gazing up at the sky at night and actually seeing the stars. There is an entire sub industry of astronomically themed tours out there. Whether you'd like to get involved and stay close to home, or fly half way around the world to get the best vantage point, there's a tour or an observatory waiting for you.


The specific promotions described in this article have now passed, but it remains online so that the resources named will be of future use to travelers.

If you live in a big city, like I do, one of the things you miss the most is gazing up at the sky at night and actually seeing the stars. Escape the bright city lights and a celestial world opens up. There is an entire sub industry of astronomically themed tours out there and 2006 promises to be a big year, with a solar eclipse at the end of March that will be visible from areas of the Mediterranean, Greece and Turkey, a ring eclipse in September visible from northeastern South America plus a selection of smaller but no less significant meteor showers and miscellaneous galactic activities to choose from. Whether you'd like to get involved and stay close to home, or fly half way around the world to get the best vantage point, there's a tour or an observatory waiting for you.

Star gazing doesn't usually come cheap, so be prepared to pay to have an out of this world travel experience. With a large number of amateur astronomy and star buffs, many tours sell out extremely quickly, especially those centered around eclipses, so book early.

Travel Quest International (tel. 800/830-1998; and Sky & Telescope magazine editor Paul Deans are offering a special "Fire, Ice and the Aurora" 2006 tour of Iceland from September 15 to 22, 2006. Each clear night, watch for the northern lights -- ever-changing glows in the sky caused when energetic particles from the Sun slam into Earth's upper atmosphere, literally electrifying it. Iceland, close to the north magnetic pole, is blessed with frequent and spectacular Auroral displays. Also enjoy a wealth of natural wonders from geysers, gurgling mud pools, snakelike lava flows, majestic waterfalls, towering glaciers, and steaming thermal baths. Of the many wonders this trip offers, viewing and photographing the aurora (weather permitting) and experiencing the beauty of Iceland are the main highlights. Based in Reykjav¿k the tour covers mainly the southern region of this island nation. The $2,470 per person, double occupancy (add $650 for single occupancy) price includes six nights' accommodations in three to four-star accommodations, all ground transportation in Iceland, meals as specified in the itinerary, sightseeing admissions, private lectures with Sky & Telescope's Paul Deans, and nightly stargazing and aurora viewing sessions with an English-speaking local guide. Air transportation to and from Iceland is additional and can be booked through Travel Quest with round-trip airfare on Iceland Air from either Baltimore-Washington, Boston, New York or Minneapolis available for $705 per person, including tax. Add-on fares from other US gateways are also available. This package must be booked and paid for in full by July 15, 2006.

Travel Quest also has a "Chile's Southern Skies Stargazing" trip from May 27 to June 3, 2006. Join Sky & Telescope/Night Sky editor J. Kelly Beatty for a visit to the oasis village of San Pedro de Atacama, at an elevation of almost 8,000 feet and at 23° south latitude, the perfect base for four nights of deep stargazing under extremely dark southern skies. Added to your stargazing will be visits to Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and the European Southern Observatory's quartet of 27-foot reflectors atop Cerro Paranal -- a dream vacation for amateur and experienced astronomers alike. Beatty's lectures on deep-sky observing and celestial photography will help stargazers of all levels get the most out of their Chilean adventure. Excursions include the famed Atacama Desert, to see the striking landscape of the Valley of the Moon, Flamingo National Reserve at Atacama Salt Flat, the picturesque village of Toconao, El Tatio geyser basin at sunrise and the thermal springs at Puritama. This is your opportunity to view southern astronomical treasures under arguably the best skies in the world, to see two of the Southern Hemisphere's premier observatories, and to visit a remarkable assortment of otherworldly landscapes. This eight-day trip is priced at $3,520 per person, double occupancy (add $770 for single occupancy) with premium hotel accommodations throughout, most meals, airport-hotel transfers for those arriving on group flights, all sightseeing and associated admissions, local English-speaking Chilean guides throughout the tour, all gratuities to guides, drivers, hotels and meals and lectures by J. Kelly Beatty. Air transportation to and within Chile and the reciprocity tax (US citizens must pay $100 upon arrival) are additional. You can arrange your own air travel to and from Chile or you can take advantage of their LAN Chile air package which includes round-trip air from Miami plus all three domestic Chile flights for $1,295 per person or $1,285 from Los Angeles. For those choosing to arrange their own flights to Santiago, Travel Quest will book your domestic Chile flights for $670.

Ring of Fire Expeditions (ROFE) (tel. 800/929-9004; has been specializing in astro-tourism since 1970 with expeditions organized and led by Paul D. Maley of the NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society. These include tours to observe such events as Halley's Comet, the Leonid meteor shower, transit of Venus, spacecraft reentries, solar eclipses, grazing occultations, and occultations of stars by minor planets. You do not need to have a science background or any prior experience to join a tour. The "Ring Eclipse in French Guyana" tour is the 33rd solar eclipse expedition to be led by ROFE. It is from September 17 to 23, 2006 and is priced at $2,399 per person land only. The tour departs from Parimaribo, the capital of Suriname and travels to Cayenne, French Guyana visiting the UNESCO "World Heritage" listed city of Parimaribo, Brownsberg, the Brownsberg Nature Park plateau, Van Blommenstein Lake and rainforest, Saint Laurent Du Maroni, Devil's Island (a former 19th century French penal settlement), the Guayana Space Center (home to the European Space Agency Kourou launch site) and Cayenne.

The highlight of the trip is the September 22 viewing of the annular solar eclipse near Korou at a location very close to the equator to maximize viewing. The tour includes six nights' accommodations in double rooms in three to four-star hotels and eco-resorts, observation of the annular solar eclipse, solar eclipse briefing, airport transfers, all road and boat transport, entrance fees, English speaking guides, sightseeing per the itinerary, three meals per day (except day two when there is no breakfast), all hotel and city taxes and service charges. International airfares and the cost of visas to Suriname and French Guyana are additional. Payment in full is required by June 1, 2006.

Tropical Sails (tel. 800/595-1003; is a company that specializes in sailing trips in the Mediterranean. It is offering two trips, one on the sea and one land trip that coincide with the March 29, 2006 eclipse. Their "Solar Eclipse 2006" tour is from March 26 to 31, 2006. It starts in Istanbul and includes five-star and first class hotels including breakfast daily, two lunches and dinners, all transfers and transportation in Turkey by private deluxe tour coach, round-trip Istanbul to Antalya flights with Turkish Airlines, all entrance fees to the sites and to the museums, comprehensive sightseeing in Istanbul, Aspendos and Perge, a Bosphorus cruise, a farewell dinner with Turkish entertainment show and the eclipse viewing. A fluent English speaking professional tour guide escorts the group throughout. This tour is priced at $850 per person based on double occupancy.

Their eight-night "Fethiye, Kekova and G¿cek" cruise is from¿March 24 until April 2, 2006. The boat leaves from Fethiye and visits Gemiler¿ island, Kalkan, Kas (the site of ancient Roman city Antiphellos), Aperlae, Kekova, Finike (where you will watch the eclipse), the Greek site of Arykanda, ¿ayagzi, Demre, G¿kkaya, Patara ¿l¿deniz, Tersane, Hamam and G¿cek. Accommodations on board, land transport, all meals except two dinners and all Turkish taxes, port fees and taxes are included.¿Three additional shore excursions are available for under $100 each. This cruise is priced at $999 per person based on double occupancy. Tropical Sails will arrange domestic airfares from Istanbul to Dalaman with round-trip economy flights on Turkish Airlines costing about $230.

For something a little closer to home, Alta-Can (¿offers "Aurora Borealis" four-day tours that extend into the spring (they also offer these tours in the fall and winter seasons). Prime viewing tour dates are March 28 to 31, March 31 to April 3, April 4 to 7 and April 7 to 10, 2006. Tours are based in Fort McMurray, a 70-minute flight from Edmonton, Canada. Fort McMurray is famous for the largest oil sands formation on earth and blessed with superb Aurora activity due to its favorable location under the Auroral Oval. The cost is approximately $442 per person based on double occupancy and this price includes three nights' accommodations, three-nights of Aurora viewing (under optimal conditions), local transportation, airport transfers and experts guides and astronomers.

If you are interested in these or other astronomy inspired trips, or if you'd like to visit an observatory that operates tours, a great resource is the Sky Router website ( It features links to dozens of tour companies and astronomy centers in the US and around the world.