Stargazing is as popular now as it was in ancient times when people looked to the heavens for inspiration and comfort. Today, lunar events, once-in-a-lifetime cosmic phenomenon, and simple, old-school star-gazing have captured the imaginations of a whole new class of global tourist. Conditions for contemplating the heavens aren't exactly ideal in most of the developed modern world; there are locations which, thanks to limited light pollution and elevated or obstruction-free vantage points, are becoming go-to destinations.
The clear, arid conditions of Chile's Atacama desert make this mountain-ringed area east of Santiago popular for star-gazing. In fact, several observatories are operating here, including the international Llano de Chajnantor. It's possible to tour the facility and check out the massive ALMA telescope and antenna array on certain days of the week. Or, you can arrange a star tour in the small town of San Pedro de Atacama.
The sacred summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii sits 9000 feet above sea level. That elevation and the absence of ambient light makes this dormant volcano the perfect location for international research observatories, and no less than 13 monster telescopes. Acclimation to the height will make the visit more pleasant, but if there's no time, less spectacular, yet still impressive viewing is available on one of the Big Island's many volcanic beaches.
The northern wilds of the Canadian province of Manitoba are a remote staging grounds for tours to glimpse Polar bears during the day, and the mysterious Northern Lights by night. The celestial phenomenon of colored lights dancing has been the stuff of legend for millennia. Visitors can experience the Lights from a tundra buggy, from observation decks at the Churchill Northern Studies Center, or from glass-roofed, heated aurora pods.
Named for the many prospectors who lost their lives traversing its inhospitable trails, Death Valley, in eastern California, is a great place to clearly see constellations, shooting stars and planetary milestones. It doesn't hurt that Death Valley is within striking distance of Las Vegas, home to fine rewards for completing a bare-bones star tour or camping trip into the Mojave. Portions of the desert are designated a national park, with astronomy-sensitive rangers who lead regular tours.
The wildness and less developed nature of the Welsh countryside makes it a perfect romantic environment in which to gaze at the cosmos. Brecon Beacons National Park is named for a dramatic range of mountains in South Wales. Here, Wales' first Dark Sky Reserve has harnessed the cooperation of local communities to minimize light pollution. Especially poetic viewings happen around Llangorse Lake and at the ruins of medieval Llanthony Priory near Abergavenny.
The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve on the south island of New Zealand is a protected area devoted to watching the cosmos. Framed by the dramatic peaks of Aoraki/Mount Cook, the park is home to the University of Canterbury's Mount John Observatory, an international research facility that regularly welcomes the public. Astronomy tours also venture to the natural hot pools of Lake Tekapo to glimpse great views of the Southern Cross and other phenomena unique to the southern hemisphere.
NamibRand Nature Reserve, near Sesriem Canyon in southwestern Namibia, is Africa's very first dark sky reserve. A remote area of striking red dunes ringed by mountains, this privately run park has a robust travel infrastructure and large talent pool of knowledgeable local guides for astronomical tours and star viewing. Some facilities, such as the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, even have their own on-site observatories.
Far in spirit from the package beach holiday action around Tenerife, but really just up a nearby mountain, the Teide Observatory is an important international astrophysics hub perched at the summit of a dormant volcano. Accessed by cable car, the Observatory houses some serious telescopes and conducts public tours and educational star-gazing programs. The nearby island of La Palma also has an observatory, the Roque de los Muchachos in Garafia.
Located in the picturesque Pyrenees mountain range in the south-west of France, the Pic du Midi Observatory floats almost 9500 feet above sea level. It's been the site of scientific research for astronomers since the mid-1700s. Today, all manner of sophisticated Gallic star-gazing experience is available in and around the observatory, complete with cocktails, and on-site rooms for slumber parties above the clouds.
Star tours of the Sahara begin in the gateway city of Ouarzazate on the edge of the dunes. Going into the desert is like embarking on an ocean journey; the vast expanses of sand and sky provide an awe-inspiring canvas for constellations. A few astro-forward desert resorts have their own observatories and telescopes, but camping out overnight Berber-style with a knowledgeable guide may be the most profound way to experience the celestial dance.