Stop. Lie down. Look up – there’s a universe twinkling away out there. Sarah Baxter reflects on the best spots to indulge in some nocturnal ‘space travel’
Lying on deck, swaying gently across the Molucca Sea, I stared at the glittering night sky. I was aboard the elegant sailboat Ombak Putih (seatrekbali.com) and had a perfectly good cabin down below. But up here I had the universe: constellations rampant, the great smudge of the Milky Way, the odd shooting star.
Far, far from anything, there was little to dull the celestial symphony – except, perhaps, the equally mesmeric bioluminescence glittering about the bow. I felt the breeze on my cheeks, listened to the waves, felt very small indeed.
In our increasingly urban, overcrowded world, it’s easy to forget the infinity that lies above.
Throughout our entire evolutionary history, until only a century or so ago, we lived in a world where the only illumination after sundown was fire or the moon and stars; this “natural night” is coded into our genes, driving a range of biological functions.
Sadly, these days the stars are often obscured by artificial light sources and that inborn rhythm has been thrown out of whack. But travel away from towns and cities, to places that are still truly dark – dark sky reserves, wilderness camps, ocean outposts – and that immensity can be rediscovered, providing a balm for both body and soul.
Lakes lookout, Cumbria, UK
The tucked-away valleys and fells of the Lake District offer some of the country’s darkest skies – in many parts of the national park, the night-time luminosity (light pollution, in other words) is measured at near zero. Such is the case at Grasmere, where the Victorian House Hotel’s Stargazer Rooms come with windows reaching up to the eaves, panoramic views and a telescope and star map too.
Doubles from £142pn B&B (01539 435217; victorianhousehotel.co.uk)
Space camp, Carmarthenshire, UK
The clue’s in the name: the eight, well-scattered pitches at Dark Skies Camping sit amid the Cambrian Mountains, next to the Brecon Beacons (a designated International Dark Skies Reserve). Spend nights stargazing around your fire pit, or head to Llyn Brianne reservoir (two miles away), a designated Dark Sky Discovery Site on the Cambrian Mountains astro trail.
Pitches (sleep four) cost from £125 for five nights (01550 720712; darkskiescamping.wales)
Astronomical ablutions, Northumberland, UK
Northumberland National Park has the most pristine dark skies in England – on clear nights it’s possible to see the Milky Way and distant Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye. It’s possible to see it from bed, too, staying in a reclaimed oak Quirky Hut, kitted out with wood burner, fire pit and a transparent roof. Or, if you prefer, stargaze from the al fresco bath.
Huts (sleep four) from £130pn (kiphideaways.com)
Out-of-this-world education, Dumfries & Galloway, UK
The gazing is always good at the Selkirk Arms Hotel, conveniently close to Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park. Book a Stargazing Break to take a deeper delve into the cosmos: after delicious dinners, there are talks from a local astronomer; then head out to inky-black, isolated locations (with hot chocolate) for a guided intro to the constellations.
A two-night Stargazing Break (Oct 16 2020) costs £269pp (01557 330402; selkirkarmshotel.co.uk)
Heavenly hanging, Savoy, France
Looking up at the sky is easy on a Suspended Night adventure in Savoie Mont Blanc – because sleeping on a climber’s portaledge, pegged into a cliff high above Lake Annecy, you won’t want to look down… After a forest hike, abseil to your hammock, dine at sunset, then contemplate life, the universe and everything as you dangle in starry mid-air.
A Suspended Night costs from €390 (£350) for two (0033 6 72 348837; inax-aventure.com)
Alien above and below, Navarra, Spain
When the Government’s advice on travel to mainland Spain changes, head to Bardenas Reales National Park, a strange Martian-esque looking place, and home to the equally strange Aire de Bardenas. The rooms at this unique boutique hotel are designed for looking out and up: choose a cube room, complete with enormous protruding windows and outdoor bath, or a transparent bubble, for uninterrupted views of the stars.
B&B doubles from €248pn (0049 163 737 2509; welcomebeyond.com)
Aurora antics, Arctic Finland
Maximise the comfort of your astronomy at Finland’s Wilderness Hotel Nangu. Its new Aurora Cabins have heated glass roofs directly above their fluffy-blanketed beds, affording cosy views of the far-north yonder. Alternatively, glamp away from everyone: heated huts, erected on frozen Lake Inari, have clear walls and ceilings, for warm and wonderful aurora watching.
A three-night all-inclusive Nangu Wilderness Adventure costs from £1,394pp, including flights (01737 886131; discover-the-world.com)
Dazzled on deck, Ionian Islands, Greece
Being out at sea is brilliant for astronomy. So set off from Corfu (where Greece’s first astronomical society was founded) on a private yacht for island-hopping, easy social distancing and serene, starry nights – the boat has a private chef and skipper, so you don’t have to do anything except sway in the foredeck hammock, gaping at the sky.
A seven-night yacht charter (sleeps six) costs from £1,450pp, excluding flights (01306 264005; fishandpips.co.uk)
Wild skies, British Columbia, Canada
“Prospector” tents have come a long way since those first pioneers made it to the Canadian west. The canvas options at ridge-top, far-from-anywhere Siwash Lake Wilderness Resort come with skylights over the main beds, outdoor star beds, hot tubs and SkyMaster Pro binoculars, not to mention daytime activities and unlimited BC wine. One to save up for when we travel the world again.
A three-night all-inclusive package costs from 5,985 Canadian dollars per person (£3,495), excluding flights (001 250 395 6541; siwashlake.com)
Sea and stars, Queensland, Australia
Sleeping outdoors, on the ocean, above the Great Barrier Reef, there’s little to distract from the night sky’s sparkle – except for a passing humpback whale. Almost 40 nautical miles off the Queensland coast, a cluster of al fresco Reefbeds are marooned on a pontoon: sail there, dine at sunset, then snuggle down for the ultimate after-dinner light show. A bright idea for the future.
A two-day Reef Sleep costs from £358pp, excluding flights (020 7368 1200; trailfinders.com)