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Special Travel Issue | Star treks

Exploring the Universe

Side Trips: Travel Tips, Trends and Tools

October 12, 2003|Renee Vogel

Carly Simon once had a hit song about a vain guy with a Lear jet who flew to "Novia Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun." These days it's not just the fabulously wealthy who plan vacations around eclipses and other celestial phenomena. It is easy to watch a partial eclipse, but the narrow "path of totality" means that prime seats for experiencing the eerie, fleeting beauty of a total solar eclipse are often in exotic places. And for many an "eclipse chaser," one solar event is never enough.

Astronomical Tours, a Missouri-based company specializing in star-studded holidays, offers two tour packages to Antarctica in November to see the total solar eclipse. Besides a nearly sold-out 28-day cruise aboard a refurbished Russian icebreaker, there's a nine-day trip to the Novolazarevskaya Science Station. "It's the only eclipse observation site on the ice that we're aware of," says Jen Winter, who founded the company in 1998 with her husband, Vic, and another couple.

November is spring in Antarctica, which means that the temperature hovers at a toasty 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Base camp amenities include electrical power, heat and real beds. "The scenery is white as far as the eye can see, which is awe-inspiring," Jen Winter says. With Antarctica, she acknowledges, travelers are either dying to visit or wouldn't be caught dead there. Those in the latter category can hold out for 2005, when the company is scheduling trips departing from Tahiti and the Galapagos Islands for the next solar eclipse. "Witnessing an eclipse is addictive," she says. "An ancient medicine man once put it this way: 'It will alter your soul forever.' "

The Winters, both avid amateur astronomers, eclipse chasers and retired photojournalists, perform dozens of calculations to find beautiful viewing sites, ensure that telescopes, cameras and other fragile items are transported safely, and provide lectures and side trips. "Most companies aren't equipped to handle the special needs of astronomers and their gear," Jen Winter says. "We cater to both hard-core star gazers and to amateurs who just think the trip sounds fun."

Solar eclipses aren't the only stellar events in Astronomical Tours' repertoire. The company is organizing trips to Egypt and Athens in June for the transit of Venus, in which the planet passes between the Earth and the sun, creating a small, round shadow that moves across the solar face. "It doesn't have the same spectacular beauty as an eclipse," Jen says, "but it's a once-in-a-lifetime event." The last transit of Venus was in 1882.

The company also hosts a "Southern Skies Star Party" each summer in Bolivia. Participants spend a week at the upscale Inca Utama Hotel & Spa Resort on the shores of Lake Titicaca. "The viewing conditions are amazing," Jen says. "At 12,500 feet, more than half of the Earth's atmosphere is below you. You're in the Southern Hemisphere so you're looking straight into the heart of the Milky Way."

Astronomical Tours, 149 N.W. OO Highway, Warrensburg, Mo., 64093; (660) 747-9458, www.astronomicaltours.net.

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