"What I Did on My Summer Vacation"

Jack Kramer

Just as kids often begin a new school year with short talks about what they did over the summer, it might be interesting to share our own family vacation experiences from an astronomical standpoint. Even on non-astronomical trips, we amateur astronomers do check out the night sky. We also tend to pack along binoculars or small telescopes "just for the heck of it".

This sharing of vacation experiences might prove helpful to some of us in planning future trips. As you no doubt realize, family vacations don't always allow much time for observing. But if the opportunity presents itself, you just might want to be prepared. Some places demand more than just a casual glance at the night sky, especially when visiting dark sky locations such as national parks. A few places invite combined family and astronomy activities. Some pretty good summertime deals are available at ski resorts in the Rockies. The Star Hill Inn of New Mexico is a resort that caters to the amateur astronomer, including non-astronomically inclined family members. And now other "astronomy resorts" have appeared, based on the successful formula of the Star Hill Inn. If you're into family camping, those trips are often blessed with especially gorgeous nights. Many amateurs attend one or more of the astronomy conventions held all over the U.S. Some are especially notable for the darkness of their venues. Then there are those vacation destinations that have nearby observatories or other sites of astronomical interest. Finally, there are vacation sites that do not readily come to mind when we think of astronomy, yet they may offer some nice surprises.

If you'd like to share some of your astronomy-related experiences while on a family vacation, we'll include these in the newsletter just as we already have reports on astronomy conventions and observing trips. I'll begin this by offering two vacation destinations that I've visited within the past couple of years.

Hawaii - When you think of the Hawaiian Islands, one place that comes to mind is the Mauna Kea Observatory complex, which is on the "Big Island" of Hawaii. The observatory at the summit is off limits to tourists. Although there's a visitor center part way up the mountain, when I was there in 1998 it was closed to the public. I've subsequently read that the visitor center is open only by special arrangement. You can get fairly close via the saddle road that runs directly across the island. The saddle road has many turns and dips, but it's safe if you drive carefully. I did see the observatory, but from the base of Mauna Kea. A photograph I took of the summit shows three little white dots - those are the domes.

At latitude 20oN, Hawaii grants us northerners access to many far southern objects. The Big Island is very dark, with the Kona side being the darkest and driest. Scorpius was very high, and a tour of the summer Milky Way with just 9x20 pocket binoculars was great. I had failed to plan for this, however, by forgetting to bring a current copy of Sky & Telescope with its Southern Hemisphere star chart. As a result, I was totally lost in the unfamiliar constellations at lower declinations.

Despite the lights around our resort, the night sky on the Big Island was luxuriously pitch black. The sky over Maui is somewhat brighter near towns and the resort areas along the Kanapali Coast. Oahu is the most light polluted around the city of Honolulu. But the sky anywhere over the ocean is velvety black. While I can't personally report on Kauai, that island should be pretty dark due to its relatively pristine state.

Cancun/Cozumel - The 20oN line of latitude also runs directly through Cancun, which is in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula. Light pollution is not as severe as in our area, but the huge number of resorts in Cancun and on the island of Cozumel contributes a lot of skyglow. We vacationed near Puerto Aventuras, almost fifty miles south of Cancun, where the skies were quite black. A small dome of skyglow was visible over the ocean from Cozumel directly to the east. This time I brought the latest S&T with its southern chart, and was able to easily locate Alpha Centauri (the nearest star other than the sun), along with the Southern Cross and the Jewel Box Cluster (NGC 4755). How I longed for a telescope, rather than just those little binoculars! The only problem here is that high humidity frequently caused overcast conditions during evening hours. Greg Lutes, who was at Cancun some years ago, noted that same situation.

A very worthwhile side venture is the three-hour trip to the archeological site of Chichen-Itza, which was the capital of the Mayan culture from about 800 AD to 1100 AD. The Maya were accomplished astronomers and developed the most precise calendar of the time. The Pyramid of Kukulcan and El Caracol observatory are among the many impressive structures.

Next month we'll take a look at the Mayan calendars and how they are derived from the study of astronomy.