Stars and Paradise

Keck Observatory
The twin 10-meter telescopes of Keck Observatory are among the highlights atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii. To the left is the Japanese Subaru Observatory.
W. M. Keck Observatory
When most people think of Hawaii, they ponder volcanoes, luaus, hula dancers, and pineapples. But Hawaii also sports one of Earth's best vacation spots for amateur astronomers. The Galaxy Garden is just the beginning when it comes to astronomical attractions on Hawaii's Big Island.

On the eastern side of the island, you'll find the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii. This Hilo-based museum explains how astronomy and Hawaiian culture are intertwined. The center houses a state-of-the-art planetarium and a host of fascinating exhibits.

On the western coast, you'll find the Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center on the grounds of the Kona International Airport. This museum, dedicated to the memory of an astronaut killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, is filled with interactive displays that teach space-based concepts. The children-geared facility also houses a theater, lunar rocks, and an Apollo 13 spacesuit.

Astronomy Day crowd
A crowd gathers around a liquid-nitrogen demonstration at a mall in Hilo, Hawaii — part of a "AstroDay 2K4" celebration that drew more than 15,000 participants.

A vacation that includes May 3, 2008, will allow you to join in on the annual Astronomy Day festivities in Hilo. The award-winning event is one of the largest astronomical festivals on the planet and draws more than 10,000 people.

But Hawaii's real lure for astronomers is Mauna Kea's summit and its light-pollution-free skies and crystal-clear seeing. On a clear day you can see other Hawaiian islands from the summit. Thirteen of the world's finest observatories sit atop the 13,796-foot dormant volcano. But high altitude comes with life-threatening risks; pregnant women, children under 16, and people with heart or respiratory conditions are ill-advised to trek to the top. Still undaunted? You'll need to find a company that will rent you a four-wheel-drive vehicle to make the climb; most agencies forbid driving standard rentals on the access road.

Keck Observatory has a small viewing gallery where you can see the mammoth 10-meter Keck I telescope. The 8-meter Subaru Observatory also offers tours if you make reservations. Several companies also offer summit excursions.

If you don't want to go all the way to the top, amazing astronomy can be done at the 9,000-foot level. There you'll find the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy's Visitor Information Station. The facility holds a nightly stargazing program from 6 to 10 p.m., and Saturday night activities often include lectures from professional astronomers. Plan ahead and visit during one of its all-night star parties.

A final astronomical highlight comes every evening along the Kona Coast. Along the beaches the sunsets are magical, and the conditions are often ideal for seeing the elusive green flash. It's a free memory that will last a lifetime.

Have a stellar vacation!