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Look Up: 8 of Canada’s Best Stargazing Destinations

By Kristen Pope
January 27, 2022
Stary sky
Drew Kennedy/Courtesy Newfoundland Labrador Tourism
Under wide-open skies with little light pollution, Canada's sweeping landscapes seem to go on forever—which means prime conditions for watching the celestial show.

With vast expanses of sky untainted by artificial light, many parts of Canada offer stellar opportunities for stargazing. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (rasc.ca) has recognized nearly two dozen locations as Dark-Sky Preserves—and this year is the 50th anniversary of the July 1969 moon landing, so it’s as fitting a time as any to look up and contemplate the cosmos.

As if warm summer nights aren’t reason enough to indulge in an extended gazing session, meteor showers provide even more incentive to head outside. The Perseids are an annual favorite, and this year's celestial show runs July 17 through August 26, peaking August 12 and 13. Check out these eight destinations for unbeatable views of the night sky.

1. Terra Nova National Park: Newfoundland

Night-Sky-@-OChre-Hill-Dave-Saunders.jpg?mtime=20190417130247#asset:105548(Courtesy Dave Saunders/Ochre Hill)

One of Canada’s newly established Dark-Sky Preserves—just designated in 2018—Terra Nova National Park offers plenty to do from sunup to sundown. By day, wander the park’s trails, take a two-mile stroll around the pond, sign up for a guided hike, or take a dunk in Sandy Pond. Kids will love the visitor center, where they can check out the touch tank and get up close and personal with creatures of the sea. When the sun sets, find a good place to gawk at the constellations. Pack a flashlight and take a hike to Ochre Hill, a fantastic vantage point that was once a fire-watch station. Sandy Point is the darkest place in the park, known for the best views of the night sky.

2. Jasper National Park: Alberta

“Power Down. Look Up” is the tagline for Jasper’s annual Dark Sky Festival in October (jasperdarksky.travel), when stargazers can attend photography workshops and talks during the day and gaze into the cosmos at night, with special events such as star sessions atop the Jasper SkyTram. But even if you don’t visit during the festival, there’s plenty to do here: While the sun is out, hike the trails, look for wildlife, or enjoy the region's culinary delights on a Jasper Food Tour (jasperfoodtours.com). Then, turn your attention to the stars at one of this Dark Sky Preserve's scenic spots, like Medicine Lake, Pyramid Lake, Lake Annette, Maligne Canyon, and more.

3. Banff National Park: Alberta

Known for its rugged scenery and mountain culture, Banff is paradise for outdoorsy types. Spend the days hiking, biking, and paddle-boarding in Banff National Park, keeping an eye out for some of the park's famous wildlife, including, but not limited to, grizzly bears and bighorn sheep. Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake provide scuba-diving opportunities, and the town of Banff itself has an array of shopping and spa possibilities. Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are short scenic getaways, with Lake Louise around 34 miles away, and Moraine Lake about 12 miles further. Hike, paddle-board, or simply soak in the vistas, and at night, sit back and watch the Milky Way’s virtuoso performance.

4. Gros Morne National Park and L'Anse aux Meadows: Newfoundland

Active travelers will delight in this national park's bounty of outdoor pursuits, from hikes through the Tablelands and scenic boat tours of the freshwater-glacier-carved fjords to whale-watching excursions through Iceberg Alley to the north. Set out to Trout River's Eastern Point Trail for gorgeous clifftop views or explore L'Anse aux Meadows, the 1,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site where Vikings once lived, then treat yourself to a traditional Jiggs dinner, a classic boiled or Sunday dinner served in some area restaurants, or take the Taste of Gros Morne food tour (tasteofgosmoren.com) to sample the local cuisine before the night's activities.

5. Grasslands National Park: Saskatchewan

It may be the country’s darkest preserve, but explore Grasslands National Park by day and you could spot black-footed ferrets, golden eagles, short-horned lizards, and black-tailed prairie dogs, to say nothing of the plains bison, a near-threatened species that was reintroduced in 2005. Soak in the views of badlands and grasslands by car on a cruise along the seasonal Badlands Parkway, or take the Ecotour scenic drive to learn about the heritage and history of the area. Go for a hike, embark on a rugged overnight backpacking adventure, or get in some exercise canoeing, kayaking, or cycling. When you need a rest, be on the lookout for the six “red chair” locations throughout the park. Each of these oversize Adirondack chairs provides a spectacular perch where you can savor the parks' tranquility. When the day’s activities are done, just train your eyes to the sky.

6. Wood Buffalo National Park: Northwest Territories

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better destination for stargazing than Wood Buffalo National Park: Clocking in at more than 17,200 square miles, it's Canada's largest national park and the largest Dark Sky Preserve on earth. Each August, the park celebrates its designation with a Dark Sky Festival featuring workshops, guest speakers, and events. The cold, clear winter months frequently deliver spectacular views of the aurora borealis, while fall offers a slightly warmer peek at the Northern Lights. Back on the ground, there's abundant fishing, boating, canoeing, and hiking throughout the park, from the short, easy Karstland loop to rigorous and challenging backcountry routes.

7. Point Pelee National Park: Ontario

Looking up is always a good idea in Point Pelee National Park, dubbed a Wetland of International Significance by UNESCO in 1987. Birdwatchers, take note: Some 390 avian species have been spotted here, and spring and fall are the best times to catch a glimpse of the migratory creatures as they travel through the area. Wander along the Centennial Bike and Hike Trail, or hop in a canoe or kayak to paddle among the freshwater marshes that make up two-thirds of the park. At night, of course, you won't want to look anywhere but the sky. The park is open until midnight on certain new moon nights, giving visitors ample time to take in the celestial show.

8. Waterton Lakes National Park: Alberta

Hugging the Canadian border north of Montana, Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park comprise the first trans-boundary International Dark Sky Park. While you're waiting for nightfall, grab a fishing license and spend some time by the water, or explore the area on foot or by bike. After sunset, lean back and gaze at the stars from locations like Cameron Bay, which is walkable from town, and the Bison Paddock Overlook, where a short walk will bring you to a promontory facing the valley. (Pro tip: Bring your flashlight. Also, be aware that the 2017 Kenow Wildfire affected a large area of the park, so plan ahead and check for closures before you come.)

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Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Madison, Wisconsin

Hannah Flood moved to Madison in 2015 to anchor the morning newscast at NBC15 WMTV, the local NBC affiliate. (Ms. Flood now works for KMSP in Twin Cities, MN) It didn’t take long for her to feel at home—which is especially convenient considering that a newscaster's job depends on knowing the people and places around the city. In the beginning, recommendations from co-workers came at her at lightening speed. But now she’s become so familiar with the area that she can offer her own in return. We checked in to hear her tips on how to make the most of your time in Wisconsin's vibrant capital city. Good Eats In addition to University of Wisconsin's huge student population (nearly 30,000), Madison is home to Epic, a massive medical software company, so there’s a steady influx of young people, and where professionals with disposable income go, a hip dining scene follows. In many urban hubs, “farm to table” and “hyper-local” designations are worn as badges of pride. In Madison, it’s practically a necessity, what with Wisconsin being a huge agricultural state. It's a “super-foodie city,” Hannah assures—almost anywhere you go to eat, staff will tell you that the cheese is from a creamery 30 minutes down the road, and the beef is from a farm not much farther. Hanna's many favorites run the gamut. When the night calls for a high-end yet still casual meal, Graze, a modern restaurant near the capitol building, answers. The chef, Tory Miller, broke onto the national culinary scene when he appeared on Iron Chef Showdown, winning out against Food Network star Bobby Flay. At Graze, his dishes are Korean-inspired but, this being Wisconsin, cheese curds make a few cameos on the menu. Cheese curds also show up at Lucille, a sweeping warehouse-chic eatery retrofitted into an old bank and known for its craft cocktails and wood-fired pizza. The deep-dish and thin-crust options are both fine, but the absolute necessity is the pan nachos. Yes, cooked like a deep-dish pizza, with Wisconsin cheese. If you’re looking for an ultra-casual meal, check out the Plaza Tavern off of State Street, a main thoroughfare. With leather booths, old-school arcade games, and a frenetic open kitchen, it looks as though it’s been untouched since the 1970s, says Hannah. “It’s very Wisconsin,” she asserts. The spot is known for its burgers, slathered in creamy Plaza sauce. (The owner allegedly keeps the recipe locked up in a safe-deposit box). Then there are the supper clubs, Wisconsin’s answer to the steakhouse. They were a new discovery for Hannah when she moved here and, she suggests, something any guest visiting the region should explore. One of her favorites is the Tornado Steak House, a true classic with a speakeasy element to it: If you didn't know to look for it, you might miss the discreet entrance, despite it being on a busy street. Like the Plaza Tavern, it looks like it’s been unchanged by time. “The first time I took my boyfriend there, he seriously said he felt like a mobster,” she says. And pro tip: After 9 p.m., menu prices are slashed. A sirloin, for instance, is less than $15. A City of Neighborhoods (everylymadison.com) Madison’s geography is distinctive: It’s situated on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, and there are four lakes located downtown. The capitol building is in the center, and all the neighborhoods radiate out from there. Locals refer to Madison as the most liberal place between Berkeley and Brooklyn, and that long legacy is perhaps best personified by the moment, in the late '60s, when the city erupted in protest against Dow Chemical, maker of napalm gas. The neighborhood known as Willy Street, on the near east side of downtown, perhaps best typifies that free-spirited past. (Hannah describes it as “artsy, eccentric, and granola.”) Home to many young creative types and families with small children, it’s a vibrant destination for nightlife. Start with pre-dinner cocktails at Gib's Bar, a converted old house that's so cozy it reminds Hannah of hanging out in a friend's living room, then dinner at Texas Tubb’s Taco Palace. Wrap the night across the street at Alchemy, a low-key joint with a dependable calendar of local bands. Across town, the Monroe neighborhood embodies a different vibe. Situated near Camp Randall Stadium, home of the university’s football team, its winding streets are lined with longstanding houses, architectural eye candy. The area’s businesses are a little more “uptown,” so to speak, than Willy Street. The Everly, for one, serves California-style fresh meals, a far cry from the region's classic meat-and-potatoes fare. Small independent businesses abound. Hannah suggests visiting Zip-Dang, a husband-and-wife-run shop specializing in funky prints, many of which are inspired by the husband’s obsession with Wisconsin folklore. And don’t leave the neighborhood without stopping by Bloom Bakeshop for cupcakes. The presence of all these cute newer shops, however, doesn’t mean the neighborhood has abandoned its history. Mickies Dairy Bar is a relic that Hannah adoringly describes as a hole-in-the-wall. Diners committed to the eatery’s milkshakes, malts,and classic breakfasts dependably form lines out the door on weekends. Day-Tripping (Ralf Broskvar/Dreamstime) There is plenty to keep a visitor busy throughout a long weekend—or more—in Madison, but it’d be a faux pas to travel here and not explore the surrounds. One place Hannah always insists her out-of-town friends see is Devil’s Lake State Park—by her estimation, the most beautiful thing the state has to offer. The lakeside park, rimmed by colossal cliffs, offers paddle-boarding and hiking trails for all skill levels. It’s best known, however, for Devil’s Doorway, a colossal boulder precariously balanced on a cliff. There are two roads that lead there from Madison, each of which delivers its own rewards. Route 113 runs through Lodi, a sweet little enclave with a downtown worth stopping for, not least because of Buttercream Bakery, a local favorite. But Hannah prefers the 40-mile drive along Route 12, which cuts through Prairie du Sauk, where there is an eagle-watching center nearby. For more information on Madison, WI visit their site.

Inspiration

Hotel We Love: Point A London Shoreditch

The colorful mural in the lobby of the Point A Hotel London Shoreditch would be well suited for an urban skate park or a trendy coffee shop—the kind that sells matcha lattes. If that—plus the free digital jukebox—doesn’t tip you off to this hotel's cool factor, nothing will. The Story The Point A Hotel London Shoreditch is one of the newer members of the Point A family, which includes six hotels in London and one in Glasgow, with several more London properties in the works. The company's calling card is more bang for your buck, and it delivers with reasonable—if not astonishing—rates for centrally located accommodations. Safety comes at a premium here, with keycards required to access the hallways and elevator as well as the front entrance, a wide glass façade, after hours. The Quarters The hotel has 181 guest rooms, ranging from standard doubles to twins to handicap-accessible doubles and twins, each adorned with colorful Shoreditch-themed murals. (Accessible rooms are larger than the standards but do not have windows.) The rooms are small—86 to 129 square feet—but given the efficient use of space, it's almost easy to forget the compact size of the room. There is a drop-down desk with a foldable chair and a light that switches on right above; shelves are strategically placed out of the way. Hooks around the room hang as an alternative to closets. Amenities enhance the modern sensibility of the room: 40-inch smart flatscreen televisions, fast free Wi-Fi, and touchpad-controlled mood lighting that changes color and intensity. There are also all the standard conveniences: air conditioning, a safe, bedside USB ports, blackout curtains, and high-powered showers. The hotel has an ironing room on the first floor. The Neighborhood The hotel is smack in the middle of Shoreditch, easily one of London’s hippest neighborhoods, a mosaic of cafés, pubs, music venues, and convenient stores, plus Bunhill Fields, a very pretty, sprawling park encompassing old burial grounds. It’s a few minutes’ walk to the Old Street tube station (Northern Line) and about ten minutes more to several others--Liverpool Street (Central, Circle, Metropolitan, and Hammersmith & City lines) and Moorgate (Circle, Metropolitan, Hammersmith & City, and Northern line). Nearby eateries include Thai, Indian, and Italian. The Food Breakfast, or “brekkie,” is available from 9:00 a.m. in the lobby lounge or to-go. Options include fresh pastries, fresh fruit, cereal, and yogurt, plus a gluten-free selection. (There’s no kitchen for hot meals.) A case in the lobby is stocked with snacks, juices, and soft drinks that are available for purchase anytime. Espresso drinks can be made to order around the clock, too. All the Rest Point A pushes its loyalty program, and it’s advisable to sign up for the free program. In addition to 10% off all future bookings at Point A hotels, membership affords benefits like special deals and complimentary items at local restaurants, discounts at nail salons and on guided tours, and free access to the nearby DW Fitness First Spitalfields Tower gym. Rates & Deets Starting at $90 Point A Shoreditch8-10 Paul StreetShoreditch, London+44 20 7655 1720 / pointahotels.com

Inspiration

New Airline Will Fly You to Hogwarts, Narnia, and Other Out-of-This-World Destinations

We’re cheering the announcement this morning that a brand-new airline will be offering flights to some out-of-this-world destinations that we never thought we’d actually see. Charybdis Air, the new flagship airline of Freedonia (one of Europe’s lesser-known gems), plans to fly from several major U.S. and Western European airports, including JFK, LAX, and Heathrow, to an array of magical lands that you can finally start crossing off your bucket list. Here, a look at some of the top destinations Charybdis will be accessing. 1. Hogwarts With limited access and baffling railroad platform nomenclature, the legendary school for wizards has been historically secretive and less than welcoming to travelers. But all of that is changing thanks to Charybdis Air’s initiative to fly fans of Harry, Hermione, and Ron to the new HGW airport, a short drive from the imposing castle-like building and literally enchanting grounds, where you may come face-to-face with a Hippogriff. Visitors should be aware that the more famous students of Hogwarts are, of course, now grown up and no longer attending the school, but ogling the great hall, staircases, and classrooms will be a thrill nonetheless. 2. Narnia Travelers wishing to visit Narnia have always had to resort to the reliable but clumsy “proceed to the rear of the wardrobe” approach. But starting soon, the land made famous by C.S. Lewis’s meticulously researched books and their film adaptations will be accessible to anyone who wants to jump on Charybdis Air’s new value fares to NRN airport. 3. Oz First of all, the implication that Oz exists only in Dorothy Gale’s dreams, as strongly implied by the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland, is false. But getting to Oz to explore must-sees such as the Emerald City, Yellow Brick Road, and poppy fields that rival California’s has always been a challenge, with the land surrounding by what is clearly marked on maps as a “Deadly Desert.” Get ready to fly into the Emerald City (EMC) for an unforgettable three-day weekend! 4. Never Never Land There are two advantages to flying to Never Never Land (NNL), home to Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, and the Lost Boys: First is the gorgeous forest scenery and panoramas of the sea (where you may spy a pirate ship moored offshore). Second is that, while visiting Never Never Land, travelers will not age. True fact: Spend a week, a month, or a year in Never Never Land, and you’ll arrive home the same age as when you left! Also, Charybdis Air’s subsidiary, Scylla Cruise Line, plans to offer fabulous floating holiday trips to Never Never Land as soon as some pesky cruise-port negotiations are resolved. 5. Middle-Earth While the people chronicled in J.R.R. Tolkien’s accounts of Middle-Earth in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are long gone (the books recount events that took place centuries ago), the stunning geography remains the same. Fly to JRR airport, in the iconic northwest and be greeted by the surprisingly welcoming modern-day Eldar and spend some time relaxing on the beaches of the Great Sea Belegaer. But do bear in mind that the subcontinent Beleriand is now off-limits, having been some time ago engulfed by the ocean. Book Your Flight Charybdis Air is offering a one-day-only rock-bottom value fare to any of the above destinations as long as you book by midnight tonight, April 1.

Inspiration

Confessions of a Lifetime Hotel Concierge

Cynthia Van Zandt has seen a lot from behind her desk—guests panicked because of lost luggage, couples euphoric from a recent engagement, families excited for a graduation ceremony, businessmen and women anxiously on their way to give career-making presentation. As concierge at Sofitel Washington DC Lafayette Square for 11 years (and other hotels for several years before that) she’s met—and helped out—people from all over the planet. How, you ask? Let us count the ways. She’s zoomed to the airport to deliver a left-behind iPad, and tracked down where to buy catheters and rare European game meat. She’s made such an impact throughout her career that she was awarded membership in the Les Clefs d’Or, a national professional society of hotel concierges that only accepts people based on recommendations. Ask Cynthia about her work, and she will tell you how lucky she feels, how there’s never been a doubt in her mind that she made the right career choice in her life. She’ll also tell you that it comes with intense challenges. “I’ve always worked in fancy hotels, but the job isn’t as glamorous as some might think. It’s the hardest profession there is," she says. "You have to love people and love taking care of people. You’re seeing them at all of their moments, high and low.” We checked in (no pun intended) with Cynthia to get the skinny on some of her more memorable moments and astonishing feats she pulled off. 1. A Wizard in Disguise One morning, two little boys and their parents were checking in. They had clearly never been to a hotel before, and they were trying to grasp what it meant to have access to the comforts of home while they were so far away from home. Cynthia greeted them, explained that she could help them if they got hungry or if they wanted an extra pillow. She could help them get anyplace and answer any questions about where to go in the city. “So, you’re like a wizard?” the boy asked matter-of-factly. Cynthia still laughs when she tells that story. 2. Baby’s Very First Hotel Stay Cynthia has met no shortage of couples on their honeymoon in the nation’s capital. Babymoons are a tad less common. A young pair was visiting from Europe, their final trip as a party of two. Soon after, they returned to D.C. as a party of three and checked in again. To welcome them back, she gave them a toddler-size Sofitel bathrobe. They thanked her and went on their way. Less than two years later, they emailed her a photo of the baby all dolled up in the robe. “It was so lovely to know that they remember us. I had to take a minute,” she said wistfully. 3. A Last-Minute Valentine’s Day Triumph Few days of the year are busier for the hotel industry than Valentine’s Day. One year, a high-rolling man wanted to surprise his girlfriend, but he made the unfortunate mistake of waiting to the last minute to figure out how to do that. Well, in a rookie’s hands it would have been unfortunate. But Cynthia did not balk when, at 4:30 p.m., he asked for his room to be filled with 1,000 red roses. By that point in the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, it’s slim pickings for flowers in any city. But Cynthia’s connections run deep and wide, and within 30 minutes, the roses were delivered and his room transformed into a romantic fantasy world. 4. Detective Work A good concierge never reveals her secrets. If you don’t believe us, just ask Cynthia about the time a family that was staying at the hotel for their son’s graduation from George Washington University. The parents asked her to get hold of the graduate's kindergarten picture for a celebration they were throwing for him. And get hold of it she did. “The world is much smaller than we think,” she said in response to us asking her how. “You just have to do a little detective work and be creative in your thinking.”

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