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How to Enjoy Some of the Darkest Skies on Earth From a Hot Tub

by Staff

SKYE, Scotland—Astrotourism has become a hot new phenomenon as light pollution continues to grow and people seek out “dark sky” areas to experience a true, star-studded night.

There are accredited “dark sky parks,” usually remote national parks where you can trek out into the middle of nowhere and bask in the wonder of a full panoply of stars, planets and solar systems. For the Gore-Tex brigade, that is the real answer, but one enterprising hotel on the Isle of Skye in Scotland realized there might be a market for a much more comfortable experience.

The Duisdale House Hotel has installed a powerful hot tub in its grounds to offer a creature-comfort version of stargazing that they’ve christened, “The Dark Skye package.” Guests are welcomed to the hotel with a truly delightful whisky hot chocolate, then invited to sample the darkened nights of Skye’s winter off-season after a top-notch three-course dinner crafted from the region’s superb seafood and other local produce.

In the summer, the island is a popular tourist destination but much of the industry shuts down over winter leaving most of the hotels, restaurants and highways totally in the dark.

That is the time for a bit of stargazing. Or—if you’re very lucky—a glimpse of the aura borealis. Skye is located just above the 57th parallel, the same latitude as Alaska and Saskatchewan in Canada, making it a great spot for the Northern Lights.

Courtesy of Duisdale House Hotel

The lack of light pollution also means you can experience the natural rhythms of the planet’s day-night cycle. Drew Reagan, of DarkSky International, says the impact of the cycle is even more important than our ability to see the stars: It can help us humans get a better night’s sleep but it’s also crucial for wildlife. Birds’ migration patterns are thrown off and more than a billion are thought to die colliding with illuminated buildings every year. Sea turtles that hatch on the beach at night need dark skies so that the horizon over the ocean is the brightest point, beckoning them out to their home in the seas. “So many animals and plants depend on pristine night-time environments,” Reagan told The Daily Beast.

They rarely get them. Urbanization has joined forces with ever cheaper outdoor lighting to blanket the night skies with the reflected glow of streetlights, advertising boards and buildings that never switch off. A full 99 percent of Americans and Europeans now live under “sky glow.”

Reagan said it was vitally important not only to focus on the spectacular starry skies you might encounter, particularly since astrophotography—and photo editing software—have created “an unrealistic expectation.”

“Like any natural phenomenon, you need to go out in good weather,” Reagan said. “So many people are disappointed because there’s clouds. And that’s just the nature of recreating outside. You need to really manage your expectations.”

Luckily, there are plenty of other advantages of visiting Skye in the off-season. Even the journey there was spectacular. There’s something magical about boarding the Caledonian Sleeper train on a rainswept, gray London evening and waking up to crisp deep snow outside the window of your cabin high in the Cairngorm mountains. It’s like walking through the back of the wardrobe and emerging in Narnia with millions of trees punctuating a white carpet of snow.

The voyage continues, stretching further north into the Highlands, while cheerful staff serve full Scottish breakfasts, bacon rolls and a plethora of inferior healthier options in a club car which is reminiscent of the Orient Express or the other great train journeys now largely consigned to literature.

The train takes you as far as Inverness, where you can hire a car. Approaching the Isle of Skye you pass Loch Ness—home of the famous monster—and then the stunning Loch Duich, where white mountains rise up behind the dense forest of fir trees.

At this time of year, the landscape of Skye itself, which is accessible by a bridge, is also dominated by snow-covered mountains that seem to peek around every corner of the twisting, undulating roads.

A photo including dark skies

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Navigating a loop around the Troternish peninsula in the north of the island is one of the great drives; with a road that clings to the coast like the spectacular craggy wilderness of the Pacific Coast Highway in California. Even more than its U.S. cousin, this road offers awe-inspiring reasons to stop the car every five minutes. There are numerous waterfalls, including the spectacular Lealt Falls which cascades 300ft down into a gorge leading to a beach where you can still see the remnants of the old fishermen’s cottages in the foreground and then beautiful hills of the Isle of Raasay across the water. You can hike up to the Old Man of Storr for a cinematic landscape featured by Ridley Scott in Prometheus or to the Quiraing, a unique set of cliffs, jagged pinnacles and uncanny rock formations. Both natural wonders were caused by landslips millions of years ago—at around the same time a family of dinosaurs were walking just below on An Corran Beach leaving footprints which can still be seen. The weight of lava flows at the Quiraing caused the biggest known landslip in the British Isles, with around a mile and a half of mountainous terrain sliding down towards the coast and opening up a wondrous series of hollows and sheer rock faces.

During the summer, you have to share the breathtaking peninsula with a steady flow of coach trips and tourists from all over the world, but it is far quieter in January or February.

All over the island, there are waterfalls everywhere, cascading down sheer basalt cliffs or winding through open valleys. One of the most popular of these is a smaller one which forms the Fairy Pools, in the west of the island. If you scramble down to the river and across some boulders you can reach the water. After an icy dip in a deep rocky bowl formed by centuries of crashing water, a hot bath and that whisky-laced hot chocolate back at the hotel were the ideal restoration.

Out of season, there is a much more limited array of places to eat and drink but there are still ample opportunities to enjoy the local produce. The Oyster Shed is open year-round offering up a changing seafood menu that includes fresh oysters and delicious lobster and fries.

Another local delicacy, of course, is the whisky. Talisker, one of the world’s foremost whisky producers, offers a tour of its distillery which was built on Skye in 1830, and the chance to try some of its exquisite single malts.

The kitchen at the celebrated Kinloch Lodge is open all year, and so too is the Duisdale House Hotel. Duisdale House, which was named top hotel at the Highlands and Islands tourism awards, offers a changing menu each night featuring Scotland’s wonderful array of seafood and game, such as beautifully cured salmon or an expertly cooked duck breast. The breakfast menu also stars local heroes such as kippers smoked on the Moray coast, haggis and tattie scones.

On the nights we were there, Dark Sky guru Reagan was right, of course, and thick cloud cover meant all but a few stars in the Ursa Major constellation were concealed. That still left a velvety blackness that was totally novel to a visiting Londoner.

The celestial beauty may have been obscured, but laying back in the hot tub with a glass of Talisker 10 was about as close as you can get to a moment of heaven on Earth.

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