Searching the sky

With pristine beaches, warm turquoise water and deep jungle terrain, it’s easy to while away the days enjoying nature’s splendor on Maui. But when the sun goes down, don’t forget to turn your eyes to the sky, where a whole new world – or universe, rather – awaits.

Taking in the island’s night sky from your lanai is entrancing in its own right, but there are ways to dive deeper into deep space, from resort telescopes to guided tours atop the 10,000-foot Haleakala summit to cruises off the coast into the darkening ocean.

“Most people are ‘star-struck’ when they see how magnificent our universe is. The words I hear the most are, ‘Oh my God,’ and, ‘Is this for real?’ ” said Becky Sydney, who runs Maui Astronomy Tours and also founded the Maui Astronomy Club, which has more than 550 members. “As an educator, I teach my guests how massive and how far and how dynamic objects are. My excitement seems to rub off on them, and they say their ‘minds are blown.’ “

Read on for a few ideas for finding yourself “star-struck” on Maui.

High and dry

Haleakala’s altitude, combined with its clear, dry and cold conditions, make it an ideal location for stargazing, experts say.

“Haleakala is so good for stargazing because its summit reaches 10,000 feet above sea level, so there are fewer layers of atmosphere to look through,” said Jan Roberson, owner and founder of Maui Stargazing, which offers tours on the mountain. “The best observing occurs on moonless nights when the weather cooperates to create a dry, clear night. Haleakala has favorable observing more often than most places on the planet.”

Light pollution or thick atmosphere is what typically prohibits people from seeing the stars, Sydney said.

“Honolulu probably doesn’t see many stars because of all the lights drowning out the dark sky,” she said. “And at sea level, the air is thicker and veils some of the dimmer stars seen at higher elevations.”

Sydney, who has been working in the field of astronomy for more than two decades, guides guests from around the world to the summit, many who have an interest in science and space.

“Lots of families join my tours, too, because it’s an event for all ages, and seeing Saturn through the telescope even excites little children. Adults are usually blown away,” she said. “With couples, I find there’s a ‘romantic’ draw from some. I’ve had a few couples on my tours get engaged on Haleakala under the stars. So memorable.”

Sydney’s tours start with enjoying the sunset at the summit. From there, she sets up her telescope for observing and points out stars, planets and constellations. She also offers private tours and late-night viewings for events such as lunar eclipses.

The night sky changes every night, she said, but currently, it’s possible to see Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, as well as the summer constellations such as Scorpio and Sagittarius.

“I set up my telescope on the hill across from Science City,” she said, referring to Haleakala Observatory. “We see the big professional scopes as they work throughout the night tracking satellites and near-Earth objects.”

And occasionally, a green laser from NASA’s laser-ranging station can be seen shooting into the sky as it tracks satellite positions or even bounces off reflectors on the moon.

“It’s super cool,” she said.

Roberson also gets her share of international travelers “seeking the secrets hidden in the night sky.”

“I see honeymooners and folks celebrating anniversaries whose love has stood the tests of time. I love the families, and I am thrilled when bright young children look into my telescope and recognize the planets they’ve only seen in children’s books.”

Roberson’s tours are science-based, staying clear of mythology and astrology, and offer explanations of how the objects observed each evening are formed, with her work reviewed by astronomy professor J.D. Armstrong of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, which manages Haleakala Observatory. She’s been a Haleakala Amateur Astronomers officer since 2007, primarily organizing educational outreach events for student groups in coordination with the institute.

After sunset, Roberson’s Maui Stargazing offers tours of the cosmos using the largest portable telescope on Haleakala. On a recent night, guests were treated to several planets, moons of Jupiter, galaxies, star clusters, nebulae, constellations and other deep-space objects.

“It’s personally rewarding for me to find deep-space objects without the aid of a computerized telescope,” she said.

Guests can also opt for astrophotography tours, where they can learn time-lapse photography techniques and capture images of the sunset and the Milky Way.

Maui Stargazing’s primary astrophotographer, Dr. T.S. Kelso, takes tours further by attaching a DSLR camera to the back of a computerized tracking telescope and teaching guests to take photos of celestial objects.

High-star resort

When you think of a night’s stay in a resort, fine dining and luxury accommodations likely top the list, but at Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa in Kaanapali, all of that can come with a side of first-class stargazing.

More than nine stories up, at a remote site on the hotel rooftop, a 14-inch reflector telescope known as “The Edge” awaits guests interested in a Tour of the Stars. The resort’s in-house director of astronomy, Eddie Mahoney, takes guests on a tour of stars, planets, galaxies and nebulae. The program earned the resort the No. 1 spot in the world’s Top 12 hotels for stargazing from CNN Travel in 2013.

Mahoney, who has been leading the tours for more than 20 years, first teaches participants how to interpret the sky with the unaided eye, then with giant astronomy binoculars and ultimately with “The Edge.”

” ‘Wow,’ ‘awesome’ and ‘brilliant’ are the most frequently heard exclamations,” Mahoney said. “Many of our guests come from big cities where they never see the stars due to light pollution. Our clear, dark Maui skies are a sight to behold.”

Three shows are offered every night, weather permitting. The resort also makes the most of astronomical happenings by offering special events, such as a viewing for the partial solar eclipse earlier this year. And when NASA’s Juno Spacecraft, launched in 2011, reached Jupiter on the Fourth of July, the resort featured a live NASA feed of the arrival during the night’s tours.

Coming soon, between Aug. 7 and 13, the Perseid meteor shower is expected to put on a vibrant display of “shooting stars” as the Earth travels through a dust trail left by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, Mahoney said. And the Hyatt experience becomes intimate and romantic with the optional addition of the Romance Tour of the Stars – a “couples only” tour that includes champagne and chocolate strawberries to be enjoyed beneath the island sky.

Even marriage proposals can be arranged, with Mahoney’s scientifically based assistance.

“Recently, as each guest approached the telescope to view Saturn, I would ask, ‘Do you see the ring?’ Mahoney said. “At the prearranged moment, I slipped the diamond engagement ring right into the eyepiece of the telescope. I asked the young lady if she could see the ring, and she screamed, ‘Yes!’ She turned to see her husband-to-be on bended knee, and did agree.”

Over the water, under the moon

Gliding across the dark ocean under a night sky on a Pacific Whale Foundation cruise, it’s easy to marvel at the way ancient Polynesians looked to the heavens to navigate.

PWF’s stargazing ecotour cruises are timed to coincide with the best conditions for viewing bright stars, constellations, the Milky Way and other wonders of the galaxy during the new moon lunar cycle. They, as well as full-moon cruises, are narrated by international award-winning astronomy writer and speaker Harriet Witt, who taught celestial navigation to the Hokule’a voyaging canoe crew in preparation for its voyage to and from Rapanui.

“Her love of the stars and passion for all things celestial is palpable and relatable to people of all ages and backgrounds, deepening their connection to the only planet in the known universe that supports human life,” said Alison Nicole Stewart, who handles PFW’s communications and public relations.

Along with ancient Polynesian navigation, Witt explores topics such as the colors of stars, the zodiac, how to tell a planet from a star and constellations.

“The ecotour is highly interactive, as passengers are invited to come with their wonder and their questions for a spontaneous, exploratory conversation. The more questions you ask, the more fun you have,” said Witt.

Visitors and residents alike, from couples seeking romance to families after adventure, find the cruises to be a rare opportunity to enjoy the ocean and its natural environment after sundown, Stewart said.

During whale season, a hydrophone is lowered into the ocean, so passengers can listen to the haunting songs of humpback whales. The cruise also includes an array of appetizers desserts and beverages.

“Cruising off the coast of Maui offers a special vantage point for stargazing, with the added backdrop of the glimmering sea at night and the surrounding island landscapes,” Stewart said.