The summer following my freshman year in college I flew home to Hawaii to witness one of the world’s most spectacular astronomical events-—a total solar eclipse. On July 11, 1991 residents and visitors in Hawaii, Mexico, and Central America stood in awe as the moon passed over the sun and left the regions in complete darkness for seven whole minutes. (A duration that will not be exceeded until the year 2132.)
The experience of totality is one I will never forget. The most memorable part was standing in an eerie twilight as the moon’s shadow swept across the landscape at speeds exceeding 1,200 mph. The sun’s bright summer rays were suddenly extinguished and replaced with blackness and a mid-day silence that lives with me to this day.
Eclipses happen on average about every 18 months. However, not all eclipses are created equal. Most last just a few seconds and occur in hard to reach destinations (like over an ocean, and the only way to see it is to charter a ship) or in places where frequent cloud cover makes for poor visibility.
The eclipse of 2009 is expected to be a biggie. It is occurring over relatively easy-to-reach areas of China. But more importantly, the predicted length–more than five minutes of “totality” if you watch from the right spot in China—-is what has serious stargazers booking flights as we speak.
More than a dozen tour companies are already advertising package deals for the big event. Most of the trips include professional astronomers who guide guests through multiple day tours that spotlight astronomical sites in the country where the eclipse takes place.
The following is a sampling of tour companies offering eclipse tours. (A word of warning: some hotels in China were booked eight years ago by guests desperate to watch the eclipse, so you might have better luck booking with a tour company that takes care of your lodging.)
Sirius Travel. The company is offering an 11-night Total Solar Eclipse China tour. Guests will watch the eclipse from the peak of Emei Shan, a sacred mountain in central China where totality will last about five minutes. Prices start at about $3,800.
TravelQuest International. Considered a leader in eclipse tours, the company offers trips in partnership with Sky & Telescope magazine. TravelQuest International is offering three itineraries for the China eclipse, including the eight-night “China: Footsteps of Emperors Tour.” The eclipse will be viewed from a beach south of Shanghai where totality will last for 5 minutes, 38 seconds.
Ring of Fire Expeditions. Paul Maley from NASA’s Johnson Space Center’s Astronomical Society is organizing this tour. The package is called “Nearly 6-Minute Total Solar Eclipse Expedition.” Guests will experience the eclipse from a town south of Shanghai, where totality will last 5 minutes, 52 seconds. Rates are about $3,000 per person.
Wilderness Travel. This company specializes in adventure tours, which is why it is offering views of the eclipse from a ship. The 14-night “Total Solar Eclipse in Polynesia” trip takes guests on a cruise ship that will allow views of the eclipse as it blackens the South Pacific after passing over China. Expect 3 minutes, 26 seconds of totality. Rates start at about $7,000 per person.