You don’t need a telescope in Florida to enjoy gazing at the starry night. You just need good weather – something Florida has plenty of. You can polish your constellation knowledge and remember all of the stories behind them.
GULF COAST GAZING
In Sarasota, there are plenty of stargazing opportunities nearby. For instance, in Venice, you can walk the Venice Municipal Fishing Pier. The pier, which juts 700 feet over the Gulf, can sometimes be busy at late hours of the night. Besides fishermen casting their lines, it’s populated by families and couples strolling hand-in-hand.
At the pier's tip, you can search the southern sky for Orion, the constellation marked by three stars in a diagonal that's supposed to represent the hunter's belt. You’ve most likely heard about Orion, and other constellations, stars, planets and galaxies at a place like the Bishop Planetarium in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota. The planetarium offers star shows on the weekends.
Another place to stop in is Nokomis at the jetties - one of the Gulf coast's best, but lesser-known, places to surf. It gets very dark - perfect for seeing stars - with waves splashed on the rocks. Walk to the tip of the south jetty, where you may startle great herons standing perfectly still, used to having the jetty to themselves at night.
NORTH FLORIDA NIGHTS
Travel to High Springs and fall in love with the charming little town near Gainesville, famous for springs and outdoor adventures and home to the Grady House, a haunted B&B (don't worry - she's a friendly ghost) that will immediately become one of your favorite inns.
Star-gazing gets no better than at this location. The Grady House has two places with spectacular views of the stars: its balcony and the huge, beautifully landscaped backyard, complete with gardens, a koi pond, bamboo grove and a gazebo hidden away in a secluded corner.
High Springs is home to the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost and the Wellness Spa, both of which plan activities around the full moon. The spa offers "Full Moon Baths" and the outpost runs a full moon paddle on the Santa Fe River.
The area also offers more "social" ways to stargaze. In Gainesville, the University of Florida's Astronomy Department offers free, public open houses on Friday nights in the observatory when school is in session (weather permitting). You can use the school's telescopes to observe the moon, stars and planets.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG BEND
Florida's Big Bend is home to the small fishing town of Steinhatchee, known for some of the country's best scalloping, and the island community of Cedar Key. It is also known for having some of the darkest skies in Florida.
A brightly lit and decorated Christmas tree on the front porch greeted us when we pulled up to our "honeymoon cottage" at Steinhatchee Landing Resort. Upon entering, don’t be alarmed if it looks like someone has already made themselves at home - the room will be bathed in soft light, the smell of cranberry-orange wafted from a lit candle, and Pachelbel's Canon playing in the background. It is your room all right. Someone will have just made it about as warm and welcoming as possible.
Take advantage of the resort's numerous recreational activities. Kayak on the Steinhatchee River. Hike through a nearby reserve and even tried archery! Your hosts can drive you to "Road to Nowhere" (a.k.a. County Road 361), which is a long, perfectly straight road. It was built years ago as a landing strip for drug-running planes. Since the road dead ends - it literally goes nowhere - there are no street lights, and no other cars. The nearest lights are miles away, so you get a breathtaking vista of stars for miles in each direction.
The innkeepers will also take you out on resort's pontoon boat. Bringing along a bottle of red wine, crackers, cheese and red grapes, you can munch and sip as you chug along the Steinhatchee, which - with its limestone outcroppings and towering cypress trees - looks much more mysterious in the moonlight. Enjoy a dinner of local specialties - fresh-caught mullet, fried, and the best hush puppies according to many- at Roy's Restaurant, which overlooks the Gulf.
Heading into Cedar Key, you will drive by countless pine trees, horses and cow pastures. Once over the bridge, you’ll pass artsy cafés, colorful restaurants, pelicans seemingly perched on every piling and, on the main street, balconies resembling those in New Orleans' French Quarter. For your staying accommodations, stay at the elegant Island Room, which overlooks a small beach. During lunch - the delicious house specialty crab bisque, baked clams casino and a crab special in a buttery garlic sauce you will see just about every boat imaginable, from sailboat to airboat.
SPACE COAST STARS
Think of stargazing in Florida and the Space Coast, home to Kennedy Space Center and shuttle launches, springs to mind. The area is also home to the Astronaut Memorial Planetarium and Observatory in Cocoa. On weekend nights, you can catch a planetarium star show and then climb to the rooftop observatory.
There, Brevard Astronomical Society volunteers hold viewings - free and open to the public - through one of the largest telescopes in Florida. Nate and I saw Mars and the Orion Nebula, a fuzzy cluster of newly forming stars.
The Space Coast turns out to be quite a romantic place. Saunter through historic downtown Cocoa, full of quaint boutiques and outdoor cafés, stopping at Café Margaux. There is an outdoor courtyard and fountain, crimson table umbrellas and French street lights. The menu contains French and European specialties.
The romantic Inn at Cocoa Beach is large and lavish, with enough amenities to safely be called a beach "resort," the inn still somehow manages to feel intimate and homey. Each room is individually decorated. There's a wine and cheese social around sunset every day. Breakfast is served in the dining room, or in the brick courtyard, fountain-side.
CRUISING ON THE QUEEN
The Friday night dinner cruise costs $40 per person and departs around 7 p.m. from Cocoa Village. It includes two hours of cruising, entertainment and a casual buffet - typically southern- or Caribbean-style (and don't miss the special Indian River Queen Coffee - coffee withKahlúa®, brandy, amaretto and Frangelico®, topped with whipped cream and a splash of Grand Marnier®).
The Queen is also available for private charters. Island Boat Lines also offers daytime eco-tours on pontoon boats.
PARTY WITH THE STARS
So, you want to find out how to locate certain constellations. Or maybe you'd like to see the stars and planets up-close but you don't have a telescope. No matter. Just find a star party near you. Organized by astronomy clubs and societies, star parties are typically free and open to the public. They're great opportunities to learn more about the night sky, and to use high-quality telescopes.