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Most Maui visitors journey to the 10,023-foot summit of
Haleakala for sunrise, but for families seeking a more intimate experience atop
the dormant volcano, Maui Astronomy Tours' Sunset & Stargazing Adventure
offers a slice of heaven on Earth.
Becky Sydney, the ebullient mastermind behind Maui Astronomy
Tours, launched the company in 2015 so that she could share the glories of the
universe with others.
"When I moved to Maui more than 25 years ago, I fell in
love with the night sky," Sydney said. "I told myself that I must
learn the stars."
Indeed, she wasted no time setting out to achieve that goal,
beginning with an eight-year stint conducting rooftop astronomy tours at Hyatt
Regency Maui. She also established the Maui Astronomy Club, tracked satellites
for Boeing and taught astronomy at the University of Hawaii Maui College. The
creation of Maui Astronomy Tours represents a true highlight of her
professional life to date, she says.
Sydney's infectious enthusiasm was obvious from the moment
she met our group, which included a couple with a 9-year-old son and parents
with an adult daughter. Our rendezvous spot was the Longs Drugs parking lot in
Makawao, an Upcountry town located on the midslopes of Haleakala. There, Sydney
presented a lively orientation on the adventure to come.
As she provided tips for dealing with the effects of high
elevation, Sydney handed out holistic goodies meant to address them, such as
chewing gum for greater oxygen intake and ginger chews to ward off nausea. She
described the unique natural wonders we might encounter in Haleakala National
Park, from owls and nene (Hawaiian geese) to the endangered Haleakala
silversword plant, which sends out a spectacular flower just once before it
dies. She also gave us a chart of Hawaii's current night sky, with a list of
the major stars and their Hawaiian names.
Next, participants drove in their own cars for approximately
one hour to the top of the mountain, following Sydney in her van. She timed the
drive so that everyone could park in the summit lot and bundle up before
sunset. It was cold up there — barely 40 degrees — with a strong wind that
didn't quit. Prepared and eager to please, Sydney outfitted us with winter
coats, hats, gloves, handwarmers and blankets.
While scores of other people mingled at the summit, our
intrepid guide predicted that they would leave as soon as the sun had set. Sure
enough, once the brilliant orange orb melted into the horizon, our little group
had the place to ourselves. Well after the parking lot emptied out, a dazzling
amber afterglow treated us to mesmerizing views of Haleakala's massive crater.
In a spot that was protected from the gusts, Sydney got
ready for the impending celestial show. She set up her powerful telescope and
spread out a generous picnic of organic snacks, such as hummus, chips, cheese,
crackers, nuts, oat bars and fruit.
As the sky darkened, Sydney proved her passion and prowess.
Since we were perched above and away from man-made light, the conditions were
ideal for stargazing. She discussed some of the distinctive qualities of
Hawaii's skies, from the angle of the moon to the location of certain planets.
She focused her telescope on deep space, giving each guest plenty of time to
see far-away worlds up close. She engaged the group in stories of
constellations like Orion and the Pleiades while pointing them out with a green
laser. She talked about the importance of the solar system to the ancient
Polynesians, who often used the stars to help steer their voyaging canoes.
Through the mighty 'scope, we took turns viewing the moon,
which looked so near and clear that we could make out surface features such as
craters, valleys and the Sea of Tranquility. Sydney even helped us use our
phones to take photos through the eyepiece.
Factoring in the drive, the entire excursion took about five
hours — with two hours at the summit — but the time flew by. It was a memorable
trip for every member of our group, including the 9 year old, who gave Sydney a
long and heartfelt hug goodbye.
"I hope my guests are as inspired and excited about our
universe as I am," Sydney said. "I want them to think about their
Maui experience every time they see a star in the sky."
The Sunset and Stargazing Adventure costs $100 for adults
and $78 for kids ages 7 to 12. Children under 7 are discouraged from joining
this tour due to the high altitude. Groups range from four to 11 people, and
the adult rate will increase to $115 beginning June 1.