Southern France: Une Nuit au Sommet, Pic du Midi Observatory, Midi-Pyrénées
The site is home to Europe’s highest museum — with displays of astrological discoveries through the ages — and the sunsets are sublime. Plus, this part of the Midi-Pyrénées became Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve in December 2013, so on a clear night you’ll have glorious stargazing opportunities. For these reasons, I’m intent on making the most of the trip by staying the night. And with room for just 27 guests, book well ahead and be prepared for a cancellation, as adverse weather — strong winds, in particular — can mean it’s too unsafe to operate the gondolas.
After touring the museum and watching the sun go down — as the griffon vultures circle — from deckchairs on the 360-degree-view terraces (bring woollies, whatever the weather at sea level), day-visitors take the cable-car back down to La Mongie, leaving overnighters to relax over an aperitif followed by a gourmet meal of local produce and wines.
Enjoyable as this is, it fades into insignificance with what’s to come next — the chance to observe the night sky and peer into one of the moon’s craters through a 400mm Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope in the Charvin dome. This is part of an evening-long presentation that includes a talk on what we’d seen through the telescope, solar activity, how telescopes work, and the history of the observatory, which took 80 years to construct, using donkeys, starting in 1878. It’s helpful to have good French for this, as the astrophysicist/lecturer’s English was minimal — non-French-speaking guests get a small booklet to help them out but miss out on much of what’s said.
The observatory’s double and single rooms — also used by visiting researchers — are small and quite basic, with sinks and shared bathrooms, but with surprisingly fresh modern decor that wouldn’t look out of a place in a boutique hotel. With darkness fallen and lights out, you feel like you’re floating in a cabin in the sky, the stars achingly bright and clear around you, the valleys and peaks bathed in moonlight, and the terrestrial lights spread out below, twinkling alluringly from as far away as Barcelona. It’s the kind of view that makes me never want to close my eyes again, but I finally forced myself to bed down for the night — it was the only way I’d be able to wake in time to watch the sun rise again over the Pyrénées.
A Continental breakfast was followed by a tour of the rest of the scientific facilities. Given sufficient snowy conditions, advanced skiers can make the descent from the Pic du Midi to the ski resort of Tourmalet below. I’m not sure if that’s as scary as those vertiginous cable-cars, but back down on earth I realise I’d been right — it was worth spending a night on top of the world.
More info: From €299 (£237) per person in a single room, €399 (£317) for two people in a double room. picdumidi.com
What to do: Mountain bike, hike or snowshow into the glacial valley of the Cirque du Gavarnie; climb a frozen waterfall.
Western France: Les Cabanes d’Echologia, Pays de la Loire
What to do: Visit activity park Le Bois-Francs for treetop fun and horse riding.
Eastern France: Champervan, Brioche, Rhône-Alpes
More info: Two nights from £225. champervan.com
What to do: Camp by Lake Annecy and rent canoes.
Paris & around: Huttopia, Rambouillet
More info: Bonaventure tent for two from €59 (£46) a night. huttopia.com
What to do: Explore the Espace Rambouillet wildlife reserve.
Read more in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)