We all know sea turtles dig the dark at our beaches. Light pollution distorts the natural ambient light pattern and confuses new-born hatchlings that need a dark, starry night sky to orient themselves toward the ocean.
As for the human species, stargazers have been headed to the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, one of the best dark sky destinations in the world. It's an area spanning 1,416 square miles stretching from Sun Valley/Ketchum through the craggy Sawtooth mountain range up to the tiny mountain town of Stanley.
Last year the International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA) announced the Reserve accreditation, marking the first of its kind in the United States. The super-strict designation applies to just a dozen places in the world, including remote regions in New Zealand, Germany, Wales, and Namibia in southern Africa, where the skies are so "exceptionally dark" the light pollution is nearly zero. The isolated locations must have a firm plan in place for long-term conservation.
In the Central Idaho Reserve shooting stars, meteors and comet sightings are the norm. So is the purple cloud of the Milky Way-- that torrent of stars which slashes across a deeply darkened sky in the southwest quadrant each night. Recognized for the quality and depth of the darkness, astro-photography opportunities are as plentiful as anywhere in the country.
It could be a portal into the world F. Scott Fitzgerald described in his seminal novel "The Great Gatsby." Or an American version of the British mega-hit television show Downton Abbey. It's Castle Hill, a 59-room Stuart-style mansion overlooking the pristine sands of Crane Beach, once the summer estate home of Chicago industrialist Richard T. Crane, Jr.
Today, Crane Beach is part of the Crane Estate in Ipswich, a splendid property owned and protected by The Trustees of Reservations. Just 30 miles northeast of Boston, it's a wonderful destination for history buffs and nature devotees alike. All told the estate encompasses more than 2,100 acres of beachfront, dunes, maritime forest and planned landscapes, managed for both recreation and conservation.
Bequeathed by the Crane family to The Trustees in 1949, the 1,400 acre Crane Memorial Reservation’s barrier beach stretches along Ipswich Bay and is separated from the mainland by Essex Bay and the Essex and Ipswich Rivers. The reservation includes a variety of habitats, including a drumlin known as Castle Hill, shrub thickets, cranberry bogs, salt marshes, dunes, and forests.
Native American tribes that originally inhabited the area called it “Agawam,” which translates to a lowland, marsh, or meadow. Colonized in 1633 by John Winthrop, Jr., son of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Ipswich primarily remained a fishing and shipbuilding colony until the 1820s, when smugglers brought in the country’s first stocking machine from England. Amos A. Lawrence established the Ipswich Hosiery Mills in 1868, and by the turn of the century, the town had become the largest stocking manufacturer in the country.
My earliest recollections picture my father at the wheel of his 1949 Ford woodie barreling through the pine barrens to the south Jersey shore. I'm a mere toddler sitting in the back of the wood-sided station wagon taking in the sights and sounds on our summer vacation to a seven-mile-long island.
Sharing a narrow spit of land with its sister town Avalon, Stone Harbor is set at the southern end of Seven Mile Island. Residents like to say, "it's cooler by a mile." And, it really is. The island juts out into the Atlantic Ocean about a mile further than any other New Jersey beach towns.
While boardwalks, carnival rides, and over commercialization symbolize most of the Jersey shore towns, Stone Harbor has stayed relatively sprawl-free. The beach is the star attraction. Beachgoers over age 12 must carry beach tags, sold in daily, weekly or seasonal increments. In part the fees help support healthy living sand systems full of trees, shrubs, and plentiful reed grass with roots that fan out beneath the dunes. Dynamic systems that grow and shrink, the island's mighty dunes rise to more than 40 feet in some places and are the first line of defense during the worst North Atlantic storms. Paying for nature's gifts won’t seem so bad once you relax on the soft, wide stretches of white sand.
Thanks to a historically tight grip on development, Stone Harbor remains a quiet and upscale residential seashore town. The borough attracts a summer population of upwards of 25,000 people, but that pales when compared with other Jersey shore resorts. Tree and flower shaded streets are lined with multi-million dollar Victorian and American Foursquare-style houses. Occasionally, you'll spy small single-story cottages, dating back to the 1940s. Flashes of candy colors pop up all over the island. A mere three blocks wide, summer homes have dominated Stone Harbor for as long as anyone can remember.
A thin sliver of land nestled between the turquoise waters of Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, Longboat Key (LBK) is both simple and opulent offering a scenic and delightful destination. Less than 11 miles in length, it boasts the rare combination of beautiful beaches and a bevy of cultural gems in Sarasota just to the south. One of the more refreshing finds is LBK's natural side.
My wife and I arrived on the barrier island for a holiday stay at the Zota Beach Resort. Uber-modern and sleek, it's surrounded by tropical blooms, lush foliage and swaying palm trees. Great egrets and great blue herons fish at the water's edge, while cormorants, ospreys and pelicans wheel overhead then swoop down into the Gulf in search of a meal.
A five minute drive south brings visitors to Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. From its humble beginnings in a tiny one-room building in 1955, Mote has evolved into a world-class research center that conducts ocean research on six of the world's seven continents.
All the exhibits are beautifully executed to reflect the natural habitat of its inhabitants. First up you see a fresh water stingray, a scary 27-foot Moray Eel, and the black and white striped Convict Fish who spend their adult lives hidden in coral tunnels. Then you enter the area called "Grass Flats, Reef Fish & Jellies," a bonanza of all sorts of beautiful reef dwellers. A favorite are the upside down jellyfish that produce algae with their tentacles.
Off the southern tip of Marco Island sits the mysterious Star Wars-style, igloo-like Cape Romano Dome House. Some locals suggest it was the community home of a secret cult, while others claim the structures had been left behind by extra-terrestrials.
A retired oil producing magnate and inventor, Bob Lee built it in 1981. His idea was a completely self-sufficient and eco-friendly home. For many years the rounded, concrete domes were able to sustain hurricane winds, having taken little damage from a series of powerful storms.
Not anymore. Last September Hurricane Irma caused two of the original six domes to collapse. A Naples, Fla.-based nonprofit Oceans for Youth is seeking to raise funds to load the structures onto barges and sink them further off the coast, creating a unique reef which would be home to thousands of sea creatures.
Irma made its second Florida landfall as a Cat-3 storm at Marco Island, a picture perfect resort community with a five mile sugary white beach. It was turned into a mess-- uprooted trees, downed power lines and debris as far as the eye could see. The good news was that physical damage to the tourism infrastructure was not as bad as it might have been. Within a month or so utilities were back up and running and the county was collecting debris, post-haste. The message trumpeted to visitors: "We're open for business."