July 22, 2009.
If you're into astronomy, you know what that date means: one heck of a total solar eclipse. And you know where you want to be: China or the South Pacific.
Just don't wait long to book a trip.
Tours to see what could be one of the most spectacular total solar eclipses in years are selling out almost as soon as they're announced.
"Our tour was filling up so fast, we had to create a second departure," says Victoria Sahami, owner of Sirius Travel, a company that specializes in eclipse tours. "Now we're thinking of adding a third."
Eclipses happen on average about every 18 months. But not all are created equal. Some last just a few seconds; others darken the sky for up to seven minutes. And where they occur makes a huge difference.
"Sometimes an eclipse falls in the ocean, and the only way to see it is to charter a ship," Sahami says.
Others take place in areas where frequent cloud cover, humidity or haze make for poor viewing.
The 2009 eclipse will occur over relatively easy-to-reach areas of China where the weather should cooperate. But what's really getting skygazers excited is the predicted length: more than five minutes of "totality" if you watch from the right spot in China and even longer if you can get out to sea near Iwo Jima. That's an eternity to an eclipse junkie, Sahami says. By comparison, she says, Sirius clients traveled thousands of miles to Australia in 2002 to see an eclipse that lasted just 29 seconds.
More than half a dozen tour companies have announced trips for the event. (Many also are selling trips to a shorter, harder-to-reach eclipse occurring over Mongolia on Aug. 1 of the next year.) The typical tour is accompanied by an astronomer and takes in astronomical sites along the way as well as more traditional attractions. Among them:
•Sirius Travel. The 11-night Total Solar Eclipse China tour takes in the eclipse from the peak of Emei Shan, a sacred mountain in central China where totality will last about five minutes (prices from $3,850; siriustravel.com).
•TravelQuest International. The longtime eclipse tour leader, which offers trips in partnership with Sky & Telescope magazine, plans three itineraries, including the eight-night China: Footsteps of Emperors tour. The eclipse will be viewed from a beach town south of Shanghai where totality will last for 5 minutes, 38 seconds (prices not yet set; 800-830-1998; travelquestinternational.com).
•Ring of Fire Expeditions. Organized by Paul Maley of NASA's Johnson Space Center's Astronomical Society, the six-night Nearly 6-Minute Total Solar Eclipse Expedition will take in the eclipse from south of Shanghai, where totality will last 5 minutes, 52 seconds (from $2,899 a person; 281-480-1988; eclipsetours.com).
•Wilderness Travel. The adventure tour specialist's 14-night Total Solar Eclipse in Polynesia trip aboard the cruise ship Paul Gauguin will catch the end of the eclipse as it blackens the South Pacific after passing over China. Expect 3 minutes, 26 seconds of totality (from $6,995 a person; 800-368-2794; wildernesstravel.com).
•O.A.R.S. The adventure company's 14-night Fiji/Gilbert Islands Multisport Tour With Solar Eclipse is geared to an outdoorsy crowd with long days of rafting, snorkeling, scuba diving and sea kayaking in the South Pacific. Tourgoers will watch the solar eclipse from an O.A.R.S. diving vessel positioned northwest of the island of Tarawa (from $8,950 a person, including round-trip air from Los Angeles; 800-346-6277; oars.com).
Can't get to China or the South Pacific?
The next big eclipse occurs in 2010 over Easter Island, but don't get too excited unless you've already made plans.
Limited air access and lodging on the remote Pacific island means most people only will read about it.
"Hotels were fully booked eight years before the eclipse," Sahami says. "It blows my mind."