Portugal's Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve, the world's first "starlight tourism destination," has been nominated for the World Travel Awards in the category Europe's Leading Tourist Attraction. The reserve is the only "astrotourism" nominee in the category.
Dark Sky Alqueva is a nongovernmental and nonprofit organization and a first-time nominee. The stargazing destination, which features some of the darkest and clearest skies on Earth thanks to a lack of light pollution, will compete against famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Colosseum in Rome, the Acropolis in Athens, the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona and London's Buckingham Palace.
Even if you've never visited Dark Sky Alqueva, you can still take a virtual tour and see some of the celestial sights it has to offer in this video. You'll see stars, meteors, planets and the Milky Way light up the sky over historic buildings and serene landscapes. [Light Pollution Is a Big Problem, But You Can Help]
Dark Sky Alqueva was the first Starlight Tourism Destination in the world, receiving certification from Starlight Foundation in 2011. The reserve covers an area of 3,900 square miles (10,000 square kilometers) around Lake Alqueva. It includes both sides of the border between Portugal and Spain, making it the first cross-border Starlight Destination in the world, too. With the quality of the sky already certified by the Starlight Foundation in nine Portuguese municipalities in the reserve — Alandroal, Barrancos, Moura, Mourão, Reguengos de Monsaraz, Portel, Évora, Mértola and Serpa — Dark Sky Alqueva offers a diversity of daytime and nighttime activities.
The official Dark Sky Observatory in Cumeada, the headquarters of the reserve, is located in a small village near Reguengos de Monsaraz. The recovered building is an old primary school rehabilitated by the Municipality of Reguengos to make a home for the observatory. All the public lights from the entire village were replaced with LED lights in 2016 pointed toward the ground to reduce light pollution. This effort to respect the night sky is a partnership among the main power supplier operating in Portugal (EDP), the municipality and Dark Sky Alqueva.
Whenever the observatory is operating, the light flux from the entire village can be reduced by 90 percent using a smartphone app (which is only available to local officials). With the street lights glowing at 10 percent of their usual brightness, skywatchers can clearly make out the Milky Way, without making the roads and surrounding areas too dark, so residents remain safe.
The observatory is equipped with cutting-edge telescopes for solar and astronomical observations. Using these instruments, visitors can observe the planets, look at the craters on the moon, and move on to the deeper sky for a cosmic journey among nebulas and galaxies and the swarms of stars in one of the finest skies in the world.
The wide-open spaces around Alqueva also offer daytime activities; visitors can relax at sunset with a cocktail or taking part in a blind wine-tasting under starlight. Outdoors, visitors can go walking in the surrounding nature, take horseback rides under the moonlight, or participate in astrophotography workshops for both beginners and those who are more experienced.
Dark Sky Alqueva also has a network of partners, such as the Alqueva Dark Sky Route, which oversees the accommodations and tourist activities in the area. These include nighttime canoeing, boat excursions on the lake, hot-air balloon rides, paddle boarding, yoga and sports.
There is a range of places to stay in the Alentejan countryside where the reserve is located, along with a variety of restaurants.