Join a star party
By Melissa Gaskill
As the astronomer described the constellation Sirius, pinpoints scattered in the wide, black sky slowly took shape as Orion's faithful dog. I watched the faces of my kids, Holley, Collin, and Bridget, light up: that excitement is what I love about stargazing. Over the years, we have returned many times to McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas. We tap into professional knowledge at outdoor star parties, glimpse heavenly sights, such as star nebulae and Saturn's rings, through a telescope, and peruse exhibits in the visitors' center. With its clear skies and temperate weather, fall is a perfect time to visit the observatory, part of the University of Texas at Austin (and to camp in nearby Davis Mountains State Park, where stars barely visible at home shine brightly in the dark night). We've also made treks to other observatories, including Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park in Burnet, Texas (canyonoftheeagles.com; 800-977-0081). Wherever we go, my kids now make a point of looking for Sirius. (McDonald Observatory holds star parties three times a week: $12 for adults, $8 for kids ages 6 to 12, free for kids 5 and under; mcdonaldobservatory.org; 877-984-7827.)
Find one near you
For listings of star parties and telescope viewings, go to telescopes.stardate.org/guide/public.php or contact your local astronomy club (locate one at skyandtelescope.com/community/organizations, nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov, or go-astronomy.com). Some national parks, including one of our favorites, Big Bend National Park in Texas, also hold regular stargazing events (search nps.gov by park or event).
Sample cider at the source
By Melissa Klurman
When the air takes on a November chill, my family's thoughts turn to a special holiday treat: rich, tart apple cider. It's time to head to the Warwick Valley Apple Trail in New York state, which leads to local cider presses and sweet sipping spots. Dark and delicious, the cider they sell is as different from commercial apple juice as cream is from skim milk. Our son, Aidan, 9, a connoisseur since his first seasonal sip at age 1, eagerly awaits the chance to sample varieties from the five farms along our route. Our favorite stop is Pennings Orchard, where we also pick apples and visit baby animals; its wooden hand press gives up our first fragrant cup. (Because it takes 36 apples to make one gallon of cider, and hundreds of gallons are made each day, there are also big presses, housed in an outbuilding.) The only thing Aidan likes better than cold cider? "Hot, cinnamon-y mulled cider!" he says. Especially when it's served with warm, cider-infused, nutmeg-flecked doughnuts, which we watch being cooked in the open kitchen. (warwickvalleyappletrail.com; penningsfarmmarket.com; 845-986-1059)
Find one near you
To create your own cider trail, visit orangepippin.com. It has detailed information on thousands of apple orchards located in more than 40 states, along with descriptions of apple varieties. Some orchards outsource their cider production, so if you want to watch presses in action, call before you go to see if that's on tap. And ask about other activities they may offer, including apple picking, hayrides, festivals, or visits with farm animals. For ideas on cooking your apple bounty, see nyapplecountry.com/recipes.htm.