Travel The Eclipse: A very, very dark spot on the horizon

The best bet for clear skies is Iran, but if there's a sea fog in Dieppe, fruits de mer and Muscadet could eclipse the main event. Simon Calder introduces our guide
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The Independent Culture
Penny Moss is furious. As campaigns officer for Cornwall's tourist board, she is alarmed that accommodation bookings are in fact down on the usual levels for the second week of the busiest holiday month - despite the total solar eclipse passing over much of the county on 11 August. At the British Travel Trade Fair this week, Ms Moss blamed "the adverse publicity we've been receiving recently".

These media reports mostly concern incidents of high charges by accommodation- providers, such as one case of pounds 15,000 for the crucial week for self-catering accommodation. Not by the regulars, says Ms Moss: "Our advice to our members has been basically `yes, obviously you can expect to put your prices up, maybe by 10 per cent', but a lot of people have come in to try to `piggy- back' the event." A concerned resident ascribes an alternative reason: "Would you book a holiday in a region where 12 to 18 music festivals are advertised on the Internet for the eclipse week?"

Then there is the additional problem of access. The main A30 is a road to nowhere, by way of Bodmin Moor. Yet anyone seeking to avoid this crowded cul-de-sac by buying a rail ticket is out of luck: train operators are refusing to sell seats until nearer the event. "You can try every couple of weeks, but I wouldn't think there'll be anything until May," says a reservations agent for Wales & West; Virgin's staff tell all callers that trains to Cornwall in eclipse week cannot be booked until some, unspecified, time in June. "It is a dreadful situation," says Penny Moss.

Should Cornwall turn out to be cloudy on the day, though, this could be a silver lining for the traveller who decides to go further afield. As our map shows, the eclipse will travel diagonally across continental Europe, across the Black Sea and on through Turkey, Iraq and Iran before sinking with the Sun in northern India. Almost anywhere east of Cornwall has a better chance of a fine day. The company Explorers Tours (01753 681999) has been taking people to eclipses since the Kenyan event 20 years ago, and still has availability for August in Turkey (where the party will stay in the unworldly landscape of Cappadocia, pictured above), and Iran. Alternatively, a cheap ferry, plane or train ticket can take you all sorts of places on the line of totality.

Those who elect to stay in Britain should take no notice of people like the tourism officials in Bath and Bristol who are claiming: "Our eclipse is 96 per cent total" - a claim akin to telling a teetotaller "this beer is only 4 per cent alcohol". Nothing compares with a full solar eclipse. Luckily, the new millennium offers plenty more opportunities. The Moon is taking a year off in 2000, but already Brian McGee of Explorers Tours is working on the June 2001 eclipse. "We've got one observation site in the northern part of Zimbabwe, and another in Mozambique. It's a great time of year to visit southern Africa." Or hang on for 2002, which, curiously, covers much of the same ground but then ends in the desert of western Australia. "The idea of seeing a total eclipse with the sort of sunsets they get there is breathtaking," says Mr McGee.

Simon Calder

The Isles of Scilly

We couldn't believe our luck when we realised that the eclipse would fall on our 20th wedding anniversary - 11 August 1999 - and be viewable from the Isles of Scilly, one of our favourite holiday haunts. That discovery was well over a year ago, but already we were too late: the hotel we wanted was booked up and it soon became clear that smart people had been making eclipse plans for as long as 15 years.

The clear skies and unpolluted air of the islands - 28 miles south-west of Land's End - make them an ideal viewing platform. But if you try to book now you've no chance - even camping - although a few nights remain either side of the day itself.

This doesn't mean that the islands will be crowded; accommodation is strictly limited. Those lucky enough to be there will be the first in the British Isles to see a total eclipse, just after 11:09 BST - although being south of the centre of its path, they won't see a "maximum"; Hugh Town's eclipse will last one minute 46 seconds, compared with just over two minutes in places such as Falmouth on the mainland.

Consider that a bonus; more time to spend wandering around these unspoilt islands and, if you can't make it to Scilly this time, book up early for your next holiday. This year, sod the eclipse; we're off to Canada.

Martin Scudamore

Cornwall

England's westernmost county is treating the eclipse like a military exercise. Perhaps this is because the county's full-time eclipse co-ordinator is a retired brigadier, or perhaps it is just that the county expects anything between 750,000 and 4 million visitors. Local farmers and residents have teamed up to form a consortium offering temporary campsites and B&B (contact On-Track Accommodation, 01326 574098), while a company called Cornwall Eclipse 99 Ltd (06407 11 8 99) says it can handle a million visitors on temporary sites.

"Come early, stay long, leave late" is the slogan being used by the Cornwall tourist board, which, of course, is concerned to minimise congestion and maximise revenue for local businesses. Given that the promise of fine weather nearer the date could lead to a surge of last-minute visitors, there are plans to hire clowns to entertain stalled motorists. "Bring supplies with you, just to be on the safe side," says Penny Moss of the tourist board. "Be prepared."

Virtually everyone in the county will be expecting VFR (Visiting Friends and Relatives) but if you can't find a long-lost relative, there is still availability - even on the central line of totality that cuts between Penzance and St Ives and extends east to Falmouth (eclipse time, two minutes, six seconds). Still within the band of totality, Plymouth will get one minute and 30 seconds, and Padstow across to Torquay will have one minute. But don't get your hopes too high; there is a 55 per cent chance that 11 August won't even be a clear day.

Ann Treneman

Dieppe

With a little bit of luck, the French will be as uninterested in the total eclipse of the Sun passing through the north of their country as they were by a certain World Cup that came this way last summer (they were slightly more interested after they'd won it, of course, but that's a different matter).

The charming Normandy port of Dieppe, about 20 miles north of the central line of totality, but well within the total eclipse zone, would be a handy spot to experience things. It's far closer to London and the South- east than Cornwall is and, if you book now, possibly more plentiful in hotel rooms. Dieppe is a popular seaside resort with Parisians, and this is August, so don't dally on that score.

Hoverspeed fast ferries run three times a day from Newhaven, near Brighton, but, again, I should book sooner rather than later; all the day-trip tickets have already gone.

As it's on the coast, there is more chance of having a Sun to be eclipsed - unless there is one of the area's dense sea fogs (not impossible), in which case head inland at once. When it's all over, enjoy one of Dieppe's many delicious seafood restaurants. A vast platter of fruits de mer with a bottle of Muscadet should knock you back a tenner. You never know, it might even eclipse your original reason for visiting.

Gerard Gilbert

Luxembourg

The eclipse will be passing Luxembourg city on its way from France to Germany - coincidentally, the main reason most tourists have for a journey through the Grand Duchy. Unkind travellers may say that the darkness imposed by the eclipse will make no difference, since there is nothing much to see in Luxembourg anyway. But, though the city has never claimed to be a must-see destination, its spectacular location - on a high plateau above two rivers, and almost completely surrounded by parkland - is certainly worth a peek.

The best view of the eclipse will be from the ramparts of Vauban's 17th- century citadel. These grassy ruins are at the southern tip of the old city - an attractive mix of squares, old houses and hidden alleyways.

There is no need to worry that you are too late to book accommodation for 11 August. The tourist office reassured me that "it isn't going to be like Cornwall, you know. We don't behave like that here". Nevertheless, locals are likely to flock to their capital; for Luxembourg, the total eclipse is a bright spot on the horizon.

The eclipse will reach Luxembourg city, and the whole of the southern part of the country, just before 12.30pm local time on 11 August. The Luxembourg Tourist Office is organising a "hotel & eclipse & visits" package; contact 0171-434 2800.

Cathy Packe

Bucharest

What makes this eclipse so extraordinary is that it passes over a large number of European cities. But to experience the "maximum" eclipse, you must travel to Romania. The peak of the eclipse, with totality lasting two minutes, 23 seconds, occurs just before the Moon's shadow passes over the capital, Bucharest. A city of 2 million inhabitants, with wide boulevards, historic squares and parks, and one of the best bets for clear skies, Bucharest will be a prime viewing site - a fact that has not escaped Romania's Ministry of Tourism.

In Bucharest, eclipse fever is at its height. One of the main events planned is the Pavarotti concert, to take place on the evening of the eclipse in Constitution Square. The Municipal Astronomic Observatory is also preparing for "Eclipse 99". As the only observatory on the centre line of the eclipse, it will be a key location to view the eclipse via a solar telescope. An enormous screen will also be placed in front of the observatory for the crowds, and an expert will be lecturing on the astronomic phenomenon.

The Romania Travel Centre (01892 516901) is organising a trip to Bucharest for Eclipse 99 that includes an organised observation site and tickets to Pavarotti's open-air concert, but it is also offering a Dark Side of the Sun trip (Transylvania, Dracula and the eclipse) which includes seven nights in the mountain resort of Sinai and a trip to Ramnicu, Valcea, the site of maximum blackout on 11 August.

Lucy Gilmore

Iran

If cloud over Cornwall or fog in the Channel haunts your nightmares, there can be no better place to view the 1999 eclipse than central Iran, where the probability of a cloudless sky in August is nearly 100 per cent. You will not even need to dodge Tehran's traffic; as if by divine inspiration, the eclipse path through Iran will track right through the fabled city of Isfahan.

The attentions of Isfahan's notoriously rapacious carpet salesmen will divert from pleasing tourists to a more disturbing problem. Namely: why is the Sun being blotted out here in Iran? Here, in the ancient land of Zoroaster and fire-worship?

During the darkness you may even be able to take your hat off in the middle of the enormous 17th-century Naghsh-e Jahan Square, without risk of instant sunstroke. As the Sun is about to disappear, walk across the square in the direction of the Imam Mosque, the most magnificent in the Islamic world. Watch as the icy-cool tiles covering the monumental portal and double-layered domes pass from day to night in an instant.

Jeremy Atiyah

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