Rooms with celestial view: Observer's Inn brings stars in focus

By DON BARTLETTI - Los Angeles Times
September 5th, 1998

JULIAN, Calif. -- The observatory on Palomar Mountain is a magnet for astronomers, internationally famous for its Hale Telescope. And I'd always thought of Julian, nestled between the neighboring Volcan and Cuyamaca mountains, in terms of apple pie and great motorcycle roads. That is, until the comet Hale-Bopp led me to a stargazer's dream getaway: Observer's Inn.

Last year, after chasing through San Diego County's backroads to photograph the comet, I stumbled into Julian as the sun rose. The only other person on the streets was a guy in jeans who was also sleepless over the comet. He told me about a bed-and-breakfast soon to open just outside of town.

During a recent stay at Observer's Inn, I was in visual bliss. This B&B offers a serious observatory, where the roof slides open at night and has three powerful telescopes for stargazing guests. On my first night at the inn, the Milky Way streamed above me like a sequined veil. Intellectually I knew that these glimmering images were millions of light-years distant, generated perhaps before the birth of the sun. Emotionally I'd never felt so close to heaven.

My wife and I, joined by friends, visited the inn to celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary. The Observer's Inn is 11/2 miles past the town of Julian, elevation 4,200, in the mountains northeast of San Diego. A remnant of an old stage route, the driveway now leads to the residence of proprietors Mike and Caroline Leigh. Mike is a technical rep for Meade Instruments, a telescope maker.

The Leighs play host to guests -- maximum two couples per night -- only on weekends. Much of their inn's development has gone toward the observatory, and we appreciated their priorities. So the natural landscaping is without embellishment, with two exceptions: roses in front of the house and hammocks swinging in the oaks. Our accommodations were in the detached two-room guesthouse. The rooms, named Andromeda and Orion, were cozy, each with full bath and photographs of galaxies.

Our arrival at sunset allowed plenty of time for a meal before the sky reached optimum star-viewing darkness.

Then it was back at the inn for the star attraction. The observatory is below the house. With flashlights, Mike Leigh guided us down to the building where we climbed onto a deck, switched off our beams, looked up and gasped in awe. Zillions of stars sparkled above us. Shooting stars traced glittering trails. Not even the most magical Steven Spielberg sky came close to the reality that shimmered overhead.

While we were waiting for our "visual purple," our night vision, to develop, Mike began our tour of the night sky by explaining the Earth's position on the edge of our own spiral galactic home, the Milky Way. He directed our attention to the North Star, Scorpio, the Northern Cross, the Big Dipper and other areas that he promised we'd look at through telescopes.

We entered "Tranquillity Base," his name for the observatory. Mike and Caroline had already manually rolled open the roof, but we were sheltered in the 19- by 24-foot observatory, complete with stereo system, wall-to-wall carpeting, heaters, leather couches, coffee and cookies.

And, of course, the three telescopes, which brought us details of the wondrous starscape. Looking through the telescopes, we fully appreciated visual purple -- images sharpened as our vision increased. We saw nebulae in the shape of spirals, rings, lagoons, a swan; star clusters that looked like dandelions and fireworks. A binary system called Albireo -- a blue star and a gold star 4 billion miles apart -- was my wife, Diana's, favorite view. She retired after that sight, saying she wanted to take the vision fresh into her dreams.

Morning began with a lavish breakfast on the sun porch. In the calm of the back country we enjoyed the display of fruit and pastries, savoring the coffee as we discussed the previous night's experience.

At midday we ventured out for a historic piece of Julian: the Eagle Mining Co.

The mine panned out to be a touristy expedition through a tunnel and to the outside mine works. Our next stop was more satisfying: apple pie at the Julian Pie Co. At this mountainous altitude, Julian is ideally suited for apple cultivation, and its orchards are famed. Its pies are famous, too, and this is my favorite pie place in town. On the back patio, we enjoyed apple, apple cherry and apple berry pie.

In late afternoon, the men in our party returned to the inn to relax in hammocks. The women went shopping; Julian is full of antique stores and country boutiques. Dinner that evening was at the Julian Grille, a popular restaurant offering a variety of dishes. Eager to return to the stars, we skipped dessert, knowing cookies would be waiting for us at the Observer's Inn.

This evening we were joined by serious amateur astronomer friends of the Leighs'. Their presence added sophistication to our telescopic explorations. Certainly they appreciated the finer qualities of the Observer's Inn's three research-grade telescopes: a 14-inch Celestron's Schmidt-Cassegrain, a 12-inch Meade LX200 and the mammoth 24-inch JC-524; this alone is worth about $20,000 (size refers to its primary mirror).

That night some of us gravitated to the thrill of targeting the galaxies. Others best enjoyed the bare sweep of the sky. We stayed up for a view through the telescope of Jupiter, which became visible about 1:30 a.m., accompanied by four moons.

At breakfast the next morning, my wife and I were surprised with a "Happy Anniversary" song and pie-crust cookies from the Leighs and their two young sons.

On our way home we visited the Palomar Observatory on Palomar Mountain. The 200-inch Hale Telescope seemed somehow more understandable than when we'd seen it in the past.

GOINGTo: Observer's Inn

Getting there: The Observer's Inn is just outside the town of Julian, in the mountains northeast of San Diego.

The tab: Two nights' lodging costs about $235.

For more: Write to the Observer's Inn, 3535 Highway 79, Julian, Calif. 92036; telephone (760) 765-0088.