Famed Observer's Inn a billion-star B&B
Julian hotel a hot spot for galaxy gazers

By John Flinn - San Francisco Chronicle
April 6th, 2008

Talk about a room with a view: from a bed and breakfast high in the mountains above San Diego, you can see 220 million trillion miles.

You have to use a large and powerful telescope to do it, but that the point of Observer's Inn, a B&B with its own observatory.

Built at an elevation of 4,300 feet on a ridgetop between San Diego and the Anza-Borrego Desert, the inn is about as close to heaven as an amateur skygazer can get.

Five nights a week, owner Mike Leigh slides back the retractable roof on his backyard observatory and conducts "Sky Tours" for his guests and visitors.

Distant super novas, dazzlingly charismatic planets, open-star clusters, spiraling nebulae, double stars, globular clusters and galaxies far, far away come into sharp view as Leigh swivels his four telescopes around the twinkling night sky.

The largest of Leigh's telescopes - a 16 inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain LX200 - is the same model used in the national observatories of small countries. (Sixteen inches is the diameter of the lens.) It's so powerful that he can make out the details on spy satellites, which has caused the FBI to stop by for a little chat. Twice.

Why go now? The nights are usually clear year-round here, but in winter, temperatures in the open-to-the-sky observatory can dip into the 20s. Things are warming up as we move into spring. Also: If it's Saturn you want to see - it's one of the coolest things in the cosmos - be aware that for much of 2009, the planet will be tilted with its rings edge-on to Earth, making them hard to see.

The backstory: A lifelong astronomy buff who spent his highschool years helping the U.S. Naval Observatory calculate the wobbels of the moon, Leigh, 53, decided to leave the business world 13 years ago, and devote his life to his passion.

Twenty miles south of the Palomar Observatory, just above the town of Julian, he found what he needed: a high-elevation site far from the light pollution of the Southern Californian megalopolis, with an airflow between desert and sea that produces reliably clear night skies.

There he built a home, a two-room inn and a private observatory to house his growing collection of high-end telescopes. Soon he began to attract as guests everyone from celestial novices to NASA astronomers yearning to get away from their computer screens and fall in love all over again with the wonder of the cosmos.

Checking in: The inn, rebuilt from scratch after burning to the ground five years ago in the largest wildfire in California history, consists of two nicely appointed guest rooms with faux-antique queen-sized beds and deep soaking tubs.

The rooms share a sitting area with a large-screen TV, a library of astronomy books - including the entire Carl Sagan oeuvre - and a coffee table of the latest issues of Sky & Telescope, Astronomy and Night Sky magazines. In the morning, Leigh and his wife serve a "gourmet continental breakfast" featuring (for example) apple-filled crepes, muffins, bagels, fruit, etc.

Other lodging choices in the area range from B&Bs to historic hotels. Sky Tours are open on a space-available basis to visitors not staying at the Observer's Inn.

Spend you day: Explore the nearby town of Julian. A onetime Gold Rush burg now lined with antique stores, boutiques, bookstores and wineries, Julian is the Sutter Creek of Southern California, with one twist: It's renowned for its apples, and the downtown is perfumed with the cinnamony aroma of baking pies.

Dining: The friendly Julian Grille is justifiably popular. Housed in a charming old cottage with lacy curtains, a fireplace - and, in summer, outdoor dining on its terrace - the Grille serves steaks, seafood and prime rib, with some fancy appetizers, such as baked brie with apples and mustard sauce.

Don't miss: Treat yourself of a warm slab of Dutch apple pie - possibly with a gooey side of French-vanilla icecream - at one of the main pie shops and cafes lining Julian's Main Street. No one pie outlet has emerged as the clear favorite; just follow your nose.

Word to the wise: Pack a warm jacket and hat for the Sky Tour. At this altitude it can get chilly at night any time of the year.