Road Trip

These are the best places to stargaze in Texas

Stargazers check out the night sky at McDonald Observatory in Texas.

Photo by Getty Images

San Antonians have long traveled to West Texas to traverse the wilds of Big Bend, embrace the low-key vibes of Terlingua, and cool off in the springs of Balmorhea. We have also understood the magic of standing under the night sky at the McDonald Observatory, crawling through the dark night to take in one of the most beautiful celestial views on earth.

Now, it appears, the rest of the world is uncovering this not-so-hidden gem. A recent research report from U.K.-based travel website Kuoni named the McDonald Observatory, part of the University of Texas at Austin, the second best place to stargaze in the U.S.

To determine the country's top 50 places to see stars, Kuoni analyzed "60 official Dark Sky areas and over 117 locations nationwide which offer the public access to high powered telescopes." The site then sifted through hundreds of TripAdvisor reviews to find the winners.

Located on Fort Davis (not David, as the original press release said — multiple times — before a correction email was sent out), about 25 miles north of tourist destinations like Marfa and Alpine, the McDonald Observatory snagged the No. 2 spot behind Oregon University Observatory in Sunriver, Oregon.

"The reviewers of Texas' McDonald observatory are blown away by the incredible amount of celestial phenomena they see at the location," Kuoni notes in its release.

Every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, visitors head to the West Texas site for both Twilight and Star parties. During the Twilight parties, attendees sit in an amphitheater and are guided through the cosmos by an observatory staffer. Star events, which take place after dark, give visitors the opportunity to use high-powered telescopes in the McDonald's Rebecca Gale Telescope Park. So why stargazing? Kuoni says it's an activity that encapsulates much of what modern travelers look for in a vacation. "With travelers having more desire than ever to learn about the natural world, and a general trend in travelers looking to try local one-of-a-kind experiences, stargazing is set to become a super popular activity," notes a release.

Joining the Oregon University Observatory and McDonald Observatory in the top five are National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico; National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; and Kitt Peak National Observatory Nightly Observing Program in Tuscon, Arizona. The only other Texas spot on the list was the Fort Worth Noble Planetarium at No. 26.

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This story originally appeared on AutomotiveMap's sister site, CultureMap.

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Family vehicles

Two minivans that make family hauling fun

The latest minivans are actually quite desirable.

Toyota

There are people who wouldn't be seen dead in a minivan and then there are people who are lying. That's the long-held mentality around America's most useful but most maligned family-hauling vehicles, but the latest offerings from Toyota, Honda, Kia, and Chrysler are out to prove the old way of thinking wrong. Two of them, the newly redesigned Toyota Sienna and brand-new Kia Carnival are truly compelling vehicles that bring style and substance to the category. Here's a look at what makes them so cool.

2021 Toyota Sienna


2021 Toyota Sienna The new Sienna features sharper styling and comes exclusively with a hybrid powertrain.Toyota


Toyota overhauled the Sienna for 2021 with an all-hybrid powertrain across the board, sharp style, and a gorgeous interior. The Sienna's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine pairs with two electric motors for a total output of 243 horsepower. The van is offered with all-wheel drive, which adds a third electric motor that drives the rear wheels. Though it won't win any drag races, the Sienna makes up for its leisurely acceleration with great fuel economy that can reach 36 mpg city with front-wheel drive and 35 mpg city with all-wheel drive.


2021 Toyota Sienna Toyota's 2021 updates to the Sienna include a more upscale interior.Toyota


Along with its new, efficient powertrain, the Sienna got a refreshed interior that is both comfortable and easy on the eyes. The Toyota does lack some of the clever seating features that make such a difference for families in rivals such as the Chrysler Pacifica, but the van does carry sliding second-row seats that can move a little over two feet forward and backward to allow for more legroom when needed. The top two trims also offer optional reclining seats with fold-away ottomans and an available built-in vacuum cleaner.

2022 Kia Carnival


2022 Kia Carnival Doesn't look all that much like a minivan, does it?Kia


The all-new 2022 Kia Carnival should be viewed as a defining vehicle in the minivan segment. It doesn't exactly look like a minivan, with styling that more closely resembles a stretched SUV than a blobby family-hauler. The Carnival is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 290 horsepower. It's paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. Acceleration is strong and the powertrain is refined, but unlike the Toyota there's no all-wheel drive option.


2022 Kia Carnival The Carnival's interior is truly luxurious and looks great.Kia


Where the Kia truly sets itself apart is its interior. The top SX Prestige trim offers soft, luxurious leather upholstery and reclining seats with footrests like the Toyota. The available panoramic sunroof opens far enough to allow air over the second-row seats and the Carnival's interior finishes are among the best in its class. An optional dual 12.3-inch display covers a large portion of the dash, and offers a responsive, intuitive infotainment experience. The SX and SX Prestige trims both come standard with a rear-seat entertainment system as well.


2022 Kia Carnival The Carnival is sleek and stylish - two things not commonly associated with minivans.Kia

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The Arteon is VW's take on modern art.

Victoria Scott

The way I like to review cars is to imagine myself as the target buyer. Rather than ripping a high-end sports car as an adrenaline-and-estrogen-addled 26 year old girl driving it like she stole it, I imagine that I'm a classy, restrained mid-50s woman with a career, grown kids, and a mortgage - the person that they're trying to sell the car to. Whether or not I think it's fun is almost moot - I want to tell people with the actual coin to purchase one if I could see them enjoying it.

So when Volkswagen offered me a 2021 Arteon R-Line, their current flagship model, I decided to play up the luxurious lifestyle to enter the right mindset. Make no mistake - this is not a Passat, an entry-level sedan I could actually afford. It's priced and designed for a wholly different clientele. The Arteon is styled like modern art - there are none of the girl-racer fender musculature and gaping vents of the GTI and GLI; despite the R-Line moniker, it's clearly designed to impress with restraint and taste rather than shock and awe. And rather than the volume-sales aspirations of most modern Mexico-built VWs, the Arteon's cleanly designed but feature-filled interior is a throwback to the days when VW was a less ostentatious BMW or Lexus. The Passat has long since fallen into the mass-produced, low-price trap, with generic styling to match, but the Arteon seems like it's been built by a different company entirely. This company remembers their roots in Teutonic comfort and form, and it's a welcome change of pace.


2021 Volkswagen Arteon The Arteon is the perfect companion for a day out in Los Angeles.Victoria Scott


With this as my ride for a weekend, I lived it up. I took a close friend of mine to dinner and the Omni Hotel, a welcome respite from the camping and couch-surfing I'd been doing in LA, because this car encourages the mantra of "treat yourself". On our initial drive, I indulged further, letting the Travel Assist mode on the Arteon handle the stop-and-go traffic of the 101 while I talked with my partner. The car handled it surprisingly well, even as the sun set, accelerating and winding through the traffic-choked Los Angeles highways seamlessly. Most premium manufacturers offer an adaptive cruise mode that's usually passable on freeways, but the Arteon's version surprised me with its adeptness even in situations where I'd have expected it to fail. In "Comfort" mode, the atrocious California highways were at least passable, even with the mammoth 20" wheels the R-Line is equipped with as standard. The Harman Kardon stereo pumped Left at London's newest album through the cabin with clarity as we approached our destination isolated from the commotion of LA rush hour.

We pulled up to the hotel for the evening and as trite an ad-agency trope it seems, the valet seemed stunned that we rolled up in a Volkswagen this nice. "Brand new?" he questioned. "Yes, just got it", I replied, enjoying my roleplay as a somehow wealthy yet restrained twenty-something perhaps slightly too much. But it truly is a little hard to believe that it's a Volkswagen - it's more luxurious than the outgoing CC it replaces, and it's vastly prettier than the Bentley-based halo car Phaeton of the mid-00s ever was. Still, his compliment set us up for a lovely evening of wining and dining, and at this point, my literary technique of envisioning myself as the target buyer for this gorgeous car was as much for my own enjoyment as it was for any imagined story.

And of course, enjoying yourself in Los Angeles is what you're supposed to do, and we did. All of that wining and dining that a night of indulgence at a fancy hotel offers meant that we slept through two alarms. We made the checkout just fine, but my friend had a train to catch that morning. Now, unfortunately, all pretense had to drop - she legitimately needed to get to Union Station about 15 minutes before we woke up. When the valet gave us our Volkswagen back, I stomped it. I changed it to Sport mode at a red light, hoping that it would give me more rapid throttle response or faster shifts, and it did. Gone was the relaxed cruise of the night before - this was white-knuckle city carving at its finest; my entire demeanor had changed, but so had the Arteon's.


2021 Volkswagen Arteon All-wheel drive and 268 horsepower add up to surprising performance.Victoria Scott


When we finally skidded into Union Station and my knuckles started to regain their color, I realized the Arteon had performed vastly better than I'd expected. Granted, the Arteon R-Line has 4-Motion - VW's all-wheel-drive system - and the 268 HP 2.0 liter TSI turbocharged four-cylinder, both of which are proven technology from the Golf R and the GTI, respectively. Those cars are sporty - they're hot hatches that I wouldn't have to envision myself as anyone else to review well. I am the target market for VW's five-door four-banger hatches. So perhaps I was doing the Arteon a disservice to imagine myself as anyone else at all when I drove it.

And for the rest of the day I left it in Sport mode, slid the seat back, and let Paul Wall blast from the 700 watt, 12-speaker system with the windows down as I headed for the switchbacks of the iconic Angeles Crest Highway. No longer was I Miss Victoria, Wealthy Businesswoman - I was Tori, and I was here to shred. And it was time to figure out just how quickly it would make work of the twisting hairpins that wound through the mountains.

And I found out it's not too bad, honestly. It's not quite a Golf R, of course, and it feels a bit weightier than a GTI, but the underlying handling dynamics of Volkswagen - phenomenal steering feel right up to about 8/10ths, which is as far as I'll push it in the canyons anyway - are still present and prominent when pushing it hard through the twisties. It's not perfect, because VW's insistence on a heavily-delayed accelerator response somewhat kills the ability to nail it out of a corner, and the eight-speed's shifting even in Sport mode is never going to match the violence and rapidity of a true DSG, but at the price point with all the other features, there's a need to pick and choose what you're getting, and it was fun enough that I didn't feel like I was lugging a rental car through the mountains.


2021 Volkswagen Arteon Image matters, and the Arteon understands this.Victoria Scott


As I piloted the bright red sedan through the canyons, chasing another auto journalist in his loaner Lotus Evora GT, I had a flashback from another era. I worked at a software job in a previous life, and I used to daily-drive a horrid Mitsubishi Mirage and then my heavily-modified Supra. My coworkers constantly ribbed me for my youth and foolishness in car choices. This was my introduction to the professional world, and I soon learned that driving a 30-year-old car with a welded diff and a leaky main rear seal is not the path to career advancement. Image matters, and the Arteon understands this. This was a refined, classy car meant for the office five days a week, and just dabble in a little fun in those precious weekend moments. Ironically, there was no mindset shift required to understand the true purpose or target for this sedan - it was simply me a few years ago, working in those green cubicles, a lust for speed and a healthy paycheck landing in my account every few weeks, but with a desire to move up the corporate ladder. I just didn't want to sacrifice my love of cars and driving. The Arteon would fit the bill perfectly for that past self.

But, unfortunately, for fifty-grand, I have to nitpick. The Arteon suffers from some obvious modern day Volkswagen cost-cutting that feels jarringly out of place in such an otherwise well-finished car: The volume knob is a single piece; when rotated, the iconography rotates. This, quite frankly, drives me insane. The cluster screen flashing ECO TIP: Close the sunroof for reduced wind resistance! made me question why they'd included such a gorgeous, expansive sunroof if they were going to instill me with guilt for using it. The center console touchscreen required a hard press to activate, and its placement relative to the wheel made it hard to operate seamlessly, which seems to defeat the purpose and ease of standard CarPlay.


2021 Volkswagen Arteon Volkswagen still clearly remembers their roots in German quality and design that established them in America.Victoria Scott


And then, finally, the closest thing to a dealbreaker for me: The steering wheel. The capacitive-touch steering wheel holds no fewer than a dozen buttons, all cryptic and way too easily activated. I lost count of the number of times I turned on the steering-wheel-heater with the edge of my thumb in the middle of the LA summer, only to realize it was cooking me once my palms started burning. The genuinely helpful Travel Assist cruise control becomes downright annoying to activate by being hidden in a steering wheel menu of vaguely demarcated buttons. It was a constant aggravation in an otherwise pleasant car; if I owned this thing I'd have to forgo an airbag and swap in a Nardi just to prevent a stroke from pure frustration.


2021 Volkswagen Arteon The capacitive-touch steering wheel holds no fewer than a dozen buttons, all cryptic and way too easily activated.Victoria Scott


Outside of these minor irritations and the war-crime steering wheel, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Volkswagen still clearly remembers their roots in German quality and design that established them in America, and the Arteon drives like a callback to those better times. In short - VW has built a competent enough sporty sedan with looks paralleled by none, and comfort only rivalled by a few. It shows the flaws of a manufacturer still trying to recall the glory days of high-end automaking, but it's close enough to the mark in a nearly empty market segment to be worthy of at least a test drive. Just watch those thumbs on the steering wheel.

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