Travel

The Truth Is Out There at New England's Biggest UFO Festival

Get to know New Hampshire's alien obsession.

Exeter TV
Exeter TV
Exeter TV

Norman Muscarello was hitchhiking back from his girlfriend’s house near Exeter, New Hampshire in the early morning of September 3, 1965, when he saw pulsating lights in the sky. The US Navy enlistee froze in his tracks beside the Dining family farm on rural Route 150 as the lights hovered overhead, disappeared, then returned in throbbing red bursts. “There was absolutely no sound, other than the fact that I heard horses in Dinings’ field raising holy hell, kicking the barn. Crickets just seemed to quit,” he recalled in a 1980 interview. Petrified, Muscarello ran across the street and hid. A few minutes later, the lights zoomed away, leaving the 18-year-old alone on the road.

The Incident at Exeter, as it’s now known, is the force behind the annual Exeter UFO Festival. Following a pandemic-fueled hiatus, the celebration is back for its 10th anniversary on September 3 and 4, 2022. The entire commercial district of Exeter-population 16,000, with a quaint downtown lined with historic architecture clustered along the Squamscott River-gets in on the action. The Town Hall hosts a variety of talks and other-wordly swag tables. There are costume contests, kids’ activities, and even trolley rides that transport you to the site where it all began.

Exeter TV
Exeter TV
Exeter TV

Bill Smith, a former president of the Exeter Area Kiwanis Club and current chair of the festival, explains that the event started as a lecture series, to shed light on a most unusual piece of Exeter history. It has since become a two-day fundraiser for children’s charities, with 100% of the proceeds from ticket and concession sales benefit area youth nonprofits and programming. “It is also a big sales day for local merchants,” Smith says. “For some, it’s the second largest sales weekend after Christmas.”

Exeter TV
Exeter TV
Exeter TV

Exeter’s shops and restaurants deck out their windows alien-inspired decor. Sidewalk chalkboards showcase words of wisdom for surviving an extraterrestrial invasion (“Stock up on tennis balls” and “Buy ALL the treats” advises Paws Pet Boutique II), and an inflatable alien dressed as a sushi chef stands outside OBA Noodle Bar.

Deanna Benoit, owner of Top Drawer Boutique, has participated in the festivities since their inception. Her displays have included a big green alien sporting a pink lace bra and panties, lounging sideways in the front window, and a pair of ETs clad in nighties, clutching suitcases. The sandwich board outside the store read, “Wear pretty underwear. You never know if you’ll be abducted.”

Exeter TV
Exeter TV
Exeter TV

“The business community really seems to get into it,” Benoit says. “Customers love it. They laugh, they stop and take pictures. It generates a lot of buzz.”

This year’s keynote speaker is Ralph Blumenthal, a New York Times contributor and 45-year veteran of its reporting team, as well as a distinguished lecturer at Baruch College in New York, and a summer journalism instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy, a nearby boarding school. Blumenthal’s 2021 book, The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack, chronicles the work of a Harvard psychiatrist who documented the experiences of hundreds of people who claimed to have had alien encounters. Mack’s work was an important development in ufology-AKA the study of UFOs-lending credence to what had previously been considered a fringe field.

Exeter TV
Exeter TV
Exeter TV

Along with Blumenthal, this year’s Exeter UFO Festival will feature Kathleen Marden, a leading UFO contact researcher; Jennifer Stein, a ufology documentarian; and Paul and Ben Eno, father-son hosts of radio show Behind the Paranormal with Paul & Ben Eno, who plan to live-broadcast from the event.

What makes the Incident at Exeter such an enduring example of UFO phenomenon, Blumenthal says, is that multiple people observed it. After Muscarello reported the sighting to the police, he and two police officers, David Hunt and Eugene Bertrand Jr., returned to the scene, where they all witnessed it simultaneously. Earlier in the evening, a woman reported to Bertrand that she had been followed in her car on a nearby road by a large object in the sky with flashing red lights. Similar sightings in the region the following day have led to the Incident at Exeter becoming one of the best-documented UFO sightings in American history.

Exeter TV
Exeter TV
Exeter TV

Although a 2021 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) publicly acknowledged, for the first time, the existence of unidentified aerial phenomenon-UAPs, as they’re now known-Blumenthal says, “For many years, the United States government played a very negative role in this, by debunking it, by making it seem that people who saw UFOs were mentally ill.” Such was the case for the Incident at Exeter, which the US Air Force then declared “nothing more than stars and planets twinkling… owing to a temperature inversion.” They explained away the occurrence as an optical illusion caused by the trapping of warm air beneath a layer of cold, dense air, or, possibly, even a military training exercise of B-47 aircraft.

The recent declassification of information is a positive step, but it hasn’t brought us closer to understanding UFOs. The data, says Blumenthal, is not yet scientifically verifiable. But, he adds, “Something happened, just like in Roswell. The witnesses were pretty clear and reliable in what they said. I’m not making a claim that it’s anything but a mystery, but it’s a mystery worth investigating.”

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Robin Catalano is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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