Travel

Calling All Weirdos: There's a UFO Festival Next Month

The second-largest UFO fest in the country is back this September.

McMenamins UFO Festival
McMenamins UFO Festival
McMenamins UFO Festival

Whatever you think your September travel plans are, cancel them. Reroute to McMinnville, Oregon. Bring your tin foil hat.

Even on a regular weekend, this laidback town in the Willamette Valley is a worthwhile getaway. An hour southwest of Portland in the heart of Oregon’s charming wine country, there are vineyards you can ride your bike through, and tasting rooms to sample their famous terroir-driven Pinot Noir. There’s a walkable, Rockwellian downtown lined with maple trees where you can catch a movie in a theater tucked inside of a pizza shop (yup, you can take your slice in), or duck into a store that specializes in artisanal jam. There’s the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, home to Howard Hughes’ massive wooden Spruce Goose.

And then, for one very special weekend each year since 1999, there are aliens. The town’s population swells as thousands of ETs, Wookies, Yodas, Coneheads, astronauts, and possibly the family from 3rd Rock from the Sun all show up for the annual McMenamins UFO Fest, the largest of its kind outside of Roswell itself. This year, the close encounters happen on September 24 and 25.

McMenamins UFO Festival
McMenamins UFO Festival
McMenamins UFO Festival

Base camp is the McMenamins Hotel Oregon, built in 1905, boasting a rooftop bar with 360-degree views-perfect for spotting flying objects. And you may actually see one, because unlike some of those other UFO festivals out there, McMinnville’s is inspired by an actual sighting in 1950, when farmers Evelyn and Paul Trent took what is now the most famous photographic evidence of a hovering UFO. The photos made national news and were even published in Life magazine (and have yet to be debunked).

This year’s festival will be particularly lit, and not just because they skipped last year and need to make up for it. There’s also that long-awaited government’s UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) report to discuss.

McMenamins UFO Festival
McMenamins UFO Festival
McMenamins UFO Festival

The speaker roster includes PhD Michael Masters on his theory of “extratempestrials” -which suggests that aliens are humans from the future who developed the machinery to return to the past, or something-and MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) Colorado State Director Katie Griboski, who will be discussing the notorious Clearview Ranch in Colorado, dubbed the “Close Encounter Capital of the US.”

Reinerio Hernandez will talk about experiencing multiple direct contacts, National UFO Reporting Center Director Peter Davenport and ufologist James Clarkson pick apart what the June 25th UAP report actually revealed, and there’s a panel to ask all your burning extraterrestrial questions not covered.

Shindigs and vendor fairs in and around the hotel are free; tickets start at $25 for presenters. And though the annual parade is cancelled until next year, there’s still a costume contest where you can show off some out-of-this-world attire, so start working on that now. We’ll be the ones in the tinfoil hat.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She has her costume all picked out. 

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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