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Custer Observatory in Southold

Custer Observatory in Southold (File photo)

If you’re looking to continue your North Fork adventure into the evening or want to impress a date with a spontaneous, romantic night after a day of visiting vineyards, stop by the Custer Institute & Observatory in Southold.

My husband, Shawn, and I decided to have dinner across the street at Sophie’s Rest last Saturday before checking out the institute’s Astronomy Day festivities.

We enjoyed Greenport Harbor Brewing Company’s Longest Night with Sophie’s dinner specials: citrus salmon salad for me, pulled pork sliders for him.

(Credit: Jen Nuzzo)
(Credit: Jen Nuzzo)
(Credit: Jen Nuzzo)
(Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

After dusk, we headed over to the institute and checked out Suffolk County Community College professor Matthew Pappas’ lecture “Hello, Is Anyone Out There?”

The professor discussed the most current developments in the quest to find life in intergalactic space. He also spoke about previous attempts, including the Voyager mission, which launched in 1977. The spacecraft carried a gold record containing greetings in many languages, as well as directions to the planet Earth, just in case it was ever discovered by aliens in a galaxy far, far away.

Shawn tried to impress me by dropping some additional knowledge.

“You know,” he whispered, “it also has directions on how to to build a record player.” He added that one of his favorite photos is a reflection of me looking into a replica of that Voyager record during a 2011 trip to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

(Credit: Shawn Nuzzo)
(Credit: Shawn Nuzzo)

Following the lecture, we walked outside and turned our gaze to the sky, which was clear and brilliant.

Several volunteers manned the institute’s telescopes. The first one we used was pointed at Jupiter. The image was so crisp, you could see the planet’s distinct weather bands, as well as many of its moons aligned in orbit.

My favorite sight was looking at our moon through a big binocular telescope.

“I’m watching your eyes light up,” the volunteer said as two spotlights fixed over Shawn as he neared the eye pieces.

That sight of the half-waxing moon was incredible, especially gazing at the details of the craters.

Barbara Lebkuecher, who’s been the institute’s treasurer for 35 years, said many couples visit the observatory.

“It’s stars — who doesn’t like looking at a starry sky?” she said. “A lot of people come to the vineyards and then they’ll come here. Or they’ll go out to dinner and then stop in here and check out the skies if it’s a nice clear night.”

(Credit: Shawn Nuzzo)
Barbara Lebkuecher, right, and I at the observatory’s Astronomy Day last Saturday. (Credit: Shawn Nuzzo)

Lebkuecher recalled that one love story took place sometime in the 1980s when two people from the city met during an astronomy jamboree.

“They came back the next year and they were engaged,” she said. “Years later they came back here and I got to see them again. They had a kid. That was our big Custer romance.”

In addition to a romantic setting, Lebkuecher said she believes people are drawn to the institute because of its cool atmosphere and dedicated volunteers.

According to its website, Custer Institute & Observatory was established in 1927 and is the oldest public observatory on Long Island. Every Saturday evening from dusk until midnight, the observatory’s staff of volunteers gives visitors tours of the facilities and the night sky through powerful telescopes.

(The minimum suggested donation for Saturday evening observations is $5 for an adult and $3 for a child under 14. For more information, visit

“We all know a lot about astronomy because we love it so much and can impart that knowledge to people who think that it’s hard to learn astronomy,” Lebkuecher said. “Science is so cool, so interesting.

“You’re learning something new all the time because there’s always something new discovered in the skies with all the technology we have.”

The biggest attraction is the observatory’s 25-foot flagship telescope, which peaks out of a 22-foot diameter dome atop the third story of the main building. Known as “Obsession,” it is the largest public telescope on Long Island and has been on loan from SCCC since 2008.

We didn’t get a chance to check out Obsession, so Shawn and I are already planning to visit the observatory again soon.

Convincing him to do stuff like this isn’t hard because his favorite place on Earth is the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, Calif.

For me, I loved how we were able to appreciate nature together in a fun way.

Not only did he like the date’s affordability — at around $60 total including our dinner, drinks and a donation to the institute — Shawn said he found the North Fork was more quaint, friendly and less crowded than other outdoor happenings on the Island.

“It’s dark and romantic,” he said. “You’re looking at the stars and moon and are thinking about your place in the universe.”

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