Buy your airline ticket, pack your travel bags and camera gear, and get ready for a whistle-stop tour of ten of the planet’s most spectacular man-made and natural sites…
1. Arches National Park – USA
The gravity-defying wonders of natural rock formations have always sparked the human imagination and Arches National Park in the south-west state of Utah is the place to be if you want to be stunned by simply amazing landscapes.
Here you will discover over 2,000 natural stone arches – the greatest density on earth. With an excellent network of sealed roads and walking trails, you can easily immerse yourself in bizarre scenery – from miles of towering pinnacles to balancing rocks, spires, rock bridges and arches all competing as scenic spectacles.
The national park’s signature trail leads to the state’s best-known arch, the one that appears on every Utah car number plate and in countless American television commercials – Delicate Arch. Straddling a ridge of glowing red sandstone, between an ancient pothole and a sheer cliff face, with panoramic views to the east over the snow-capped La Sal Mountains, Delicate Arch framed in the sweeping span of Frame Arch literally has the power of presence to stop you in your tracks.
2. Temples of Tikal – GUATEMALA
The dense El Peten rainforest of northern Guatemala was once the heartland of the Maya civilization and home to dozens of thriving cities during Classic Maya Times (250-909 AD). Today, many relics of their ancient world still remain – vast cities and temple complexes that tower above the forest canopy, with dozens still hidden within the jungle.
Tikal was arguably the greatest of all Maya sites – and six magnificent temples still stand waiting to be explored. Try to visit at sunrise when the ruins of the Maya city come to life with the calls of green parakeets, toucans and howler monkeys.
As you emerge from deep shade of the rainforest into the Great Plaza area, you are greeted by two of the tallest temple pyramids in the New World – the awesome structures of Temple I and II, rising to 38 and 44 metres respectively. The views from the top are magical – a never ending sea of verdant green foliage broken only by the chalk- white roof combs of other temples.
3. West Norwegian Fjords – NORWAY
On the outskirts of Bergen, a beautiful city with a 15th-century waterfront on Norway’s west coast, is some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery – awe-inspiring, impossibly steep-sided fjords with their jutting fingers of sea that cut shimmering paths into the coastline.
Two of these larger-than-life natural wonders, namely Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord (set 120 km from one another) are among the world’s longest, deepest and most scenically outstanding examples and were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005. Both feature narrow and sheer crystalline rock walls that rise up to 1,400 metres from the Norwegian Sea and extend 500 metres below.
Numerous waterfalls tumble into the sea from the forests above, while wooden huts and small farms dot the lower verdant slopes. To really appreciate Geirangerfjord, take Norway’s most spectacular scheduled public ferry route between Geiranger and Hellesylt, or for a taste of the fjords, book a ‘Norway in a Nutshell’ one-day tour from Bergen with Fjord Tours.
4. Borobudur – INDONESIA
As a dawn mist shrouds the plains, the growing light unveils a temple of such breathtaking beauty, that many consider Borobudur in eastern Java to be the world’s finest example of Buddhist architecture.
Borobudur lies on the Kedu Plain, surrounded by an idyllic landscape of rice-terraced hills overlooked by four volcanoes. It was built by the industrious subjects of the Sailendra Dynasty over a period of 80 years in the 9th century who transformed a volcanic plug of basalt into a pyramid of seven tiers with a base measuring 120 sq metres and a height of 35 metres.
Borobudur was constructed to resemble a microcosm of the universe through a series of exquisite stone carvings that make up the stone masonry blocks of the entire monument. Its purpose was to provide a visual image of Buddha’s teachings and illustrate the steps through life to achieve enlightenment.
5. Lost City – AUSTRALIA
In the remote Abner Ranges of the Northern Territory, racing clouds cast shadows over the strange megalithic pillars and domes of the ancient Lost City. Displaying some of Australia’s most impressive geology, the aptly named ‘Lost City’ looks for all the world like the high-rise central business district of a forgotten civilization.
Rising from the ground and covering an area of around 10 square kilometres, the quartz sandstone spires, pillars and bizarre-shaped pinnacles jut skywards to heights of up to 60 metres. The Heartbreak Hotel at Cape Crawford operates helicopter flights to the Lost City, and it takes around 10 minutes to reach the columns, flying over the Abner Ranges on the way.
The landing point in a natural amphitheatre is spectacular, where you then walk around the more eroded part of the city. You then enter a cave that goes right through the rock, to emerge on higher ground offering excellent views.
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6. Hadrian’s Wall – ENGLAND
One of the ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’, Hadrian’s Wall is a structure of epic proportions, marching 73 miles from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, across some of the wildest and most dramatic country in northern England. Built on the orders of Emperor Hadrian between AD 122-128 it is a striking example of a defensive fortification from ancient Rome.
Some additional facts about Hadrian’s Wall: the manpower required to construct it was three legions (around 16,000 men); there are 80 mile castles, 160 turrets and 16 forts dotted along its length, with the best preserved example being Housesteads Roman Fort situated near Haltwhistle, among the main concentration of sights in the central section of the wall.
A great way to experience this engineering feat up close and enjoy panoramic views along the way, is to walk the designated 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall Path, or sections if you don’t have the time to do the full route.
7. Tongariro National Park NEW ZEALAND
With its superb collection of active volcanoes, New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park on the North Island is one of its most spectacular, and the 19.4 km Tongariro Alpine Crossing is an excellent way to experience this surreal landscape dominated by three volcanoes: Mt Ruapehu (2797m) the highest and most active, Mt Tongariro (1968m), the oldest but still considered active, and the much younger Mt Ngauruhoe (2291m).
Highlights of the walk include hiking through several volcanic craters, brilliantly coloured volcanic lakes, hot springs, glacial valleys, cones and lava flows. After passing the Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake, the track begins its long descent, and it is about an hour to Ketahi Hut, a good place to take a breather, enjoy the views northwards to Lake Taupo and reflect on the magical scenery.
8. Blue Lagoon – ICELAND
A 60 km drive south of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik, among the black lava fields of the Svartsengi National Park, is the spectacular Blue Lagoon geothermal spa where locals and travellers come to swim and relax in its warm mineral-rich waters.
Bathing in this unique Iceland wonder is reputed to help some people suffering from skin diseases such as psoriasis. The seawater originates 2,000 metres beneath the ground where it is heated by earth’s natural forces and the result is a perfect 37-39°C.
Floating and swimming in the turquoise-coloured waters in a stunning and natural Icelandic landscape is a uniquely surreal experience for body, mind and soul. In addition to swimming and bathing, the Blue Lagoon offers in-water massage treatments, saunas, steam rooms and a café.
9. Salar de Uyuni – BOLIVIA
Located on the Altiplano, or high plateau in the country’s south-west, is planet earth’s largest salt flat. The Salar de Uyuni covers an area of 10,582 square kilometres and was formed as a result of sequential transformations between several prehistoric lakes some 30,000 to 42,000 year ago.
Covered by a few metres of salt crust, the landscape is extraordinarily flat, except for a few raised islands such as Isla Incahuasi (‘Island of Fishermen’) cloaked in giant cacti that reach heights of 12 metres, which only accentuates its surreal beauty.
Containing an estimated 10 billion tonnes of salt, local co-operatives hack away using primitive picks and rakes to collect the salt. Later it is traded or sold for maize, meat and coca leaves in the town of Tarija. Unlike any other place on earth, an excursion to the Salar de Uyuni will not easily be forgotten.
10. Bagan – MYANMAR
Of the numerous historical and archaeological sites throughout South East Asia, Bagan is arguably the most amazing. Perhaps nowhere else has the architectural imprint of Buddhism been so well-preserved over the centuries.
In a frenetic burst of religious expression, a golden age of temple construction took place in a 230-year period from 1057. As a result, over 2,200 temples and pagodas still stand today in all shapes, sizes and importance, spread across 40 square kilometres along the banks of the Irrawaddy River.
Bagan is an important place of worship, with Buddhists from all over Myanmar coming to view the nine-and-a-half metre high gold standing Buddhas in the great Ananda Pahto, or to touch the stone that encloses a Buddha relic in Shwesandaw Pagoda. In the late afternoon you can climb Mingalazedi Pagoda for sunset views over old Bagan; the spires of countless pagodas rising like a fleet of sailing ships in the desert.