Nowadays, travel is something we take for granted. Exotic holidays were once the domain of the extremely wealthy, but now there are package tours to every corner of the globe. When I was growing up in 1960s Britain, an exotic holiday was anywhere you needed a passport, and that included a day trip to Calais. It wasn’t until my late teens when I visited the US for the first time and met kids my age that I discovered how lucky I was to have so many countries and cultures on my doorstep. For American kids a trip out of state was a big thing, and foreign travel was something beyond their dreams.
A generation later and there’s nothing stopping most of us getting on a boat or a plane and travelling halfway around the world for our next vacation. That has meant, what were the great tourist destinations of the past have become the tourist traps of the present. So finding that special place in the world has become a little more complicated. Getting to faraway places may be more comfortable than it’s ever been before, but the barriers are still there. Even with a passport we need visas to visit many countries in the world. That usually means forms and sometimes the use of a translation agency, to ensure they are correctly filled in.
So where are those outstandingly beautiful destinations that can draw the traveller away from the crowd? Of course, some are well known, but others are well off the beaten track, and getting there can be an adventure in itself. Here is a list of some of the most memorable. Everyone has their favourites; these are a few of mine.
1. Grand Canyon, USA
Over the last 5,000 years, the Colorado River has carved an 18-mile wide, and 1-mile deep gash through the heartland of America. Most visitors arrive at the south rim where there are fantastic vistas offering views of the breathtaking scenery. Each vantage point can only give a small glimpse of the sheer size and majesty of the natural wonder. The varied colours of the cliffs tell the story of the Earth, with the rocks at the bottom of the canyon discovered to be almost two billion years old. Adventurous tourists visit the north rim of the canyon, where there are hiking trails for the brave. The north side is higher than the south, and in the winter it is often inaccessible because of snow.
2. Oia, Santorini, Greece
The old volcano that is Santorini is one of the gems of the Aegean Sea. This island is fabled for being the mythical Atlantis, and nowadays is a magnet for tourists from Greece and beyond. Whitewashed villages clinging to the edge of the Caldera, the rim of what was once a massive volcano. To the north of the island is Oia, probably the most picturesque of the many villages that dot landscape. Its narrow pedestrian streets are lined with stone-built houses and orthodox churches with blue painted roofs. Visitors gather in the streets and courtyards at the end of the day to watch the spectacular sunset over the blue Aegean. It’s the only place in the world I’ve experienced spontaneous applause as the sun dips below the horizon. This romantic beauty has meant the island has become a wedding Mecca, with couples travelling from around the world to join together as the sunsets. It’s not surprising that Oia is considered one of the prettiest and most romantic villages in the world.
3. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
There’s something magical about waterfalls, and there is probably nowhere on Earth you can see so many in such a small area than the Plitvice Lakes region of Croatia. The lakes are situated halfway from the capital Zagreb and the coastal town of Zadar on the Adriatic and are surrounded by ancient forests. The complex of sixteen lakes cover 300 square kilometres and are linked by waterfalls and bridges. They’re home to many animals such as wolves, bears, and wild boar. The highest lake is at 1,280 metres, and they feed each other down to the lowest point where the lake is just 280 metres above sea level. The forests around the lakes are crisscrossed with hiking trails and natural walkways. The air around the waterfalls is permanently filled with a fog of spray. Some of the lakes are so big there are ferries to shuttle tourists from one waterfall to another.
4. Great Barrier Reef, Australia
As one of the most popular places in Australia, the Great Barrier Reef has become the victim of its beauty, and success at drawing in tourists. Even though the reef is 2,300 kilometres long, and the only living thing on Earth visible from space, the coral ecosystem is fragile, and is suffering from the tourist invasion. Nevertheless, it’s immense, and beautiful, especially when you get the chance to dive and see some of the 600 types of coral up close and personal. The more accessible parts of the reef have seen a decrease in coral and fish numbers, but there are still hundreds of species of tropical fish which call it home. It’s not just a diver’s paradise; it can be viewed from glass-bottomed boats, or by merely snorkelling on the surface and swimming.
5. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Travel south down the Andes in Chile as far as you can go, and you get to magnificent Torres del Paine National Park. It’s one of the most southerly places on the plant, and one if it’s most spectacular. The journey may be long, but it’s well worth the trip. The tall jagged peaks stand tall and are mirrored in deep lakes that dot the landscape. Ancient glaciers fill valleys, with icebergs cleaving into the ice-blue waters of the Southern Pacific. This is a land carved over millennium, with forests almost as old as time itself, and golden grasslands covered by colourful wildflowers in the spring. This diverse ecological wonder is home rare animals such as the llama-like guanacos and the mighty puma. The best way to engulf yourself in the beauty of the national park is to trek one of the many trails that criss-cross the area.
6. Blue Lagoon, Iceland
It always strikes me as surprising that no matter what the air temperature, you can still bathe in the warm waters of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. It may be well below zero, but the geothermal spa warms the body to its very soul. Iceland is known for its fiery volcanoes, and almost moon-like landscape, but the milky white waters of the Blue Lagoon add to the strangeness of the scene. The water is heated by a lava field located between the capital Reykavik and the international airport at Keflavik, so is probably one of the most conveniently located destinations in this list. Although the water is naturally heated, the lagoon itself is human-made and is part of an extensive scheme of geothermal heating on the island. The water is superheated by the lava field into steam and has enough energy to run turbines that generate electricity. This steam is then used to heat water for the capital’s hot water heating system. After doing that it is still warm enough to be fed into the lagoon for people to enjoy recreationally, or as a medicinal spa. The water is rich in sulphur, silica and a variety of other minerals, all beneficial to different types of skin conditions.
7. Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Another distant destination for the seasoned traveller is Bora Bora, in French Polynesia, deep in the South Pacific. At the heart of the island is a dormant volcano with its slopes covered in thick rainforest cascading down to a fringe of golden sand, like a ring around a finger. A magical turquoise lagoon is created by tiny islets and vibrant coral reefs, home to thousands of colourful fish. Most tourists arrive by air from nearby Tahiti and are met by the spectacular sight as their small plane lands on the crystal clear waters. Bora Bora is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful tropical islands in the world. It’s luxury resorts make it an ideal place for honeymooners. Thatch-roofed cabanas built over the water, where room service comes by canoe, make it truly one of the most romantic locations in the world.
8. Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
The outstanding natural beauty of New Zealand was given an incredible boost when it was used for the location for the ‘Lord of The Rings’ movies. At the southwestern tip of New Zealand’s South Island lies the 14 fjords that make up the Fiordland National Park. The native Maori legend says they were created by a giant stonemason called Tu Te Rakiwhanoa. The story goes he cut the deep valleys in the 1.2 million hectares national park with an enormous adze. In reality, it’s taken 100,000 years for glaciers to carve out the magnificent fjords. The sides of the fjords are covered with verdant forests with crystal clear waterfalls thunderously allowing massive quantities of rainwater to fall into the sea. The granite mountains tower over everything, and their stunning beauty is mirrored in the emerald lakes that speckle the landscape.
9. Geiranger Fjord, Norway
In the land of a thousand fjords, how can anyone pick just one? Ask a Norwegian, and the chances are they’ll say the most beautiful fjord in the country is Geiranger. At a 1.5 km, or about a mile wide at its widest, the rugged fjord stretches 15 kilometres or almost ten miles. The nearly vertical sides make the coastline uninhabitable. The proof of the steep terrain is the abandoned mountain farmhouses dotted along its length. Most people enjoy the fjord’s splendour from a ferry boat or by kayaking close to the steep shoreline. Several spectacular waterfalls thunder from the cliffs creating a permanent veil of mist with the chance of seeing rainbows that last forever. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but you can see the fjord using the famous Trollstigen road. This fantastic feat of engineering was built in 1936, and clings to the mountainside, snaking its way up the incredibly steep slopes. Often there is just a guardrail between the road and a precipice. What you get are stunning views of the fjord and a close up of the massive waterfalls. The cliffs have become a mecca for adrenaline junkies who use them for paragliding, abseiling, and ziplining.
10. Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe
You hear Victoria Falls long before you see it. The largest curtain of water in the world can be heard from 40 kilometres away. The mighty Zambezi River on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe cascades over a basalt cliff falling 100 metres into the gorge below. The power of the water sends spray 400 metres into the air, which can be seen from 50 kilometres away. The area is covered by permanent clouds and constant rainbows. At certain times of the year, there are pools at the top of the falls where you can sit just a few metres from the epic waterfall, and look over the expanse of rainforest below, your ears full of the mighty roar of the water.
11. Sossusvlei, Namibia
Nature can be a strange beast, and nowhere stranger than Sossusvlei in the Namibian Namib-Naukluft National Park. The park is situated at the southern end of the vast Namib Desert. Sossusvlei is a clay and salt pan hemmed in by mountainous red dunes. The name can be loosely translated into ‘dead-end marsh’, as this is where the Tsauchab River is stopped from flowing to the sea 60 kilometres away. As this is one of the aridest parts of the world, there is very little water, and the river only flows on the rare occasion there is rain in the desert. Once in while the rains come and water flows into Sossusvlei creating a pool which creates a magnificent mirror image of the red dunes in the water surface. Photographers flock to the area to see the spectacle which lasts a few months until the hot desert evaporates the little water that remains. When the water arrives so do thousands of birds making it an ideal place of bird watching.
12. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Salt as far as the eye can see is the result of a prehistoric lake drying up leaving the mineral deposits. Salar de Uyuni is high in the Andes mountains in southwest Bolivia. At almost 12,000 feet above sea level, it’s the largest salt flat in the world covering 11,000 square kilometres. The salt layer is between seven and 66 feet deep, and floats on a sea of brine rich in lithium. Scientists have estimated the lake contains 70 percent of the world’s lithium reserves. The barren desert-like landscape has a stark beauty due to the bright white of the salt, and the bizarre rock formations. The salt lake is interspersed with cacti-covered islands that give vantage points to view the endless landscape.