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World's most dramatic runways

By Tom Jordan, for CNN
updated 4:57 AM EDT, Fri October 18, 2013
The beach-skimming landing approach at this Caribbean airport has people gnawing their fingers in the plane and on the ground. The beach-skimming landing approach at this Caribbean airport has people gnawing their fingers in the plane and on the ground.
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Princess Juliana Airport, St. Maarten
Courchevel Altiport, France
Matekane Air Strip, Lesotho
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba
Gibraltar International Airport
Barra International Airport, Scotland
Paro Airport, Bhutan
Kansai International Airport, Japan
Harstad Airport, Norway
Madeira Airport, Portugal
Malé Airport, Maldives
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Planes landing on St. Maarten fly so low they risk intercepting volleyballs on the beach
  • Snowy Courchevel's runway was featured in a Bond film
  • Malé Airport, in the Maldives, is only six feet above sea level
  • JFK suddenly seems so much less exciting

(CNN) -- Arriving at an air terminal is rarely a memorable event.

All the more reason to book a flight touching down at one of these hairy or awesome air strips.

Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Maarten, Caribbean

Vacationers flock to the Caribbean for a laid-back vacation.

But arriving at the region's airports can have the opposite effect -- the compact, rugged nature of many of the islands forces runways to be built in inventive locations.

Perhaps everything feels all the more serene after landing.

On St. Maarten, Princess Juliana Airport -- named after Dutch royalty -- has people gnawing their fingernails in the air and on the ground whenever a plane lands.

The runway starts mere meters from the edge of the ocean, with aircraft coming in almost low enough over the beach to spike a volleyball set.

More: Breathtaking photos of Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport's glory days

Landing makes the skiing seem tame.
Landing makes the skiing seem tame.

Courchevel Altiport, France

Unlike Caribbean-bound passengers, skiers and snowboarders touching down at Courchevel are usually geared up for an adrenaline fix.

They'd better be.

In winter, the tarmac air strip at the French resort's altiport, more than 2,000 meters above sea level, is often the only thing not covered in snow.

Aircraft fly in through a channel between mountains, landing on a short, steeply sloping runway, complete with vertical drop off, that could almost double as a ski jump.

The scene is so dramatic it was featured as a stunt location in the James Bond movie "Tomorrow Never Dies."

(Editor's note: We initially referred to an incorrect Bond film "Goldeneye.")

Matekane Air Strip, Lesotho

There's little chance of extending this runway very far -- it ends abruptly at the edge of a 600-meter drop.

Only light aircraft use the airstrip on this remote tabletop plateau in the tiny southern African kingdom.

Planes sometimes fail to ascend at the end of the runway, conjuring images of a Wile E. Coyote hover and fall (before, thankfully, achieving flying speed and soaring away).

More on CNN: Best in airport food and drink

Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba, Caribbean

Rivaling St. Maarten for Caribbean airport thrills, Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, on the island of Saba, has one of the world's shortest landing strips.

Wedged on a rocky outcrop at the foot of a mountain and with the end of the tarmac plunging into the sea, touchdown here is a dramatic experience.

Just hope your pilot has landed at Gibraltar before.
Just hope your pilot has landed at Gibraltar before.

Gibraltar International Airport

Flying toward a gigantic limestone monolith on a landing approach is never easy on the nerves, but in the 6.2-square-kilometer British overseas territory of Gibraltar there's nowhere else to put an airport except in the shadow of the Rock.

Space is so limited on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula that the runway bisects the territory's main highway.

As aircraft get priority over automobiles in the vehicular pecking order, the road is closed every time a plane takes off or arrives.

Barra International Airport, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Where else in the world can you pick cockles on a runway?

Rather than think about where to build a tarmac airstrip when you're short on space, the Outer Hebridean island of Barra took a different approach -- it didn't bother with one.

Pilots wait until the tide is out and then land on the beach -- reportedly the only airport in the world where scheduled flights touch down on sand.

In between flights to and from Glasgow, the public have open access to the beach/runway.

Bhutan\'s Paro Airport deserves an award for beautiful airport surroundings.
Bhutan's Paro Airport deserves an award for beautiful airport surroundings.

Paro Airport, Bhutan

If there were awards for remote airways surrounded by dramatic scenery, the Himalayas would be filling a shelf.

In pride of place might stand the only international airport in the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan

Descending into a narrow, high-altitude bowl amid 6,000-meter peaks, pilots -- who have to be specially trained to land here -- bank their jets in a sharp right turn before swooping in low over farm houses.

More on CNN: World's busiest airport

Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Japan

Landing on an aircraft carrier looks thrilling, but you usually have to join the armed services to do it.

You can experience a good second best at Japan's Kansai International Airport, where the two runways appear to float on the water way out in Osaka Bay.

Actually located on a purpose-built artificial island, to minimize noise pollution for city residents, the runways are in fact sizeable affairs (both more than three kilometers long) and connected to the mainland by a four-kilometer bridge.

But from the air, this is the best way to get that "Top Gun" feeling on a commercial carrier.

Harstad Airport/Narvik, Norway

On the approach to Harstad/Narvik Airport in the region of Evenes, planes skirt through fjord-land, over frozen lakes and between snow-covered mountains.

Arriving at the settlement of Hammerfest, in the country's extreme northeast, feels like touching down on an ice rink at certain times of the year.

Atlantic turbulence and a runway extended on stilts make for a touchy touchdown in Madeira.
Atlantic turbulence and a runway extended on stilts make for a touchy touchdown in Madeira.

Madeira Airport, Funchal, Portugal

Madeira's international airport looks as if it's been cheating in a tricky-runway competition.

Sandwiched between a steep hillside and the sea, its dramatically short tarmac strip is extended on stilts over the water to make it long enough for a safe touchdown.

Throw in frequent Atlantic turbulence and you've got an arrival dramatic enough to make the calmest passenger reach for the fortified wine.

Malé Airport, Maldives

Malé Airport has looks and drama.

Built on its very own atoll, Hulhulé, the runway is a mere six feet feet above sea level.

After descending over the 26-island Maldives archipelago, undercarriages feel so close to the sea on touchdown it's as if they're skimming along the water.

Ever landed at one of these airports? Know of one that should be on our list? Leave a comment below.

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