Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in July 2012 and additions and updates were made in 2015. Prices and excursions are subject to change.
Starling murmurations, wildebeest migrations and sardine runs -- some of nature's wondrous sights
Love a night sky? New Zealand and Scandinavia are great
Manmade icons represent too -- Taj Mahal and Borobudur particularly noteworthy
Temples that tower out of mist-cloaked jungles; a herd of wildebeest, one million-strong, trekking across the African plains; a midnight sky filled with stars.
There are some things around the world that provide photo-showing rights for decades. We haven’t got them all – in fact we barely scratched the surface. But we have picked out a few of the scenes that, if you’re lucky enough to witness them, will invariably leave you spellbound. Here are 31 of the world’s must-see sights:
1. Sossusvlei Dunes, Namibia
Sossusvlei means “the gathering place of water” but you’ll need to bring your own if you don’t want to dehydrate at this, Namibia’s most outstanding attraction.
The dunes have developed over millions of years, the result of material flowing from the Orange River into the Atlantic, carried north and returned again to land by the surf. Climbing the dunes yields breathtaking views, including the Deadvlei, a ghostly expanse of dried white clay punctuated by skeletons of ancient camelthorn trees. More info at www.namibian.org
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2. Torres del Paine, Chile
In the heart of Patagonia, glaciers rise in the midst of mountainscapes and alpine meadows, close enough to hike right up to and touch. They make Torres del Paine one of the most special national parks in the world — you’ll never forget your first sight of ice on the beach. Explora offers a four-night package including transfers from Punta Arenas, full board and excursions from $2,780; lastfrontiers.com
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3. The great migration, East Africa
No sight in the world replicates the timeless drama of tens of thousands of wild beasts charging across the African plains in search of food and water while pursued by their predators. The best way to experience the migration is via a mobile camp which ups sticks and follows the animals every day. A four-night safari combining two nights in Singita’s Explore mobile camp and two in a fixed location in the Serengeti costs from $5,110, including internal flights, full board and safari activities; aardvarksafaris.co.
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4. Star-filled sky, Mackenzie Basin, New Zealand
Picking out Orion’s Belt and The Big Dipper is even more impressive if there are a million other stars distracting you from the task.
A 1,600-square-mile area on the South Island of New Zealand, comprising Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin, has just been designated the world’s fourth International Dark Sky Reserve. That makes it “one of the best stargazing sites on Earth” according to Bob Parks, executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association.
Nature’s Highway arranges three-night/four-day cycling tours to Mackenzie Basin from $995 per person. Includes accommodation, bike hire and luggage transport; natureshighway.co.nz/tour-dates-and-price
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5. Cormorant fishing, China
With its mountain backdrop and shores lined with ancient houses, the Nanxi River in Zhejiang, China, inevitably became the cradle of classic Chinese water-and-ink painting. By drifting down the Nanxi River on a bamboo craft, travelers can enjoy views of locals doing laundry along the river and fishermen employing traditional methods of using cormorants to catch fish. The xiangyu is a rare freshwater fish unique to the Nanxi.
The nearest traffic hub to Nanxi River is Wenzhou, a major city in Zhejiang Province. It’s about 23 kilometers away. Major cities connected to Wenzhou Airport by direct flights include Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hangzhou.
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6. Jungle pyramids, Palenque, Mexico
Mayan pyramids pervade the eastern side of Mexico, but none are more breathtaking than those of Palenque in the far south. The jungle temple of this site inspired “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and it has a lost-world, Indiana Jones kind of feeling other ruins lack.
This is the year to hit the Mayan ruins — the ancient tribe believed the world would end in 2012.
Tucan Travel’s 22-day End of the World tour hits Palenque on New Year’s Eve and takes in other Mayan sites; $2,240; tucantravel.com/tour.
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7. Inside the Thrihnukagigur volcano, Iceland
Iceland is a spectacular living wilderness, and in summer it’s possible to journey right into the inner cavity of the Thrihnukagigur volcano, which has been dormant for 4,000 years.
After a short hike across lava fields, participants descend 120 meters via a cable car into the heart of the volcano and its magma chamber, only accessible between mid-June and the end of July.
Discover the World offers three nights in Iceland including accommodation, volcano visit and a look at other natural wonders as well as the capital, Reykjavik, from around $1,130; discover-the-world.co.uk.
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8. Monument Valley, United States
You’d be forgiven for thinking this thrilling red rock vista at the conjunction of Arizona and Utah was a movie set. But although it’s served as the backdrop for many John Ford movies, this corner of the Navajo Nation is for real.
The best way to experience the area is to stay overnight, then ride into the park with a Native American guide who can arrange a visit with some of the residents. Particularly magical is a nighttime visit around the time of the full moon.
General admission $5; navajonationparks.org
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9. Kasanka bat migration, Zambia
Five million bats cluster together in one tiny corner of Zambia’s Kasanka National Park every November. Orange-brown in color, they feed off the swamp forest’s delicious wild fruits, on which they chomp solidly every night (making sunset and dawn the best times to view them). After the bats abandon it, Kasanka is spectacular in a different way: all that remains of Bat Central are stripped, broken trees and an eerie silence.
Naturetrek has a Swamps & South Luangwa Zambia safari departing on November 4, taking in the bat migration. $2,725 includes all transport, full board accommodation, park fees and guides; naturetrek.co.uk
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10. Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech, Morocco
If any city has a vast expanse of street theater at its beating heart, it’s this Moroccan metropolis where Moorish influences give way to a throbbing African pulse.
This huge empty space over which the sun rises comes to life from mid-afternoon as the local characters creep in — storytellers, snake charmers, musicians, Berber apothecaries, henna-painters and lady-boy dancers.
First-floor cafes are the best places to overlook the action as the scene unfolds, but when night closes in and smoke starts rising from the food stalls, it’s time to join the crowds at trestle tables for a $5 feast of grilled meats and flatbread.
Stay in a riad — a traditional townhouse hotel — within the Medina for maximum impact. Riad Farnatchi sets out a great little handbook for guests of what not to miss, including the best food stalls on the square. Rooms from US$360 per night; riadfarnatchi.com.
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11. Kawah Ijen, Indonesia
The daily routines of the sulfur miners on Kawah Ijen, the “solitary crater” of East Java, Indonesia, will make any office-worker frustrations appear trivial. Surrounded by noxious sulfur fumes, these men work inside a live volcano, within spitting distance of its acidic lake to collect crystalline sulfur, which they sell to a refinery.
The volcano is active, with a small eruption occurring in 2002 and more activity, where the lake changed color and emitted sulfurous rocks and foam, causing it to be closed to tourists in 2004. The paths are treacherous. In 1997 a French tourist fell and died here.
Ferries make the 20-minute journey from Bali to Ketapang, Java every day. Tours to Kawah Ijen are available from Ketapang itself, or you can take the bus to other nearby towns such as Bondowoso or Banyuwangi.
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12. Boseong tea fields, South Korea
Approximately 40% of Korea’s tea is produced in the rolling fields of Boseong, which have also provided the backdrop of many South Korean dramas and films.
Yes, green tea-related specialties (fresh green tea ice cream and green tea pork belly) are tasty treats, but the spectacular view of the seemingly endless tea fields is the real reason so many visitors stop by Boseong.
A green tea festival is held every May while in the winter, the fields are decorated with tiny light bulbs. The best way to get to Boseong is by bus from Seoul. Take an express bus to Gwangju from Seoul Seoul Central City Bus Terminal. From Gwangju Express Bus Terminal, take an intercity bus to Boseong.
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13. Fenghuang, China
Every year, armies of young backpackers flock to the ancient town of Fenghuang (which literally means “Phoenix”) for its rich Miao and Tujia ethnic culture. Many also come to pay homage to celebrated Chinese writer Shen Congwen, whose novel “Frontier City” put the 1,300-year-old town in limelight.
Fenghuang maintains its original layout and architecture, with around 200 residential buildings, 20 streets and 10 winding alleys, all of which date as far back as the Ming dynasty.
Admission: RMB 148. Fenghuang is 430 kilometers west of Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan. Long-distance buses are available four times a day from West Changsha Bus Terminal to Fenghuang Bus Terminal for RMB 130. The journey takes nearly four hours.
14. Borobudur at sunrise, Java, Indonesia
Watching the sun rise over the hundreds of stupas and Buddhas at Borobudur before the public descends in droves to disturb the peace is one of the world’s most rarefied experiences. Guests staying within the village compound are allowed to enter this 9th century monument, hidden beneath volcanic ash for centuries, before opening time.
Black Tomato offers three nights bed and breakfast with private sunrise tour at lavish Amanjiwo, decorated with its own Buddhas and stupas, from $1,195 per person; blacktomato.com.
15. Starling murmuration, Brighton Pier, England
They’re not exotic, and in the European case they’re not even that pretty, but when you have thousands of starlings swooping and wheeling like some kind of hypnotic cloud, they become one of the most mesmerizing sights in naturSee a stunning video of the phenomenon on Vimeo.
These murmurations happen just before the birds roost down for the night, and while starling numbers have crashed in the UK, you can still see up to a million birds coming together in these huge swarms in England’s nature reserves or at certain piers such as Brighton Pier, just an hour’s train journey from London.
The murmurations are most common in winter, November being the best month.
See the RSPB website for details on where and when to see them.
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16. Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, Italy
Because they’ve been the subject of so many Renaissance paintings, the iconic landmarks of Venice stop the heart when you see them for the first time.
The Rialto, the Bridge of Sighs, the vast expanse of San Marco look much as they did 400 years ago, but nothing evokes the mystery of La Serenissima quite like the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute looming out of the mist at the entrance to the Grand Canal.
The perfect place to catch this view is from a vaporetto approaching Venice from the lagoon — the most magical way to arrive from the airport; turismovenezia.it.
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17. Electrical storm, Tornado Alley, United States
From thunder to lightning to tornadoes, you can see it all by joining a storm-chasing crew in Tornado Alley, the area between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains where 25% of America’s “significant” tornadoes occur, according to the National Atlas by the US government.
The best time to catch a glimpse of one is from May to June. Wannabe stormers can join the seven-day tour hosted by Storm Chasing Adventure Tours. Be prepared for a rough and tough tour — they may drive 500 miles a day in the chase. Seven-day tour costs US$2,400; stormchasing.com.
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18. Taj Mahal, India
It may be the most clichéd image in the world, but visitors still gasp the moment they first set eyes on the world’s most famous shrine to love.
Best enjoyed at sunset, when there are not too many tourists around to spoil the spell, or over a drink from a distance at Amarvilas, a luxury hotel overlooking the magnificent white marble mausoleum. Built by Shah Jehan in the 17th century in memory of his third wife Mumtaz, the Taj Mahal forms part of the Golden Triangle, which is the classic first tour for visitors new to India.
Intrepid Travel offers seven days from Delhi, taking in the pink city of Jaipur as well as the Taj Mahal, from $805; intrepidtravel.com
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19. Pristine beaches, Seychelles
Clean, secluded and easy to skip because it takes some effort to get here, the beaches of the Seychelles are the benchmarks against which others must be judged.
From Grand Anse and Anse Source d’Argent on La Dique island, to Beau Vallon on Mahe to the entire Bird Island – the Seychelles’ beaches bring bright sands, copious wildlife and possibly the best beach vacation you’ll ever have.
They even won first and fourth spot in our list of the world’s best 100 beaches.
Seychelles’ relaxed visa policy (you don’t need one) is only slightly offset by the need to have pre-booked accommodation. Flights head to Seychelles International Airport from various major hubs including Johannesburg, Nairobi, Dubai and Doha.
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20. Northern Lights, Scandinavia
This astronomical phenomenon is best seen in winter from northern Scandinavia — but there are never any guarantees, which makes the magic moments when they do appear all the more special.
A great place to keep watch is from the sheltered coastal waters of western Norway, whose coves are free of artificial light. Travel there on Hurtigruten, the country’s national coastal steamer, and enjoy inspirational fjord views by daylight.
Six-day voyages from $735; hurtigruten.co
21. Yosemite peaks, California
Not just any old mountains, Half Dome, Sentinel and El Capitan have been immortalized by landscape photographer Ansel Adams. The view catches in the throat of first-time visitors who trace the route taken by the Gold Rush settlers who discovered this breathtaking land of pine forests and soaring granite peaks around 1850.
It’s mandatory to stay within the National Park boundaries to breathe the pine-scented air, absorb the grandeur and hike in peace after the day-trippers have left. While simple lodge cabins are good value, the magnificent 1920’s Ahwahnee Hotel overlooking Half Dome is worth the splurge (rooms around $450 per night); yosemite.com
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22. Lake District lakes, England
There’s something mystical about the quiet bodies of still water ringed by majestic fells that feature in the new movie “Snow White and the Huntsman.” The Lake District is the glory of northwestern England, and was a favorite of poets Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit.
At Keswick travelers can climb the fell above Ashness Bridge to see two lakes at once, including magnificent Derwentwater. Also spot the serene Ullswater, dark and dramatic Wastwater and tiny but perfectly formed Grasmere, where the poets hung out.
Pullwood Bay offers award-winning lakeside and woodland self-catering cottages, plus a boathouse; pullwoodbay.com. Lake District visitors’ information at visitcumbria.com.
23. Carlsbad Cavern, New Mexico, United States
Although Carlsbad also has a colony of bats that fly out at dusk when the cavern is closed, they can’t equal the utter spectacle within. Some 230 meters (about 755 feet) beneath a stand of cactus-studded rocky slopes in New Mexico lies a wonderland of 117 caves formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone.
Allow a couple of hours to marvel at the eerily lit stalactites, stalagmites and other rock formations as you wander through these amazing subterranean halls.
It’s like being in Hans Anderson’s “Snow Queen,” the fairy-tale set in a mysterious ice palace, but this one is just comfortably cool and not slippery. There’s even an elevator for the 79-story ride back to the surface; nps.gov/cave/index.htm
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24. Tidal bore, Canada
The Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia is home to the highest tides in the world, creating a rare tidal bore, basically a giant wave, in the Shubenacadie River.
The tide enters at its widest point and the water piles up as it flows up the bay. At the head of the bay, this advancing tide becomes a wave, varying from a ripple to up to 3 meters (almost 10 feet) high. The Shubenacadie River Runners operate Zodiac trips which ride the crest of the tidal surge and on through several sets of natural sand rapids; half-day rafting from $60 per person; tidalborerafting.com
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25. Enrosadira, Italy
Sunset in the Dolomites, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a time when a natural phenomenon known as Enrosadira occurs, turning the west-facing rock face flame-red in the dying rays of the sun. Every evening, these stunning peaks lay on a glorious display of color, starting out bright yellow before turning an intense red that softens to indigo and violet before darkness finally envelops the mountains.
Formed over 250 million years ago, the Dolomites were part of the Earth’s tropical zone where coral, algae, fish and mollusks collected on the seabed, with magma from volcanic eruptions. After the passing of the Ice Age, rivers, landslides, wind and rain sculpted the valleys, leaving today’s spectacular landscape behind.
Relais & Châteaux Gardena Grödnerhof has a prime view of the mountains. Rooms from $525 per person for three nights; gardena.it; valgardena.it
26. Sardine run, South Africa
Dubbed “the greatest shoal on Earth,” the sardine run on South Africa’s Wild Coast holds two titles: the world’s largest animal migration that also features the greatest gathering of predators on the planet.
Sharks, dolphins, Cape Gannets, cormorants, seals – and sometimes orcas – follow the sardines as they head to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. The spectacle is best viewed on a scuba dive in late June and throughout July; however, if you have a snorkel, you can still get in on the underwater action.
Acacia Africa runs a seven-day Coast To Cape Town small group safari from around $1,300 including transfers, accommodation, most meals and local guide; acacia-africa.com
27. Lunar rainbow, Victoria Falls, Zambia
This rare natural phenomenon occurs for three days around the full moon during high-water season at Zambia’s most stunning waterfall. The best “moonbows” tend to occur between April and August, and a great place to view them is on the banks of the Zambezi at Tongabezi just upstream from the heart of the action.
Tongabezi guests stay in thatched lodges and can take canoe safaris, swim in the Devil’s Pool, go rafting under the falls and gaze upon the moonbows. From $485 per person, per night including all meals, drinks, laundry service and activities; tongabezi.com
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28. Cape Tribulation, Australia
The lush green coastal strip of Cape Tribulation, the most northerly settlement of Queensland, Australia, is one of the few places where the rainforest meets the sea. Nowhere else are these two natural side-by-side wonders so accessible to travelers. It’s understandable, then, why this is one of the world’s finest spots to watch a sunset.
Visitors can rent a four-wheel drive out of Port Douglas, drive to Daintree, take the five-minute ferry crossing across the mangrove-encrusted estuary and brace for an endurance test of a drive, enough to test the suspension of any off-roader. Once at Cape Tribulation, a variety of boardwalks lead to the shoreline and, at sunset, one of the world’s most breathtaking views; experiencequeensland.com
29. Rock face city of Petra, Jordan
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the rediscovery of this former lost city, considered one of the greatest jewels of the Middle East. Carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, people who settled here more than 2,000 years ago, this magical rose-red metropolis was a hub for the silk and spice routes in ancient times.
Entrance to the city is through the Siq, a narrow gorge flanked on either side by soaring, 80-meter high cliffs. The colors and rock formations are dazzling, and at the end of the gorge stands the first-century Treasury, with its fabulous carvings.
Movenpick’s Resort Petra is located at the entrance to the ancient city, and its roof garden has spectacular views of the Great Rift Valley. Rooms cost from around $155 per night double, including breakfast; moevenpick-hotels.com
30. Fairy chimneys, Cappadocia, Turkey
This remote area of Central Turkey is covered in amazing “fairy chimneys” — volcanic peaks through which it’s possible to trek, explore the caves of an underground city or survey from above in a hot air balloon or helicopter. Early settlers made homes within these chimneys, creating rock-cut churches, whose facades interplay with the natural castles and other formations.
Travel the Unknown’s Magic of Cappadocia tour covers the region over three days from $655 including domestic flights, ground transport, entrance fees, guides and half-board accommodation; traveltheunknown.com/cca
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31. Cornwall’s ruined mines, England
The tin mines may be closed, but the ruins of the structures which once housed them near St. Just make a thrillingly dramatic counterpoint to the rugged rocks and wild seas of Cornwall’s north coast.
The remnants of 3,000 engine houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. Visitors can walk heritage trails, go underground to see how the miners labored, pan for minerals and gems or bike the 31-kilometer coastal trail known as the Cornwall Mineral Tramway; cornish-mining.org.uk
Freelancer Anthea Gerrie contributed to this report