The world’s best place to see stars

La Palma in the Canary Islands is perhaps the best place in the world to see stars – and other amazing natural phenomena.

As the sun dipped lower and lower over the lush, volcanic Canary Islands, travelling steadily onward on its inexorable collision course with the sea, ripples of anticipation resonated across our small group of stargazers. Clad in warm coats (nights on the craggy flanks of the Spanish island’s giant volcano can be blustery), we listened as astrophysicist Agustin Nunez explained why La Palma is – no exaggeration – the best place on Earth to see the stars.

A view of the Milky Way (Credit: Credit: Enrique Mesa Photography/Getty)

A view of the Milky Way (Credit: Enrique Mesa Photography/Getty)

First, he said, its position 100km off the coast of northern Africa means it is close to the equator, so you can see stars from both the northern and southern hemispheres – but in a temperate climate with placid weather patterns uncommon in the tropics.

Second, it’s very dark here, something that’s aided by an island-wide agreement to keep it that way, meaning all night-time lighting is either an orange hue (which doesn’t interfere with telescopes) or pointed down, at the ground.

But thirdly, and most importantly, is the wind. “Our trade winds are created by a high pressure system in the Azores, and travel more than 2,000km over the sea. When it hits our north shore, it’s crystal clear,” he said, noting that these smooth and slow winds creates an atmosphere where the stars are especially clear from the ground, both through a telescope and to the naked eye. “Here, we have the lowest turbulence on the planet.”

Where land and clouds collide (Credit: Credit: Tim Johnson)

Where land and clouds collide (Credit: Tim Johnson)

And all this is justly recognised: in 2012, La Palma became the world’s first Unesco recognised Starlight Reserve. The island is also home to one of the most important observatories on the planet: a place that houses 16 massive telescopes – including the largest one in the world.

It’s only recently that visitors have been able to partake in these excellent stargazing opportunities. For years, the observatory was a closed research facility, except for a handful of open days that attracted thousands of curious people. But with the observatory normalizing regular visits in 2013, the infrastructure – including a recent increase in guided starlight tours – is now in place for earthbound visitors to touch distant galaxies.

Down on terra firma, I was shown around the island by Sheila Crosby, an affable Englishwoman with a touch of the mad scientist, who worked at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos for years as a software engineer. She’s also a certified starlight guide, and as she drove us somewhat erratically up and down La Palma’s winding roads, she started to explain the connections between land and sky, geology and astronomy – and how the island’s unique structure has created a number of Earth-bound wonders: for one, a cloud waterfall.

Above the clouds (Credit: Credit: Tim Johnson)

Above the clouds (Credit: Tim Johnson)

Screeching to a halt, I slowly relinquished my white-knuckle grip on the door handle as she pointed to a high, green ridge. Climbing out of the car, I saw it: a flowing mane of white clouds, slowly but surely cresting the top and tumbling toward us like a huge and fluffy waterfall. Crosby explained that clouds build up on the east side of the ridge until they burst over the edge, creating this strange and beautiful sight.

The cloud waterfall is caused by those same, star-perfect Atlantic trade winds hitting the tall, steep island. If this island was located anywhere else, and if it wasn’t a massive volcano, the cloud waterfall, the microclimates, the clear sky – none of it would exist.

Crosby added that La Palma’s volcanic soil is preternaturally rich, which, when paired with the island’s long growing season and abundance of microclimates, makes it an excellent place to eat and drink.

“We create about 40 different wines, and there’s nothing that won’t grow somewhere on this island,” Crosby said. “I often go to the farmer’s market and get a stalk of broccoli or some avocadoes, and the dew’s still on them. It’s that fresh.”

We toured around the island, visiting a banana plantation, strolling around the blackened remains of the San Antonio Volcano, and hiking to the edge of the Taburiente Caldera(the site of the blast that created this island), before heading to our final destination: the observatory. We drove higher and higher, my hand again braced against the door, as the lush coastal vegetation gave way to spindly trees. As we emerged above the tree line, on the high side of the Taburiente Caldera, near the volcano’s 2,396m summit, an otherworldly place revealed itself. All around us, strung along the highest reaches of the mountain, robotic, gamma-ray and reflecting telescopes sat ready to photograph the furthest reaches of the universe, a surreal, almost eerie sight in this treeless place.

Entering the observatory’s main base – a low-slung building that provides unglamorous but necessary facilities to researchers, including bunk beds and a cafeteria – Crosby introduced me to the site administrator, Juan Carlos Perez Arencibia, who quickly and eloquently expounded on what makes the observatory so special.

“Here, you can touch what the astronomers do,” he said, noting that researchers and anyone involved – or even interested – in star science uses the work produced here. “It’s not like reading it in a book. You go inside the telescopes that provide images for the whole world.”

Roque de los Muchachos (Credit: Credit: Kai Stockrahm Photography/Getty)

Roque de los Muchachos (Credit: Kai Stockrahm Photography/Getty)

And that’s exactly what we did. Donning hard hats, we walked up, under the 500-ton dome that houses the massive Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC), the world’s largest single-aperture telescope. I learned that the GTC is essentially one giant mirror with 36 separate panes, and felt a small spike of adrenaline as the telescope was readied to scan vast swathes of the night sky. The silvery dome – which looked like something out of Star Wars – spun slowly, a pane opening to let starlight in. Then, I felt a small rumble as the 385-ton platform that holds the scope – itself suspended on a ring of oil – swung into place.

Knowing he would soon be too busy to talk to me, I headed downstairs to chat with the chief astronomer, Gianluca Lombardi, who directs the operation as the telescope photographs the night sky. I asked him his favourite thing about the GTC, and sitting here, on this mountaintop in the middle of the ocean.

“Here, when you see the Milky Way above you, that kind of happiness, it reminds me of why I became an astronomer,” he said.

The next night, I operated my own small, simple telescope while stargazing with Nunez on the flanks of that grand volcano. But while mine didn’t have 36 panes or weigh hundreds of tons, it nonetheless revealed a stunning sky, bursting with light and revealing mysteries. I saw Venus, Jupiter and Saturn, complete with its icy rings. I saw the dark side of the world, as well as the crab nebula and the horsehead nebula, interstellar clouds of dust and gas often created by the explosion of short-lived stars. And – as Lombardi had told me – I felt amazingly, inexplicably, wonderfully happy.

The empire the world forgot

Ruled by a dizzying array of kingdoms and empires over the centuries, the former regional power of Ani is now an eerie, abandoned city of ghosts.

Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

An abandoned city of ghosts
Ruled by a dizzying array of kingdoms and empires over the centuries – from the Byzantines to the Ottomans – the city of Ani once housed many thousands of people, becoming a cultural hub and regional power under the medieval Bagratid Armenian dynasty. Today, it’s an eerie, abandoned city of ghosts that stands alone on a plateau in the remote highlands of northeast Turkey, 45km away from the Turkish border city of Kars. As you walk among the many ruins, left to deteriorate for over 90 years, the only sound is the wind howling through a ravine that marks the border between Turkey and Armenia.

Ani’s city walls

(Credit: Linda Caldwell/Alamy)

The toll of many rulers
Visitors who pass through Ani’s city walls are greeted with a panoramic view of ruins that span three centuries and five empires – including the Bagratid Armenians, Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Georgians and Ottomans. The Ani plateau was ceded to Russia once the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War. After the outbreak of World War I, the Ottomans fought to take back northeast Anatolia, and although they recaptured Ani and the surrounding area, the region was given to the newly formed Republic of Armenia. The site changed hands for the last time after the nascent Turkish Republic captured it during the 1920 eastern offensive in the Turkish War of Independence.

Ancient bridge over the Akhurian River

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

A hotly contested territory
The ruins of an ancient bridge over the Akhurian River, which winds its way at the bottom of the ravine to create a natural border, are fitting given the vexed state of Turkish-Armenian relations. The two countries have long disagreed over the mass killings of Armenians that took place under the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and Turkey officially closed its land border with Armenia in 1993 in response to a territorial conflict between Armenia and Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan.

Ruins of Ani

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

A bid to save the ruins
Although the focus on Turkish-Armenian tension preoccupies most discussion of Ani, there’s an ongoing effort by archaeologists and activists to save the ruins, which have been abandoned in favour of more accessible and less historically contested sites from classical antiquity. Historians have long argued for Ani’s importance as a forgotten medieval nexus, and as a result, Ani is now on a tentative list for recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site. With some luck and careful restoration work, which has begun in 2011, they may be able to forestall the hands of time.

Exterior wall of The Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

‘The City of 1,001 Churches’
At its height during the 11th Century, scholars estimate that Ani’s population reached as high as 100,000 people. Artistic renderings based on the site’s archaeological findings show a bustling medieval centre crowded with myriad homes, artisanal workshops and impressive churches scattered throughout.

Known as “The City of 1,001 Churches”, Ani’s Armenian rulers and city merchants funded an extraordinary number of places of worship, all designed by the greatest architectural and artistic minds in their milieu. Although the nickname was hyperbole, archaeologists have discovered evidence of at least 40 churches, chapels and mausoleums to date.

Cathedral of Ani

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

An imposing cathedral
A rust-coloured brick redoubt, the Cathedral of Ani looms over the now-abandoned city. Although its dome collapsed in an earthquake in 1319 – and, centuries later, another earthquake destroyed its northwest corner – it is still imposing in scale. It was completed in 1001 under the reign of Armenian King Gagik I, when the wealth and population of Ani was at its peak. Trdat, the renowned Armenian architect who designed it, also served the Byzantines by helping them repair the dome of the Hagia Sophia.

Ani's Church of the Redeemer

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

Half of a church
Only one half of the Church of the Redeemer remains – a monument to both the artistic prowess of the Armenian Bagratid Dynasty and the inevitability of time. Propped up by extensive scaffolding now, the church was an impressive architectural feat when it was built. It featured 19 archways and a dome, all made from local reddish-brown volcanic basalt.

The church also housed a fragment of the True Cross, upon which Jesus was crucified. The church’s patron, Prince Ablgharib Pahlavid, reportedly obtained the relic during a visit to the Byzantine court at Constantinople.

Church of St Gregory of the Abughamrents

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

A church fit for a prince
Built sometime in the late 10th Century, the Church of St Gregory of the Abughamrentsis a stoic-looking, 12-sided chapel that has a dome carved with blind arcades: arches that are purely for embellishment instead of leading to a portal. In the early 1900s, a mausoleum was discovered buried under the church’s north side, likely containing the remains of the church’s patron, Prince Grigor Pahlavuni of the Bagratid Armenians, and his kin. Unfortunately, like many of the sites at Ani, the prince’s sepulchre was looted in the 1990s.

Ani’s “underground city” of caves

(Credit: Linda Caldwell/Alamy)

The remnants of an underground city
Opposite the Church of St Gregory of the Abughamrentsare a series of caves dug out of the rock, which some historians speculate may predate Ani. The caves are sometimes described as Ani’s “underground city” and signs point to their use as tombs and churches. In the early 20th Century, some of these caves were still used as dwellings.

Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents arch

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

A church that keeps watch
The Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents stands vigilant over the ravine that separates Turkey and Armenia. Commissioned by a wealthy merchant and built in 1215, it was constructed when the then-controlling Kingdom of Georgia granted Ani as a fiefdom to a bloodline of Armenian rulers, the Zakarians. During the winter, the lonely church makes for a striking sight against the endless, snow-covered Armenian steppe in the distance.

Frescoes in the Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

Frescoes cover the walls
The Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents is one of Ani’s best preserved buildings, adorned with remnants of paintings depicting scenes from the life of Christ and St Gregory the Illuminator. Detailed fresco cycles did not ordinarily appear in Armenian art of the era, leading scholars to believe the artists were most likely Georgian.

Ani's mosque of Manuchihr

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

An Islamic minaret still stands
The Seljuk Empire – a Turkish state in Anatolia that drove out the Byzantines and eventually gave way to the Ottoman Empire – controlled the greater area of what is today northeast Turkey and Armenia beginning in the mid-1000s. However, in 1072, the Seljuks granted control of Ani to an Islamic dynasty of Kurdish origin, the Shaddadids. The Shaddadids, in turn, left their mark on Ani with buildings like the mosque of Manuchihr, which is perched precariously on the edge of the cliff. Its minaret is still standing from when the mosque was constructed in the late 1000s; the rest of the mosque is most likely an addition from the 12th or 13th Centuries.

View from Ani's mosque of Manuchihr

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

Origins up for debate
The original purpose of the mosque of Manuchihr is debated on both the Turkish and Armenian sides. Some contend that the building once served as a palace for the Armenian Bagratid dynasty and was only later converted into a mosque. Others argue that the structure was built as a mosque from the ground up, and thus was the first Turkish mosque in Anatolia. From 1906 to 1918, the mosque served as a museum of findings from Ani’s excavation by the Russian archaeologist Nicholas Marr. Regardless of the building’s origins, the mosque’s four elegant windows display spectacular views of the river and the other side of the gorge.

Ani's once formidable city walls

(Credit: Joseph Flaherty)

Five days in Russia’s Ring of Fire

After being all but off limits, Russia’s strictly protected Kronotsky Zapovednik opens to travellers, revealing 650kg bears and the world’s second-largest gathering of geysers.

We had left the brown bears below us in the Valley of the Geysers, where they ambled among purple orchids, emerald grasses and the second-largest gathering of geysers on Earth.

Now, our small group of trekkers ascended through meadows gilded with golden rhododendron. We drank from snowfield streams. Spectacular volcanoes loomed ahead, part of the great arc of volcanic and seismic activity known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. We were trekking the highlands of Russia’sKronotsky Zapovednik, diadem of the world’s largest system of strictly protected nature reserves.

And I was one of the first foreigners permitted to go hiking here as a mere tourist.

Ever since Russian naturalists started the country’s system ofzapovedniki (strictly protected nature reserves) in 1916, these vast landscapes have been mostly inaccessible, except to scientists, rangers and students. But now, thanks to government initiatives begun in 2011, many of these reserves are opening to a limited number of travellers.

Uzon Caldera in autumn (Credit: Igor Shpilenok)

The Uzon Caldera, one of Kronotsky’s many wonderlands, in autumn. (Igor Shpilenok)

It is as if the US national park service (also, incidentally, founded in 1916) had forbidden hiking for most of a century – then decided a few travellers deserved a chance to explore theGrand Canyon or get close to Yellowstone’s Old Faithful.

When I heard, I came. Located on Russia’s 1,200km-long Kamchatka peninsula, which swings like a sabre away from Asia and toward the Americas, this nature reserve is closer to California than to Moscow. Although larger than Yellowstone, with more than 10,000sqkm of protected wilderness, Kronotsky for years has permitted only the most constrained of non-scholarly visits: after taking a helicopter flight costing 36,000 rubles, groups of tourists parade on boardwalks in small areas for under three hours. No roads go to Kronotsky.

Now, as our group of three reached the mid-point in a five-day hike, snow-crowned Kronotsky Volcano rose before us, lifting more than 3,500m from the nearby Pacific. At its base, 30 million landlocked salmon swirled in its lava-dammed lake, a buffet for hundreds of the world’s best-fed (and, weighing up to 700kg, largest) brown bears.  Kamchatka snow sheep roamed unmolested in the volcano’s heights – a privilege, since foreign hunters pay handsomely to shoot this long-horned subspecies in unprotected mountains 150km north of the sanctuary.

Where brown bears play in peace. (Igor Shpilenok) (Credit: Igor Shpilenok)

Where brown bears play in peace. (Igor Shpilenok)

But nobody hunts here. The Russian word zapovednik comes from zapoved (commandment), as in “thou shalt not harm”. The reserve’s 33-year-old director, Tikhon Shpilenok, who came here after he worked as an anti-poaching ranger at another zapovednik, happily cited Russian law that permits only “educational tourism” in Russia’s 102 zapovedniki.

Kronotsky’s great educators are its long-time rangers, who escort trekkers in this almost-untracked land. My guardian ranger, Evgeny Vlasov, strode ahead of our small group, making himself visible in order to alert bears. For safety, Vlasov packed his shotgun shells with handmade rubber bullets – designed to stun but not harm a bear – that he carved from flexible gaskets, castoffs from a nuclear submarine base. Until 1991 and the easing of Cold War tension, the Kamchatka peninsula was so militarised that Russia prohibited all travel here by foreigners.

I had first met Vlasov 12km west of here, when a helicopter dropped me near his ranger cabin in Uzon Caldera, one of Kronotsky’s botanical and geological wonderlands. From our first steps, he started teaching. The roots of the garnet-red Kamchatka lilies were savoured by his ancestors, Itelmen natives living here for millennia before Russians arrived in the late 1600s. And what looked like milk-white morning glories undulating in hot springs actually were swirls of heat-happy bacteria – among the many living “extremophiles” that draw scientists from around the world, probing for clues to early life’s evolution.

The steaming flats of the Uzon Caldera (Credit: Igor Shpilenok)

The steaming flats of the Uzon Caldera. (Igor Shpilenok)

Vlasov’s polished-wood staff, which he extended often to help me leap across streams, was whittled from the stone birch trees that abound in the caldera, creating what looked like white-washed groves for hobbits. (When 1970s Soviet filmmakers created their version of an escapist journey to a Russian Shangri-La, Sannikov Land, they filmed here). As my legs began fading in the tenth hour of our first full day of backpacking – climbing out of one caldera, tracing a tufa-banked river and then descending into a gorge – the leaves that Vlasov shoved in my mouth were Itelmen favourites for fixing low testosterone. Or something. Specifics aside, the uplift got me to our next cabin ahead of darkness and bears, though Vlasov had to fire his shotgun skyward when he surprised a mother and two cubs on our trail near nightfall. All three vaulted upslope and away.

Now in the highlands with Kronotsky Volcano slipping out of sight, our hiking destination came into view: a ranger-patrol cabin that Vlasov built in 1985. Above it hulked a black-crested volcano called Savich. Born in an eruption near 700AD (making it roughly one-tenth the age of Kronotsky) and still fuming, Savich rides a blob of upwelling magma. Pressing up from about 8km beneath our feet, the blob drives superheated water through underground channels to create the Valley of the Geysers’ frothing fountains and bubbling mudpots.

Kronotsky steam bath for bears (Credit: Igor Shpilenok)

A steam bath for bears. (Igor Shpilenok)

From the ranger-patrol cabin we looked down into another of the magma blob’s creations: a diabolic cousin to the green geyser valley, discovered only in 1975 when it received the name Death Valley. On windless days, its gases – laced with hydrogen sulphide and cyanide – settle near ground level and kill. Its victims have included foxes, bears and even yellow-beaked Steller’s sea eagles on the rare occasion they stray from the fine fishing along the zapovednik’s Pacific shoreline, less than 20km southeast of us.

Today, though, brought blue-sky breeziness with good odds for safety. Vlasov led us down slope, across sands of sulphur green and chrome yellow, into Kamchatka’s vivid vale of death. We reached a lone set of human boot prints. I thought of Robinson Crusoe. “Slava”, said Vlasov, speaking of a ranger who walked here from the geyser valley on routine patrol.

Beside a stream flowing over olive-green cobbles, Vlasov zipped to the top of a peaked boulder, raising his birch staff in mock-alpinist triumph. I bent low to photograph the olive stream – a mistake. My head reeled. Wooziness, rangers say, signals the onset of deadliness.

Death Valley and Kikhpinich Volcano (Credit: Igor Shpilenok)

Death Valley, where gases can kill. (Igor Shpilenok)

Vlasov, however, was already leading us out of our toxic gorge. “I survived Russia’s Death Valley” stuck briefly as a bumper-sticker on my mind. Stretching out on a ridge to enjoy the breezes blowing through bellflowers and heathers, we gazed at the well-defended wilderness surrounding us.

The wilds, and wild bears, of Kronotsky (Credit: Igor Shpilenok)

The wilds, and wild bears, of Kronotsky. (Igor Shpilenok)

Protecting Russia’s wilds
For decades Russia’s system of zapovedniki has provided the world’s highest level of nature preservation (called category 1a by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) to the largest land area within one nation. Nature protection for zapovedniki is stricter than for the world’s national parks, some of which, like Yellowstone, have paved hundreds of kilometers of roads and permitted development of grand hotels within their boundaries. It also is stricter than for designated “wilderness areas” – like Alaska’s Denali Wilderness, home to North America’s highest peak and, at 8,600sqkm, almost as large as Kronotsky – which place few limits on hiking.

To Vlasov, Russia’s history of nature protection began long before 1916. As we dined on ranger-concocted potato soup and fish paste bruschetta, he reminded us that his Itelmen ancestors reputedly had begun preserving off-limits forests and no-hunting regions before the first Russians came here in the 1600s.

The colourful (and well-conserved) banks of the Geyser River (Credit: Igor Shpilenok)

The colourful (and well-conserved) banks of the Geyser River. (Igor Shpilenok)

Today, the zapovednik system is a source of Russian pride. Just five days before my arrival in July 2012, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had helicoptered into the geyser valley and then shared some photos of his trip on Facebook. He got more than 3,800 “likes” for a misty snap of an iconic array of geysers, rising up a multi-toned valley wall known as “Stained Glass”, tinted with reds, yellows, greens and blues by a mix of soils and plants. Medvedev’s geyser junket followed a 2010 visit of then prime-minister and now president Vladimir Putin. Each leader, after visiting, announced support for expanding the zapovednik system by 11 new reserves from 2010 to 2020.

Prime Minister Medvedev did not stay overnight; most visitors cannot. Although Kronotsky is opening to a few hikers, its scientists have set limits on how many walkers may travel a route, in order to assure that soils remain undamaged and animals unharried.

Kronotsky’s typical tourist, often dressed in Moscow-style street clothes, steps off a helicopter for about two hours of walking on boardwalks built by Vlasov and his ranger colleagues to protect both fragile plants and feet vulnerable to steam-searing on magma-heated earth. Even these visitors, however, are scarce: fewer than 4,000 short-stay heli-tourists visited Kronotsky in 2012, paltry in comparison to the nearly three million who visit Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. Tourists allowed to overnight in Kronotsky, as I did, totalled 23.

Sticking to the safety of Kronotsky's boardwalks (Credit: Igor Shpilenok)

Sticking to the safety of Kronotsky’s boardwalks. (Igor Shpilenok)

Bear-chasing and geyser-gazing
For my last zapovednik evening, another ranger, Kolya Solovev, invited our half-a-dozen-strong geyser valley community to his cabin to dine on smoked salmon and watch a slideshow of polar bear and musk oxen, whose company Solovev enjoyed the year before when rangering at the Arctic zapovednik that protects all of Wrangel Island.

First though, Solovev had to deal with a young bear, about 2m tall with handsome claws, that the rangers had started calling “Freddy Krueger” in homage to the razor-clawed slasher from the horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street. Our Freddy had begun snuffling close behind groups of heli-tourists, perhaps smelling snack food. Rangers worried that Freddy might inadvertently hurt someone, reminding us all that even a slight increase in tourism can change wild animals’ behaviour – and giving reason to limit tourism’s reach in any zapovednik.

Freddy had ambled onto a helipad from which the day’s last visitors had just flown, so Solovev loaded a shotgun with his preferred ammunition for bear safety: flare cartridges, designed only to scare. As Freddy veered toward a visitor centre, Solovev fired. Red flare-balls flew. Freddy scooted for the birches.

With peace restored to the valley, Solovev suggested a stroll before dinner. We followed the Geyser River toward the vaulting spouts and red-yellow soils of the great Stained Glass geysers. Earlier among heli-tourists I had jostled toward Stained Glass – a mixed pleasure, like glimpsing shards of theRose Window of Chartres amid tour bus travellers.

Now with Solovev, his shotgun slung over his charcoal black t-shirt, we left the heli-tour boardwalk, wandered the river’s gravel shore and sat on brick-red rocks at a pulsing spring called Malachite Grotto. Against a deepening blue sky, geysers puffed white.

Stained Glass and geysers (Credit: Igor Shpilenok)

Stained Glass and geysers. (Igor Shpilenok)

One little puffer called Bastion, launching out of a 3m grey cone, spurted onto a grassy verge. Double Geyser, just up river, flipped crisp blips of water that slithered downhill on a brick-red dome whose colours recalled the ruddy top of theDuomo in Florence. Another dozen geysers and hot springs played around us. Up ahead was Averyev, a geyser I had been looking forward to see. It was named for a Russian volcanologist who battled in the 1960s to keep this valley preserved, after years when Soviet administrations in Moscow had tried to strip protection from many zapovedniki. Closer to us, Fountain Geyser blew, launching Stained Glass’s largest tower of whitewater 10m into the air.

Beneath Stained Glass, we sat before the globe’s greatest natural calliope – a steam-powered organ driven by the earth’s heat – each blowhole piping its own pitch in our now-private sanctuary. As rangers kept telling me, geyser beauty gets greater after the last helicopter leaves and evening light turns slant.

Velikan (Giant) Geyser, the biggest in the valley (Credit: Igor Shpilenok)

Velikan (Giant) Geyser, the biggest in the valley. (Igor Shpilenok)

Looking along the sights of his shotgun, Solovev took casual aim across the Geyser River, as if he had something to defend. And of course he did: one of the long-hidden glories of the globe, accessible now to small numbers of hikers – so long as they abide by a crucial zapoved, “thou shalt not harm”.

The nicest people in the world?

Life is hard enough, with plenty of jagged edges and pointy bits. Why not coat it with a glaze of politeness and humility?

Every August my family embarks on that great American ritual: the road trip. And we always head north. Canada may not be the most exotic of destinations, but sometimes, exotic is overrated. Canada tempts us with familiarity, blissfully cool weather and, most of all, a deep reservoir of niceness.

We experience Canadian nice as soon as we reach customs. The US border guards are gruff and all business. The Canadians, by contrast, are unfailingly polite, even as they grill us about the number of wine bottles we’re bringing into the country. One year, we had failed to notice that our 9-year-old daughter’s passport had expired. They, nicely, let us enter anyway. The niceness continues for our entire trip, as we encounter nice waiters, nice hotel clerks, nice strangers.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police on Canada Day (Credit: Credit: George Rose/Getty)

Royal Canadian Mounted Police celebrating Canada Day. (Credit: George Rose/Getty)

Canadian niceness is pure, and untainted by the passive-aggressive undertones found in American niceness (have a good day, or else!). It’s also abundant. Canada is to niceness as Saudi Arabia is to oil. It’s awash in the stuff, and it’s about time, I say, the rest of the world imported some. (France, Russia and the UK topped one recent list of rude countriesas perceived by travellers.) Researchers have yet to analyse Canadian niceness empirically, but studies have found that Canadians, perhaps in an effort not to offend, use an overabundance of “hedge words”, such as “could be” and “not bad”. Then there is the most coveted of Canadian words:  “sorry”. Canadians will apologize for anything and to anything.

“I’ve apologized to a tree that I walked into,” confessed Michael Valpy, a journalist and author, noting that many of his fellow citizens have done the same.

Scenic Vancouver, Canada (Credit: Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty)

Scenic Vancouver, Canada. (Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty)

Traffic in Toronto and Montreal may be awful, but “you almost never hear a horn, even in the most frustrating traffic jams”, said Jeffrey Dvorkin, a Canadian journalism professor at the University of Toronto. Horn-honking is regarded as unnecessarily aggressive. And murder rates in Canada are low, he said, partly because “it’s quite rude to murder someone”.

The Canadian press is rife with examples of niceness in action. For instance, the National Post reported that in Edmonton, a law student, Derek Murray, left his headlights on all day. When he returned to his car, he found the battery drained and a note on his windshield. “I noticed you left your lights on,” it read. “The battery will probably not have enough charge to start your vehicle. I left a blue extension cord on the fence and … a battery charger beside the fence in the cardboard box.” The note went on to explain exactly how to jump-start the vehicle. “Good luck,” it added. In Ontario, a thief returned the goods he or she stole with $50 attached to a letter of apology. “I can’t put it into words how sorry I am,” the thief explained. “Please find it in your hearts to forgive the stranger who harmed you.”

Kevin Vickers honoured in Parliament in October 2014 (Credit: Credit: Jason Ransom/PMO/Getty)

Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers honoured in Parliament in October 2014. (Credit: Jason Ransom/PMO/Getty)

Canadians aren’t only polite; they’re incredibly humble too, and reluctant to take credit for even plainly heroic acts. When a gunman attacked the Canadian parliament building in October 2014, Kevin Vickers, Canada’s sergeant-at-arms, responded quickly and calmly by shooting the assailant with the handgun he keeps in his office.And while Vickers was glorified in the Canadian media, it was his humility, not his marksmanship or bravado, that was celebrated. (Canadians take great pride in their humility, an oxymoron that bothers no one.)

What explains this blizzard of humility and politeness? Taras Grescoe, a Montreal-based writer, believes Canadian niceness is born of necessity. “We’re a small group of people, spread across the second-largest national territory in the world,” he said. “We’ve always known that, in order to survive – or just stay sane – we had to watch out for one another. The old lady down the street, the teenager at the bus stop who forgot to bring a scarf when it’s 5 below. Hence our general willingness to proffer assistance rather than aggression.”

Another explanation for Canadian niceness stems from the “fragment theory”. First posited by the US scholar Louis Hartz, the theory states that colonial societies such as the United States and Canada began as “fragments” of the European nations they were escaping from. These new nations remain, in effect, frozen in time. Thus, Canada retains a conservative, Tory streak – that is, with a more deferential, “nicer” nature than the one embraced by the feisty US founding fathers.

Not everyone believes this is a good thing. Valpy sees Canadian niceness as a defence mechanism, one that “stems from inferiority and an awkward awareness that our clothes don’t fit properly and we always have bad haircuts and really don’t do anything great.”

Canadian athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympics (Credit: Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty)

Canadian athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympics. (Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty)

Also, in the land of nice, problems sometimes fester because everyone is too nice to say anything. Manjushree Thapa, a writer who recently moved to Canada from Nepal, recalls sitting in a movie theatre when the screen grew dimmer and dimmer as the projection bulb slowly burned out. The screen was almost black but no one spoke up. Exasperated, she finally prodded her Canadian partner to alert the management, which he did, reluctantly. “Niceness can silence people here,” she said.

Overall, though, she’ll take nice any day. And so will I. Life is hard enough, with plenty of jagged edges and pointy bits. Why not coat it with a glaze of politeness and humility? Politeness, at its best, is a way of honouring others, especially strangers. Politeness is the lubricant that makes social interactions run smoothly and reduces the risk of conflagrations. The world, I think, would be a better place if we were all a bit more Canadian.

Fortunately, Canadian niceness is contagious. On my annual northern migration, I find myself slowing down, saying “thank you” and “please” more often that I usually do. Maybe I go too far and cross the line from polite to unctuous. If I do, I can only say, in true Canadian fashion, I’m sorry.

‘I was hoping he wasn’t a lunatic’

Deep in the wilds of Jordan’s desert, the generosity of a stranger offered a curious group of backpackers the adventure of a lifetime.

A bright pink 4×4 came barrelling across the desert, dust spiralling into the sky. As it skidded to a halt in front of me, I could feel the eyes of my friends boring into the back of my skull. We were about to head into the wilds of Jordan with a stranger I’d met on Couchsurfing.

“Come and stay with me, bring your friends,” Ghassab had written, offering to put us up in a rock-cut cave his family had owned for centuries. “It will be one of the best adventures of your life.” As our Bedouin host stepped out of the car and strolled towards us with a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his lips, I was merely hoping that he wasn’t a lunatic.

Barreling across the desert in style (Credit: Credit: Will Jehring)

Barreling across the desert in style (Credit: Will Jehring)

Ghassab was striking. His waist-length dreadlocks bounced in the sun. Colourful beads and amulets – gifts from previous Couchsurfers – hung from his chest. As he smiled, a flash of white spread across his tanned face.

“Why are you here?” he asked.

“I want to see your goats,” I said.

It was the right answer.

There’s more to Jordan’s desert than Petra
We shook hands and piled into the back seat. With a worrying crunch of the gearbox, we took off, speeding across the desert. We jolted along a potholed road through the small town of Wadi Musa, which clings to the outside of Nabataea, one of Jordan’s most striking national parks and home to the ancient city of Petra. We passed a lone camel and its rider. Tantalising ruins and carved facades called to us but we did not stop; Ghassab drove deeper into the desert.

He chatted as we bumped along, telling us about his family, goats, two wildcat kittens he had rescued from the merciless sun, and his great love for Bob Marley. Ghassab was a Rastafarian Bedouin, perhaps the only one in the world.

'Come and stay with me, bring your friends,' Ghassab had written (Credit: Credit: Will Jehring)

‘Come and stay with me, bring your friends,’ Ghassab had written (Credit: Will Jehring)

We crossed a dry riverbed, rambled past towering rock formations and followed an ever-fainter track as we chased the sun across the horizon. Without warning, Ghassab made a sharp turn and we left the trail altogether, driving at full speed towards a huge pinnacle of rock that scratched at the sky. He stopped the 4×4, and as the dust began to settle, silence swallowed us.

“I am very happy you have come; welcome to my cave.”

I looked around. A small tent, battered and much repaired, lent against a bronzed boulder. An enclosure made from stacked stones and topped with a tarpaulin sat sizzling in the sun. I could hear the shuffling and faint bleating of Ghassab’s prized goats. The heat was unbearable.

A warm welcome inside an ancient cave
Ghassab strolled over from the other side of the vehicle. He seemed excited. “I am very happy you have come; welcome to my cave,” he said while pointing. About 50m away was a large lump of rock about 8m high where we would be laying our heads for the night. I could make out stairs, a gaping entrance and a fire pit with something shiny, perhaps a pan, glistening in the sun.

Ghassab looked at us and then up at the dropping sun. “There is no time to lose, we must gather firewood,” he commanded. He handed over a sledgehammer and an iron spike, and my friends and I followed him into the mountains. We scrambled and climbed, inching past precarious drops and sliding down rocky gullies. There was little sign of vegetation, and I doubted anything could grow here among the spirals of red desert dust and mounds of jumbled boulders. “If you want to eat then we must find wood,” Ghassab reiterated in a harsher voice.

He leapt from rock to rock like a cat, and we struggled after him until we found a large log lying in the middle of a ravine, perhaps left there from a rare downpour. We pounded our iron spike into small holes cut with a penknife, and slowly but surely, split the wood and made bundles to carry back to the cave.

As we sat around our roaring fire – the flames casting shadows on the stone home – Ghassab told us how he’s lived in the desert outside Petra all of his life. He inherited the rock-cut cave from his family, all of who had moved to Wadi Musa, a government town built in 1978 to accommodate the cave dwellers who were later forced out when Petra began to attract more tourists. As Ghassab’s cave was just outside Petra, he’d been able to stay.

Feeding the fire before dinner (Credit: Credit: Will Jehring)

Feeding the fire before dinner (Credit: Will Jehring)

This cave was a place unlike any other
Darkness fell slowly. The desert faded away as night spread across the sky like a pot of spilled ink. Stars began to appear like pinpricks of light beneath an uncertain curtain of black. Our fire burnt merrily, with the remains of half a leg of goat sizzling above it, the fat dripping into open flames. Ghassab crouched nearby, the fire illuminating his hunched shoulders, his skinny frame and the deep furrows etched into his brow. He glanced at me and smiled gently. It was time for sleep.

By trusting a stranger, we’d had adventures that could never have been matched by joining a tour or staying in a hotel.

I scrambled for my head torch and set out to prep my bed before I froze to death. The winds of the night raced towards me, leaving me uncomfortable and cold. I wrapped myself in a pair of scratchy blankets and laid a lumpy mattress on the undulating rocks.

Flames flicker in the desert darkness (Credit: Credit: Will Jehring)

Flames flicker in the desert darkness (Credit: Will Jehring)

This was a place unlike any other. Nearby, the ancient ruins of Petra stood hidden in the hills, and tens of thousands of stars glistened above. By trusting a stranger, we’d had adventures that could never have been matched by joining a tour or staying in a hotel. We’d spent the day with a Rastafarian Bedouin and I was now sleeping atop a rock-cut cave, looking up at the most stunning skies in the world.

Vietnam’s prison-island paradise

Despite being a quick 45-minute turboprop flight from Ho Chi Minh City, Con Son is a world away from Vietnam’s well-beaten tourist trail, with inexplicably few Western travellers.

At 5 am and 6 pm, government loudspeakers crackle to life all over Vietnam. Relics of an era before homes had televisions and radios, these public address systems – broadcasting news, propaganda and weather reports – are usually barely audible above the din of this modern nation: a mix of motorcycle engines, truck horns and construction.

But on Con Son, the news carries loud and clear over the tiny township of just 5,000 residents, two sets of traffic lights and one seaside promenade. Visiting the largest island in the Con Dao archipelago – a group of 16 mostly uninhabited picturesque islands in the South China Sea – is like stepping back in time.

Despite being a short 45-minute turboprop flight from Ho Chi Minh City, the island paradise of Con Son is a world away from Vietnam’s well-beaten tourist trail. It is a throwback that has somehow flown under the radar, escaping the overdevelopment of mainland resort towns like Nha Trang and the party beaches of Phu Quoc. There are no touts, only peaceful empty beaches, and peak season means being just one of a dozen Westerners.

It won’t stay this way forever, though. The island’s first resort, the ultra-luxe Six Senses Con Dao, opened at Dat Doc Bay on the island’s east coast in 2010, and a megaresort is currently under construction in the south. There is also talk of an Italian-backed spiritual retreat, as well as rumours about extending the airport’s runway so that bigger planes can land.

Lotus flowers in the morning market (Credit: Credit: Tom Westbrook)

Lotus flowers in the morning market (Credit: Tom Westbrook)

But for now, most of the visitors are domestic Vietnamese paying homage to the island’s dark past. Known as Southeast Asia’s Devil’s Island, Con Son was once a penal colony used to brutal and cruel effect first by French colonists and later during the Vietnam War. The French worked 914 men to death building the island’s jetty, while Vietnam War prisoners were kept in infamous “tiger cages”, where captives – actual or suspected Communists – were shackled to the floor of deep concrete pits with steel bars for a roof. The main prison walls still dominate the town as a constant reminder, and the gaols and cemeteries have become pilgrimage sites to the thousands of Vietnamese who suffered and died on the island between 1862 and 1975.

But though the horrific memories hang heavy still, modern island life is languid and laid back. Con Son’s steep green interior is fringed by warm turquoise water and coral reefs. Flame trees and bougainvillea give licks of colour to the jungle, and frangipani and magnolia trees line the wide, quiet boulevards. A single main road wraps about halfway around the island; a motorbike ride along the shoreline takes in ponds filled with lotus flowers, spectacular reddish-orange cliffs and one empty white-sand beach after another. The sea is calm, clean and perfect for swimming year-round.

The bustling marketplace will be deserted at noon for naptime (Credit: Credit: Tom Westbrook)

The bustling marketplace will be deserted at noon for naptime (Credit: Tom Westbrook)

The island’s daily routine starts at the bustling marketplace, where squid, crabs, clams, rambutans, plantains, mangos, dragonfruit and lotus flowers are piled for sale outside. Inside, young soldiers in jungle greens sit at the food stalls on low plastic chairs, gulping down breakfasts of bun rieu (crab noodle soup) or bun thit nuong (char-grilled pork with vermicelli noodles) while the morning sun floods the doorway. By 9 am, the food is sold out and by noon the market is deserted.

Then, nothing happens until 2 pm, when new afternoon stallholders will arrive, selling roast pork sandwiches, sugarcane juice and rice paper rolls. For two hours, the postmistress goes home, the market is empty, the island naps and the sun beats down on the blue sea. There is nothing to do but swim at one of several beautiful beaches: it doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll have it to yourself.

Blue paradise on the coast of Nhat Beach (Credit: Credit: Tom Westbrook)

Blue paradise on the coast of Nhat Beach (Credit: Tom Westbrook)

If this were the mainland, you might find hourly booze-cruises around the harbour. If you want to see the archipelago from Con Dao, ask around in the evening and you’ll be able to hitch a ride with a fisherman early the next day. Slowly putt-putting out of the harbour in a brightly painted blue-and-orange ramshackle boat, the fisherman will likely take you towards the bays and reefs of the tiny outer islands. A snorkel and goggles will be enough to catch a glimpse of a turtle, and the diving is renowned as some of Vietnam’s best.

As the heat of the day passes, many travellers choose to explore the island via motorbike.

At An Hai bay, 1km south of Con Son town, pearlers and fishermen moor their boats, keeping coracles –  circular bamboo vessels, waterproofed with coconut-palm resin and propelled by paddle – on the shore as dinghies. For the next 6km, climb the road along the bay until it reaches the island’s southmost tip, with views in every direction. The archipelago unfolds to the east; the harbour and Con Son town to the north; the island’s rugged and rocky interior to the west.

Hugging the cliffs, the road winds past steep-walled crystal-clear bays and culminates at the island’s jewel – the wide flats of Nhat Beach. Here mountains give way to an expanse of deserted white sand that runs hundreds of metres from shore at low tide, with the warm water waist-deep for hundred of metres more. Stay until twilight when the horizon twinkles with the lights of container ships plying the busy South China Sea.

The heat of the day sets behind Nhat Beach (Credit: Credit: Tom Westbrook)

The heat of the day sets behind Nhat Beach (Credit: Tom Westbrook)

Come evening, Con Son town’s seaside promenade takes its turn as the island’s social hub. The sky turns pink and barbecue carts roll up roasting corn, chicken skewers and pork. Swimmers – mostly Vietnamese tourists who shun the sand at daytime – arrive for a dusk dip. The waterfront swells with people.

Across the road from the beach, colonial French villas crumble in various stages of disrepair; their jungled gardens slowly taking over. French composer Camille Saint-Saens stayed in one while he finished work on his opera Brunhilda in 1895; today, that same building is the popular Con Son cafe, which provides only the essentials: beer, ice cream and Vietnamese coffee.

Dusk falls on Con Son's seaside promenade (Credit: Credit: Tom Westbrook)

Dusk falls on Con Son’s seaside promenade (Credit: Tom Westbrook)

By night, a different market opens on Tran Huy Lieu, two blocks to the east. Half the street is taken over with chairs and metal foldout tables; beer flows as roadside stalls barbecue shellfish, calamari and the rest of the day’s catch. It is a delicious way to end the day – with only the nagging thought that the return flight back to the mainland is all too soon.

Seven places that hardly seem real

These seven dreamy destinations make you feel like you’ve stepped straight into a magical fairy tale world.

Where to go to escape the stresses of life, the bustle of the workweek and the noise of traffic? To find out, we turned to question-and-answer site Quora, where users have been sharing their opinions on real places that look plucked from a fairy tale.

From an enchanting Alpine palace in Germany that rivals Cinderella’s castle to a postcard-perfect English landscape that inspired Beatrix Potter and JRR Tolkien – these seven dreamy destinations are so magical, it’s hard to believe they’re real.

A giant patchwork quilt of kaleidoscopic colour
Holland’s stunning tulip fields, with their broad stripes of vibrant blues, reds, pinks and yellows, “look like the artwork in a children’s book”, wrote Quora user Rahul Shankar. He added that this coastal region of the Netherlands “strangely reminded [him] of the Wizard of Oz”.

Holland's tulip fields are reminiscent of the Yellow Brick Road (Credit: Credit: JacobH/istock)

Holland’s tulip fields are reminiscent of the Yellow Brick Road (Credit: JacobH/istock)

It’s a modern pastime to circle the flower farms on foot, bike or via caravan, and the tulips have a rich, storied history. The flowers were imported into Holland in the 16th Century and peaked in popularity in the 17th Century – during the Dutch Golden Age – when they grew so coveted they created the world’s first economic bubble: “Tulip Mania”.

The most popular fields are located in western Holland between the cities of Leiden and Den Helder. Others are situated near the city of Enkhuizen and in the nearby province of Flevoland.

The Holland tulip fields turn into a patchwork quilt from above (Credit: Credit: Hollandluchtfoto/Getty)

The Holland tulip fields turn into a patchwork quilt from above (Credit: Hollandluchtfoto/Getty)

More than three billion tulips are grown in Holland each year, attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year. Tulip season spans from March until August, giving travellers plenty of time to view the vibrant display.

A fantastical figment of Gaudi’s otherworldly imagination
With its intricate symbolic sculptures, monumental medallion-capped spires and wildly imaginative carved facades, theSagrada Familia rises from Barcelona’s urban setting like an elaborate Gothic castle ripe with stories, spirits and secrets.

The Gothic masterpiece is still under construction in Barcelona (Credit: Credit: Gustavo's Photos/Getty)

The Gothic masterpiece is still under construction in Barcelona (Credit: Gustavo’s Photos/Getty)

Designed by one of Spain’s most famed architects, Antoni Gaudi, the history of this Roman Catholic church and Unesco World Heritage Site is a legend in itself. Construction began in 1882, but less than a quarter of the project was complete when Gaudi died in 1926. Since then, work has progressed slowly, disrupted by the Spanish Civil War, a fire and a series of contentious controversies. The happy ending? Architects plan to complete the project in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death.

Barcelona’s most popular tourist site attracts three million visitors annually, and for good reason: it’s a dizzyingly elaborate masterpiece unlike anything else in the world. Which is why, according to Aditya Pandya, it has put Barcelona on the map.

Elaborate carvings adorn the massive Sagrada Familia (Credit: Credit: Cristinatrif/iStock)

Elaborate carvings adorn the massive Sagrada Familia (Credit: Cristinatrif/iStock)

“Anyone who is familiar with Gaudí’s work would appreciate his brazen and imaginative designs that left a lasting impression on Barcelona as a city,” Pandya wrote. “Gaudí’s phenomenal work between the late 1880s and 1920s is largely responsible for the city’s vibrant personality and in being recognised as the cultural capital of Spain.”

A setting that could steal the spotlight from any storybook hero
With its postcard-perfect valleys surrounded by glittering lakes, burbling brooks, rolling hills and craggy peaks, the Lake District in England’s northwest is quite literally taken out of fairy tales.

Sweeping views over England's lush Lake District (Credit: Credit: Anna Stowe Landscapes UK/Alamy)

Sweeping views over England’s lush Lake District (Credit: Anna Stowe Landscapes UK/Alamy)

“This place was JRR Tolkien’s inspiration for the Shire, Beatrix Potter’s inspiration for Peter Rabbit and eponymous residence of the Lake Poets, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey,” Jeff Chau wrote.

Each year, 16 million visitors come to the 2,292sqkm Cumbrian national park for its lake cruises, mountain hikes and awe-inspiring sightseeing. For city-dwellers especially, it can seem like stepping into a storybook realm of undulating fells, whitewashed cottages and stonewalled fields where ponies roam.

Bright skies reflect off of Buttermere Lake in Cumbria (Credit: Credit: JPagetRMphotos/Alamy)

Bright skies reflect off of Buttermere Lake in Cumbria (Credit: JPagetRMphotos/Alamy)

One of nature’s most magical optical illusions
Once upon a time in the faraway land of the Faroe Islands, glittering Lake Sørvágsvatn (also known as Lake Leitisvatn) became known as the most striking of all of the islands’ lakes.

At more than 6km long, it is the biggest in the Faroe Islands. And as the star of a clever optical illusion, the lake appears as if it’s resting hundreds of metres above the sea, with the ocean churning beneath its placid waters.

The Faroe Islands' Lake Sørvágsvatn, or Leitisvatn, tricks the eye (Credit: Credit: Jan Egil Kristiansen)

The Faroe Islands’ Lake Sørvágsvatn, or Leitisvatn, tricks the eye (Credit: Jan Egil Kristiansen)

But nature can be deceiving, explained Aneesh Wairagade. In reality, Lake Sørvágsvatn is actually no more than about 30m above sea level. A steep cliff in front of the lake and a clever camera angle make the lake appear to be much higher than it really is.

Visit the 18 rocky, volcanic islands connected by tunnels, ferries, causeways and bridges, and view Mother Nature’s oddest optical illusion on the island of Vagar. The islands are also home to other natural attractions, such as rare birds, dramatic coastal cliffs and grassy meadows dotted with sheep.

Vagar Island is full of dramatic lakes, waterfalls and cliffs (Credit: Credit: Adam Burtn/Alamy)

Vagar Island is full of dramatic lakes, waterfalls and cliffs (Credit: Adam Burtn/Alamy)

The ultimate cliff hanger
Jutting out dramatically above the reflective waters of Lysefjord, the spectacular precipice of Preikestolen in Ryfylke, Norway, could be the setting for any mythic Hollywood epic.

Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, towers over Lysefjorden (Credit: Credit: David Robertson/Alamy)

Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, towers over Lysefjorden (Credit: David Robertson/Alamy)

Also known as Preacher’s Pulpit or Pulpit Rock because it resembles a lectern, Preikestolen is a rocky 25m by 25m rocky plateau that towers 604m above the crystal-clear waters below. According to Derek Harkness, it looks “like something from the Roadrunner cartoons”.

The steep cliff was formed during the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, when the edges of a glacier bumped up against the surrounding mountains. Water from the glacier penetrated the crevices of the mountain and froze, eventually breaking off colossal portions. Left behind was the dramatic precipice of Preikestolen.

A hiker revels on top of Preikestolen in Norway (Credit: Credit: Anton Sokolov/iStock)

A hiker revels on top of Preikestolen in Norway (Credit: Anton Sokolov/iStock)

Ice Age-era cracks in the plateau will eventually expand and fragment Pulpit Rock into a pile of rubble – but, according to geological investigations, not in the foreseeable future.

‘If I were a princess, I would want my castle to look like this’
If you don’t believe in fairy tales, you will after you set eyes onNeuschwanstein Castle. An enchanting Romanesque Revival fortress that rises majestically from the Alpine foothills of southwest Bavaria, this picture-perfect palace is rumoured to be the inspiration behind Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland and Cinderella’s Castle in Disneyworld.

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria is rumoured to have inspired Disney (Credit: Credit: Rudy Balasko/iStock)

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria is rumoured to have inspired Disney (Credit: Rudy Balasko/iStock)

Straight from the dreams of little princesses across the globe, this magical palace has everything a fairy tale castle should: a romantic setting, a glowing limestone facade, fanciful turrets and an elaborate interior featuring shining suits of armour.

“It seriously looks like Prince Charming and his lovely wife are going to step right out of the front door to greet you,” wroteDanielle Maurer. “If I were a princess, I would want my castle to look like this.”

The halls of Neuschwanstein Castle are fit for a princess (Credit: Credit: Konstantin Mironov/Alamy)

The halls of Neuschwanstein Castle are fit for a princess (Credit: Konstantin Mironov/Alamy)

In reality, the castle was originally commissioned as a personal retreat in 1869 by King Ludwig II, the reclusive ruler of Bavaria. Immediately after his death in 1886, it was opened to the public and today more than 1.3 million tourists visit each year.

A zany Alice in Wonderland creation, reflected in a fun-house mirror
“This isn’t an illustration in a fairy tale book; this is a real house,” wrote Bruce Feldman, describing Poland’s fantastically topsy-turvy Krzywy Domek, or Crooked House.

The wacky, warped Krzywy Domek (Credit: Credit: James Freeman/Alamy)

The wacky, warped Krzywy Domek (Credit: James Freeman/Alamy)

With its undulating roofline and warped windows and doors, this 4,000sqm building “was inspired by the fairy tale illustrations of [prolific children’s book illustrator] Jan Marcin Szancer and the work of artist Per Dahlberg,” Feldman explained. The vertigo-inducing building in the seaside resort town of Sopot houses a shopping centre, restaurants and a radio station, and draws thousands of tourists each year to see the modern architectural marvel for themselves.

Alice’s Australian wonderland

About 25km west of Uluru is another sacred site that rises even higher – but fewer people know about.

When you’re somewhere as remote as Australia’s outback, “over there” can mean a three-day drive to the state border. But when you’re standing in front of the region’s now famous spiritual icon, Uluru, “over there” could easily refer to the silhouette of remarkable proportions just 25km to the west.

Bigger, wider and taller than Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a spectacular collection of 36 enormous rocks. It’s also, arguably, one of Australia’s best-kept secrets, barely talked about among most Australians, let alone the world. Even today, pre-planned itineraries to Uluru rarely take in this magnificent sight.

The 36 granite and basalt conglomerate domes of Kata Tjuta (Credit: Credit: Torseten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

The 36 granite and basalt conglomerate domes of Kata Tjuta (Credit: Torseten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

“There’s a general lack of awareness in Australia about Kata Tjuta,” conceded Andrew Williams, CEO of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, which operates Ayers Rock Resort, the area’s sole resort.“You only have to look at the number of tours heading to Uluru versus the handful that visit Kata Tjuta to get an idea of demand. For many, even most Australians, it’s just not on the radar.”

In part, it’s the sheer unlikeliness of Kata Tjuta’s existence that makes this natural masterpiece so extraordinary. Like Uluru, Kata Tjuta is made of rusting rock, but the latter is a series of several domes, rather than one massif, that rise unbidden from the flat red surrounds, an oversized collection of marbles balancing on top at improbable angles. And they really are oversized. Uluru might be taller than the Eiffel Tower, but Kata Tjuta towers another 200m higher than that; it would dwarf even New York City’s Empire State Building. In Pitjantjatjara, the language of the local indigenous Anangu community, Kata Tjuta means “many heads”, and so they seem, crowded together like giant, sleepy children, their magnificent tops dusted with minuscule, feathery-golden trees.

The heads of Kata Tjuta crowd together like sleepy children (Credit: Credit: Georgia Rickard)

The heads of Kata Tjuta crowd together like sleepy children (Credit: Georgia Rickard)

The other reason for Kata Tjuta’s exceptionality is that, to the Anangu, Kata Tjuta is a place of particular cultural significance – so much so that the domes have the rare distinction of having dual World Heritage status, both for their indigenous heritage as well as for their natural beauty. And even though it is an exceptionally stunning place, the site is so sacred that almost all forms of close-up photography and videography have been banned.

The Anangu are notoriously quiet about their cultural practices and Kata Tjuta is known as a place of “men’s business”. If detailed photographs of the site were to be published, they might be seen by uninitiated young men, or by women, which would be considered highly inappropriate. So while outsiders are welcome to visit, no-one can broadcast the experience with the world. No wonder it’s still a secret.

Kata Tjuta at sunrise (Credit: Credit: Steve Swayne)

Kata Tjuta at sunrise (Credit: Steve Swayne)

It was pre-dawn when we left our hotel to make the journey to Kata Tjuta. The first stop was to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park’s sunrise dune viewing platform, from which we watched in silent awe as the outback’s lesser-known domes were seemingly lit from within with a slow rose-coloured light. Though it’s just another 18km to Kata Tjuta’s entrance, this is the closest that many visitors get to experiencing its wonders. And though it was a remarkable sight – a mountainous Morse code of dots and dashes directly in front of us, the silhouette of Uluru glimmering silently to our right – it was nothing compared to a face-to-face encounter.

Only photographs that take in the "V" of Walpa Gorge may be published (Credit: Credit: Georgia Rickard)

Only photographs that take in the “V” of Walpa Gorge may be published (Credit: Georgia Rickard)

Walking through Kata Tjuta has been compared to what a walk through Uluru might be like if you sliced the giant rock in half – and the site’s most popular walking track, a 2.6km roundtrip into Walpa Gorge, certainly felt that way. The easy stroll between two of the largest domes offered a breathtaking sense of scale, with the reward of a beautiful riverbed and small oasis of green at its end.

Even more impressive was the 8km Valley of the Winds hike, which takes you around, between and behind a dozen more domes, through a landscape seemingly not from this Earth. The day was warming up as we started walking, disturbing groups of tiny birds that lifted into mad, twittering flight above. We passed giant, popcorn-shaped pieces of ochre-coloured rock, as big as lounge-room furniture, which lay scattered like confetti on the valley floor. Corresponding holes in the fortress-like walls of the domes above told the story of their origins.

A burnt eucalypt in The Valley Of The Winds (Credit: Credit: Torseten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

A burnt eucalypt in The Valley Of The Winds is silhouetted against the ochre domes of Kata Tjuta (Credit: Torseten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

Every shade and texture of ochre, crimson, maroon, rust and slate could be found on the rock walls; the valleys between them filled with soft grey gums, shining emerald shrubs and the pale-green fuzz of spinifex. Hazy purple clouds puffed slowly through the sky above. With mobs of shy, shimmering grey euro wallaroos (similar to kangaroos, but smaller) and a semi-permanent, silvery creek completing the scene, the overall impression was of a psychedelic otherworld.

Surely, if Uluru is the Cinderella of the outback, then this is Alice’s Wonderland.

Unlike her famous sister, there is virtually no man-made imposition to be seen at Kata Tjuta: no boardwalks, no handrails, almost no signage. This makes it easier to picture how the Anangu’s lived before European settlement, even though little is known about Kata Tjuta’s place in indigenous life.

“It’s not for us to know,” confirmed Jennie Nowell, a visitor service officer at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. “But we’re talking about one of the oldest living cultures in the world, so I think we have an obligation to be mindful and respectful of their decision to share, or not share, their knowledge.”

The domes of Kata Tjuta rise 500 metres (Credit: Credit: Torseten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

The domes of Kata Tjuta rise 500 metres (Credit: Torseten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

I took a moment to look at the dove-grey tree trunks, the smoky blue shimmer of the gum leaves, the gentle, silent majesty of the domes above us.

“It’s very different to Uluru, in every aspect,” Nowell reflected. “I always tell people when they visit to just stop and take a moment to look at what’s around them – no walking, no taking photos, no moving around. It’s very special. There’s no denying that Kata Tjuta is a one off.”

The city of 60 gardens

When Shanghai residents are looking to escape, they head to this tranquil city of gardens and canals.

Life in one of the world’s most populous cities can be exhausting, which is why Shanghai residents are always looking for ways to escape the skyscrapers and traffic.

A favourite option lies just 100km to the east of the Chinese megacity – and only 30 minutes away by high-speed rail: the historic city of Suzhou.

Founded in 514 BC by King Helü of the Kingdom of Wu, Suzhou is one of the Yangtze Delta’s oldest and most prosperous cities. Its position between the Yangtze River in the north and Taihu Lake to the west meant that the city always had an abundant water supply, which fed the canals and classical gardens that Suzhou is world famous for.

The tranquil Master of the Nets Garden is a popular attraction (Credit: Credit: Rita Heine/Flickr/CC-BY-ND-2.0)

The tranquil Master of the Nets Garden is a popular attraction (Credit: Rita Heine/Flickr/CC-BY-ND-2.0)

The first gardens were built in the 6th Century BC, but at the city’s heyday (roughly from 1500 to 1700), Suzhou had more than 800 of these tranquil spots, designed by scholars to replicate the natural environment on a smaller scale. Today there are 60 left to explore, nine of which are recognised asUnesco World Heritage sites.

My first stop was the Humble Administrator’s Garden–Suzhou’s largest – located north of the historical quarter. The secluded 52,000sqm park was commissioned between 1510 and 1516 by tired political envoy and poet Wang Xiangcheng, who wanted a place to spend his retirement in peace.

From the tall entrance gates, a labyrinth of cobblestone pathways led to small pavilions scattered throughout the garden on low, rocky hills; their curved roofs providing shade for the visitors resting on wooden benches below. In the garden’s centre were a number of ponds, interconnected via narrow streams that flowed underneath charming bridges, replete with darting orange-and-silver fish.

Scenic Suzhou is an inspiration hotspot for artists (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Scenic Suzhou is an inspiration hotspot for artists (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

There must have been at least 100 admirers trying to catch the lush landscape on paper. Art students with sketchbooks and easels sat on the pavilion steps, or on large, smooth rocks by the main pond, which was barely visible under gigantic lotus leaves. It was a beautiful – though crowded – sight.

I made my way next door, to the free Suzhou Garden Museum. Inside the low Ming-style building were landscape designs made by artists hired by Suzhou’ intellectual elite during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. Over hundreds of years, a large elite class had formed here due to Suzhou’s prosperity from trade and manufacturing, making the city synonymous with high culture and elegance.

The narrow canals remind visitors of a time when Suzhou was less populous (Credit: Credit: Russ Bowling/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

The narrow canals remind visitors of a time when Suzhou was less populous (Credit: Russ Bowling/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

Back then it was believed that the unpredictable beauty of nature allowed intellectuals to think properly. This meant that having a garden was essential – and so a green space became part of every Suzhou household. While the elite competed over their elaborate garden designs, even the poorest city dweller would have planted some shrubs in his courtyard.

Chinese classical gardens are significantly different from gardens in the Western world, however. As the Chinese believe, Europeans want to conquer nature, keeping plants and bushes behind their appointed boundaries. Chinese garden designers, on the other hand, seek to find the ultimate harmony between man and the natural world.

Chinese tourists kick back in Suzhou (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Chinese tourists kick back in Suzhou (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

This means that although the bushes, plants, trees and flowers might seem to grow wildly, they are in fact meticulously planned around pavilions, ponds and bridges in order to reflect the Chinese appreciation of balance and harmony. Rocks play an especially important role in this philosophy, symbolising the bridge between humans and nature. Although stones might look scattered, their placement between the manmade pathways and the garden’s natural elements – bushes, trees and waterfalls – is highly deliberate.

To see the city in its heyday, visit Suzhou’s small historic quarter. White two-storey Ming-style houses look over tranquil canals bordered by graceful willows, and playful stone bridges and steps descend from the quays. The contrast with Shanghai’s shiny skyscrapers and intense traffic couldn’t be clearer.

Visitors can enjoy a boat ride through Suzhou's canals (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Visitors can enjoy a boat ride through Suzhou’s canals (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

At times, the main street Pingjiang lu can feel like a tourist hotspot, with vendors selling everything from Nutella waffles to brightly-coloured Chinese fans. But when I visited, there was nothing glossy about the traditional wooden boats that drifted through the canals, steered by scruffy old men who didn’t seem at all eager to take my money.

I decided to stop for a light lunch of juicy xiaolongbao at Shi Jian Huo Jian, an unpretentious restaurant on the crossing of Pingjiang lu and Baita lu. This delicious dish of small, steamed, meat-filled soup dumplings is typical to the Jiangnan area, where both Shanghai and Suzhou are situated.

Traditional soup dumplings, called xiaolongbao, are a Suzhou favourite (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Traditional soup dumplings, called xiaolongbao, are a Suzhou favourite (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

My final stop for the day was Jinji Lake, 7km to the east and one of the many lakes in the area that helps bring calm and cool air to the city.

While the lanes were narrow in the historic quarter, the landscape was here vast and open. As I followed a long, winding boulevard along the water, the only sounds were my footsteps on the wooden boardwalk and faint conversations blown from over the water. The few visitors I could see were riding the tandems and tricycles for hire on the west side of the lake. On the opposite side, the outline of a Ferris wheel loomed through the fog next to a series of high rises. Boats drifted to the manmade isles in the lake’s centre. As I strolled a little further, I heard some older ladies chatting in a thick Suzhou accent.

The water around Suzhou offers space and tranquility (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

The water around Suzhou offers space and tranquility (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

I felt myself relax and unwind. If I’d had more time, I would have gone camping at Lake Taihu in Suzhou’s southwest or visited the famous old town of Tongli in the city’s south. For now, though, I stopped and listened to the birds and the sound of the boats splashing on the water, enjoying the solitude and peace before returning to the hustle and bustle of Shanghai.

The demise of a ‘mini-Amazon’?

The controversial Nicaragua canal, dubbed the largest engineering project in history, is forcing a small, sleepy community into the spotlight.

A sleepy, isolated island community in Nicaragua, nestled at the foot of one of Central America’s most active volcanoes, faces an uncertain future. But the danger doesn’t come from the perpetual risk of geological disaster. The threat is manmade.

A view of the volcano Conception (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

A view of the volcano Conception. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Over the past decade, tourism to Isla Ometepe has grown as word of its Eden-like natural beauty has spread. But this dual volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, often dubbed a “mini-Amazon”, recently found itself at the centre of a controversial mega-engineering project: a Chinese-run, interoceanic canal that will be deeper and longer than Panama’s, ideal for giant cargo ships.

The proposed 278km route, connecting the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, will carve through Lake Nicaragua, potentially displacing the surrounding rainforest and threatening indigenous communities. The route will also bring the supertankers right past Ometepe’s Eden.

Work on the canal officially began in December 2014, sparking a wave of protests from those who are worried about losing their homes, and the damage the canal might cause to the environment. Doubts have also been raised over whether there will be enough funding to complete the canal within the allotted five-year plan.

The 267sqkm island, home to a population of just under 30,000, receives about 40,000 visitors a year. Between the rough ferry ride over and the island’s bone-shaking roads, it’s understandable that visitor numbers are still relatively low, even with the island’s incredible beauty.

Birds fly over Rio Istiam (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Birds fly over Rio Istiam. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

On the day that I crossed Lake Nicaragua – Central America’s largest body of freshwater, so vast that Spanish Conquistadors believed it was open sea – Isla Ometepe’s volcanoes were engulfed in a heavy cloud clover that burst as soon as I stepped onto the port. The lush vegetation beamed Day-Glo green against the remaining grey in the sky. Birds and butterflies scattered while villagers carried on with their days. Turns out, the only thing that moved fast here was the weather.

I was staying at Hacienda Mérida, a former farm/coffee-processing plant-turned-ecolodge located in Volcan Maderas National Park. Its owner, Alvaro Molina, was one of the first to bring tourism to the island when he opened the lodge in 2001.

A jetty from the lodge offered uninterrupted views of Conceptión, the 1,610m-tall, very active volcano that towered over Lake Nicaragua. Ometepe’s extinct volcano, Maderas, with its jagged rainforest-covered peak, formed the lodge’s backdrop. Instead of trekking, swimming, kayaking, cycling and horse riding – all popular activities here – I chose a hammock with a view, and flopped.

Conception engulfed in heavy cloud clover (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Conception engulfed in heavy cloud clover. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

The next morning, I set off early to kayak on Río Istiam, a river and swamp that cuts inland through the middle of the hourglass-shaped island. On the 3km paddle towards the river mouth, I passed villagers swimming and fishing in the lake. My guide, Maykel Carillo, said locals used to stay out of the water because it was once infested with bull sharks. By the 1980s, overfishing and a shark fin trade wiped-out the population, but some say a few still lurk under the surface. I dipped in my paddle with extra caution.

Lake Nicaragua will need to be dredged in order to build a canal that’s deep enough for giant cargo ships. “It will kill this lake,” Carillo said. “Many flora and fauna will die.” The local people, most of who are subsistence farmers and rely on fishing, do not have the skills required for the type of jobs the canal will create, Carillo added. “Some have never been to school, so there is no opportunity for them,” he said.

On the other hand, Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the world. Officials expect the canal to bring in an investment of more than one trillion cordoba, which would more than triple the size of the current economy.

As we entered the lagoon, the volume of birdsong dialled up a few notches. The wetland is home to an abundance of birdlife, and we spotted egrets, herons, jacanas and blue jays . A committee of vultures perched on gnarled tree branches jutting out of the tranquil water. Conceptión, and the cloud surrounding its peak, created a perfect reflection on the lake’s glass-like surface.

After an hour of paddling – we see a caiman! Or a log! No… it’s a log – we headed back, spotting a turtle, or maybe a rock, on the way.

Many travellers climb Ometepe’s volcanoes, but weather conditions often turn the hike into a walk in the clouds. This was a convenient excuse for me to try a lighter 3km hike to the island’s 50m-high waterfall, San Ramón. As I set out on the rainforest path that runs up the side of Maderas, I spotted a group of howler monkeys, chattering among themselves as they swung through the branches. After an hour’s scramble, I reached the thundering waterfall, its cold mist wonderfully refreshing after the drenching humidity of the jungle.

Hiking to the San Ramon waterfall (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Hiking to the San Ramon waterfall. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

At sunset, the guests at Hacienda Mérida gathered on its jetty. Some paddled out in kayaks towards the sinking sun, which cast a soft, purple hue over the scorched earth of Conceptión’s facade.

Molina traced the horizon with his arm. “In about five years, huge ships could pass by here,” he told me.

There is a still a huge amount of community uncertainty around the proposals, Molina said. The canal could attract more tourists to see the spectacle, like in Panama, he added – especially now that Ometepe has a new airstrip.

Coupled with an influx of workers who will move to the island for canal jobs, Molina said he’s concerned about the sustainability of this population growth, especially since the island already struggles with waste disposal from the minimal tourism it currently gets. For the time being, he has devised his own solution; he’s collected disused plastic and turned it into building material, using it to construct a school next to the lodge where guests are able to volunteer.

Flora and fauna on the island (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Flora and fauna on the island. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Environmental groups such as Forests of the World have warned about the damage that the canal could wreak over this biosphere, leading to the destruction of habitat, pollution, introduction of invasive species and deterioration of drinking and irrigation water reserves. Molino said a potential upside could be the range of ecological studies carried out for the first time, bringing top biologists and entomologists to Ometepe to conduct research. “Huge amounts of data will be collected and hundreds of new species will be identified – a lot of biological information that was not known now will be.” The canal could also help prevent deforestation – a major problem in Nicaragua – if it succeeds in lifting people out of poverty. “But if the government doesn’t improve education in a dramatic way, then really, the canal will serve no purpose because most of those jobs will be set out for foreigners,” Molino said.

By my last day on the island, the cloud that had been enveloping Conceptión’s peak lifted, unveiling the volcano in its full magnitude. It had been five years since it last erupted, and against the clear blue sky it was possible to see the dents and scars on the almost-red facade.

On the way to the ferry port, I stopped off at a spit that juts out into lake. The black sand, just visible, looked like the back of a whale emerging from the water. I walked to the end, ankles just below the water, and was able to see the famous image of the island, described by Mark Twain in his book Travels with Mr Brown: “Two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds.”

But 149 years after Twain visited, with such uncertainty over the future of the island, I wondered if the author’s observation about Ometepe – “so isolated from the world and its turmoil” – would remain as enduring as the image before me did now.