Portugal’s Douro Valley offers discerning bucket listers more than just fine wines. Explore ancient vineyards on misty terraces, stroll through historic towns, dine like royalty and stay in hotels ranging from modern fortresses to 17th century villas. I’ve long said Portugal is the best deal going in Western Europe: all the cobblestone without the price of Italy, France or Spain. Portuguese wines offer great value, and so is the country itself. Below are some images from my visit to tick this one off The Great Global Bucket List:
Let’s start with Europe’s highest gondola, the Aiguille du Midi. Beginning its journey across the Alps in the tourist hotspot of Charmonix, the téléphérique gives visitors sweeping access to the French, Italian and Swiss Alps, with unparalleled views of the highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc. Once atop Aiguille du Midi, hop into the red télécabine for the three-mile, 40 minute journey over a dazzling glacier to the Italian border. Drawing heavy crowds in all seasons, beat the queues by leaving early, and by making return reservations once you arrive at the top.
Table Mountain, Cape Town
Named for the cloud that often sits atop it like a tablecloth, Table Mountain is Cape Town’s most distinguishing landmark. The Table Mountain Cableway has transported over 20 million tourists on the four to five-minute journey to the top, with circular cabin floors rotating to give everyone a good view. Lions and leopards are no longer roaming the mountainside, but this World Heritage Site is home to a variety of small animals and endemic plants. Closed during strong winds, the temperature can be up to 6C colder at the top, so bring a sweater. Once there, you can take one of three short walks offering fantastic views of this famously picturesque city and surrounding mountains.
Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro
I’ve been in love with gondolas ever since I saw the James Bond film Moonraker, featuring a thrilling chase scene of the cable car up Sugarloaf Mountain. Ascending almost 400m, first up Morro da Urca and then Sugarloaf, the gondola offers 360-degree views of the beaches, ocean, mountains and landmarks that make Rio one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Of course, Moonraker also made me wonder how the villain Jaws managed to literally chew through the steel wire transporting the 65 passenger cars. Fortunately, the system has been fully updated, ensuring no bad guy will be using this cable car for dental floss (see below).
Banff Gondola / Jasper Tramway
The two towns that serve Canada’s oldest national parks boast a world-class gondola and tramway. There are technical differences between gondolas and aerial tramways. Tramways work like elevators, with a counter-balance car, where as gondolas can leave more frequently, like ski lifts. The Banff Gondola Mountaintop experience is an eight-minute ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain, in a four-passenger cabin climbing to an elevation of 2,281 metres. At the top you’ll find a restaurant, a Cosmic Ray Station Historic Site, and a 1km self-guided interpretative Skywalk. The Jasper Skytram is the longest and highest guided tramway in Canada, giving visitors spectacular views of six mountain ranges, glaciers, alpine lakes, and the town of Jasper itself.
Old Quebec Funicular, Quebec City / Valparaiso, Chile
Neither are very long, nor very thrilling, but these old funiculars are definitely fun, not to mention convenient. Opened in 1879, Quebec’s 64m long funicular is an easy way to transition from Upper Town to Lower Town, where you can explore the Petit Champlain district, port and museums. Open until midnight in the summer, it is the only funicular of its kind in North America. Valparaiso is a city of hills, serviced by 10 funiculars, although at one time there were 26 working elevators. Protected by the World Monument Fund as an endangered historical treasure, the funiculars are not only practical to navigate Valparaiso’s steep hills, but they also give great views of the city and harbour.
Singapore Flyer / London Eye
OK, these are Ferris Wheels, but since both involve you getting into a glass-domed car, ascending high into the sky, and taking pictures of a city’s view, the sentiment is the same. Opened in 1999 at a cost of £70 million, the London Eye has quickly become the biggest tourist attraction in the UK. It takes a half hour to make a full rotation, with 25 mile long views in every direction. When it opened in 2008 – the Singapore Flyer – stole the Eye’s thunder and, at 42 stories high, is currently the tallest Ferris wheel in the world. Located at the Marina Centre, the Flyer’s 28 air-conditioned capsules take a half hour to rotate, with terrific views of the city. Both the Eye and the Flyer can be rented out for corporate events, dinner parties and weddings.
Peak 2 Peak, Whistler
When the peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb decided to connect via gondola, it needed one serious engineering achievement. The resulting Peak 2 Peak Gondola holds the world gondola records for the highest point above ground (436m), and longest free span between towers (3.03km), and the two largest lift terminals in the world. Each winter, the 11-minute journey gently ushers over 4000 people an hour between the mountains of North America’s largest ski resort. Only two of the 28 cabins have a glass bottom, so consult the wall chart at the terminal to see when it is approaching. Cars arrive and depart ever 49 seconds.
The Peak, Hong Kong
Opened over 120 years ago, The Peak is one of the world’s oldest and most popular funiculars, rising 396 metres above sea level on a gradient so steep it appears buildings are leaning on their side. Besides the expected gift shops and restaurants, it’s well worth visiting the Peak Tower for the panoramic views of Hong Kong. There’s also the Sky Terrace 428, with the highest viewing platform in the city, and you can walk along one of several walking trails. The funicular itself ascends up Victoria Peak on a 1.4km railline, and takes just under five minutes to reach the top.
Grouse Mountain Skyride, Vancouver
North America’s largest aerial tramway system offers visitors to Grouse Mountain stunning views of Vancouver, surrounding forests, mountains and the Gulf Islands in the distance. The 45-passenger car runs 365 days a year, depositing tourists and locals at the top to enjoy a range of activities, including a gourmet restaurant, wildlife, and a busy ski resort in winter. During summer, you’ll find a grizzly bear enclosure, bird of prey shows, logging demonstrations, and ziplining and paragliding for the more adventurous. On the way down, you might notice some particularly sweaty passengers. A popular local pastime is to hike up the punishing Grouse Grind, and take the Skyride down to the parking lot.
The Sea to Sky Gondola
Western Canada is making a bold claim to the Bucket List gondolas podium. Squamish, located between Vancouver and Whistler, has the outstanding Sea-to-Sky Gondola with astounding views of Howe Sound, Sky Pilot Mountain, and one of the world’s bucket list climbing walls, the mighty granite Stawamus Chief. The 849m-long gondola takes you right to the top of an adjacent mountain, where you’ll find a 65m-high suspension bridge, scenic walking loops, as well as new hiking and biking trails. Celebrate the commendable execution of BC’s latest attraction with a craft beer on the sunny patio of the Summit Lodge.
Ba Na-Suoi Mo, Vietnam
Fifty kilometres west of Da Nang City is the world’s longest single wire cable car system, spanning over 5 kilometres in length. The Ba Na Hills gondola trip takes 15 minutes to reach the top, with passengers enjoying views of the surrounding mountains, the Han River, and lush jungle. A 27 metre high Buddha also rests at the top, along with gardens and an impressive pagoda. The gondola prides itself on being built to European standards of comfort and safety.
Oh, and by the way, if you’re afraid of getting into a gondola or tramway, I’m almost entirely positively certain that this will never happen.