The World’s Best Islands

Choosing the world’s best islands is like choosing the best songs of the 20th century.   There are so many hits, and there are so many incredible islands, blessed with fine white powder sand, turquoise water, pin-up palm trees.   Many are unoccupied or scarcely visited, while others, jammed with tourists, hold an unforgettable charm in our memories.  I selected these islands because they’re exquisite, unique, popular, and would do in any Greatest Island Hits compilation.    Post-Covid, it will be interesting to see how these destinations recover, and what other islands will make it onto the list.

Bali, Indonesia

It’s a small island with a big reputation for beauty, atmosphere, beaches, and cultural ceremonies.   Incredibly popular until the tragic terrorist attacks in 2002, Bali has thankfully recovered (2008 saw record numbers of visitors) because its people are optimistic, and you just can’t keep a good island down.   Blessed with terrific weather and a history that goes back 4000 years, the temples and rituals of the islands predominantly Hindu population are intoxicatingly exotic.   Beaches throughout the island, like the long stretch of Sanur located just minutes from the capital of Denpasar, offer a true glimpse of paradise.

Santorini, Greece

Greece presents many images, but none stay so firmly in my mind as the view over the nearby sunken volcanic island from my small, chalky-white hotel.  The most famed and most beautiful of the Greek Islands,  a big sky radiates off blue-domed churches and narrow streets, the smell of olive oil, wine, lavender and mint in the air. With a cheap bottle of good wine, I’d sit on my little deck and watch a perfect sunset every evening, a bouzouki playing in the distance, the wind warm and nourishing.  Crammed into the steep volcanic hills, there are thousands of such decks and tiny, excellent hotels in Santorini, and somehow privacy and romance is perfectly maintained.  Never mind its history, cuisine or beaches.  You come to Santorini for the views, and your heart stays for a lifetime. 

Kauai

Kauai, Hawaii

Those who love Hawaii will argue for their personal favourites, the less discovered isles, those that might be more dynamic.   Either way you cannot exclude Hawaii on this list, and according the various polls, Kauai beats out Maui, but only just.   Whenever I meet someone from Hawaii, there’s this twang of jealousy.   I grew up watching Magnum PI, and figured everyone must drive a red Ferarri, have hairy chests, and jet around in helicopters.    Not so the case, but the oldest of Hawaii’s islands does have an unparalleled reputation for lifestyle and beauty.  Striking canyons and mountains in the interior, surrounded with soft sandy beaches, the island might not have the bustle of Maui, but even Higgins would approve. 

New Caledonia

The South Pacific is littered with paradise islands.   Palm trees and squeaky white beaches, turquoise water, feasts of seafood – the only real difference between one or the other is where you’ve actually been, and the experience you’ve had.  I spent a week in New Caledonia, which is governed out of Paris as a department of France, and is therefore uniquely French.   Something about coupling freshly baked baguettes and Bordeaux wine (cheap, given the transport costs) with reggae-inspired views and tropical island beauty made me wonder:   If you can live in paradise (where everything works), earn a strong currency pegged to the euro (for freedom to travel), and live a lifestyle pegged to Robinson Crusoe (because we all need 18 hours of sleep a day), isn’t that epitome of island life?

Galapagos

How could I not include the Galapagos Islands, 1000km west of Ecuador, in a list such as this?   The entire chain, straddling the equator, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, heaving with animal and marine life you’ll find nowhere else on the planet.  It’s famously said that animals in the Galapagos have not evolved a natural fear of man, and the approachability of its natural species – from giant tortoises to hammerhead sharks – suggests a world where nature and man are finally in harmony.   Only one of the 14 islands allows is open to human habitation, and the preservation and protection of Darwin’s playground has ensured that anyone who visits, especially children, will leave inspired and profoundly connected to the natural world. 

Easter Island

As islands go, few hold the mystery and fascination of Rapa Nui, an island in the southeast Pacific, once home to a rich and prosperous civilization of the same name.   The monuments of their decline are the massive stone statues (moai) that peer eerily across the barren landscape, a landscape that was once lush and fertile.   As Jared Diamond argues in his excellent book Collapse, if we paid heed to the lessons of Easter Island, we can see how a society disintegrates due to greed, war, superstition, and most importantly, misuse of abundant natural resources.  For those lucky enough to visit the island, a territory of Chile, standing amongst the spooky, eternal moai is not only brazenly exotic, it forces us to think about the very traits that shape our humanity.  

Bermuda

Tropical islands attract the mega-rich, and the mega rich have long been attracted to Bermuda.   St John, St Lucia, Nevis, Anguilla, and other islands in the Caribbean island don’t slack in the wealth department either, but Bermuda’s history, offshore financial havens, and influx of tourism gives it one of the highest gross national incomes in the world. With no taxes, the cost of living here is amongst the highest in the world too.  But they did give us Bermuda shorts!    Home to numerous celebrities, the island offers the pre-requisite stunning pink-sand beaches, fine diving, fine dining, hotels , fishing and golf, with the old school colonial charm in the Town of St George. Is Bermuda better than other islands in the Caribbean?  Probably not, but it certainly aspires to be. 

Vancouver Island / Cape Breton, Canada

With all these tropical islands, it’s telling that our own Vancouver Island and Cape Breton Island repeatedly make it into high-end travel magazines.  Conde Nast Traveler readers have ranked Vancouver Island as the top North American island since 2000, and it’s not because all their readers live in Victoria.   The size, remoteness, pristine tranquility and infrastructure of Canada’s best known islands set them apart, so while there’s always room for white sandy stretches, you’ll be hard pressed to find something as incredible as storm watching on Tofino’s Long Beach. Not to be outdone, Cape Breton topped Travel + Leisure’s Best Island to Visit in the USA/Canada in 2008, drawn to its natural character, wealth of outdoors activities, and unmistakable local colour.

Zanzibar

I stood outside the modest stone apartment where Freddie Mercury was born, and Stone Town, like the island itself, had rocked me indeed.   Located off the coast of Tanzania, this large island has a turbulent history, including the world’s shortest war, and being the centre of the spice and slave trade.  Ruled by Sultans from their magnificent House of Wonders, the lush tropical islands offer the modern visitor gorgeous beaches, spices, fruits, and more than a pepper shaker of African chaos.  Stone Town’s narrow streets feel like a movie set, the grime of a sordid yet rich history adding to the adventure. Before hotels and resorts took hold, I was able to camp in the northern powder beach of Nungwi, spending hours in the bath warm Indian Ocean, soaking up its unique spice-infused atmosphere. 

El Nido

Not so much an island as a chain of 45 limestone jewels, El Nido sits at the north of the province of Palawan, the largest island in the island nation known as the Philippines.  This is the region that inspired the movie and book “The Beach” even though both were set in Thailand.   With some of the world’s best diving, crystal water ,and environmentally friendly hotels, El Nido is an affordable paradise.  Best of all, you can sea kayak or get dropped off by traditional boat at your own island for a day.   Your own island?  Surely that’s one that will quickly race to the top of your own list of the World’s Best Islands. 

A big Esrock shout out to  to:  Bora Bora, Langkawi (Malaysia), Borneo, Hvar (Croatia), the Seychelles, Roatan (Honduras), Sicily (Italy), Mauritius, the Great Barrier Reef Islands (Australia), Phi Phi (Thailand), and the Maldives!

Travel Books that Take You Places

Robin Esrock's favourite travel books

Until the vaccines win the race against the virus, we’re not going to be travelling like we could.  But we can travel in our imaginations, and certainly through the pages of some of my favourite all-time travel books. Although isn’t every book a “travel book?”   Transporting us to places near and far, across dimensions in time and space?   I confess my library is not nearly the wealth of knowledge it should be, but hopefully this will inspire just the start of your journey into the world of travel literature. 

Travel Books to Make You Laugh

Molvania – A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry
By Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Stitch

Anyone who has ever clutched a Lonely Planet will wet themselves visiting the fictitious eastern European country of Molvania.  This Spinal Tap for guidebooks looks at hotels (“what it lacks in charm it makes up in concrete”), towns (“Vajana is a small city divided into quarters, of which there are three”), food  (“this thick liquor is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, unless you’ve swallowed fabric conditioner”) and activities.   A follow up guidebook,Phaic Tan: Sunstroke on a Shoestring roasts a Southeast Asian country in similar fashion, as does San Sombrero which skewers Latin America .   Hilarious.

Our Dumb World – The Onion Atlas of the Planet Earth / The Daily Show Presents: Earth
Every country in the world gets punished in this gut-busting atlas and compendium that crunches stereotypes with typical Onion and Daily Show wit.  Politically incorrect at its best, we learn and laugh at the world, including the “Countries you thought were in Africa”, Czech Republic (Where People Go to Say They’ve Been), and Canada, which in the Onion Atlas is titled: “For the United States, See Pages 9-22.”  Sharp, ruthless, and essential humour with a global twist.


Travel Books to Understand a New World

A Fine Balance – By Rohinton Mistry
Midnight’s Children – By Salman Rushdie
Shantaram – By Gregory David Roberts

India is such an immense place, bursting with stories and sagas that define the human condition. There is a vast cannon of fantastic Indian literature, but my three favourite books are these above, drowning in characters that tunnel into your mind and heart. All epic in scope, by the time you put down these pages you will have transported your senses into the sub-continent, taste its spice on your tongue, smell the stenches in your nostrils. It’s not always fun, and the novels often take tragic twists that bring tears to the eyes, but the reward is the hope and unlikely beauty that manages to stay alive, on the pages, and in India itself.

Travel Books for the Adventurous

Dark Summit – By Nick Heil,
For everyone who enjoyed Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (and there’s a lot of you), the true-life drama atop Mount Everest continues in this excellent read, recounting the eventful 2006 season in which more lives were tragically lost. Heil paints a stark mountain that seduces characters from around the world – seeking adventure, but receiving more than they bargained for. As more climbers continue to challenge Everest every year, gripping books like this bring us along for the journey, thankfully removed from the frostbite, avalanches, and dirty mountain politics.

The Beach – By Alex Garland
There’s a reason this book spawned a hit movie with Leonardo di Caprio. An English backpacker (Americanized for the movie) gets swept up in the search for the last untouched paradise island, a backpacker utopia, hidden from the masses. As we follow Richard’s adventure into love and life, things begin to unravel into a Lords-of-the-Flies-like mess, complete with psycho leaders, armed drug runners, hungry sharks and jealous boyfriends. Inspired by the islands in the Philippines, it has the fun edge of a thriller, while tapping into our desire to leave the beaten path, and go wherever the adventure leads us. Alex Garland has moved on and is now an accomplished film director, behind the thought-provoking sci-fi hits Ex Machina, Sunshine and Annihilation.

Full Moon over Noah’s Ark – By Rick Antonson
I live in a neighbourhood that’s inspired by explorers (with names like Cartier, Champlain, Explorers Walk, Compass Point etc). Across the road from me lived Rick Antonson, formerly the CEO of Tourism Vancouver, but these days a very well travelled and accomplished travel writer. Rick’s a fine and affable literary guide to take you on a journey to Timbuktu, Route 66, or in his latest book, Mount Ararat and beyond. Sadly, Rick moved out the neighbourhood a few years ago, but I’ll diligently hold his beer until he returns.

 

Travel Books to Inspire Knowledge

A Short History of Nearly Everything – By Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of the most popular and beloved travel writers today, and you can’t really go wrong picking up any of his books. He’s also a terrific linguistics teacher (see his Mother Tongue), and a wonderful science teacher in this all-encompassing love letter to knowledge. Trust a travel writer to make learning about biology, geography, astronomy and other sciences accessible, engaging, and full of quirky characters. This book was a deserved hit years ago, but if you still haven’t read it, it’s well worth doing so.

Magicians of the Gods / The Sign and the Seal – By Graham Hancock
If there’s any one writer I have to credit with making me want to learn about the world, it’s this modern day academic Indiana Jones. A former writer for the Economist, Hancock has always been held in skeptic esteem for his bestselling theories about ancient civilizations (Magicians of the Gods / Fingerprints of the Gods), and the search for the biblical Ark of the Covenant (Sign and the Seal). Reading about his adventures, following his interviews and thorough research, it fired me up to want to visit South America and Ethiopia. Many historians scoff at Hancock’s theories of an “alternative history”, but he has inspired millions to learn more, challenge conventional wisdom, and book tickets to exotic destinations to find out more for ourselves. Myself very much included.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
A monster non-fiction hit, an Israeli professor unpacks the history of humanity with a striking clarity of thought, explaining big history and bigger concepts in a clear, concise and jarringly direct fashion (all the more remarkable since Harari is writing in his second language). If aliens land in the distant future and find this book buried in the ashes of what was once our civilization, it will likely explain everything. His follow up books, Homo Deux and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century are excellent reads too.

The Silk Road – By Peter Frankopan
I read a lot of history, and that’s another post altogether. The Silk Road makes it onto this list because it explains how geo-politics plays the long game, putting our current and brief time on Earth in a bigger context. Trade is being re-organized and powers are waxing and waning. China’s incredibly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is going to re-score the soundtrack of our planet. But it all has its routes on an ancient trade route that led to the birth and explosion of civilization as we know it. A terrific read.

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach
If you’ve yet to come across Mary Roach, you’re in for a treat. Writing first person with a breezy wit and insatiable curiosity (something I can truly appreciate), Mary has tackled some fascinating topics with her various books, including Bonk (sex), Stiff (human cadavers), Grunt (war) and Spook (the afterlife). Packing for Mars unpacks the nuts and bolts reality of space travel, which isn’t nearly as Star Trek as you imagine, and wilder than you’d think. Mary interviews experts and characters, digs deep into space poo and practicalities, and should be required reading for anyone with their head in the stars.

 

Travel Books to Escape

Jitterbug Perfume / Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas – By Tom Robbins
Put me on a long hot journey into some wild, parched land. Give me some water, a charged iPod, and a beaten Tom Robbins paperback, and you’ve rocked the Esrock.  With his unique approach to language, sharp wit, profound wisdom, and devotion to not taking things too seriously, Robbins is one of my favourite writers. His books usually follow a similar template: a brave (usually sexy) soul heads into the world to discover about life, the universe and anything, with aid from thinly disguised gurus, gods, and in some cases, inanimate objects. Creativity bursts from his pages, the turns of phrase stop you in your literal tracks. Wherever I find myself, reading and re-reading a Robbins novels inspires me to read more, write more, and most importantly, live more.

100 Years of Solitude / Love in the Time of Cholera – By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Maybe it’s cliché to throw in these classics of South American magic realism, and if I had space I’d certainly add some Paulo Coelho and more Salman Rushdie. I’d pop in Kerouac’s On the Road for its impact on road trips, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and include some gifted modern travel writers like Pico Iyer, Bruce Chatwin, Rolf Potts, Tim Moore, and Colin Angus. Robert Kaplan, Glenn Dixon, Jules Verne, hell, throw in Ernest Hemingway and Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries while we’re there. And where on this list is space for two of my biggest travel writing influences, Hunter S Thompson and PJ O’ Rourke?

Writing any book is no easy task. I salute the efforts of anyone who strives to write about exciting new worlds, and to all those that choose to read their hard-spun efforts.
And since we’re on the topic, I should also suggest my favourite all time, most inspiring, life-changing travel books. I include them here without any bias whatsoever. Maybe a little.

10 Tips for Healthy Travel in India

If the thought of squatting over a hole for days on end is holding you back on one of the most incredible journeys of your life, I urge you to read this. For it is possible to travel extensively in India and not get a case of Delhi (or Rishikesh, or Anjuna, or anywhere) Belly. What’s more, you’ll be able to eat some of the best food on the planet. I know this because I spent a month in the country, and while travellers around me seemed to drop like flies, I remained healthy. This is not because I have a superhero gut of steel. It’s because I took some basic precautions, and stuck to them. Our digestive system just isn’t ready for the onslaught of foreign microbes you’ll find on the sub-continent. Over time, it will adjust, but for travellers, here’s Robin’s 10-step plan to prevent a messy disaster:

1. Don’t drink tap water: Obviously, enough said. Don’t freak out too much about that scene in Slumdog Millionaire where tourists buy bottled water straight out of the tap. Most packaged water is fine, just check the cap to make sure it’s sealed. Keep a bottle of drinking water handy for brushing your teeth. And importantly, watch out for ice in drinks.

2. Don’t eat meat: India is a country of vegetarians, where cooking vegetables has been elevated to an art. You’re not going to miss beef, pork or chicken, even though it is widely available. Relish the veggie curries, and stay clear of potentially contaminated meats.

3. Don’t eat uncooked cheese:  Cheese is heaven for nasty microbes. A friend of mine was doing great until she sprinkled some Parmesan on a pasta dish and spent the next 72 hours expelling fluids from every orifice. Paneer is fine – it’s an Indian cheese cooked in many amazing curries. And pizza should be OK, so long as the cheese has boiled at some point.

4. Don’t eat eggs:  Leave the sunny-side-up for treats back home. An undercooked egg will probably tie your intestine into a sailor knot.

5. Don’t drink milk:  For some reason, most travellers deal well with lassi, the delicious yoghurt-based drink. It has been known to be mixed with tap water and ice, so use your judgement. Since dairy farming refrigeration is sometimes not up the standards you’re used to, milk is a risky business. Do your gut a favour, take your coffee black.

6. Don’t eat fish unless you see it caught and cooked: On the coast, fish doesn’t come fresher, although you may want to make sure that’s the case first. Uncooked or fish left standing in the heat too long is going to mount an all out attack on your immune system.

7. Don’t eat uncooked vegetables, peel your fruit: Fortunately, most vegetables are cooked in curries so delicious your taste buds will dance a Bollywood musical. Peeling fruit is a wise choice. If you’re washing stuff, make sure you do it with packaged water.

8. Eat in restaurants that cater to tourists/wealthier Indians: A place with a good reputation and steady clientele usually knows the value of good hygiene, and the importance of keeping itself recommended in the guidebooks. When it comes to dining out, it pays to follow the advice of those who have come before you. The only time I ate meat was at a famous international hotel and it was fine. I know you’re dying to eat street food like the locals, just be aware that locals can handle things in their tummies you probably can’t.

9. Wash/sanitize your hands regularly, and especially before eating: Just like your momma taught you.

10. Trust Your Gut: You could follow all of this religiously and still get sick. Or you can meet travellers who don’t follow any of this and do just fine. Everyone’s system is different. However, being paranoid about what you’re eating will definitely rob you of having an awesome experience. India is no place for Nervous Nellies. The best way to deal with the sensory overload of color, smell, noise and people is to relax, be patient, keep a sense of humour, and listen to what your gut is telling you.

Swimming in the Devil’s Pool over Victoria Falls

Credit: Flickr CC Joep yrek-Flickr-CC—flic.kr_p_dDAkks

I once travelled with a guy who kept the same journal for almost a decade. He’d tape additional books together and write in tiny script. This impressive travel diary was his Bible, an invaluable historical record of his complete life adventures. It was stolen, along with his backpack, off the roof of a bus somewhere between Transylvania and Budapest. What the hell does this have to do with Victoria Falls? Well, I once had a journal, and it contained the most incredible photograph of me jumping off the very lip of the world’s largest waterfall. Twice the height and width of Niagara Falls, more water falls into the chasm dividing Zambia and Zimbabwe than anywhere else. It’s not the world’s highest waterfall (that’s Angel Falls in Venezuela), nor even the widest (that’s Khone Falls, Laos). Yet the sheer volume of the mighty Zambezi has attracted Bucket Listers for centuries, drawn to a place the locals call “the smoke that thunders”. Traditionally, most tourists to Vic Falls stay in colonial hotels on the Zimbabwean side, but with the country’s political and economic collapse, many now prefer the Zambian side. Hotels and tour operators in both countries are known to gouge their guests for the privilege of seeing this natural wonder, including a day-visa which allows you to cross borders for the views, at a price of around 40,000 Zambian kwachas, or ten gazillion Zimbabwe dollars. Actually, Zimbabwe’s currency was abandoned altogether, rendering all its notes worthless. Inflation reached 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000% in 2008. And I didn’t even make that number up. In both countries, where the US greenback goes very far, you’ll pay up to $80 just to see Victoria Falls. No more bitching about prices to cruise under Horseshoe Falls in Niagara.

I visited the Zambian side in December, the tail end of dry season. With the Zambezi flowing at low volume, you can walk to Livingstone Island, and then make your way to the Devil’s Pool. Here, a rock barrier creates a pool right at the very edge of the falls. Much to the horror of tourists on the Zimbabwe side, you can even go rock jumping. Across the chasm, tourists can’t see the pool, and must therefore watch what appear to be tourists committing suicide. This close to the edge, you don’t have to worry about crocodiles or strong currents, although the occasional tourist has gotten a bit overzealous, missed the pool, and found themselves visiting Zimbabwe without a visa, or a heartbeat. If swimming to the edge of the world’s largest waterfall isn’t enough of a thrill, you can also bungee jump 111-metres off Victoria Falls Bridge, once the highest commercial bungee in the world. Or spend $500 a night at the Royal Livingstone, a hotel bill that is sure to give you a heart attack. Zimbabwe is a country with abundant natural resources, and a country that once promised much hope for sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, a corrupt, crackpot dictator bled it dry. A common joke: Where is the capital of Zimbabwe? Geneva.

I’d love to illustrate this post with an epic, once-in-a-lifetime photo of me rock jumping into the Devil’s Pool. We set it up so it looks like I’m actually leaping off Victoria Falls itself. Unfortunately, much like Zimbabwe’s economy, that travel journal mysteriously vanished, along with the photo in question (and so many more), the writing, and contacts of new travel friends. It pains me to even think about it. Fortunately, you’ll never forget Victoria Falls, even if you do lose your journal. Nor should you forget any of the Bucket List adventures on this site, although you might want to keep an online blog and back up your photos all the same.

Warm Lakes and Rock Tombs in Turkey

Say what you will about the value of guidebooks, but I’d never have found Köycegiz if I’d had one with me in Turkey.   To be fair, this small Aegean town peppered against a large, warm, freshwater lake does get a mention in most Turkish guides – usually a throwaway paragraph with words like “sleepy” and “quiet” and “nice for lunch”.   It’s just one of several signposts you’ll pass en-route from the infamous ruins at Ephesus to the Mediterranean beach resorts around Fethiye. But stop inside, look around, and you’ll find it as sweet as the sugar in Turkish tea.

I got the hot tip about Köycegiz from a New Zealander named Alison who ran a guesthouse in Selcuk. She had married herself a Turk, settled in for a life of olives and fruit orchids, and was only too happy to share the secret of the lake with me.   Since I had no real urgency to be anywhere else, I asked the Selcuk-Fethiye bus driver to let me out on the highway outside the town. A couple of other travellers looked on with mild curiosity, and who could blame them? After walking through the quiet, sleepy, nice-for-lunch town, I was pleased to find one of the best backpackers I’ve seen anywhere, called the Tango Inn.   Large mattresses were covered in rugs and pillows, interspersed with hammocks, a bar and a DJ booth. There were just a straggling of people, but the owner Sahin assured me things would pick up when the Fez Bus pulled in.   The Fez is a hop-on hop-off tour bus that travels throughout western Turkey. In anticipation, Sahin had organized a cruise on the lake for that evening.   Enjoying the calm before the storm, I walked down the lakefront and was blasted by a fresh breeze, the gentle lapping of water, and the view of towering mountains in the distance.     The lake, also called Köycegiz, connects with the Mediterranean through a channel called the Dalyan Delta, and cruising through large bulrushes to the sea is a popular activity for Turkish tourists.   I see a couple guys playing tavla, which I know as backgammon, and gradually readjusted to the pace of a fishing village where not much happens and people prefer it that way. Here is the real Turkey, and with it of course, real Turkish hospitality.   People smile, invite you for tea, quiz your origins, all with a genuine sincerity and warmth.

The Fez Bus pulls in, and it doesn’t take long for some Australians to rally the troops and get everyone along to the boat for sunset. We board a traditional wooden boat that heads out into the dusk.   Music is playing, inflatable pool toys emerge out of nowhere. Mix a party boat with a warm lake and a full moon and before long people are guaranteed to be swimming amongst the catfish.

The following morning, I awake to find the Tango Inn empty, the Fez Bus gone, and another delightful Turkish sunny day. Hopping aboard a wooden boat crammed with local tourists on their way to the beach, I am the only foreigner and relish the enthusiastic hospitality. I am attacked with homemade food and polite questions by my new found friends. Along the canals, we pass spectacular 2000-year-old Lyceum rock tombs carved into the cliffs above us. History is never far away in Turkey.   After stopping off for a refreshing dip in the lake, we arrive at a long sandy beach, and the crystal blue Mediterranean.   I end up playing Frisbee with some brothers from the boat, eating local homemade delicacies, enjoying my spontaneous off the beaten path adventure.   The boat slowly makes its way back to Köycegiz at sunset, humid wind in my fingertips, the notes of a tanbur floating out the speakers up front.   These are the moments in life when you stop, look around, and believe that somehow, everything, for everybody, is going to work out just fine.   Losing the guidebook and listening to locals, it’s towns like Köycegiz that prove how off the beaten track is sometimes right on the money.

 

More Bucket List Destinations in Turkey

  • Istanbul

The bridge between Europe and Asia.   Stand between the 6th century Hagia Sofia and the 16th Century Blue Mosque and let your goosebumps riot.

  • Cappadocia

Strange rock formations and striking landscapes, where else can you stay you stay in your very own cave while exploring fairy chimneys?

  • Olu Deniz

There’s no doubting the beauty of the Mediterranean beaches, but the real reason to visit this overcrowded resort town is for the once-in-a-lifetime paragliding.

  • Ephesus

History buffs will flip out at the ruins of this ancient Greek city, mentioned in the Bible, with the coliseum and library allowing you to walk in the steps of the ancients.

  • Mount Nemrut

Fly east for the surreal landscape of this World Heritage Site, where giant 2000-year old giant statues watch spectacular sunrises.

Cruise Down the Inside Passage

Bigger than the next three largest US states – Texas, California and Montana – combined, Alaska challenges the American consciousness like an unscratchable itch. It’s so massive, so underpopulated, and so untamed, there’s no wonder it attracts everyone from free spirits and survivalists to hardened criminals, hoping to disappear into the snow and under the radar. It also attracts cruise ships, sailing the Inside Passage alongside crystal-blue glaciers, snowcapped mountains, deep fjords, icebergs, whales, and soaring bald eagles. Before we board the Coral Princess, a floating palace of luxe, lets head inland to see the wild for ourselves. It is early September, and the hard sun of summer has lost its shine, but the fall foliage is exploding, as if angels tie-dyed the tundra in honour of a Rastafarian princess.

We trace the Kenai Peninsular, looking for beluga whales at Beluga Point, before making our way along the fjord to the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge. Guy, my well-named guide, downloads information about the area, the wildlife, the culture, the abundant natural wonders. He speaks earnestly and could say anything, because, well, he looks a lot like John Cusack. The scenery is balm for the dry, cracked heel of the soul. We stop at a couple roadside attractions – a visitor centre where we learn about the US Congressmen who vanished without a trace while flying to Juneau; a Conservation Centre where we stare at huge stuffed grizzly bears, elk, caribou, black bears and a couple lynx. With 50,000 grizzlies and even more black bears, bears are a subject of fascination. Just about every local I meet tells me what to do should I encounter one. Be big! Be small! Run! Don’t Run! One would think a bear is sits in wait behind every tree waiting to pounce with a bear hug.

We’re not on the cruise yet, but the service that has made Princess such a successful luxury travel brand is on full display at their lodge. Outstanding food, friendly and efficient service, great company. This evening’s accommodation is the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, one of five inland lodges Princess owns and operates in Alaska. You can leave a wake-up call if North America’s tallest mountain emerges from the cloud, or should the northern lights explode in the night sky. Mount McKinley, known in the native tongue as Denali – The High One – is the only 6000m+ peak in North America, and one of the Seven Summits that challenges all serious mountain climbers. Alaskans proudly point out that McKinley is taller than Everest, if you account for its elevation from sea level.

Denali National Park is the grand attraction for inland Bucket listers, and the adjacent town, Denali, opens only during the summer season. During winter, the one traffic light turns off, the Subway and shops close down, and the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge (Alaska’s largest hotel), shutters up for the freeze. Denali is a launch pad for a national park that covers a staggering 24,585 square km, accessed by only one road. To get a sense of the size, we hop aboard a helicopter for a view from above. Fireweed and foliage erupts with the reds, oranges and yellows of autumn. The taiga, a Russian word to describe the boreal forest that forms the largest biome on Earth, is a palette of colour. The firs, pines and spruce of the taiga only grow several weeks a year, appearing stunted compared to their more temperate cousins. The helicopter glides over purple glaciers, grazing Dall sheep, stark gray mountains, and untamed valleys too remote for human encounters. The fall colours only pop for a couple weeks at the end of summer, an advantage of visiting at the tail end of the season, even as the days and nights become significantly cooler. With little fanfare, the Denali Express that shepherds passengers from the Princess Lodge to their awaiting cruise ship in Whittier has to be among world’s most beautiful short train journeys. Customized cars with panoramic windows, full bar, dining service and affable interpretors roll amongst taiga, rivers, mountains and fjords. It’s a practical means to get passengers from point A to point B, but a worthy journey to make just in itself. Especially when the sun’s rays crack the clouds, beaming a yellow yolk over the luminescence of fall.

Readers might be surprised that I enjoy modern cruiseships. I like that I can travel without moving, that I can actually relax without a million things to do, just like (The shock! The horror!) a real life vacation. Admittedly I view the manicured onshore experiences with a sense of bemusement, but I appreciate the romance of holing up in a stateroom with my wife. It’s fun dressing up for formal nights, and wine can flow far the presence of car keys. Sure, the excess can be overwhelming. The split-level world of passengers indulging in over-abundance served by hard working crew from developing countries is a stark contrast. It is an industry that synchs up the needs of its guests (I want to be treated like kings) with the wants of its crew (I want to make enough money in six months that I can go home and buy a house). The late, great David Foster Wallace wrote about it better than I ever could in a brilliant essay called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Like all travel, the success of cruising is as much about the people you’re experiencing it with as the ship itself. I’ve been on several cruises, met wonderful people, and had a wonderful time. Worth noting that David Foster Wallace went cruising by himself, spent much of his time alone in his room, and made little effort to connect with anyone around him.

Over the course of the week, my wife and I make fast friends with other couples, and together we dine with the gusto of huns. Andre, the ship’s knowledgeable South African sommelier, pairs each dish with wine that tastes better after his able descriptions. Another South African, Vaughn, takes such delight and enthusiasm in his service it permeates the food. These, and other crew veterans, leave no doubt that they love what they do, year after year, or else they simply wouldn’t be doing it.

On the bridge, we meet the captain, a portly Italian who swings the biggest anchor on board. Below, everything is maximized for space efficiency, but the bridge is spacious, almost minimalist. There is a control panel in the centre, and two identical mini-panels on either side for port docking. Buttons and monitors and gauges and knobs and computers – it looks like something out of Star Trek. It must have inspired the USS Enterprise, as it did the Love Boat, based on a Princess Cruise ship in the Caribbean. The Coral creeps up to the Hubbard Glacier onto Glacier Bay, where massive glaciers tower over the sea, ice calving, creaking and cracking into the waters below. Compressed snow squeezes out the oxygen in the water, giving glacier ice its mint blue tint. We grab our robes, cheese and wine, sit on the balcony, and enjoy the chill in style.

As with all cruise itineraries, there’s a variety of on-shore experiences on our journey south to Vancouver. In Skagway, we take a short ferry to the town of Haines, where a South Carolina implant named Ronnie leads us on Kawasaki Mule convoy up a mountainside. In Juneau, we’re greeted with a magnificent blue-sky day. The locals in the Alaskan capital, accessible only by boat and air, tell us they haven’t seen the sun in weeks. Poor weather kills our on-shore zodiac ride in Ketchikan, or was it a huge night out, culminating in a room party, a late night dip in the private Sanctuary pool area, and a real “holy crap, ain’t life great” moment starboard at Guy’s favourite Deck 8 hangout.

Over thirteen days we’ve seen outrageous natural beauty, undertaken some unforgettable adventures, all the while being wined and dined like only a cruise ship passenger can. Travellers became colleagues and colleagues became friends. As every cruise veteran will tell you: there are big ships, and there are small ships, but the one that truly counts, are friendships.

10 Different Ways to Travel

I’m often reminded just how much travel comes with the job of being a travel writer. Those endless hours in airports, cramped in buses, trains and taxis. Yet transportation is not only necessary to get around, but it can also shape your experience, the places you see, and the people that you meet. Below are 10 different modes of transport to explore a country, and some of the pros and cons that come with them.

Credit: FlickrCC

1. By Bicycle

A bike has plenty of advantages. Moving slowly, you experience more of the land, its nuances, and people. There’s no glass bubble protecting you, as your bike becomes a full sensory experience. Cycling around a country keeps you strong and fit, adding targets and goals to celebrate every night. You’re travelling light, and so keeping it simple. Some countries are better for this mode of transport than others. Good roads definitely aid the avid cross-country cyclist, as does good weather. Of course, not everybody is up for the physical challenge, or has the length of time required for discovery by pedal power.

Credit: Adele Cohen

2. By Classic Car

Not everyone has an antique car, but a normal car will also do. There are various clubs that organize epic driving expeditions around the world. Driving in convoy, you become part of a community, a roadshow, a moving circus that intrigues the locals just as surely as they intrigue you. North America, Australia, South Africa, North Africa or Eastern Europe, the convoy can drive up to 500 km a day on planned itineraries. According to the website of a recent expedition from Vancouver to Alaska, drivers could expect “25 days of exciting motoring, spectacular scenery, good fellowship and fun.”

Credit: Robin Esrock

3. By Surfboard

A surfboard won’t get you from A to B, but it does provide a handy excuse to explore coastal towns and tropical islands. Surfers are passionate about their waves, booking surf vacations around the world. Countries in Asia like the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia have incredible surfing, as do Central American destinations like Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Take your surfboard and follow the trail to the best beaches and the best waves, which are usually accompanied by happening beach bars and surf communities.

Credit: Robin Esrock

4. By Local Bus

Here’s a picture of me jumping on top of a Guatemalan chicken bus (I assure you, no chickens were harmed in the making of this photo). They are called chicken buses because it’s not uncommon to be sitting next to one. Or five. These old American school buses grind and choke over mountain passes, in places like Central America, Southeast Asia, and parts of Eastern Europe too. Passengers are crammed like sardines, the buses never, ever leave on time, and are prone to break down for hours. It’s not something you enjoy at the time, but you sure laugh about it when you think back about it. Travelling like locals makes you feel like a local, tasting a small slice of life in an exotic land.

Credit: Robin Esrock

5. By RV

Some people don’t like to travel because they don’t like to leave the comforts of home. So why not take your home with you? Modern RV’s are so well-equipped you never have to go without the kitchen sink, satellite TV, refrigerator, double bed and bathroom ever again. Driving across America has always been alluring, exploring the continent at a leisurely pace, stopping off at landmarks along the way. Other RV destinations are Norway and France. In summer, an army of RVs hits the road, coming together nightly in makeshift communities at excellent RV Parks along the way. I did my first RV trip last summer. It won’t be my last.

6. By Foot

There’s taking it slow, and then there’s taking it really, really slow. Long distance hiking is a serious challenge, involving a serious time commitment. The benefit is that you interact with the land and locals on the ground, step by step. Bill Bryson’s bestselling books often have the travel writer walking on famous routes, averaging several kilometres a day, stopping to smell the roses, and make a few jokes too. My longest hike thus far was spending a week on Vancouver Island. Next spring, I’ll be trekking 21 days in Nepal to Everest Base Camp. If anyone would like to join me, let me know!

7. By Motorbike

From Che Guevara to Easy Rider to Ewan McGregor, the idea of travelling long distances by motorcycle holds a timeless appeal. Accelerating on the open road, the wind against your leathers, the growl of your engine. Hills are no problem for today’s powerful touring bikes, although riding in bad weather is no picnic. In India, I met many travellers who had bought 500cc Enfields to tour around the country, selling them when they left. Baja California, Chile and Argentina, Rome to Istanbul – there’s no shortage of legendary bike routes around the world. Just remember that with speed comes danger, so take your time!

8. By Train

I spent three weeks crossing Mongolia and Russia by train. In that time, 11 days were spent on a train, including one 5-day stint without any stopping. Life on a train becomes almost hypnotic. The sound of the tracks, the motion of the carriage, the blur of the never-ending countryside. Perhaps more than other forms of travel, trains give you permission to stop. You can read and talk and think, gazing out the window as the world literally passes you by. Pretty much everything is beyond your control. You will arrive when you arrive, and depart when the whistle sounds. You may as well sit back and enjoy the ride.

9. By Kayak

There are some places in the world where you can kayak for weeks, encountering incredible wildlife, untainted natural beauty, and even indigenous tribes. Places like Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta, the Amazon, or even British Columbia’s Broken Group Islands. Tonga has 50 gorgeous islands to explore, while along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast you can camp overnight on islands amongst lavender and vineyards. Another popular kayaking destination is the Ionian Sea in Greece, where you can paddle over turquoise water to the whitewashed islands mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. Physical, yet gentle, kayaking on river or sea is an unforgettable way to get around.

10. By Thumb

Hitchhiking is always a crapshoot. You might get a great ride in a big luxury car, or find yourself squashed amongst the livestock at the back of a truck. You can meet friendly locals who go above and beyond, or, heaven forbid, put yourself at the mercy of lunatic. You could spend hours waiting in the rain, or get picked up by the first car to come along. Hitch-hiking across Europe, North America, and other parts of the world could be because you’re broke, or a matter of personal choice. It’s a mode of transport suited for the ultimate “where will the universe take me” adventure. I once spent hours on the side of an Albanian highway waiting for a ride. An old man rode up to me on a leathery donkey, and started playing his homemade flute. I remember that moment vividly, waiting in the sun, enjoying the lostness of it all. A thumbs-up moment for the power of hitchhiking.

Bucket List Underwater Attractions

Museums, sculptures, hotels, bars, wildlife – it can all be experienced underwater, allowing you to truly glimpse a different world, whether you decide to get wet or not.  Join us as we dive headfirst into these remarkable Global Bucket List Underwater Attractions. 

Underwater Sculpture Parks

British sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor took his art below sea-level, creating the world’s first underwater gallery in the warm Caribbean waters of Granada. The Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park opened in 2006, accessible by snorkelling, diving or glass-bottom boat. The 65 cement sculptures, mostly of people, covers an 800 square metre area and has been an environmental boon, relieving pressure on surrounding reefs.   Taylor followed this success with his Cancun Underwater Museum, using PH-neutral concrete to create 400 life-size human statues in the shallow waters of Cancun’s National Marine Park.   Both parks have become immensely popular with visiting tourists.

Poseidon Underwater Resort, Fiji

It took a few decades and many a foiled plan, but the world’s first luxury seabed hotel has opened inside a 5000-acre crystal Fijian lagoon. Unlike the research origins of the Jules Lodge, the Poseidon is a no-expense-spared underwater fantasy escape, complete with guests’ private 16-passenger Triton submarine (pilot training included), spas, six underwater restaurants and lounges, shopping, libraries and sports facilities. Elevators shuttle guests 40 feet underwater to 24 underwater suites and one luxury underwater villa. An acrylic viewing window in each room means the ocean literally surrounds you, and if you want to interact with the fish, simply push a button on your control console to automatically feed them. How much will this experience set you back? A special offer on the website currently advertises $15,000 per person for seven days and six nights.

Agnete and the Merman, Copenhagen

I’m drifting on a boat through the canals of Copenhagen on a glorious summer day. Citizens of the Danish capital relish their summer, walking the streets, enjoying a refreshment in the outdoor cafes.   As the boat passes under Højbro bridge, something catches my eye underwater. Could that be?   We stop the boat and reverse so I can get a better look. Originally submerged in 1992, the statue is a Merman and his Seven Sons, awaiting the return of their wife and mother, Agnete. In Danish mythology, she was an earthling who fell in love with a Merman, but went back to the land of her birth, never to return again.   Designed by artist Suste Bonnén, the sculpture is ethereal and distant, just like the characters in the tale it represents, and a wonderful example of underwater art.

Atlantis Submarine

If you fancy exploring the ocean depths without getting wet, then Atlantis Submarines are just for you. The company has safely taken over 13 million customers 150ft below the surface with operations in Hawaii, Guam, and Caribbean destinations like Aruba, the Cayman Islands, Curacao and St.Martin. In Barbados, I entered the white, tubular 48-passenger Atlantis III, eagerly watching the captain seated inside his cockpit bubble, like a character in a Jules Verne novel. With surprising manoeuvrability, we explored an old shipwreck, teeming with fish and marine life. I was fascinated to see how light filters the deeper you go, and how peaceful life below water can be.

 

World’s Best Aquariums

Aquariums are often the only exposure many kids and adults have to the world underwater, serving an important role in conservation, research and biology.   The world’s biggest aquarium is in Atlanta, Georgia, home to 120,000 animals and 500 species, scattered over 60 different animal habitats. Dubai boasts the world’s largest viewing window for its Aquarium, which no surprise, is located in a shopping mall. At the Sydney Aquarium, you can view sharks beneath a glass bottom boat, while London’s Sea Life lets you feed sharks, rays and catfish. Monterey has a million-gallon Outer Bay tank that houses blue-fin tuna, hammerhead sharks, and other creatures from the open ocean.   And let’s not forget the Vancouver Aquarium, consistently rated amongst the world’s best.

 

Underwater Dining, Maldives

Surrounded by the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives seems like the right spot to find an underwater restaurant. Heck, the islands are only three metres above sea level, to begin with.   Eat with the fish at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island’s Ithaa restaurant, which sits five metres below the sea, enclosed in clear acrylic walls providing patrons with a 270-degree underwater view of the ocean around them. Also in the Maldives, the Anantara Kihavah Resort offers underwater dining in its signature Sea.Fire.Salt.Sky restaurant, which allows guests to also enjoy the sea breeze in a rooftop bar. Meanwhile, the Huvafen Fushi Resort has two of its eight spa treatment rooms underwater, the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

Photo: Nadia Aly

Best Dive Sites

Scuba divers know there’s no shortage of underwater attractions around the world. Just about every site has something to offer, whether it’s shipwrecks, reefs, marine life or caves.   Some of my favourites: Diving the freshwater limestone caves, or cenotes of Mexico is truly another world, with stalactites and stalagmites reflected by sunlight in crystal clear water. The coral reefs surrounding Palau have made the island one of the world’s top scuba destinations. Belize’s Blue Hole is another diver favourite, an almost perfect circular cave that descends 135m into the deep. Diving with the world’s biggest fish – the whale shark – is best done in the Philippines or off Koh Tachai, Thailand. Some of the best wreck diving is off Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Australia. You don’t have to look too far to find sensational diving. The waters off British Columbia offer some of the world’s best cold diving.

Herod’s Harbour, Israel

It’s one thing walking amongst the ruins of ancient temples, but how about swimming through the streets of a 2000-year old city?   King Herod opened his harbour in Caesarea, once the most important cities in the world, in 10 B.C. Today the remains of the great harbour sit six metres underwater. With waterproof maps and a handy guide, snorkelers and divers can visit the 36 numbered exhibits, following ropes tied to poles on the sea bed. You’ll pass giant anchors, ancient marble columns, and even a sunken Roman vessel. From here, head south to the Red Sea Star, located in the resort town of Eilat. This underwater bar and restaurant offer panoramic views of marine life in the Red Sea, and you can stay perfectly dry while you enjoy them.

Underwater Post Office, Vanuatu

I’ve been collecting postcards from my travels for years, but they don’t get more unusual than this. Fifty metres offshore from Hideaway Island near Port Vila is the world’s only underwater post office. Over 100,000 people have swum to this branch to post special waterproof postcards, which are “stamped” underwater using an embossing tool. The branch is manned for an hour each day by one of four scuba-diving postmen.  A flag flies above the underwater booth to let swimmers know when it is open for business. If snorkelers cannot reach the booth, situated 3m underwater, the postmen will gladly retrieve your mail from the surface. Now that’s service!

Bucket List Caves

For millennia, mankind took shelter in caves, so perhaps it’s no accident that we continue to be drawn to these dark, silent spaces. Underground caverns offer a foreboding and mysterious beauty.  From major attractions to truly offbeat adventures, here’s our round-up of bucket list caves.  

 

  1. Matyeshegy Caves, Budapest, Hungary

Millions of years ago, a sea flowed beneath the Hungarian capital, creating a vast network of underground caverns. In Buda, split from Pest by the mighty Danube, it is possible to explore these caves, protected by overalls and guided by a gas-lamp helmet. The Matyeshegy Caves were used as a bomb shelter for citizens in World War II, and while closed to the general public, a company named Barlangaszhat Budapest does take tourists deep into the system. With no wooden boardwalks and few large caverns, prepare to get dirty as you slip through the cracks, and crawl through insanely tight passages.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List. 

  1. Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch, Belize

This jungle lodge offers thrilling caving tours beneath and around its 50,000-acre property, sitting atop a foundation of soft limestone perfect for spelunkers. Mayan artefacts have been found deep in the system, and evidence suggests they have been used for centuries. Guests can choose from a variety of caves to explore. The Big Hole lets you abseil 200ft into a sinkhole where you can camp overnight. I opted for the Waterfall Cave, which involves a one-hour hike through stunning caverns to a series of underground waterfalls. Here you can take rock jumping to a whole new subterranean level.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List. 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  1. Cango Caves, South Africa

Only about a quarter of Africa’s best-known show cave is open to tourists, but that’s more than enough. You can choose a Standard tour, or the more challenging Adventure tour, with an exit just under 30cm high. Some of the caverns are massive, eerily lit up with gel spotlights. Expect to encounter spectacular stalactites, stalagmites and huge limestone formations. Walk through the Grand Hall, along The Avenue into Lumbago Alley, which stretches 85m. As in many show caves, names have been given to the most striking rooms and formations, such as Lots Chamber and King Arthur’s Throne. The Cango Caves are located 29km from Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo region.  Don’t miss out on the crocodile cage diving nearby.

  1. Cenotes, Mexico

Any visit to the Yucatan Peninsula should take in the cenotes, the spectacular crystal clear cave pools found outside the colonial city of Merida. Sparklingly clean, the cenotes offer amazing swimming, snorkelling and rock jumping. Tour operators offer daily trips to several caves, located about an hour’s drive outside town. At one cenote, a wooden platform lets you dive into blue water with colour as bright as paint.   I swam in three different cenotes, scaling the walls of each cave as stalactites slowly drip their way from the ceiling. Giant roots from trees above descend through the limestone. One cave has a small opening for a thrilling 12m-rock jump into the dark water below.

  1. Rimarua, Cook Islands

The Burial Cave of Rimarua, on the island of Atiu, is unusual for a number of reasons.   Firstly, Atiu is one of the Cook Islands – a postcard perfect island paradise in the South Pacific more associated with honeymoons, hammocks and dreamy turquoise water. Second, Rimarua contains the bones and skulls of dozens of ancient Maori warriors, dumped into the ground, only to rediscovered many years later, and now curiously gazed upon by tourists. Although it has never been formerly excavated, landowners have given permission for Marshall Humphries, a local operator, to lead small groups into to explore the dark, spooky caves. Here you can literally tread on the skeletons of the past while minding your head on the sharp overhangs.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List. 

  1. Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, Philippines

It takes a few hours to drive the potholed road from the city of Puerto Princesa, on the island of Palawan, to the Subterranean River National Park.   A rich ecosystem packed with birds, flora and fauna, the park is one of the island’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is also home to the world’s longest navigable underground river, an 8.2km waterway that creeps into a limestone cave. Tourists don hard hats and flashlights, rowing the first kilometre to enjoy the bats and various cave formations.   As the cave mouth slowly disappeared, the acrid smell of guano accompanied a sensation that a beast, complete with rows of stalagmite teeth, was swallowing me.   I reached the cut-off point and gladly turned the boat around. Caves are fun, but not as much fun as seeing light at the end of the tunnel.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List.

  1. Batu Caves, Malaysia

The Batu Caves contain a sacred Hindu temple in a large limestone cave on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.   It is guarded by an enormous golden statue of Murugan, the second son of Shiva, which happens to be the largest freestanding Hindu statue in the world.   Every year, during the festival of Thaipoosam, up to a million people come here to make personal vows of devotion.   Climbing up the 272 steps, past curious monkeys, I entered the cave to the sound of Hindi music and the smell of incense. Once inside, I stood beneath a massive ceiling of rock with a round opening towards the back.   The sun was directly overhead, beaming its light through the hole like a spotlight in a theatre.

  1. Abismo Anhumas, Brazil

Caves are plentiful here in Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, which offers a spectacular cave excursion from the region’s adventure capital, Bonito. Tourists must first prove they can physically partake in the activity since they’ll be required to manually climb up a 72m high cave shaft on the way out.   Discovered in 1984, and opened to the public in 1999, the Abismo Anhumas has an unparalleled draw. Inside sits a cave pool 80m deep, lifeless save for tiny fish, but home to massive underwater cave structures that can be explored by scuba or snorkel. Spectacular stalactites drip from above, and some of the conical underwater stalagmites are over 20m tall.   Using a belay device, it’s tough work climbing out, but totally worth it.

  1. Gorome, Turkey

Medieval troglodytes carved churches alongside their homes into the soft tufi rock of central Turkey’s Cappadocia, and ducking into a few rooms, I could smell they carved out toilets too. It’s fascinating to explore the Kaymakli underground city, originally used by the Hittites 2000 years ago, and later by persecuted Christians in the Dark Ages.   I was sceptical about the word “city”, but then I found out that 5000 people lived underground in these vast, man-made caverns.   There were eight levels, with at least one room for every family, linked by low, narrow tunnels and carved out steps.  As a museum, only a small portion is open to the public, but it’s fascinating stepping into the dark, and into the past.

  1. Waitomo, New Zealand

I’m deep in a cave, floating on a rubber tube, my headlamp turned off.   A milky way of glowworms covers the rocks above my head.  It is quiet save for the soft patter of water.   Legs linked in a chain of human doughnuts, we float down the underground river.   Located about an hour from Rotorua, the Waitomo region has over 300 caves, and Blackwater rafting is its most popular guided commercial offering.   Lighting up the dark tunnels, floating beneath thousands of twinkling, green glowworms is one of the most romantic sights I’ve ever seen.  It’s life in space, deep in the earth. Then it was time to leave my tube for the next explorer, climb up the narrow waterfalls, squeeze through the rocky gaps, and experience a rebirth into the light of the day.