Before the advent of blogs or digital photos, my travel journals contained:
Random thoughts and observations
Flight stubs and train tickets
Napkins with names and address of people I’d never see again
Stickers, brochures and hand-outs
A smattering of ketchup (hopefully) or blood (likely)
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 “thesmoke 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 in South Africa: Where is the capital of Zimbabwe? Geneva.
I’d love to illustrate this chapter with that 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. Much like Zimbabwe’s economy, that travel journal mysteriously vanished, along with the photos, the writing, contacts and splotches of ketchup. 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 in this book, although you might want to keep an online blog and back up your photos all the same.
Divemaster Sabine Templeton, a native of Washington DC, surveys the spacious lower deck of the 48ft Anela Kai. She’s been working for Seasport Divers – a multiple award-winning dive shop headquartered in Kauai’s Poipu Beach – for three years. As usual, it’s a mostly male affair, with 11 guys from the mainland, a fellow divermaster Ryan, and Captain Andrew, a skipper who has navigated these warm Pacific waters for over 16 years. I amble up to Sabine:
“I might not look like it, but I’m actually a Scuba Diver Girl.”
“Those girls are awesome,” she replies excitedly, “but wait, you’re a guy!”
“Maybe, but since Margo and Stephanie taught me everything I know underwater, I dive like a Scuba Diver Girl.”
“Oh, then you’ll have more fun then.”
It takes 2.5 hours with the swell for the boat to make its way along the west Kauai coastline towards the islands Ni’ihau and Lehua. Fellow divers tell me that it doesn’t get any better in all Hawaii. Some of them are repeat customers from years past. The islands and reef have few indigenous inhabitants, and are protected and revered. Seascape only runs excursions to Ni’ihau from late spring to early fall, when the swells and currents get too strong. Today is the last run of the season, and due to surge, entry and exit will be drift dives. Everyone will be using Nitrox, allowing us to go longer and deeper than normal air. It’s both my first drift and Nitrox dive, and I couldn’t wait to get underwater.
First site, the Lehua Ledge, sitting off the small island Lehua adjacent to the much larger Niihau. Seconds in the water, I’m being stared at by a large monk seal, an endangered pinniped that lives around these waters. As I descend, I encounter a huge school of colorful Pyramid Butterfly Fish. Below me on the shelf, I see the shadow of a large Sand Bar shark, gracefully vanishing into the shadows. Other highlights on the first dive: A Yellow Margin Moray, Tritan’s Trumpet, a Crown of Thorns, and endemic Bandit Angels.
The next dive is at a pinnacle known as Vertical Awareness. My Nitrox is at 32%, and I am relieved that it tastes just like regular air. I descend to 90ft, making my way around the large outcrop. Sabine had told me to expect amazing topography, and she wasn’t fibbing. We see Pennant Butterflies, a Stout Moray, a huge Titan Scorpion Fish, an endemic Hawaiian Lionfish, and a cool red-striped nudibranch. Although the water is a comfy 79 degrees, I pass through some cold thermoclines, as a powerful surge sweeps me along. There’s a reason why this dive is seasonal. Captain Andrew sees me not far from Sabine’s bright orange safety sausage, and picks me up as divers continue to pop up all over the surface.
Lunch is a fresh spread of meats, veggies and salads, as divers share obligatory tales. Sabine tells me she’s had some clients who look down on a female divemaster, but that everyone is usually respectful when it comes down to it.
The best is saved for last, a drift dive to a spot called Pu’u Mu’u. It’s my introduction to underwater caves, and while one diver ends his dive early with claustrophobia, I absolutely love it. Reflective bubbles of air gather on the cave ceiling like mercury, as my flashlight reveals so much life and color. Black coral hangs from the walls, along with Cauliflower and Leather coral. Deeper into the rock, Purple Spiny Lobster and big Tiger Cowry shells are amazing to see, as I ebb towards a series of spectacular swimthroughs. It has not been long since the SDG introduced me to the life aquatic in Papua New Guinea, but I’m continually amazed at the diversity and inspiration every dive seems to deliver.
The swells pick up as we return to Poipu, even as Bottlenose and Spinner dolphins gather around the boat. It will be another season before Seasport resume this incredible dive, but there’s plenty of others on Kauai to keep them, and us, busy in the meantime.
Seasport Divers are located on in Poipu Beach, on the southern side of Kauai. They have been in operation for 25 years, and founder Marvin Otsuji is a local diving legend. Dives to Ni’ihau run twice a week late spring to early autumn.
This is one is straight out of Willy Wonka’s sweet imagination. About an hour’s drive outside of Cartagena lies a natural phenomenon known as the Volcan de Lodo El Totumo, a mud volcano with thick, mineral-rich chocolate-textured mud bubbling in its crater. Formed by various geological forces, mud volcanoes are found around the world, free of hot lava, but saturated with sedimentary sludge. There are several volcanoes featured in this book, and Bucket Listers should take great care not to fall into their craters. This particular volcano, on the other hand, wants us to jump right in.
Locals have long enjoyed the benefits of El Totumo. Lately the crater has been seeing a lot more foreign bodies, making the journey from the cruise port of Cartagena. First, dispel the image of Mount Doom. This is no lava-crackling cone towering in the distance, shooting gases and molten rock into the sky. In fact, when you first encounter the Volcan de Lodo El Totumo, it looks like an overgrown termite hill, or a fifteen metre-high pile of elephant dung. More than one Bucket Lister will shake his or her head disappointed, wondering if this is just another tourist scam, a two-bit natural wax museum. Well don’t judge a book by its cover, a volcano by its lava, or a Colombian taxi driver by his choice of car (trust me on that last one).
I climb a slippery path to the top, holding onto rickety wooden beams, quickly ascending high enough to gaze across lush tropical vegetation and a tranquil lagoon below. Several thatch huts at the base offer blessed shade from a scorching equatorial sun. Volcan de Lodo is operated by an association from a nearby village, the villagers rotating duties of collecting entrance fees, selling water, offering massages (for tips) or lagoon rinses (for more tips). The crater itself is the size of a small pool, if you can imagine a small pool full of dark, creamy mousse. I arrive early, before the crowds, and a single villager beckons me in. The sun is already beating down hard, so I hang my shirt on the wood, and eagerly immerse myself in the cool, thick slop. I loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original, not the remake) and I’ve always fantasized about swimming in a pool of milk chocolate. Not anymore. This mud is so thick it suspends my body like a hair gel, comfortably invading my pores with natural mineral goodness. Solid enough to lie back and support my head, the crater is deep enough to stretch out in every direction and relax every muscle in my body. Within seconds I’m a mud creature, the unexposed pink skin around my eyes resembling shortcake in a chocolate pie. A mousse masseuse effortlessly spins me over and roughly exfoliates my back by rubbing his hands up and down. Like most Colombians I have met, he is only too eager to share his culture’s genuine hospitality.
Refreshingly cool in the mid-morning sun, the mud envelops my body like liquid black latex. Buses of tourists arrive, and the small crater quickly fills up, a bowl of black-bean soup with floating white potatoes. A splash of mud gets in my eye, but fortunately another villager is on hand to wipe it away with some tissue paper. Tugging on our arms and legs, the masseuse parks us around the crater, making sure everyone gets a spot. After thirty minutes, the mud has sucked up whatever toxins it could find, and I begin to feel lightheaded. Emerging from the silt porridge, I make my way down to the adjacent lagoon where village women await with tin bowls for the messy clean up. My rinse-lady is fearless. She dunks me into the warm lagoon, scrubs me with her hands, and before I know it she’s ripped off my shorts too. Female tourists yelp as they cling to their bikinis for dear life. Within seconds, I’m mud-free and, after awkwardly replacing my shorts beneath the water, emerge from the lagoon with rejuvenated skin glistening in the sunshine.
Local legend calls this the “Volcano of Youth”, where a fifty year-old might enter the crater, and leave twenty years younger. Whatever the medical or mythical benefits of this volcano may be, it’s most certainly one for the Global Bucket List.
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.
Something inside us resonates when we see a large body of water falling through the air. Some appreciate the velocity, volume and sheer power on display. Others marvel at the mystic beauty and striking diversity of nature’s water show. And what compares to the revitalizing sensation of swimming beneath a natural shower, or being soaked by its mist? One cannot claim to know the world’s best waterfalls, for that is as personal as defining nature itself. These, however, are my personal favourite bucket list waterfalls.
Spanning 2.5 miles on the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, Iguazu Falls is the famed gathering of 275 waterfalls, surrounded by lush tropical jungle. I visited the national park that surrounds it twice, once from the nearby Brazilian town of (Foz de Iguacu) and once from the Argentinean Puerto Iguazu. Both offer riveting views. Metal walkways allow you to walk over swamp and river to access the most spectacular viewing points, and it is even possible to hop aboard a boat and get soaked near the mouth of the biggest water mass, the Devil’s Throat. Natural beauty, exotic bird life, and sheer scale make Iguazu Falls a must for visitors to South America.
When I visited Africa’s biggest tourist attraction, I was armed with a fantastic tip. Cross the border from Zimbabwe into Zambia, and not only is a ticket to the national park a fraction of the price, but in dry season you can be guided to stable rock pools that sit right on the edge as the mighty Zambezi River crashes into the gorge below. Like the bedazzled English explorer Stanley Livingston, who named this mile-long drop after Queen Victoria, I swam to the very edge of the Devil’s pool with tourists on the opposing Zimbabwe side watching in shock. Without seeing the protective rocks, it looked like I was about to go barrelling over. For more thrills, Victoria Falls also offers one of the world’s highest bungee jumps, excellent river rafting, and microlight flights.
With its 979m drop, Venezuela’s Angel Falls holds the title of the world’s highest waterfall. Located in the Canaima National Park, such is its height that the water turns to mist before hitting the ground. Remote and difficult to access, it is still one of Venezuela’s most popular tourist attractions, and a mecca for BASE jumpers, who leap off the edge with a parachute. Angel Falls was named after an American aviator named Jimmy Angel who accidentally discovered them in 1933. Four years later, he returned and crash landed his plane on the top, returning to civilization with tales of high adventure. His somewhat appropriate surname was subsequently given to this spectacular natural attraction.
There are several wonderful waterfalls located in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Agua Azul has numerous rocky cascades, where on weekends you’ll find families having a picnic in the surrounding park, with kids swimming in the shallow rock pools. Misol-ha, further up the road towards Palenque, has a photo-happy 35m drop into clear, sparkling water, perfect for a swim. The surrounding jungle offers an explorer’s ambiance, and a slippery path leads to a cave behind the waterfall itself. While not the biggest or most popular falls on my list, here I found the serene opportunity to truly enjoying a waterfall in its natural glory.
Tourists have been flocking to North America’s most powerful and striking waterfall since the 1850’s, and this year some 28 million people will visit the Canadian/US border holiday town. Casinos, resorts and theme park attractions have cascaded around the Falls (in contrast to tranquil Iguazu), but there’s no denying the sheer power and beauty of Niagara, along with its value as a source of hydroelectric energy. The Canadian side’s Horseshoe Falls has also attracted daredevils since the early 1900’s, many of whom have climbed into a barrel and gone over the edge. If Superman really existed, he might have been able to rescue them, as he did for Lois Lane, tumbling over the falls in the 1978 hit movie.
Waterfall at Gadur Chatti, Rishikesh
Rishikesh is a town on the holy Ganges River, home to dozens of ashrams, temples, and yoga schools. Here the Beatles tripped out, and thousands of tourists descend annually searching for enlightenment, peace, and inner joy. Locals will no doubt tell you about the waterfalls, located about 4km up the road from Laxman Jhula, towards the tiny village of Gadur Chatti. Taking a small path into the jungle, a short hike brings you to a series of waterfalls and wispy cascades, fed by the pure, icy waters of the Himalayas. With only a handful of visitors a day, it’s easy to find bliss with a natural shower in the forest. In a region famous for its meditation and spirituality, temples do not need four walls and a roof.
A forest of cedar and cypress surrounds Japan’s Mount Nachi, and cutting through them are dozens of waterfalls. Located in the Yoshino-Kumano National Park and with a height of over 130m, Nachi Falls is one of three “divine” waterfalls in the country. Colourful wooden pagodas and temples surround the airborne stream, and together with the surrounding forest, it’s easy to see how Nachi Falls earned its sacred status.
South Africa’s Tugela Falls is the world’s second highest waterfall, falling 947m through the Drakensberg Mountains. Unlike Angel Falls however, it is far easier to access and can even be viewed from a major highway. In keeping with the excellent hiking in the region, a series of chain ladders allow you to climb to the summit of Mont-Aux-Sources, the source of the Tugela Falls. My father has some sort of cosmic connection to the Drakensberg, so we’d often head to the Amphitheatre, a spectacular mountain escarpment, from which we could hike and boulder our way above various cascades, with Tugela Falls the ultimate payoff.
Most visitors to Costa Rica inevitably find themselves in the small town of La Fortuna, in hopes of seeing molten rock tumbling down the steep cone of Arenal Volcano. There are few sights to scare the hell out of you quite like an active volcano, but what the brochures conveniently fail to mention is that Arenal is clouded over for much of the year, and many visitors spend days looking at cloud when they’d much rather be baking on the sandy beaches along the Pacific coast. So as I waited for the clouds to lift and reveal the Mount Doom-like volcano in all its glory, I discovered the unusual but thoroughly thrilling sport of canyoneering. Thus I found myself dangling 60m above the ground like a fly wrapped in dental floss, soaked to the bone, beneath a recently discovered waterfall.
Canyoneering combines aspects of climbing (ropes, abseiling), hiking, and where applicable, swimming. The idea, simply, is that you climb, walk and slide your way down a canyon, often on your butt. In this particular case, alongside stunning waterfalls and thick jungle foliage. Former adventure guide Christine Larson and her husband Suresh Krishnan call it “The Lost Canyon” because they only discovered it a few years ago, clearing the canyon of natural rubble, and preparing wooden platforms from which to abseil. Every effort was made to conserve the rich eco-system, while at the same time allowing inexperienced climbers to rappel down two large waterfalls. Climbers like myself – the last time I abseiled I caught one of my testicles in the harness, arriving back on solid ground well capable of reaching Michael Jackson’s high notes. Through Christine and Suresh’s adventure company Desafio, I joined a dozen other nervous tourists for a short drive from the town and a quick lesson in safety. Being one of the first groups to visit this rediscovered canyon meant extra precautions, and amongst the group was canyoneering legend Rich Hall – a certifier from the American Canyoneering Association. Rich, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the late actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, told me about the time he got lost for three days and almost died in a canyon. This calmed my nerves the way hot cheese cools your mouth. After a few small practice rappels, we arrived at the first major drop. A wooden platform had been built alongside a tree, and the idea was to jump off it into the ravine below. I swung myself around the last safety pole, leaned back (making sure my family jewels were well positioned), and slid down into the lush canyon below. I could whoop in joy without a high-pitched falsetto.
Kitted out with gloves, helmet and harness, the group slowly made our way into the ravine. Even with my camera in a plastic bag, I was nervous about wading through the rock pools, preferring to remain relatively dry by pulling Spiderman manoeuvres along the narrow canyon walls. This made no difference once I descended over another 60m drop, since Suresh, guiding below, swung the rope directly into the waterfall – a thrilling natural baptism that defied photographs anyway. Safely at the bottom, I joined the rest of the group, all wearing the “did I really just do that?” expression one finds in similar thrilling activities, like skydiving, or not paying traffic fines. With the jungle teeming with life around us – toucans, lizards, bugs – Suresh explained the exhaustive work it took to clear out old logs, wood and muck, and also to navigate Costa Rican politics. The country has strict laws when it comes to protecting its natural assets, and it’s no accident Costa Rica has become one of the best places on earth for eco-tourism.
After three hours, we reached a narrow exit point, unprepared but ready for a short, steep hike up the canyon to the road. Everyone had a rosy watermelon smile at the end, perfect to fit the fresh-cut watermelon waiting for us after the steep climb out. Rich gave the experience two-thumbs up, and so did I. The cloud over Arenal never did clear up. Some days you win, some days you discover canyoneering.
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.
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.
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!