Bucket List Gondolas, Trams and Funiculars

Chamonix, France
Chamonix, France

Chamonix, France

Let’s start with Europe’s highest gondola, the Aiguille du Midi.   Beginning its journey across the Alps in the tourist hotspot of Charmonix, the téléphérique gives visitors sweeping access to the French, Italian and Swiss Alps, with unparalleled views of the highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc.   Once atop Aiguille du Midi, hop into the red télécabine for the three-mile, 40 minute journey over a dazzling glacier to the Italian border. Drawing heavy crowds in all seasons, beat the queues by leaving early, and by making return reservations once you arrive at the top.

Table Mountain, Cape Town
Table Mountain, Cape Town

Table Mountain, Cape Town

Named for the cloud that often sits atop it like a tablecloth, Table Mountain is Cape Town’s most distinguishing landmark. The Table Mountain Cableway has transported over 20 million tourists on the four to five-minute journey to the top, with circular cabin floors rotating to give everyone a good view. Lions and leopards are no longer roaming the mountainside, but this World Heritage Site is home to a variety of small animals and endemic plants.   Closed during strong winds, the temperature can be up to 6C colder at the top, so bring a sweater.  Once there, you can take one of three short walks offering fantastic views of this famously picturesque city and surrounding mountains.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro
Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro

 

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro

I’ve been in love with gondolas ever since I saw the James Bond film Moonraker, featuring a thrilling chase scene of the cable car up Sugarloaf Mountain.  Ascending almost 400m, first up Morro da Urca and then Sugarloaf, the gondola offers 360-degree views of the beaches, ocean, mountains and landmarks that make Rio one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Of course, Moonraker also made me wonder how the villain Jaws managed to literally chew through the steel wire transporting the 65 passenger cars.   Fortunately, the system has been fully updated, ensuring no bad guy will be using this cable car for dental floss (see below).

Banff Gondola
Banff Gondola

Banff Gondola / Jasper Tramway

The two towns that serve Canada’s oldest national parks boast a world-class gondola and tramway. There are technical differences between gondolas and aerial tramways. Tramways work like elevators, with a counter-balance car, where as gondolas can leave more frequently, like ski lifts.   The Banff Gondola Mountaintop experience is an eight-minute ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain, in a four-passenger cabin climbing to an elevation of 2,281 metres. At the top you’ll find a restaurant, a Cosmic Ray Station Historic Site, and a 1km self-guided interpretative Skywalk.   The Jasper Skytram is the longest and highest guided tramway in Canada, giving visitors spectacular views of six mountain ranges, glaciers, alpine lakes, and the town of Jasper itself.

Quebec City Funicular
Quebec City Funicular

 

Old Quebec Funicular, Quebec City / Valparaiso, Chile

Neither are very long, nor very thrilling, but these old funiculars are definitely fun, not to mention convenient.   Opened in 1879, Quebec’s 64m long funicular is an easy way to transition from Upper Town to Lower Town, where you can explore the Petit Champlain district, port and museums.   Open until midnight in the summer, it is the only funicular of its kind in North America. Valparaiso is a city of hills, serviced by 10 funiculars, although at one time there were 26 working elevators.   Protected by the World Monument Fund as an endangered historical treasure, the funiculars are not only practical to navigate Valparaiso’s steep hills, but they also give great views of the city and harbour.

Singapore Flyer
Singapore Flyer

Singapore Flyer / London Eye

OK, these are Ferris Wheels, but since both involve you getting into a glass-domed car, ascending high into the sky, and taking pictures of a city’s view, the sentiment is the same. Opened in 1999 at a cost of £70 million, the London Eye has quickly become the biggest tourist attraction in the UK. It takes a half hour to make a full rotation, with 25 mile long views in every direction. When it opened in 2008 – the Singapore Flyer – stole the Eye’s thunder and, at 42 stories high, is currently the tallest Ferris wheel in the world. Located at the Marina Centre, the Flyer’s 28 air-conditioned capsules take a half hour to rotate, with terrific views of the city. Both the Eye and the Flyer can be rented out for corporate events, dinner parties and weddings.

Whistler's Peak 2 Peak
Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak

Peak 2 Peak, Whistler

When the peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb decided to connect via gondola, it needed one serious engineering achievement.   The resulting Peak 2 Peak Gondola holds the world gondola records for the highest point above ground (436m), and longest free span between towers (3.03km), and the two largest lift terminals in the world. Each winter, the 11-minute journey gently ushers over 4000 people an hour between the mountains of North America’s largest ski resort. Only two of the 28 cabins have a glass bottom, so consult the wall chart at the terminal to see when it is approaching. Cars arrive and depart ever 49 seconds.

The Peak, Hong Kong
The Peak, Hong Kong

The Peak, Hong Kong

Opened over 120 years ago, The Peak is one of the world’s oldest and most popular funiculars, rising 396 metres above sea level on a gradient so steep it appears buildings are leaning on their side. Besides the expected gift shops and restaurants, it’s well worth visiting the Peak Tower for the panoramic views of Hong Kong.   There’s also the Sky Terrace 428, with the highest viewing platform in the city, and you can walk along one of several walking trails. The funicular itself ascends up Victoria Peak on a 1.4km railline, and takes just under five minutes to reach the top.

Grouse Mountain
Grouse Mountain, Vancouver

Grouse Mountain Skyride, Vancouver

North America’s largest aerial tramway system offers visitors to Grouse Mountain stunning views of Vancouver, surrounding forests, mountains and the Gulf Islands in the distance. The 45-passenger car runs 365 days a year, depositing tourists and locals at the top to enjoy a range of activities, including a gourmet restaurant, wildlife, and a busy ski resort in winter.   During summer, you’ll find a grizzly bear enclosure, bird of prey shows, logging demonstrations, and ziplining and paragliding for the more adventurous.   On the way down, you might notice some particularly sweaty passengers. A popular local pastime is to hike up the punishing Grouse Grind, and take the Skyride down to the parking lot.

The Sea to Sky Gondola

The Sea to Sky Gondola

Western Canada is making a bold claim to the Bucket List gondolas podium. Squamish, located between Vancouver and Whistler, has the outstanding Sea-to-Sky Gondola with astounding views of Howe Sound, Sky Pilot Mountain, and one of the world’s bucket list climbing walls, the mighty granite Stawamus Chief. The 849m-long gondola takes you right to the top of an adjacent mountain, where you’ll find a 65m-high suspension bridge, scenic walking loops, as well as new hiking and biking trails. Celebrate the commendable execution of BC’s latest attraction with a craft beer on the sunny patio of the Summit Lodge.

Ba Na-Suoi M, Vietnam
Ba Na-Suoi M, Vietnam

Ba Na-Suoi Mo, Vietnam

Fifty kilometres west of Da Nang City is the world’s longest single wire cable car system, spanning over 5 kilometres in length. The Ba Na Hills gondola trip takes 15 minutes to reach the top, with passengers enjoying views of the surrounding mountains, the Han River, and lush jungle. A 27 metre high Buddha also rests at the top, along with gardens and an impressive pagoda. The gondola prides itself on being built to European standards of comfort and safety.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re afraid of getting into a gondola or tramway,  I’m almost entirely positively certain that this will never happen.

jaws

The World’s Most Extreme Places

hot

The World’s Hottest Place

Here’s a contentious category, with various contenders vying for the top hot spot. Historically, the victor was El Aziza in Libya, where the ground temperature was recorded in 1922 at a whopping 58°C. Furnace Creek in California’s Death Valley clocked in at an impressive 56°C, but it was not until satellites could measure thermal temperatures that the true victor could scorch their way to the top. Researchers at the University of Montana analysed infrared satellite data and the results were surprising. According to five years worth of data, the hottest place on Earth is Iran’s Lut Desert, where the land skin temperature was measured at 70.7°C. At that heat, you can fry an egg on your hand!

cold

The World’s Coldest Place

On November 23, 2010, Alberta recorded temperatures that made it the second coldest place that day on the planet. What’s remarkable about this fact is that it included populated cities like Edmonton and Calgary, where the wind chill cranked the chill to around -41°C. Pollockville, 250km east of Calgary, had to deal with -49°C. But that’s toasty compared to how cold it can get in Antarctica, which reigns supreme for recording the coldest temperatures on Earth. Scientists in Vostok, near the magnetic south pole, recorded land temperatures at a brrrr-isk -89.2°C, measured during the dark winter months of June and July. The coldest permanently inhabited town is said to be Oymyakon in Russia’s northern Sakha Republic, which clocked in at a frisky−71.2 °C.

rain

The World’s Wettest Place

There are half a dozen contenders in this category, with different research methodologies determined to soak up the glory. When I visited Kauai, Hawaii’s Garden Island, I was told by proud locals and guides that Mount Wai-‘ale-‘ale is the wettest spot on Earth, with rain falling between 335 and 360 days a year, drowning in up to 13,000mm each year. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes this achievement, but the US National Climatic Data Center gives the title to Colombia’s Lloro, which receives over 12,000mm a year. Cherrapunji in north-eastern India is another contender, even more remarkable since its annual rainfall (almost 11,000mm) falls mostly in the monsoon months between June and August. Back in Colombia, a freak rainy season in 1974 deposited 26,303mm of rain on the town of Tutunendo. It puts living in rainy Vancouver, where the average annual rainfall is just 1588mm, in perspective.

wind

The World’s Windiest Place

For 75 years, Mount Washington in New Hampshire held the record for the highest wind speeds ever recorded, 231 miles per hour at the top of its peak. It was a freak event, much like the cyclone in Barrow Island, Australia that blew right past the record, clocking in at 253 miles per hour. The most consistent windiest place on the planet is Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica. As for the windiest cities, forget Chicago. Citizens in Wellington New Zealand, Reykjavik Iceland and Cape Town, South Africa would do well to invest in extra strength umbrellas.

dry

The World’s Driest Place

The Atacama Desert stretches across northern Chile into parts of Bolivia and Peru, and is known as the driest place on the planet. Average rainfall is as little as 1mm a year, with some weather stations having never recorded any rain at all. The town of Arica, a launchpad for tourism excursions into the Atacama, did not record any rain for over 15 years! Crossing the Atacama in a 4×4 is one of my highlights of visiting South America, witnessing its otherworldly landscapes and rock structures. Scientists have compared the Atacama to conditions of Mars, which is why NASA test-drove their Mars Rovers here. Oddly enough, the driest continent is Antarctica, which receives less than 2mm rain a year, even though it is primarily made up of compacted snow and ice.

deep

The World’s Deepest Place

James Cameron, director of Avatar and Titanic, broke the world record to become the first human to visit the deepest spot on the earth – the desolate, alien and lunar landscape that sits almost 11km deep at the bottom of the ocean known as the Mariana Trench. Located in the Western Pacific, the 2550km long trench forms the boundary of two tectonic plates. While pressure at the bottom is over 1000 times that found at sea level, researchers have still found life in the form of fish, shrimp and other organisms. Decaying animal skeletons, shells and other organisms give the seabed a yellow colour. Cameron filmed his descent in 3D for a documentary, and collected samples for scientists to shed more light on the darkest of ocean deeps.

high

The World’s Highest Place

The world’s highest mountain is Mount Everest, towering at 8848m above sea level. If you dared to climb atop its dangerous peak, as thousands of climbers do every year, you would not however be the closest to the moon. The planet’s shape is an oblate spheroid, much like the shape of a balloon if you were to sit on it. The result is that mountains close to the equator stick out further than mountains closer to the poles, not in terms of height above sea level, but in terms of its closeness to the stars and distance from the earth’s centre. Cleverer people than I have done the calculations, and determined that the 6310m high Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador lies on the bulge, and as such is about 2.4 km closer to space than Everest!

deadsea

The Deepest Place Below Sea Level

On dry land, you can’t get any lower than visiting the Dead Sea, the salty lake that shares its banks with Israel and Jordan. To get there, you’ll drive along the world’s lowest road, and float in its famously buoyant waters 423 metres below sea level. 67 kilometres long and 18 kilometres wide, this lifeless sea is 8.6 times saltier than the ocean, which is why you can comfortably sit back and read a newspaper during a dip. The health benefits of the mineral waters and thick mud of the Dead Sea have been prized since Biblical days, making it one of the world’s first health resorts. A drop in groundwater and flow of water from the Jordan River has resulted in significant shrinking of the Dead Sea, causing much concern for both the tourism and cosmetic industries that support it.

danger

The World’s Most Dangerous Country

Forbes Magazine went through data looking at crime rates, risk of terrorism and kidnappings, police protection, corruption and political stability to determine the world’s most dangerous countries. Receiving the bronze medal on the podium is Somalia, which has not had a real government for 15 years, where militants run wild and piracy is rampant. The silver medal goes to Iraq, a hotbed of fundamentalism and instability, its citizens living under the constant threat of bombings and deeply corrupt government officials. Winning the gold medal, which will probably make its way to a Swiss bank account faster than I can type this sentence, is Afghanistan. Tribal warfare and corruption is rife, especially on the Pakistan border, where it is estimated that every citizen owns an automatic weapon. And of course, let’s not forget Syria. Hopefully all will one day be in a position to safely add to the Global Bucket List.

young

The Youngest Place on Earth

Iceland, the real land of Fire and Ice (Game of Thrones notwithstanding) boasts the youngest place on the planet with its southern-most point, Surtsey Island. This 1.4 km2 island dramatically emerged from the sea during a volcanic eruption in 1963. The volcano stopped erupting almost four years later, with the intense flow of lava resulting in a new island in the Atlantic. Since then, erosion has whittled away some of the land, but its hard igneous core has remained firm. The island was declared a nature reserve in 1965, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, for its scientific value. Scientists are studying how plant, bird and marine life are evolving on the island, with human impact carefully monitored and kept to a minimum.