A temporary ice cave in Iceland’s Vatnajokull glacier // © 2015 iStock
Feature image (above): The Dead Sea marks Earth’s lowest point. // © 2015 iStock
Earth — with its fluctuating medley of geography, climate and other natural elements — has gifted its travel-hungry population with a vast playground. Though whittling down the list was a daunting task, these six unusual and all-natural places are sure to spark your clients’ appetite for adventure.
Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Situated within northern Arizona’s Navajo Nation is the mystical Antelope Canyon. Years of rain and wind have sculpted its undulating sandstone walls and tapered passageways, and the slot canyon is an especially magical sight to behold when sunlight beams down through high-up openings. Two sections, Upper Canyon and Lower Canyon, comprise the natural wonder.
Getting There: Antelope Canyon is a brief drive from Page, Ariz. Visitors can fly into the city’s Page Municipal Airport; other airports within driving distance include Grand Canyon National Park Airport in Tusayan, Ariz. (about a three-hour drive) and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas (around four hours).
When to Go: March to November. Check the weather before visiting — heavy rains may cause dangerous flash floods.
Good to Know: To access Antelope Canyon, guests are required to hire an authorized guide and pay the Navajo Nation Tribal Park entrance fee. If visiting both sections of the canyon, hold on to the receipt in order to avoid paying the fee twice. Also, keep clients’ mobility in mind: Lower Canyon is quieter with fewer crowds but may be too strenuous for some due to several sets of steep stairs. Upper Canyon is flatter and more accessible, albeit much busier.
Insider Tips: Photography tours are available for visitors equipped with a DSLR camera and tripod. However, according to Roxanne Boryczki, president of Fountain Hills, Ariz.-based AZ Trails Travel, it’s almost impossible to take a bad photo in either canyon — with or without advanced equipment.
“The best time to capture the light in photos is midday,” Boryczki said. “A photographer friend told me that one of his tricks is to have another person throw some sand in the air, right into the streams of light. This gives a whole different feel to your photographs.”
Dead Sea, Israel and Jordan
Clients will reach a new low — almost 1,400 feet below sea level, in fact — as soon as they step onto the Dead Sea’s shoreline. Bestriding the borders of Israel and Jordan, this hypersaline lake (“sea” is a misnomer) lies at the lowest point of Earth’s surface.
But don’t expect to find Nemo or his friends swimming in the vividly blue water. Because of its extremely high salt concentration, the Dead Sea cannot support any living organisms other than microbes. On the bright side, the heavy salinity enables visitors to float around easily. Plus, the nourishing minerals found in the water and black mud deposits possess healing properties — making for an exceptional spa day.
Getting There: Clients can choose between traveling to the Dead Sea from Israel or from Jordan. Day trips by taxi, rental car or bus are possible from the Israeli cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Eilat, or from Amman, Aqaba and Madaba in Jordan.
When to Go: Due to its atypical location below sea level, the Dead Sea region generally stays pleasant throughout the year. But clients may want to avoid a trip during summertime, when sizzling temperatures can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Insider Tips: Patricia Blanche, owner of La Canada Flintridge, Calif.-based LCF Custom Travel, a Montecito Village Travel Affiliate, is an experienced traveler to the Dead Sea and has also sent countless clients to experience the geological wonder. Whether viewing the Dead Sea from the comfort of a luxury resort or from a unique helicopter tour, Blanche has booked it all.
“You can, of course, visit the Dead Sea on a self-guided tour and apply your own mud, but those in the know will seek out one of the onshore beach facilities that also provide freshwater showers, refreshments and other amenities,” Blanche said. “Also, swimmers need to remember not to spend more than about 30 minutes at a time in the dehydrating water — which contains approximately nine times the amount of salt that U.S. oceans have — and to avoid any facial contact.”
Ice Caves, Vatnajokull National Park, Iceland
Got stressed-out clients who just want to chill? Come winter, direct them to Iceland’s Vatnajokull National Park, where temperatures drop and ice caves dazzle. And here, size does matter: Not only does the colossal Vatnajokull National Park cover about 5,300 square miles, it also contains southeast Iceland’s legendary Vatnajokull glacier — the largest ice cap in the country.
Along the edge of the glacier are an assortment of natural ice caves, including the popular Crystal Ice Cave and the Northern Lights Ice Cave. Due to the lack of air in the ice, or the ice’s rigidity, all colors of the visible spectrum are absorbed except for blue, which is reflected instead.
Getting There: Rent a car in the capital city of Reykjavik and then drive about 4.5 hours to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. From there, guides can take eager explorers to Vatnajokull’s ice caves.
When to Go: Between December and mid-February, the coldest time of the year.
Good to Know: Molded by rivers, the glacier’s crevasses are in constant motion, so navigating the ice caves without an expert is exceptionally hazardous. Also, ice caves are temporary structures that change over time — an ice cave formed this winter might melt a few seasons later.
Insider Tips: Gudmundur Halldorsson, lead guide for local operator Luxury Adventures, has been helping travelers gaze at Iceland’s ice caves for 19 years and counting. At this point, he has the activity practically down to a science, including the best day of the year to see the subzero spectacle.
“I would pick Dec. 21 — winter solstice — because that’s our shortest day of the year,” Halldorsson said. “There are only about four hours of sunlight, which means it’s as cold as possible. If it’s raining, you can’t enter the caves, because then the rivers are running. You need to have the right conditions, otherwise it can be extremely dangerous.”
Jamie Bachrach, owner and travel consultant for Wandering Puffin LLC in Minneapolis, further stresses that hiring a guide is a must.
“A licensed, experienced guide is going to have the right equipment for you and your safety as a priority,” Bachrach said. “The area can have its own weather patterns, so being prepared is of the utmost importance.”
Lake Hillier, Western Australia
Flaunting a hue reminiscent of bubble gum or perhaps Pepto-Bismol, Lake Hillier sits near the brink of Middle Island, the largest of Western Australia’s (WA) Recherche Archipelago islands.
British explorer Matthew Flinders discovered the now-famous pink lake back in 1802. In his journal, he describes the lake as being remarkably laden with salt. Scientists have theorized that this thick salt, along with its resident halophilic bacteria and a red-pigmented algae called Dunaliella salina, are what create the lake’s conspicuous hue.
Fun fact: Even when removed and bottled, the lake’s water preserves its peculiar pink color.
Getting There: Lake Hillier is usually appreciated from above, via an aerial tour that takes off from Esperance, the lake’s closest town and about a two-hour flight from Perth, WA’s capital. However, local company Esperance Island Cruises will be operating a day cruise — the first of its kind — to Middle Island from Taylor St. Jetty this January and may offer similar itineraries in the future. The boat can also be chartered anytime by private groups for travel to Middle Island and Lake Hillier.
When to Go: December through April boasts ideal weather conditions.
Good to Know: No need to pack your swim goggles — going into the lake is forbidden by WA’s Department of Parks and Wildlife. Additionally, the lake, though almost 2,000 feet in length, is actually quite shallow, measuring just a few feet deep.
Insider Tips: Jaimen Hudson, manager of Esperance Island Cruises, recommends digging into the region’s intriguing history.
“The island was home to Black Jack Anderson — Australia’s only recorded pirate, who eventually met his end after a mutiny was carried out by his crew,” Hudson said. “It is possible to view the ruins of his old camp on Middle Island. So when you are on the island, it isn’t just about the beautiful lake. You also feel like you are close to a piece of history that few people get to experience.”
Salar de Uyuni Salt Flat, Bolivia
Encompassing more than 4,000 square miles and at 12,000 feet above sea level, Salar de Uyuni owns the bragging rights of being the largest salt flat in the world. The remote salt flat was once part of Lake Minchin, a prehistoric salt lake that stretched across southwest Bolivia.
Over time, the lake waned below the blistering Andean sun, and the vaporizing lake’s high salinity formed a copious layer of bright salt crust — Salar de Uyuni — in its place, along with another proximate salt flat and two smaller lakes.
Getting There: Most tours to Salar de Uyuni start in nearby Uyuni, where Uyuni Airport is located. Clients can reach Uyuni by bus, train or plane from La Paz or Tupiza, both in Bolivia, or from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
When to Go: The salt flat draws visitors throughout the calendar year. But in order to witness the enigmatic mirror effect often depicted in photographs, the trek is best made during wet season (roughly November through April). During that time, the sheet of rainwater on the ground will reflect the sky above.
Insider Tips: Pack the right attire, advises Donovan Hervig, director and general manager of Ideal South America, a travel agency based in Miami.
“Bring layers of warm clothes for nighttime, especially during dry season when it’s much colder, as well as sandals,” Hervig said. “If it’s wet on the ground, shoes and normal footwear can get ‘chewed up’ by the water and terrain.”
According to Phil Rice, manager of Bolivia-based travel agency Kanoo Tours, it’s smart to prepare for the high altitude.
“Most people get headaches or feel a bit dizzy, but altitude sickness can be very serious,” Rice said. “Usually people who have traveled down through Bolivia fare much better, but those who start the tour from San Pedro de Atacama have switched from sea level to high altitude very quickly. For this group, it is best to spend a day or two in San Pedro de Atacama before heading to Salar de Uyuni.”
Thermal Pools, Pamukkale, Turkey
Pamukkale means “cotton castle” in Turkish — a delightfully apt name for this city in southwestern Turkey’s Denizli Province, with its ethereal collection of natural hot springs and snow-white travertine deposits. The area also serves as the site of the ancient Greek-Roman city of Hierapolis.
Though the entire city of Pamukkale was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, the natural thermal pools and their tepid, calcium-rich water are what most often entice wide-eyed admirers from around the world.
Getting There: The closest city to Pamukkale is Denizli, which also houses Denizli Cardak Airport. A bus, taxi or shuttle ride from Denizli to Pamukkale Village takes about 20 minutes. Once in Pamukkale, travel time to the thermal pools on foot is roughly 15 minutes.
When to Go: Due to its location, Pamukkale is blessed with a predominantly pleasant climate all year long. Spring and fall travel is most popular. To avoid the throngs of day-trippers who swarm in around afternoon, spend the night in nearby Pamukkale Village to get early morning access to the natural attraction.
Insider Tips: After taking in the white terraces, continue exploring, recommends Zeynep Bulut, director for Istanbul-based Lodger Travel.
“My second-favorite thing to do is to swim at Cleopatra’s sacred pool among the remains of ancient Roman columns — supposedly, the water beautifies the skin,” Bulut said. “Also, Hierapolis, with the remains of the Temple of Apollo, the Plutonium, the Necropolis, the Gate of Domitian and the theater, gives visitors a lot to see, learn and think about.”