Travelers always dream of visiting legendary landmarks and wandering through storied museums. But sometimes Mother Nature puts on the most amazing shows. If you are heading to any of the following destinations, these offbeat, awe-inspiring natural wonders are well worth traveling to see.
Bioluminescent bays: Certain bodies of water sparkle at night as if sprinkled with Tinker Bell’s pixie dust. Credit goes to bioluminescent single-celled algae known as dinoflagellates that emit blue-green light when the water is gently stirred by a kayak paddle or even a hand. While year-round, the glow is especially impressive on the darkest nights of the month (one week around the new moon), so check lunar phases before booking. Places to see them…
Puerto Rico is home to three bio bays offering nighttime kayak tours—Mosquito Bay in Vieques…Laguna Grande in Fajardo…and La Parguera in Lajas.
Jamaica offers evening boat tours of Luminous Lagoon, along the marshlands of Trelawny, and a surreal swim if you’re game.
Costa Rica offers the glow near Paquera on the Gulf of Nicoya.
Australia. December to March is usually the best time to watch dinoflagellates light up the water at several beaches near Hobart in Tasmania.
Closer to home: Experience domestic bioluminescence from June to October on the Banana River, Indian River Lagoon and Mosquito Lagoon on Florida’s Space Coast.
Geologic oddities: There’s a reason they’re named the Grand Canyon and the Grand Tetons—but some creations aren’t so much grand as they are unusual…
Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway is a configuration of 40,000 basalt columns dating back 60 million years, easily viewed on the Causeway Coastal Route from Belfast.
Turkey. The Cappadocia region in eastern Anatolia offers fascinating formations known as “fairy chimneys” or “hoodoos.” These erect towers of tuff stone often are capped with a mushroom-shaped basalt top. A hot-air balloon ride at sunrise in spring or fall offers an exhilarating view.
Namibia. The wind-sculpted, rust-hued Sossusvlei Dunes rank among the world’s highest sand dunes. Visit in April and May or September to November to see and climb them, including 1,066-foot Big Daddy, against a vivid blue sky.
Madagascar. The Forest of Knives is a mysterious, nearly impenetrable limestone labyrinth in Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. Visit between April and November to go on a guided tour.
Closer to home: Marvel at swirling, water-sculpted orange sandstone in northern Arizona’s Antelope Canyon, where the slot canyons are so mazelike they can’t be explored without a guide. To see the mesmerizing light beams, book a midday tour in spring or summer.
Wildflower blooms: Picture a massive living carpet of color—that’s what a wildflower bloom looks like. Where you can see them…
Namaqualand, South Africa, has spectacular blooms from mid-August to mid-September. Drive along the Wildflower Route in the Northern Cape to see a floral kaleidoscope of 3,500 other varieties.
New Zealand. The Mackenzie region of South Island, near Lake Tekapo, offers stunning purple and pink lupins that bloom from November to January.
Scotland. Visit the Isle of Skye and Scottish Highlands to see a landscape of dusky-hued heather blooms in August and September.
Tuscany. Love red? Head to Tuscany from mid-April to early May to enjoy panoramic vistas of wild Italian poppies.
Closer to home: You can see meadows of poppies in March and April at California’s Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve…or head to California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where, if the rainfall is right, you’ll witness a “superbloom” of hundreds of flowering desert plants.
Fireflies: These magical blips are threatened with extinction because of pesticides, light pollution and habitat loss, so certain destinations have become hot spots for firefly tourism. Choose an eco-tour so you don’t endanger these soft-bodied bioluminescent beetles.
Mexico. Fireflies gather in great numbers to mate from late June to early August in the Firefly Forest in the central Mexican state of Tlaxcala. Located two hours from Mexico City, the accommodations are rustic cabins or campsites with trails that must be walked quietly and in total darkness as artificial light can hurt the fireflies and inhibit their behavior. Forest tours with an overnight stay in Tlaxcala City also are available.
Thailand. Between June and October, you can take a nighttime boat ride to see the fireflies at the Amphawa Floating Market near Bangkok.
Japan. Enjoy the Tsukiyono Firefly Village in Minakami (about one or two hours by train from Tokyo), where thousands of the insects light the night sky from mid-June to mid-July.
South Korea’s Muju Firefly Festival is held in late August/early September with celebrations in Muju and shuttles to nearby firefly forests.
Closer to home: There are plenty of fireflies—19 species—in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee. Their brightest displays occur for a two-week mating period between late May and the third week of June.
Otherworldly lakes: Most lakes are blue—or bluish green—but some are out-of-this-world technicolor shades…
Australia. The bubblegum-pink Lake Hillier in Western Australia is colored by microalgae. March and April (early fall in the Southern Hemisphere) are the best months to visit, but this unique lake located on a remote island can be viewed only during scenic flights from the beach town of Esperance.
New Zealand. If this is your Down Under destination, head to Tongariro National Park on the North Island to see Emerald Lakes, volcanic craters atop Mt. Tongariro filled with brilliant green mineral-laced water. December to May are top months to visit.
Canada. From June to October, travel to Banff National Park in Alberta to see Peyto Lake, which is a shade of aquamarine (thanks to something called rock flour) and resembles a wolf. And in British Columbia, there is a polka-dot lake—aptly called Spotted Lake—in Osoyoos during the dry summer months. That’s when minerals form shape-shifting circular patterns on the lake’s surface.
Closer to home: Avoid crowds by taking a spring or fall trip to Yellowstone National Park to gaze at Morning Glory Pool, a hot spring with brilliant rings of green, orange and yellow. It was once morning glory blue, but coins and other trash tossed in over the decades have altered its microbes…and its color.
Unusual migrations: Many species migrate—from Canada geese and monarch butterflies in North America to wildebeests in Africa—but around the globe it’s possible to experience some truly unusual migrations…
Australia. One of the most colorful migrations happens on Australia’s Christmas Island when 100 million red crabs march from the forest to the sea to breed. Timed to the first rain of the wet season, as well as the tide and moon phase, the migration is typically between October and December.
Great Britain. Starling murmurations—synchronized flocks of hundreds of birds resembling shape-shifting black clouds—happen every fall and winter at dusk throughout Great Britain. Top viewing spots include Shapwick Heath in Somerset, Lower Marsh Farm in Wiltshire and Snape Maltings in Suffolk.
New Zealand. Bird lovers can flock to see the Northern Royal Albatross, the world’s largest sea bird, which spends most of its life at sea. Adults return to nest every September at the Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve near Dunedin, which offers easy viewing of chicks (they take around eight months to mature).
South Africa. A fascinating sea migration is the Sardine Run, which occurs from late May to July as hundreds of millions of these small silver fish swim in huge shoals up to four miles in length from the Cape to KwaZula-Natal—and as hunting sea birds and fish (including great white sharks) gorge on them.
Closer to home: From February to April, roughly 600,000 Sandhill cranes converge along a stretch of the Platte River in Nebraska, to refuel near the town of Kearney, offering ideal viewing for avid birders.