Sky high: the best sights from above
If you really want a memorable view of your travels, get up high for an angel’s-eye view of these breathtakers:
1. The World Archipelago, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Only in Dubai. This vast engineering project sought to replicate the globe as a series of artificial islands. The thinking was that the islands would be bought for use as resorts and playgrounds for the rich. The lowering clouds of the global financial crisis put the brakes on construction, and the project has lost momentum, although reports that the islands were sinking back into the sea are apparently unfounded. From the air it’s an impressive sight, albeit a wacky one. It’s as if a Bond villain has turned his megalomania to more benign schemes.
The World (‘A Vision Made Real’) has a glossy website where you can check out pictures and learn more about the scheme.
2. Forbidden City, Beijing, China
Beijing’s Forbidden City was home to the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and closed to the outside world for 500 years. The emperors rarely left the confines of their pleasure dome – everything they desired was there within its walls. The scale is quite something to get your head around. There are over 800 buildings and close to 1000 rooms. The courtyard overlooked by the Gate of Supreme Harmony is so massive that it could hold an imperial audience of up to 100,000 people. It takes at least a day to see the complex, but to get a sense of the extent of it, it’s best seen from above.
Nearby Jingshan Park has a series of five hills topped with pavilions. From the highest you can get a good view of the Forbidden City.
3. Dean’s Blue Hole, Bahamas
Blue holes seem made to be viewed from the air. They’re sinkholes formed by erosion, and their depth gives them a darkness that stands out in the paler blue of the surrounding water. From above they look like a brilliant eye open in the sea. Dean’s Blue Hole is the world’s deepest sea-filled sinkhole, a vast vertical cave plunging 203m deep. As well as being spectacular from above, Dean’s is a stunner from within. It has one of the world’s largest underwater cave rooms, and with unusually clear and calm seas the visibility is great.
Dean’s Blue Hole is on Long Island, about 5km west of Clarence Town.
4. Purnululu National Park, Australia
Until the release of aerial photos in the early 1980s, this remote wilderness in Western Australia was all but unknown to the outside world. Traditionally used by the Kija Aborigines during the wet season, the rugged web of gullies, cliffs, gorges, domes and ridges holds many Aboriginal art and burial sites within its extraordinary landforms. Over a period of 20 million years, the sandstone mounds of the park’s Bungle Bungle Range were eroded into beehive shapes. Today, these surreal cones with eye-catching orange and grey stripes speckle this immense natural labyrinth in the Australian outback.
June to August is cool but busy; May is less crowded but hot (30°C-plus days). The visitor centre is open 8am-noon and 1pm-4pm.
5. Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
The early Maori knew Franz Joseph as Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere (‘Tears of the Avalanche Girl’). Legend tells of a girl losing her lover when he fell from the local peaks, and her flood of tears freezing into the glacier. From above it’s a breathtaking river of ice shouldering through stern mountains. Local tour operators run helicopter jaunts that take you on a scenic flight and then land you on the glacier so you can get a close-up look at the undulating blue ice terrain. You can also ice hike and swim in heated pools fed by glacier water.
6. ‘Spiral Jetty’, Utah, USA
Of all the earthworks of the 1970s (and beyond), Spiral Jetty is the most famous and beloved. A stunningly simple spiral of basalt rocks placed in Utah‘s Great Salt Lake, Jetty is the masterwork of artist Robert Smithson. It extends 460m from the shore of the lake in a counter-clockwise curve. Since its creation, nature has taken over as resident artist. Smithson made the jetty in a time of drought, but when normal weather patterns returned the work was submerged for three decades. It continues to come and go, its original black turned to white by salt encrustation.
The Jetty is in the Golden Spike National Historic Site. There are no restrictions on your visit; you’re free to walk right out on it.
7. Bagan, Myanmar
Situated on the banks of the mighty Ayeyarwady River, ancient Bagan is one of Southeast Asia’s most memorable sights. The sheer number of temples, monasteries and stupas (about 4400) demands that you get up above them for the wonderful collective views of stupa upon stupa dotting the plain. Climbing to a temple lookout for sunset is an important part of the Bagan experience, but the best scene is from a hot-air balloon at dawn. You coast over the temples and enjoy a bird’s eye view of local traffic (bicycles and bullock carts predominate) and morning market activities.
Book ahead for Balloons over Bagan’s popular morning sorties, which operate in the October to March dry season.
8. Cappadocia, Turkey
The unearthly landscape of Cappadocia in central Turkey just begs you to take the long view. Almost treeless, this vast canvas for changing light is filled with rose and honey-tinted gorges, soft cliffs riddled with pigeons’ nests, rock monasteries and fairy chimneys, the whimsical shapes left by erosion. It’s hardly surprising that this is one of the world’s great ballooning centres. On a fine morning in the town of Göreme, you’ll see crowds of balloons taking to the sky. Join one for a dawn flight and float over pinnacles resembling castles, lions and more.
Kapadokya Balloons was the first ballooning company established in Göreme, and its pilots and safety standards are first-rate.
9. Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City
One of the world’s great public spaces, Bernini’s piazza was laid out between 1656 and 1667 for Pope Alexander VII. Seen from above, it resembles a giant keyhole with two semicircular colonnades, each consisting of four rows of Doric columns, encircling a giant ellipse that straightens out to funnel believers into the basilica. The effect was deliberate – Bernini described the colonnades as representing ‘the motherly arms of the church’. The scale of the piazza is dazzling: at its largest it measures 340m by 240m; there are 284 columns and, on top of the colonnades, 140 saints.
You can get a marvellous view of the piazza from the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.
10. Uffington White Horse, England
Britain has a number of ancient hill figures – large shapes etched into hillsides and filled with packed chalk – but this is by far the oldest, dating back 3000 years. Opinions differ as to its meaning; some have questioned whether it is actually a horse at all. The shape is certainly quite abstract, with an almost feline curve to it, but accounts from medieval times refer to it as a horse and it’s quite similar to horses on Iron Age coins. It may have been associated with the Celtic horse goddess Epona. The horse must be scoured regularly or the shape is quickly lost; it almost disappeared altogether in the 19th century.
The horse is in Oxfordshire. The best views of it are from the Vale of the White Horse. You can also see it from nearby Dragon Hill.