A la natural: top ten natural sights

When travelling, I usually do as most others do; city-hop. I’ve lived almost all of my life in a big city and they’re usually the places I love exploring the most – much of history has happened in cities (yeah, yeah, historians can have a nice, long debate about that) and that’s what I’m normally drawn towards.

But sometimes you need a bit of fresh air. This is when countries come alive; out in the country itself, with its natural beauty on show. Some of my favourite travelling memories have come from day trips, whether they be to glitzy Monaco, to see the world’s biggest Buddha in Leshan, or to play the tables in Macau.

You usually just have to get up a bit early and work out some form of transportation. Needless to say, neither of those things come naturally to me.

As I’ve been publishing these lists, I haven’t stopped moving about, really. Paul and I went to the German cities of Hamburg and Bremen last week; Sinterklaas dropped in for a visit and I’ve just gotten back from (shock, horror) Belgium where I visited World War I battlefields. Blogs to come!

Next: Favourite stadiums

10. Tuscany Region, Italy
I’d heard things about Tuscany before. I’d heard it was lovely. That there were villas there. People liked to drive sports cars around. You could drink some nice wine. And the Maestro from Seinfeld owned some property in the region. All good things, yes? There’s something very romantic about it all. The rolling hills, the picturesque towns; it seems the most Italian of all of the country’s regions.

tuscany A la natural: top ten natural sights

Ooh, Tuscany!

9. Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, China
Just like Santorini this isn’t strictly a natural site, but hey I’ll break my own rules. A few hours away from Guilin lie these hills which were carved out into rice terraces more than five hundred years ago and are truly spectacular. Or, at least, I think they are. I’d seen pictures before and thought good-o, I’ll go there, only to climb about 1,300 steps to view a blanket of fog. It became clearer the lower you climbed, where villagers in traditional dress would strategically sell their wares.

rice A la natural: top ten natural sights

What a view!

8. Killarney National Park, Ireland
Back in 2007 I didn’t ride bikes. So instead I opted to explore part of Killarney National Park by foot – yes, this girl who flinches at any mention of physical activity. There’s something pretty special about leaving a modern town in Killarney, meandering through pristine nature and coming to a clearing which brings you to the doorstep of the 500-year old Ross Castle.

killarney A la natural: top ten natural sights

Feet very sore at this point.

7. Loch Ness, Scotland
I don’t have a very good imagination. I studied history; I need to know that things actually happened. I don’t even particularly like cartoons. So a monster which lives in a lake? Yeah right. Even so, I kept my distance from the water’s edge. On a cool spring morning, the lake was perfectly still. In an under-populated area, it was so quiet it was almost loud. The water was almost black. If there’s ever going to be a monster who lives in a lake, it will be in Loch Ness. (NB: this photo was not taken in black and white.)

lochness A la natural: top ten natural sights

Eerie Loch Ness.

6. Miyajima, Japan
An island off the coast near Hiroshima, Miyajima is known for its resident deer, a sprawling temple complex and the simple red torii gate seemingly floating in the water. Most people go at the wrong time of day when the tide makes the torii sit and ponder life in the mud. I’d come from Beppu that day and got in quite a bit later and was therefore treated to the picture-postcard view.

miyajima A la natural: top ten natural sights

Torii on Miyajima.

5. Santorini, Greece
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a beautiful island as Santorini. I’d heard that it had black sand, and lo and behold, it actually does. I meant to spend a couple of nights on the island before moving on; instead I stayed a full week, snapping the place from every conceivable angle, and pretty much had to drag myself back to Athens. Seeing the sunset whilst driving (yes, driving) a four-wheeled moped won’t escape my mind easily.

santorini A la natural: top ten natural sights

Perfect Santorini.

4. Ko Phi Phi Leh, Thailand
I’m a bit of a sucker for a nice sunset and the one off Ko Phi Phi Leh was definitely up there. Leh is the uninhabited of the two Phi Phi islands (the other being Don) and seemingly perfectly preserved, with the white sandy beaches you’d think only exist inside tourist brochures.

kophiphi A la natural: top ten natural sights

Paradise perhaps?

3. Li River, China
Also not far from Guilin is the magnificent Li River, now the most picturesque river in China since the Yangtze has been dammed. Most tourists on my boat were too cold to head up to the deck, but I decided that having a cold for the next week was worth the views on the top. Even better than the proper cruise was the bamboo raft cruise you can take from the quirky little village of Yangshuo.

yulong A la natural: top ten natural sights

What we all search for in China; a bit of calm amongst the chaos.

2. Jungfrau (Top of Europe), Switzerland
In 2007 I visited the Swiss Alps with Steph, bummed out at not being able to afford the extravagant cost of scaling Jungfrau by train. Fast-forward four years and there I was, in the last days of our guide training trip. The railway was constructed in 1912 which is incredibly hard to believe; meanwhile in 2011 we’re still squabbling about extending the Epping line less than five kilometres. The view from the top needs to be seen to be believed; it’s almost as if scenery like this is hiding somewhere, somehow seen only from aeroplane windows. They call it the Top of Europe (the line through Tibet is higher) and it feels just that.

jungfrau A la natural: top ten natural sights

The top of Europe!

1. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
When planning our trip to Southeast Asia, Paul and I were keen to see some nature between all the city-hopping. We squeezed a trip to northern Vietnam into our already bulging itinerary, keen to get a peek at the famous Ha Long Bay. You see this bay on countless movies aiming to show an unnamed part of Southeast Asia; it’s as if it sums up the beauty of the region in one go. The best way to see the area is on an overnight stay on a junk boat; you can explore the nearby karst hills, head into caves, kayak around yourself and be gently rocked to sleep on the water.

halongbay A la natural: top ten natural sights

Worth the climb!

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