The list of the world’s wonders is continually growing and being reinterpreted but all are united by the awe they inspire in travelers, says Ben Lerwill
What makes a wonder of the world? A UNESCO World Heritage listing? A grand sense of enduring mystery? A certain number of annual visitors? The term itself has taken on a loose definition these days, being applied to everything from waterfalls to temples, but as a general rule it’s now used to refer to those sights, experiences and attractions that — through a mixture of scale, beauty or cultural importance — stand out as being, literally, a source of wonder.
The original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were more clearly defined. All were located around the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, mainly in present-day Greece and Egypt, and they stood as masterpieces of classical-era construction. Of the seven, today only the Great Pyramid of Giza remains intact. The original list came to prominence in the first and second centuries AD, and even then was aimed principally at travelers.
Over the generations, and particularly in recent years, the list has evolved and been reinterpreted. The semi-official New 7 Wonders of the World, announced in 2008 after a reported 100 million votes, comprised Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu, Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue, Petra in Jordan, the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum and the Great Wall of China. Meanwhile, voting is currently underway in VirtualTourist’s online campaign to find the eighth Wonder of the World. Candidates include the Empire State Building, Bellagio Fountains and the UK’s Stonehenge, alongside dozens of others.
“Thanks to social media, the list seems to have grown exponentially,” says Michael King, co-president of Great Getaways. And which of these wonders translates into the most bookings? “Machu Picchu sells very well,” he says. “It’s in Peru, so deemed safe, and it’s relatively easy to travel there. Other very popular sites are Iguazu Falls on the Brazil-Argentina border, the Great Wall of China, and Table Mountain in Cape Town. And the Giza pyramids will certainly be popular again when Egypt settles down politically.”
Although global greatest-hits packages do exist (one couple hit the news in early 2013 after booking a two-year tour of all 962 UNESCO World Heritage Sites), they’re uncommon. The attractions themselves tend to be bundled with nearby sights and activities rather than fellow ‘wonders’ — largely because of distances involved.
“I don’t do any marketing from a ‘wonders of the world’ standpoint,” says Csilla Dali of Global Voyages Inc. “Instead, I market a destination or a trip that may include one of these sites.” Here we’ve complied a list of some of the planet’s most jaw-dropping sights, from ancient and modern to man-made and natural.
Great Wall of China
Snaking across the peaks of northern China for over 5,000 miles, the Great Wall of China is as phenomenal a spectacle as it is a feat of ancient engineering. There’s arguably no man-made structure so immediately recognizable, and to see it is to marvel at the sheer ambition of its construction. It’s said there were once as many as 25,000 watchtowers.
Work began on the wall in the seventh century, but today its original purpose as a defensive barrier against Mongol invaders seems all the more extraordinary. Now it attracts, rather than repels, crowds, and the wall’s proximity to Beijing makes it an integral part of any China itinerary. The most heavily restored sections — particularly the most-visited stretch, at Badaling — are tourist-friendly, while tours also exist for those looking to walk on more remote, unrenovated parts of the wall.
Sample: Absolute China Tours offers a 10-day Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and Suzhou tour from $1,225 per person, including a trip to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. www.absolutechinatours.com
Petra: Hewn from sandstone in pre-Christian times, Petra is Jordan’s undisputed archaeological highlight — if not the entire Middle East’s. The long-deserted city, forgotten for close to a millennium, once acted as the capital of an ancient Arab dynasty. The intricately carved facade of the Khazneh, or treasury, is a particular marvel.
The Giza Pyramids: The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only original wonder of the ancient world that’s still standing, and an utterly majestic sight when seen in tandem with its two giant neighbors. In terms of their size, age and symbolism, there’s nowhere on earth to match these immense dynastic tombs.
Colosseum: You don’t need to have watched the movie Gladiator to feel the atmosphere that continues to emanate from Rome’s most famous historic sight. The handsome amphitheater, almost 2,000 years old, once held more than 50,000 blood-baying spectators. Sitting in the very heart of the Roman Empire, it was the largest structure of its era.
Chichen Itza: A popular cultural add-on for travelers heading to Mexico’s all-inclusive beach resorts, Chichen Itza was listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. The huge pre-Columbian city, built by the Mayans, boasts some incredible ruins, most notably in the form of the El Castillo stepped pyramid.
Taj Mahal: Built by a 17th-century Indian shah as a mausoleum for one of his wives — thereby earning it the nickname ‘the Epitome of Love’ — the Taj Mahal is a towering vision of white marble, combining Islamic, Hindu, Persian and Ottoman architectural styles to incredible effect. Visit, gaze and be awed.
Angkor Wat: The Khmer Empire was the most powerful in Southeast Asia from the ninth to the 13th century, and this dazzlingly sophisticated temple complex was at its center. Its Cambodian jungle location is spectacular — all the more so because the surrounding area reveals countless other age-old temples.
No matter how many magazine photos you’ve flicked through and how much TV footage you’ve seen, nothing quite prepares you for your first real-life sight of Uluru, the mighty monolith that looms out of Australia’s Red Centre.
With a staggering circumference of close to six miles and a timeless air of grandeur, ‘The Rock’ had been a sacred site for the Anangu Aboriginal people for millennia before it was first seen by colonial surveyors in the 1870s (who gave it its alternative name, Ayers Rock).
Famously, its rusty-red colors alter over the course of the day, morphing from deep ochre to radiant orange with the passage of the sun. Sunset viewing, often accompanied by a glass of something cold and bubbly, has become a classic Uluru activity, as has the ‘Sounds of Silence’ dinner under the stars. Any trip to the Australian outback, of course, is also a chance to learn more about the indigenous way of life and local Dreamtime legends.
Sample: Leaders in Travel offers a two-night Red Centre break, including accommodation at the five-star Sails In The Desert Hotel and a Uluru barbecue dinner, from $1,330 per person. www.leadersintravel.com
Grand Canyon: Carved out over millennia by the Colorado River, and reaching depths of over 5,900ft, the Grand Canyon is one of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders.
Halong Bay: A dreamy vista of sharp limestone peaks off the coast of Vietnam, Halong Bay contains close to 2,000 islands and features in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun.
Milford Sound: New Zealand’s South Island has no shortage of picturesque spots, but the mirror-calm surface of Milford Sound — overlooked by the near-perfect triangle of Mitre Peak — is surely the most beautiful.
Amazon Rainforest: The Amazon basin spans eight countries and is home to a vast number of flora and fauna species. Most of the jungle lies in Brazil, from where it’s possible to take various unforgettable adventures.
Salar de Uyuni: The largest salt flat on the planet, Salar de Uyuni stretches across western Bolivia and covers an unbelievable 4,600sq miles. When you also consider the whole thing sits at an altitude of almost 12,000ft, it’s a wonder indeed.
Victoria Falls: At the Zambia-Zimbabwe border the Zambezi River plummets into a 328ft-deep chasm forming one of the world’s great waterfalls. Other spectacular falls includes South America’s Iguaza, North America’s Niagara and the Caribbean’s Dunn’s River — the latter falls of Jamaica are widely considered one of the world’s most beautiful.
Shortly after work finished on the Eiffel Tower in 1889, the French writer Guy de Maupassant began taking his lunch in its panoramic restaurant. Why? He claimed it was the only spot in Paris from which he couldn’t see the tower. He wasn’t alone in hating the controversial structure when it first appeared, but it now stands as an icon for a city that attracts more tourists than any other on the planet.
Of course, it’s more than just its height that makes it special (although at 1,062ft, it’s taller than the Chrysler Building). There’s something about its perfect symmetry and the way it soars above the River Seine that make it the ultimate European emblem. Have your camera at the ready for its regular light displays, or, like Maupassant, enjoy a meal from its higher reaches.
Sample: Intrepid Vacations has a six-night Paris and Rome vacation, with three nights in each. Activities in Paris include a city tour and Seine cruise. From $1,828 per person. www.intrepid-vacations.com
Golden Gate Bridge: In 2010, the American Society of Civil Engineers named this San Francisco bridge one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. It’s not hard to see why; the iconic red bridge, which opened in 1937, remains a classic US icon.
Burj Al Arab: Dubai has buildings taller than the Burj Al Arab, but none that are quite so visually imposing. The sail-shaped ‘seven-star hotel’, which stands more than 1,000ft high, has become an instantly recognizable symbol for this fast-moving, ever-evolving tourist destination.
Bellagio Fountains: Recently named America’s top tourist attraction at TripAdvisor’s Traveler’s Choice Awards, the fountains outside the Bellagio Las Vegas resort have been entertaining visitors since 1998. There are over 1,200 of them, and their regular, choreographed afternoon and evening performances have now taken place more than 190,000 times.
Trans-Siberian Railway: The longest rail line in the world stretches from the Russian capital, Moscow, to the Sea of Japan, with lines branching off to China and Mongolia. The week-long journey to Beijing is a peerless way of getting a sense of the scale of the Siberian steppes.
Millau Viaduct: A marvel of engineering achievement that now stands as the highest road bridge in the world, the Millau Viaduct crosses the River Tarn in France’s Massif Central mountains. Its seven soaring pillars (the largest of which is taller than the Eiffel Tower) make it a genuine world-class spectacle.
Hong Kong Skyline: Hong Kong’s metamorphosis from fishing village to global financial powerhouse has been an incredible story, and the ranks of skyscrapers and banking towers standing sentry around Victoria Harbour are testament to the destination’s astonishing journey. Cross the harbor by ferry (or, better still, a traditional Chinese junk boat) to fully appreciate its gleaming beauty.
Walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Roundly considered one of the world’s top treks, the centuries-old Inca Trail is made all the more remarkable by the fact it culminates at one the planet’s most jaw-dropping historical sites: the hilltop citadel of Machu Picchu.
Peru is always a special place to visit, and to walk the four-day ‘Classic’ Inca Trail is an opportunity both to explore the country’s rich history and sample its most impressive landscapes, from cloud-forest and subtropical jungle to sacred mountain peaks.
You don’t have to walk the Inca Trail to reach Machu Picchu, of course. The Orient-Express Hiram Bingham Train carries visitors to the site from the town of Cusco, giving a luxury alternative to arriving by foot, but if you have the time and energy to complete the trail, it’s an undertaking you’re never likely to forget. Some of the camping on offer en route is very comfortable. It pays to know that daily trekking numbers are limited each season, so booking ahead is essential.
Sample: Surbound Expeditions has a 10-day Peru expedition from $2,200 per person, including the classic four-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu and time to explore Cusco. www.surbound.com
Diving the Great Barrier Reef: The world’s largest coral reef sits off the eastern coastline of Australia, playing home to hundreds of tropical islands and an abundance of marine life. As somewhere to scuba dive or snorkel, it has few equals on the planet, thanks largely to its rainbow palette of colors.
Climbing in the Himalayas: The recent 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest has thrown fresh attention onto this imposing mountain range. And whether you’re trekking to Base Camp itself or exploring Nepalese valleys, it’s a region that never fails to amaze with its sense of grandeur.
Safari in Ngorongoro Crater: Sub-Saharan Africa is primed with world-class safari spots, but few can match the setting of Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest caldera (volcanic crater), where a wildlife tour holds the promise of lions, rhinos, hippos, wildebeest and flamingoes.
Cruising Antarctica: The Great White Continent, with its sublime icy landscapes and countless penguin colonies, holds almost mythical status among travelers. A cruise, crossing the fabled Drake Passage, is a rare chance to get up close to this remote, heart-stirring land of superlatives.
Traveling the Rocky Mountaineer: The Rocky Mountaineer ploughs picturesque routes in Western Canada, giving passengers the chance to spy grizzlies and other wildlife against the backdrop of the Rockies. When you factor in slick service and high-end food and drink, there’s much to recommend it.
Sailing the Galapagos: A trip to the Galapagos Islands means encountering the richly diverse archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. It has a secluded location, 600 miles off Ecuador, although it’s the fauna that takes prime billing, from iguanas and giant tortoises to sea lions and finches.
PUBLISHED IN THE FALL 2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork