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10 Record-Breaking Bridges

By Beth Collins
November 7, 2011
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
SFCVB Photo by P. Fuszard
They’re the biggest, the boldest, the busiest—each of these bridges accomplishes a feat so fantastic our ancestors wouldn't have believed it possible. Yes, they're miracles of engineering, but they're also a testament to human creativity, seamlessly integrating function with style.

Too often, man-made structures mar the landscape around them. A factory cuts a harsh silhouette against a once-picturesque riverbank; a gaudy hotel sprawls onto an otherwise pristine beach. But somehow, bridges do the opposite. Instead of detracting from the view, they enhance it. A valley that you might have overlooked on its own is suddenly breathtaking with a gleaming white bridge spanning it; an uninspiring river becomes grand when traversed by an elegant steel structure. Add to that the engineering prowess that goes into building them, and bridges become destinations in and of themselves. We've rounded up 10 of the most remarkable examples here, along with insider tips on how best to experience them.

SEE THE BRIDGES THAT MADE THE LIST.

1. TALLEST: MILLAU, VIADUCT, FRANCE

Not long ago, Millau—a provincial town set between two limestone plateaus in the South of France—was known for little more than its traffic jams. Every July and August, the village would become jammed with travelers en route to their summer vacations in Spain. But thanks to the Millau Viaduct, the town is now home to one of the country's major tourist attractions. Seventeen years in the making, from the first sketches in 1987 to the final touches in 2004, the Millau Viaduct is an architectural feat in more ways than one. Sure, it is held up by the highest pylons in the world (803 feet high) and has the highest road-bridge deck in Europe (886 feet). But, most importantly, it reaches 1,125 feet at its highest point, making it the tallest bridge in the world (for reference, New York's Chrysler Building is only 1,046 feet tall). Impressive stats, to be sure, but it's the bridge's visual effect that has the most impact. Gleaming white and ultra-sleek, it cuts a striking figure against the green valley below and the blue skies above.
Best Vantage Point:
Millau Viaduct is closed to pedestrians, but if you're a runner you can sign up for La Course du Viaduc de Millau, a 14-mile race that crosses the bridge. Barring that, hop in a car. The bridge was designed with a slight curve, so you can see it in its entirety just before you cross over. course-viaducdemillau.org.

2. WIDEST: SYDNEY HARBOUR BRIDGE, AUSTRALIA 

Measuring 160 feet across, this suspension bridge has room for eight lanes of traffic, two railroad tracks, a pedestrian walkway, and a bicycle path. A bit much? Not when you consider that the bridge connects Sydney's business district with the residential North Shore, making it the primary route for the city's commuters. A bridge built to accommodate such volume would seem a modern-day creation, but Sydney Harbour Bridge opened back in 1932—it will celebrate its 80th birthday in 2012.
Best Vantage Point:
On the walkway at the eastern side of the bridge, you'll find the entrance to the Pylon Lookout, a tower with some of the best views of Sydney and the harbor. As you climb the 200 stairs to the top, stop on each of the three levels to check out the exhibits on the history of the bridge. pylonlookout.com.au, $11.

3. LONGEST: DANYANG-KUNSHAN GRAND BRIDGE, CHINA 

When it comes to bridges, China doesn't mess around—the country is home to 11 of the world's 15 longest. Three of the top five bridges are part of the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway, a $33 billion project that will nearly double the capacity of the route to 80 million annual passengers. Opened to the public in June 2011, the Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge ranks as the world's longest. It stretches an astonishing 102.4 miles—that's longer than the distance between New York City and Philadelphia!
Best Vantage Point:
This is a railroad bridge, so the only way to experience it is by hopping aboard the train. Thankfully, the high-speed rail travels up to 186 mph, cutting what used to be a 10-hour trip to a much more manageable five hours. trains.china.org.cn, from $89 one way.

4. MOST TRAFFIC: GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE, NEW YORK 

Last year, 51 million cars, buses, and trucks traveled eastbound across the George Washington Bridge, which connects Manhattan and New Jersey over the Hudson River. Every one of New York City's 8 million residents would have to cross the bridge over six times to hit that number. Fortunately, the bridge is built to accommodate this kind of record-breaking activity, with a total of 14 lanes of traffic (eight on the upper level, six on the lower level). Of course, this statistic only takes into account motorized vehicle traffic. If you count absolutely everything that crosses the bridge, the unofficial winner is the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata, India. The eight-laner is traversed by an estimated 80,000 vehicles, as many as 1 million pedestrians—and countless cows each day.
Best Vantage Point: There are additional lanes on either side of the George Washington Bridge for pedestrians and cyclists, but that puts you too close to the action to get a good view. Instead, take the Circle Line's Full Island Cruise, a three-hour tour that circles the entire island of Manhattan and passes under seven bridges, including the George Washington Bridge. Boats leave throughout the day, but hold out for an evening departure so you'll be able to see the bridge lit up against the night sky. circleline42.com, $36.

5. LONGEST SUSPENSION: AKASHI KAIKYO (OR PEARL) BRIDGE, JAPAN 

Imagine an iconic bridge (the Golden Gate, for example), and chances are you've thought of a suspension bridge. These elegant structures are formed by literally "suspending" the road deck from steel cables strung between towers. This style will never measure as far as other types—viaducts like the Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge are supported from below by pylons and can thus stretch as long as needed—but suspension bridges rank among the lightest, strongest, and most beautiful bridges in the world. At nearly four times the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, Japan's Akashi Kaikyo Bridge (also known as the Pearl Bridge) is the clear winner in this category. With three connected spans—two at 3,150 feet and one at 6,532 feet—the Pearl stretches a total of 12,831 feet across the Akashi Strait from the cosmopolitan port city of Kobe to Awaji Island (which, not coincidentally, is the hub of Japan's pearl industry). Japan gets hit with extreme weather conditions, and this bridge, completed in 1998, was built to withstand them all, including winds up to 179 mph and earthquakes up to 8.5 on the Richter scale. But that doesn't mean this bridge isn't a beauty: In addition to its connection to the Japanese pearl industry, the bridge gets its nickname from the lights on its cables, which are said to resemble a strand of colorful pearls at night.
Best Vantage Point:
From the Kobe side of the bridge, take an elevator to the Maiko Marine Promenade. The 984-foot tubular observation deck offers views of the strait, the bridge's interior, and Osaka Bay.

6. MOST PHOTOGRAPHED: GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE, CALIFORNIA 

With its trademark "international orange" paint, its picturesque surroundings, and the daily rolling in of the morning fog, it should come as no surprise that the Golden Gate Bridge is said to be the most photographed in the world. David Crandall, assistant professor of informatics and computing at Indiana University, thinks the numbers back up this claim. In a recent study, he tracked text tags for nearly 35 million images on Flickr to determine which world sights were shot the most. While other bridges—namely London's Tower Bridge, Florence's Ponte Vecchio, and New York's Brooklyn Bridge—were close runners-up, two simple facts gave the San Francisco structure a winning edge: geography and size. The City of Hills has so many vantage points—and the bridge is such a looming presence in the skyline—that the Golden Gate manages to sneak into scores of photos, even when it's not the intended subject. Trying to take a shot of the Presidio? The harbor? The city skyline? There's a good chance the Golden Gate might make an appearance, whether as the main focal point or just a happy accident.
Best Vantage Point:
At Kirby Cove, in the Marin headlands north of the city, you get the trifecta: a spectacular view, a healthy dose of nature, and no crowds. To get there from Highway 101, take the last exit for Sausalito and follow Conzelman Road until you reach the parking area on the left. From there, walk down the steep dirt path lined with eucalyptus and cypress trees until you reach the cove.

7. LONGEST COVERED: HARTLAND COVERED BRIDGE, NEW BRUNSWICK, CANADA 

When the Canadian government was being wishy-washy about whether or not to build a bridge across the St. John River, a group of private citizens took matters into their own hands. They formed the Hartland Bridge Company and opened the 1,282-foot-long bridge in 1901. Five years later, in what had to be a vindicating we-told-you-so moment, they sold it to the government, who took over all maintenance. Though covered bridges are now seen as quaint and old-fashioned, the icon's construction was not without its share of controversy. Shelter made sense in terms of weather—snow and ice are a sure thing throughout the winters here—but the public worried it would encourage risqué behavior among the town's youth. In the end, it was covered, and perhaps their fears were warranted: Legend has it, men would train their horses to stop halfway across the bridge so they could sneak in a kiss before crossing over to the other side.
Best Vantage Point:
There's something about a covered bridge that demands you take it slow. Rather than speed across in a car, take the walkway that was added in 1945.

8. MOST BRICKS USED: GOLTZSCH VALLEY, GERMANY 

At 1,860 feet long, or about one third of a mile, the Goltzsch Valley Bridge in the eastern German state of Saxony may seem like a minor player in the bridge world. But the length isn't what sets it apart; it's the material. At a time when most bridges were built with stone or metal, this one was built with bricks—20 million of them. It would be an odd (and costly) choice of material in most places, but in this area of Saxony, where there were several large clay deposits, it was an economical one. In fact, it's thanks to those same clay deposits that the second-largest brick bridge in the world, the Elster Valley Bridge, is also in Saxony; it's a quaint counterpart, made with only 12 million bricks.
Best Vantage Point: Take the autobahn to the town of Mylau, and follow the signs to the bridge from there. You'll find a designated parking lot, but don't stay there. Instead, take the path on the left-hand side just before the lot. It will lead you to a meadow, where you'll get spectacular views of the bridge.

9. LONGEST FOOTBRIDGE: WALKWAY OVER THE HUDSON STATE HISTORIC PARK, NEW YORK 

When this 6,767-foot-long steel cantilever railroad bridge opened in 1889 over the Hudson River, it ranked as the longest bridge in the world. It carried trains across the river for 85 years until a fire damaged the tracks in 1974, forcing it to close. Thirty-five years later, after several false starts at restoration, a nonprofit group called Walkway Over the Hudson reopened the bridge, this time as a pathway for pedestrians and cyclists, in October 2009. Now a state historic park, the Walkway Over the Hudson is the longest footbridge in the world, serving as a link between trails on both sides of the river for walkers, runners, cyclists, and rollerbladers.
Best Vantage Point:
In the fall, the leaves turn the banks of the Hudson into a collage of reds, oranges, and yellows. Picnic on one of the tables at either end of the bridge before strolling across, giving yourself plenty of time to snap photos along the way. walkway.org.

10. OLDEST: CARAVAN BRIDGE, TURKEY 

At first glance, there's nothing remarkable about this bridge. The arched stone slab straddling the River Meles, in Izmir, Turkey, extends only 42½ feet and is about as simple as they come. But it's the age, not the physical aspects, of the Caravan that sets it apart. Built in 850 B.C., the bridge is 2,861 years old and has reportedly been crossed by the likes of Homer and Saint Paul. As impressive as some of the other bridges on this list are, it's hard to imagine they'll last even half that long.
Best Vantage Point: Located in old Izmir, the bridge is best reached by taxi. Simply ask your driver to take you to "Sarnic," which is the Turkish name for the bridge. We recommend going during the afternoon, when the light is best for photography.

 

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12 Best Places You've Never Heard of

1. LORD HOWE ISLAND, AUSTRALIA  RECOMMENDED BY Charles Veley, founder of most traveledpeople.com. Trekked more than 2 million miles (so far) on his quest to see each country, territory, dependency, and island in the world. Charles Veley likes Lord Howe Island so much that he's been there twice. That means something for a man on a mission to collect every passport stamp in the world. The crescent-shaped island, a two-hour flight northeast of Sydney, is just seven miles from tip to tip, with a long white stretch of lagoon beach at its center and emerald green mountains at either end. Veley recommends renting a bicycle at Wilson's Hire Service (011-61/2-6563-2045, bikes from $5 a day), picking up lunch at Thompsons General Store (011-61/2-6563-2155, wraps from $6.75), and circling the island.  Don't miss the starfish in the tide pools near the lagoon and the hand-fed fish at the lovely and secluded Neds Beach. Wherever you go, you're not going to get lost; there's just one main street and only 18 small-scale hotels such as the 19-room bungalow-style Leanda Lei Apartments (leandalei.com.au, doubles from $165). "It's just you and fabulous white sand with the most beautiful palm trees all around."   CLICK HERE TO SEE THE 12 SECRET DESTINATIONS YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF   2. SAINT-SAUVANT, FRANCE  RECOMMENDED BY Zane Lamprey, host of Spike TV's Three Sheets. Hunts for bars, beers, drinking customs, and all things alcoholic for his televised, around-the-world pub crawl. He's downed Mekhong whiskey in Bangkok and vodka shots in a Moscow bathhouse. Yet for all the cocktailing bluster, it comes as a surprise that Zane Lamprey's favorite destination is quiet Saint-Sauvant (population: 517), in the heart of cognac country: "It's my fantasy version of France." Saint-Sauvant is a quintessential 14th-century village, with a fortified tower, four winding streets, and only one place to stay, the Design Hôtel des Francs Garçons. Outside, the hotel looks like any medieval building: thick walls, wood shutters, and a tiled roof. But inside, a team of seven French, American, and British architects has transformed everything. The reception is a modernist forest with black-and-white wallpaper hand-printed with leafless trees. Out back, a swimming pool abuts the village's 12th-century Romanesque church, a French cultural monument. There's not much else to Saint-Sauvant, which is fine with Lamprey. "They have a pace of life I could get accustomed to," he says. "Lunch lasts for at least two hours, and it may just be two pieces of bread and some ham and cheese. But for some reason, it takes the French a long time to eat a sandwich." francsgarcons.com, doubles from $127. 3. KEAHIAKAWELO, LANAI, HAWAII  RECOMMENDED BY Valerie Yong Ock Kim, film-location scout and professional photographer. Has scouted exotic spots for scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean, The Tempest, and Batman Forever, among other films. You need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to Keahiakawelo, which could easily stand in for the surface of Mars in a Hollywood blockbuster. On the northwest side of Lanai-the least populated of the Hawaiian Islands-the sweep of red rock gardens and giant boulders pops against a backdrop of blue skies and ocean. "I don't know of any place else like it," says Valerie Yong Ock Kim. "The wind actually rolls the rocks around." Being in Hawaii, you can certainly decamp to the beach, but it's far more interesting to visit with Kepa Maly, the executive director of the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center (lanaichc.org, admission free). "He makes the trip worth it," Kim says. "He knows all the stories." You can also get your fill of Hawaiian culture at Hotel Lanai's Lanai City Grille, where the menu is the work of Beverly Gannon, a founder of Hawaii's regional-cuisine movement (hotellanai.com, doubles from $99, pulled-pork wontons $11). From your table, it's just steps to a plantation-style room at the hotel, where your dreams will likely be the stuff of fiery myths. 4. SUCRE, BOLIVIA  RECOMMENDED BY Laura Aviva, owner of L'Aviva Home. Tracks down indigenous, handcrafted housewares for hotels and interior designers, and for her online boutique, lavivahome.com. Sucre has year-round high temperatures in the mid-70s and a collection of whitewashed buildings that have earned it the name La Ciudad Blanca. But it's the culture that Laura Aviva found most alluring on a recent trip. "Even functional items like potato sacks were woven with lovely striped patterns," Aviva says. After checking into the Parador Santa María La Real, "a little hidden gem of a place" with vaulted brick ceilings and interior courtyards, Aviva headed to nearby Potosí and Tarabuco: "The women emerged from their houses and started asking if I wanted to see their tejidos ['weavings']. It's a great cultural exchange-and an opportunity to pick up some amazing textiles." parador.com.bo, from $78. 5. TUSHETI, GEORGIA  RECOMMENDED BY Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers adventure travel company. Explores Niger, Laos, Pakistan, and beyond for trips to the world's most remote locations. You won't want to go to Tusheti if you're afraid of heights. Hidden deep in the Caucasus Mountains, the region's villages cling to dizzyingly steep slopes that are as picturesque as they are precarious. That's all part of the allure to Jonny Bealby, a Brit who has trekked across the Hindu Kush and journeyed on horseback along the Silk Road. Of Georgia's Tusheti region, the inveterate adventurer describes a land "with centuries-old defensive towers, mountaintop castles, and stone shrines," some of which, like Guest House Lamata, are being transformed into basic lodgings with simple wooden furniture. Newly open to visitors after the dissolution of the USSR and Georgia's Rose Revolution of 2003, Tusheti can now be explored on foot or from the saddle of a sure-footed horse. In fact, livestock is as common here as the fog. There are sheep grazing in almost every nook and cranny, from the rolling grasslands up near the ridged peaks down to the glacial lakes below them and all around the gorges coursing with white-water streams. You'll also pass through hamlets like Shenako, with a rough-hewn stone church and houses adorned with lacy wood balconies. At night, you'll be well entertained by the locals, whom Bealby describes as "the most hospitable and fun people in the world. There will be lots of toasting and playing of accordions. And you will find yourself drinking chacha, the local firewater, out of a ram's horn. You will just have to go with it." tourism-association.ge, doubles $15, doubles with three meals $30, horse rentals $21 a day, guides an additional $21 a day. 6. EASTERN ANTIOQUIA, COLOMBIA  RECOMMENDED BY Marta Calle, director of CB2. Commissions craftsmen and manufacturers across India, China, and Europe to create housewares for Crate & Barrel's lower-priced line. Marta Calle is on the move so much that it's fitting her favorite place is a road-the Vuelta al Oriente, in Colombia. The looping, daylong drive starts in Medellín at the Vía Las Palmas and heads southeast into the surrounding Andean towns before circling back to the city. "I've never seen so many shades of green in my life," Calle says. "Everywhere you look, there are flowers-orchids literally growing on trees." In El Retiro, 21 miles from Medellín, a sweet little guesthouse called Hotel La Antigua sits amid historic districts flanked by plazas and caballeros on horseback (hotelantiguacasona.com, doubles from $65). Calle's favorite stop is Artesanías Caballo de Troya, a shop filled with watertight woven baskets, ponchos, and birdhouses (artesaniascaballodetroyamedellin.com, ponchos from $7). The rare restaurant with a name, Queareparaenamorarte, has the feel of a colonial house and is run by Julián Estrada, a self-proclaimed food anthropologist who sources traditional Colombian dishes (arepamor.com, lunch from $12). The arepas are served with butter, filled with cheese, or paired with chicharrón-crispy fried pork rinds. "Wherever you go, three old guys with guitars come up and they play," Calle says. "They all sound the same, they all look the same, and they all know the same songs. No matter how old you are, everyone starts singing." 7. VERDUNO, ITALY  RECOMMENDED BY Rob Kaufelt, owner of Murray's Cheese, a New York fixture for 70 years. Explores cheese-making regions—Ireland, France, England, Spain, Italy—for artisanal products. One of the best dinners of Rob Kaufelt's life-and as a guy who essentially eats for a living, there have been plenty of great ones-was in the Piedmontese village of Verduno. "I was staying at the Castello di Verduno, and the restaurant there was just incredible," Kaufelt says. He describes plates full of white-truffled pasta dishes. Dinner was served in a red-walled dining room with soaring ceilings in a crumbling 18th-century castle. In good weather, you can decamp to the palm-dotted garden to sip Barolo made from local grapes and cellared in barrels beneath the hotel. The Castello makes an ideal base for a foodie pilgrimage through Piedmont. "The whole region is teeming with good food-I almost smashed up my car when a family of wild boars went running across the road in front of me once," Kaufelt says. castellodiverduno.com, sage-grilled trout, $24. 8. DOE BAY, WASHINGTON  RECOMMENDED BY Alex Calderwood, founder of Ace Hotels. Converts distressed properties (a bus station, a Salvation Army depot) into boutique hotels in New York and along the West Coast. Before he opened his first Ace Hotel in Seattle in 1993, Alex Calderwood threw a popular series of warehouse parties. His ability to define and create "cool" has organically grown into not just the Ace franchise, but also Rudy's, an old-school barbershop with 14 locations across the West Coast; and a marketing agency called Neverstop. To fuel all of his endeavors, Calderwood travels constantly, collecting ideas on what he likes-and doesn't. Over time, a theme has emerged: He's drawn to laid-back spots that blend high- and low-culture influences. Doe Bay, on Washington State's Orcas Island, is just his kind of place. "It's got a great blend of hippie kids mixed in with older hikers and naturalists," Calderwood says. The small inlet on the Pacific Ocean is home to an unassuming resort of the same name. "Doe Bay isn't a design spot. You're not going there to get pampered. There's nothing pretentious about it-and that's exactly what makes it great," Calderwood says. "It just feels right." Doe Bay's reception building looks like an old general store-albeit one festooned with colorful flags-and beyond that there's a small clutch of yurts, campsites, and old-fashioned cabins sprinkled through the woods and along the shore. For Calderwood, it's the sauna and hot- and cold-water soaking pools that bring him back. "The pools sit on a platform that overlooks the most incredible view of the bay, with other islands off in the distance. When you're done with the pool, you can run down a little path and jump straight into the sound." When not taking the waters, Calderwood takes a hike-to the top of Mount Constitution or to Mountain Lake in Moran State Park. "If you imagine a quintessential 1940s postcard of a fishing lake," Calderwood says, "this is it." doebay.com, campsites from $45, cabins from $80, yurts from $85. 9. WUPPERTAL, SOUTH AFRICA  RECOMMENDED BY Sarah Scarborough, buyer for the Republic of Tea company. Works with the Rainforest Alliance and the Ethical Tea Partnership to find new products worldwide. Sarah Scarborough has lived from Alaska to New Zealand, and she's touched down on all continents. But the one place that thrills her every time is the South African town of Wuppertal, four hours northeast of Cape Town. She happened upon it while sourcing rooibos tea, which is made from bushes that grow in the surrounding Cederberg Mountains. "It's a pure, wild scene," says Scarborough, who is often greeted by farmers lugging their produce to market on donkey carts. "The air has a very minerally quality, and you can see forever." Despite the arid landscape, there's water everywhere. "My favorite swimming hole on the entire planet is outside of town. It's a bit of a treacherous climb down the side of a cliff to reach the water, but once you descend you can sunbathe on a water-worn rock in the shallows, play under the waterfall, then rest in the shade of cedar trees with the big blue sky above you," Scarborough says. For the evening, she recommends staying in one of the town's several cottages or pitching a tent at the Algeria Campground on the Rondegat River. "I've never been to a more perfect place to gaze at the stars." capenature.org.za, campsites from $24, four-person cottages from $62. 10. NAMJE, NEPAL  RECOMMENDED BY Stephanie Odegard, founder and president of Odegard Inc. Works with craftsmen to create a line of hand-knotted carpets that preserve native handicraft traditions. there are No roads to Namje. The only way to get to the Nepalese village is along a series of footpaths with views of Mount Makalu, the world's fifth-tallest peak. Not that getting to those footpaths is easy; you'll have to wrangle a flight from Kathmandu to the town of Biratnagar, which is itself an hour's drive from the trailhead. Buddha Air offers daily flights from Kathmandu to Biratnagar, the closest access point to Namje (buddhaair.com, one-way $125). It's no surprise that the place only sees a handful of outsiders a year. Stephanie Odegard came upon it while she was searching for local women to harvest fiber for her rug company. "After my trip to Namje," she says, "I felt like I'd never been farther away from home." Namje's isolation has been its saving grace. "The native Magar people live very close to nature, and there's an incredible amount of spiritual activity," Odegard says. You can climb to the top of Thumki Hill and visit the sacred burial ground where the villagers, who still practice animism, worship their ancestors. Odegard suggests staying at the Hotel Himalaya and trekking the footpaths between villages to catch the stunning sunrises and sunsets (kblimbu@ntc.net.np, doubles $8). 11. BUFFALO, WYOMING RECOMMENDED BY Andy Holak, cofounder of the Adventure Running Company. Searches for backcountry tour routes that feature grazing bison, mountain lakes, and stunning peaks. An accomplished ultramarathoner, Andy Holak thinks nothing of running 50 miles in a day. On a recent long-haul race to Dayton, Wyo., he discovered Buffalo and immediately decided it was one of his favorite outdoorsy gems: "Buffalo has that nice mix of cowboys and kayakers." The town's undiscovered status means you'll have the trails to yourself, and its superb location at the foot of the Bighorns offers immediate access to some of the best recreation areas in the country. "It's one of the closest jumping-off points for climbing Cloud Peak," Holak says; at 13,167 feet, Cloud Peak is the highest point in the Bighorn range. But even mellow day hikes are rewarded with dramatic endings here, such as the one found at Bucking Mule Falls, which plunges 600 feet down a steep rock face into Devil Canyon. Drives, too, are almost distractingly scenic. It's hard to top a cruise in the car out to Crazy Woman Canyon, where a narrow dirt road hugs a creek and steep rock walls cast a golden glow. Then there's the excellent rock climbing at Ten Sleep Canyon and the plentiful cross-country skiing trails in winter. It doesn't hurt that Main Street is movie-set picturesque, with rows of well-preserved mercantile shops and saloons from the late 1800s now transformed into art galleries and outdoor outfitters. Holak's evening routine: bison burgers at the Bozeman Trail Steakhouse (888/351-6732, bison burger $13), ice cream from Dirty Sally's (dirtysallys.com, cones from $2), and a room at the awesomely Old West Historic Occidental Hotel (occidentalwyoming.com, doubles from $50). 12. ILES DE LA MADELEINE, SENEGAL  RECOMMENDED BY Anne-Laure Behagel, kiva.org's regional development officer for West Africa. Arranges micro-credit loans for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and alleviate poverty. Anne-Laure Behagel has always loved islands. "I'm a sailor, and I'm impressed at how these marvels just pop up ou tof the sea," she says. Her current obsession? The Iles de la Madeleine, a pair of spiky, uninhabited outcroppings 2.5 miles off the coast of Dakar in Parc National des Iles de la Madeleine (admission and boat trip $9). "You'll wonder how on earth you'll manage to disembark with all those cliffs, but just when you expect it the least, a narrow passage opens onto a small lagoon," Behagel says. Climb the black volcanic peaks to spy on nesting cormorants and rare, red-billed tropic birds in the dwarf baobab trees. Once the sunset, La Cabane du Pêcheur, back on the mainland, provides an excellent refuge (011-221/33-820-7675, doubles from $77). SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: 10 New Wonders of the World 15 Places Every Kid Should See Before 15 10 Islands to See Before You Die 4 Most Common Reasons Airlines Lose Luggage 5 Credit Cards Every Traveler Should Consider

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10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2011

Once in a while, you discover a town that has everything—great coffee, food with character, shop owners with purpose. Each year, the Budget Travel team celebrates these places with our "Coolest Small Towns in America" competition. It starts with a call to you—our readers—to nominate the most interesting towns you know with populations of less than 10,000. From there, our editorial team whittles the selections down to the three most promising contenders. It's then up to you to vote on your favorite. This year's winner was Lewisburg—an irresistible small town in West Virginia. Each of the nine runners up has something special to offer, from the quiet, artistic enclave at La Pointe, Wisconsin to the scenic beaches of Astoria, Oregon. In honor of the sixth anniversary of our "Coolest Towns" franchise, we've also compiled a slideshow of all of the contenders from previous years. You won't find a more charming slice of small town Americana than you will right here. 1. LEWISBURG, WEST VIRGINIA (POPULATION 3,830) Arts in AppalachiaA small town is usually lucky if there's a decent one-screen movie theater, maybe a community dance troupe. But a Carnegie Hall? This speck on the map in the Greenbrier River Valley lays claim to one of only four in the world (105 Church St., carnegiehallwv.com, ticket prices vary). The 1902 building now serves as Lewisburg's creative control tower, attracting an unlikely band of artistic characters, back-to-the-land types, and retirees. Jeanne and Michael Christie embody Lewisburg's blend. The duo run the Davenport House B&B, where guests can bottle-feed one of the property's baby lambs after taking coffee and breakfast on their private patio (Tibbiwell Lane, off of Davis Stuart Rd., thedavenporthouse.com, one-bedroom cottage from $120). Michael is a painter whose work has shown in New York City's Hoorn-Ashby gallery, and Jeanne is the former director of front-office operations at the Greenbrier hotel, 10 miles down the road. "You know, you always think of the ideal American town, where the kids are safe, the streets are clean. We have that, but we also have Wynton Marsalis coming through," says Jeanne, who'd just finished a morning of shearing sheep. While Michael is a seventh-generation West Virginian, many of their friends and neighbors are newer to the community, drawn in large part by the creative atmosphere anchored by Carnegie. For example, Hall Hitzig, who goes by the moniker the Crazy Baker, came in 1986 and "never looked back" (thecrazybaker.com). Now, he makes granola in the nearby mountains—and sells it everywhere from Puerto Rico to Arkansas. Hitzig's sticky toffee cake also wins raves at Lewisburg's sunny Stardust Café (102 E. Washington St., stardustcafewv.com, cake slice $8). At Stardust, co-run by Hitzig's twin sister, Destiny, and her daughter Sparrow, glasses are filled with "local spring water" (don't call it tap), and the greens are cultivated largely in local gardens. Lewisburg's arts scene is hardly limited to traditional performers like Marsalis; next door to Stardust, for instance, Tamera Pence identifies the potter of each espresso mug at her year-old emporium, Bella the Corner Gourmet (100 E. Washington St., bellathecornergourmet.com, mugs from $14). "We're very locally driven here," she explains. "And we're also a central hub. I have clients bringing their coolers in all the way from Charleston, more than two and a half hours away." -Nina Willdorf 2. ASTORIA, OREGON (POPULATION 9,477) Pioneers on the PacificAstoria has always been on the frontier, both the Lewis and Clark variety (they set up camp here in 1805) and the geographic (it sits both at the mouth of the Columbia River and in a teeming temperate rain forest). Sure, the place has prettied itself up nicely since those pioneer days with the addition of aging Victorians and craftsman-style bungalows, but the folks in sleepy coastal Astoria have never lost touch with their rough-and-tumble side. Take, for example, the surfers off of Astoria's scenic beaches, where ocean temperatures rarely break 60 degrees until midsummer. "You really have to suit up," says Mark Taylor, owner of Cold Water Surf (1001 Commercial St., coldwatersurf.com). "We're talking five-millimeter wet suits, gloves, and booties—but Astorians have always been a tough bunch!" Even the city's swankiest design hotel, the Commodore, embraces a decidedly masculine and nautical aesthetic (258 14th St., commodoreastoria.com, from $89). Reopened two years ago after being shuttered since 1966, the property pairs modern furnishings with sly nods to the city's history as a seaside cannery hub: thick braided ropes, nautical charts, and fishing floats. As afternoon rolls around, locals gather at the four-year-old Fort George Brewery + Public House for burgers made from local beef, as well as pints of the hoppy Vortex IPA, the Belgian-style Quick Wit ale, and as of this year, the 1811 Pre-Prohibition Lager, created in honor of Astoria's bicentennial (1483 Duane St., fortgeorgebrewery.com, pints from $4.25). You didn't really think these former pioneers would celebrate with champagne, did you? -Beth Collins 3. CLAYTON, NEW YORK (POPULATION 1,978) A River Runs to ItSome shore communities take their location for granted. Not so with Clayton. "I have lunch on the river every day," says Gregory Ingerson, a guide at the 320-ship Antique Boat Museum (750 Mary St., abm.org, admission $12). The curators are so proud of their nautical heritage that they use Q-tips to clean the exhibits, right down to the well-preserved heel marks in the floor of one turn-of-the-century houseboat. Clayton sits on a peninsula that juts out into the St. Lawrence River, so far north that the fire department's boat flies the American and Canadian flags. One of the benefits of that isolation is that the river itself is like a neighbor. In the summer, the old ferry terminal, where wealthy visitors once caught rides to their cottages on the Thousand Islands (birthplace of Thousand Island salad dressing), now hosts concerts. Out on the water, the family-run Ferguson Fishing Charters offers morning fishing trips followed by picnics on a private island, where a guide cooks the day's catch over a fire for lunch (fergusonfishingcharters.com, half-day charters for a group of four $325). Back on dry land, K's Motel & Cottages' two-night "ship watch special" includes a room, a two-and-a-half-hour boat cruise, admission to the Antique Boat Museum, and two meals (1075 State St., thousandislands.com/k, $159 per person). -Ray Pagliarulo 4. EUREKA SPRINGS, ARKANSAS (POPULATION 2,073) Honeymoons and MoreSure, you could sleep in one of the Queen Anne-style B&Bs, visit the monumental 67-foot-tall hilltop Christ of the Ozarks, catch a Branson-style show, or hunt for ghosts in the historic downtown. You could easily spend a week on the tourist circuit in this late-1800s Victorian spa retreat. But you'd never get to meet the real Eureka Springs. Eureka Springs may be the honeymoon capital of the Ozarks, but don't let the kitschy, heart-shaped Jacuzzis fool you. "The guy on the street corner playing fiddle?" says local artist Cathy Harris. "He is a trained concert violinist." "And those men at the bar just may be geniuses," adds Harris's husband, J.D., a sculptor with beaded gray dreadlocks. "We had a team win the international Mensa competition two years in a row." The current of creativity bubbles up just about everywhere, if you look hard enough. At the Eureka Thyme gallery, Marsha Havens skips the trinkets of other tourist traps in favor of works that draw on Ozark inspirations: wooden bowls made from found downed trees and clay bird whistles that warble like the real thing (19 Spring St., eurekathyme.com, wooden bowls from $50). You might even say that an artisan spirit is part of the recipe of Garden Bistro, where partners Lana Campbell and Robert Herrera draw from local ingredients for their Amish-style bread baked in flowerpots and unfussy plates of family-style veggies grown on her farm (119 N. Main St., 479/253-1281, pork chops $19). The biggest surprise of all may be the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, a palatial ivy-covered grand hotel with claw-foot tubs and manicured gardens (75 Prospect Ave., crescent-hotel.com, doubles from $129). From this perch, you'll be inclined to look back to see Eureka Springs, but the leafy Ozarks keep the valley all but hidden from view—an apt vista for a town dubbed Tree City USA. -Nicholas DeRenzo 5. LA POINTE, WISCONSIN (POPULATION 309) A Superior HamletIt's called the Island Wave, and to the folks on Madeline Island—a quiet, North Woods enclave of artists on Lake Superior—it means you greet everyone, even when you're driving. It's a lovely idea, but in summer it can get, well, dangerous. That's when La Pointe, the island's only town, swells with visitors. "The line goes out the door for hours on July 4th," says Marie Noha, owner of the Mission Hill Coffee House (105-106 Lakeview Pl., on Middle Rd., 715/747-3100, coffee $1.45). And then there's the winter, when the only way off Manhattan-size Madeline is by wind sled or ice road. Then the Island Wave becomes a way to connect to the outside world. "I don't mind the loneliness," says Amitty Romundstad, manager of the Inn on Madeline Island (641 Main St., madisland.com, doubles from $95). The literary and opera societies meet in the off-season, and occasionally there's a gorgeous show put on courtesy of the northern lights, when hearty La Pointe locals gather on the ice road to be dazzled together. "We're not a community," says novelist and boat captain Richard Coleman. "We're a tribe." -Debra Weiner 6. PHOENICIA, NEW YORK (POPULATION 309) A Riverside RetreatThe library in Phoenicia burned down this spring, and suddenly there were books everywhere. Not casualties of the fire, but boxes and boxes of donations to replace what was lost. Residents now check out books (and fishing poles) at the temporary library branch housed in the old medical building on Ava Maria Drive. Phoenicia may look like a one-street river town sandwiched between hills in New York's Catskills—it does a wicked tubing business in the summer—but it's got a bookish, cosmopolitan vibe in its soul. "It's not just crazy guys with cars in their yards," says Michael Koegel of Mama's Boy, a hip little cafe and smoothie bar (7 Church St., mamasboymarket.com, mac 'n' cheese $4.95). Like Koegel, many Phoenicians came from Manhattan, and they've brought a healthy dose of quirk with them. For instance, former New Yorker Alan Fliegel, who owns A Community Store, sells locally made clothing and underground comic books—and runs a well-stocked communal art gallery upstairs (60 Main St., 845/688-5395, comic books from $1). Yet like its library that loans fishing poles, Phoenicia hasn't lost touch with its down-home roots. If you spend the night at the cozy Phoenicia Lodge, you may feel like you've woken up in Mayberry (5987 Rte. 28, phoenicialodge.com, doubles from $70). You certainly will after breakfast at Sweet Sue's Restaurant (49 Main St., 845/688-7852, mixed-berry pancakes from $5.25). The pancakes (pumpkin, pineapple-coconut, and 20-plus other varieties) are legendary, as are the lines waiting to get inside. -R.P. 7. NEWTOWN BOROUGH, PENNSYLVANIA (POPULATION 2,384) Amish Country CharmNewtown Borough isn't the kind of place where you'd expect to see millionaires tooling around in a fancy car. In fact, the rural Bucks County burg is close enough to Amish Country that most of the convertibles around these parts are horses-and-buggies. But when Rick Krotz and his brother-in-law Bill Kane hit an astounding sort of daily doubl—Krotz won $607,000 on the Cash 5 lottery in 2006, and Kane netted $3 million from a single scratch-off ticket in 2009—this is exactly the place they wanted to be. Both men grew up nearby and had always loved Newtown's well-worn charms. It's home to the nation's oldest movie theater, Newtown Theatre, a 375-seat, red-brick treasure that's been in operation since 1906 (120 N. State St., newtowntheatre.com, tickets $9). The Brick Hotel, built in 1764 and still looking sharp decked out in hunter green shutters and striped awnings, is one of the few places that can honestly claim that George Washington slept here (1 E. Washington Ave., brickhotel.com, doubles from $80). And director M. Night Shyamalan likes the look of Newtown so much, he filmed Signs here in 2002. So last year, the lottery brothers bought Ned's Cigar Store (4 S. State St., nedscigar.com, cigars from $3). It's now filled with mahogany chairs, cherrywood cabinets—and a steady stream of hopeful lotto-ticket buyers. "I guess they think our luck might rub off on them," Krotz says. "That would really be the dream come true—to sell someone else a big winner." -Andrea Minarcek 8. CEDAR KEY, FLORIDA (POPULATION 896) Unspoiled on the GulfIf someone asked you where to get the best New England clam chowder, you might be inclined to say, "Duh, New England." You'd be wrong—by over 1,000 miles. For the past three years, the Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, R.I., has been won by Tony's Seafood Restaurant of Cedar Key (597 2nd St., tonyschowder.com, cup $4.65). In fact, the town is America's second-largest producer of farmed clams, one of many surprises in this two-square-mile hamlet 130 miles north of Tampa. Despite its prime location on the Gulf of Mexico, Cedar Key has escaped the pull of developers-its spit of beach isn't long enough to attract large-scale building projects. Instead, it still feels like a ramshackle, old fishing village straight out of Hemingway. "People always say it's like Key West 30 years ago," says innkeeper Ada Lang. Built in 1919 and restored in 2004, Ada's Wabi Sabi Cottage is a time-capsule example of a "Cracker" cottage, a style of wood-frame house popular in the 19th century (689 4th St., 352/543-5696, from $130). The last time outside developers set their sights on Cedar Key was in the late 1880s, when pencil makers carted off the island's namesake cedars. (There's still a bit left in the worn wooden exteriors of tackle shops and clam shacks on Dock Street.) If you're looking to catch your own lunch, Kayak Cedar Keys offers boats specially equipped with rod holders and anchors, perfect for whiling away hours in search of redfish and trout (kayakcedarkeys.com, rentals $50 per day). Weary paddlers can rest up at Point Cottage, an octagonal stilt house overlooking Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge (12218 Franko Circle, pointcottage.com, $179 a night, sleeps six). And there's always dinner at Tony's. The menu is extensive, but don't you dare skip the chowder: The recipe has been entered into the Great Chowder Cook-Off Hall of Fame. -N.D. 9. RIPON, WISCONSIN (POPULATION 7,733) College Town PerfectionThey must have made odd neighbors: the Utopian Socialists on the prairie and the entrepreneurial abolitionists up on the hill. The socialists lived on a commune. The abolitionists later founded the Republican party. And yet, in the 1850s, they joined forces to found Ripon (the town) and then Ripon (the college). Town and gown have been intertwined ever since, proudly perched in the middle of the cornfields 85 miles northwest of Milwaukee. In some college towns, the locals and students get along like rivals at the Michigan-Ohio State football game. Not in Ripon. The professors sit on the local school board. The students sing in the church choirs, and church folk welcome the school's 1,000 or so students with a potluck every fall. Friday evenings in summer, across from the college president's office in the old public library, townies and academics alike turn out for concerts on the Village Green. "My favorite is Tuba Dan's polka band," says Professor Mary Avery, who oversees a student group that helps local businesses, such as the Watson Street Sub Shop, create financial plans (314 Watson St., watsonstreetsubs.com, subs from $6.75). Watson Street in turn lets the students use its storefront for fund-raisers. "We are the quintessential college town," says David Joyce, president of Ripon. "Or maybe it should be the quintessential town with a college?" -D.W. 10. GREENSBURG, KANSAS (POPULATION 777) The Real Emerald CityWhen you pull into Greensburg, you may well think you're not in Kansas anymore: Elegant wind turbines and LED streetlights have replaced cornfields and barns. After a 2007 tornado destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg, those who stayed vowed to build the ecofriendliest town ever. "Being green is such a part of our identity that people assume we changed our name after the storm," says Ruth Ann Wedel, site manager of GreenTown, the city's rebuilding campaign. (For the record, the "green" comes from stagecoach driver D.R. Green.) Like the name, the idea of going green dates back further than you'd expect. "These are not hippie-dippy concepts," says Stacy Barnes, director of the 5.4.7 Arts Center (204 W. Wisconsin Ave., 547artscenter.org, free). "These are the same tenets used in pioneer days—south-facing windows in chicken coops to increase sunlight, reusing everything like Mennonites do. We got lazy over the past century." The gallery, named for the day the storm hit, houses contemporary art from around the U.S. Many businesses here pay tribute to the past. Green Bean Coffee Co. serves milkshakes to fill the void left by the destruction of the old soda fountain (105 E. Kansas Ave., notyourmommascoffee.com, shakes $3.50). Nearby, you'll find innovations both high-tech (solar panels) and low (banisters made from tractor parts) at the Silo Eco-Home B&B (402 S. Sycamore St., 620/723-2790, doubles from $110). Just goes to show: It's not so hard being green after all. -N.D.

Inspiration

World's Weirdest Hotels 3.0

1. LA VILLA HAMSTER, NANTES, FRANCE Ever wonder what life is like for a hamster? If so, you're not alone—ever since it opened in 2009, La Villa Hamster has been booked almost every night. The owners, a local businessman and an interior designer, spared no expense when it came to the details of their property, an unusual addition to the town of Nantes in western France. Wrought iron has been affixed to the walls to suggest a cage, and, if they so choose, guests can drink water out of a tube attached to the side of the wall. Naturally, there's a large, fully functioning hamster wheel (consider it the hotel's gym) located on one side of the cage, ahem, room. 011-33/6-64-20-31-09, uncoinchezsoi.net, doubles from $136. • Photos of La Villa Hamster 1 of 2 2. CAN SLEEP, LAKE SKANDERBORG, DENMARK Beer lovers of the world unite at Lake Skanderborg for a full-immersion experience: drinking by day and sleeping in a giant beer can by night. No, we weren't imbibing the sudsy stuff when we found this one. The collection of 121 aluminum Royal Unibrew beer cans is known as Can Sleep, and it's only open one month out of the year during the Skanderborg Music Festival every August. The cans are clustered in sections of six (six pack, get it?), and each has a loft and is 12 feet high with a "lid" that cracks open. The loft is the sleeping area, and the Ikea furniture-bedecked bottom floor is a living-room-type space, complete with a minibar that's restocked each day with Royal Unibrew products. 011-45/8793-4444, smukfest.dk, doubles from $336. • Photo of Can Sleep 1 of 1 3. PALACIO DE SAL, BOLIVIA If you're one of those people who believe you can never have too much salt, then we've got the place for you. The luxurious Salt Palace, located on Bolivia's vast salt flats, is made entirely out of the mineral. From floor to ceiling, including the walls, beds, and chairs, it's all salt, all of the time. And the 16-room property offers dishes like salt-encrusted lamb, of course. Sufferers of high blood pressure should probably look elsewhere for a room. 011-591/2- 62-2951, palaciodesal.com.bo, doubles from $135. • Photos of Palacio de Sal 1 of 3 4. FREE SPIRIT SPHERES, VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA A whole new approach to tree houses has taken shape in an old-growth forest on Vancouver Island. Set on five acres, Free Spirit Spheres consists of three pods (made of cedar, spruce, or fiberglass, respectively) that are suspended 10 to 15 feet in the air and accessed by staircases that wind around the trees. The heated interiors are surprisingly comfy—and are even equipped with an iPod docking station. The pods sway gently, so those prone to motion sickness should take note. But look at it this way: At least a bear or other wild beast won't be able to get you. 250/757-9445, freespiritspheres.com, doubles from $135. • Photos of Free Spirit Spheres 1 of 2 5. HOTEL UTTER INN, SWEDEN What's so weird about this pint-size property in Sweden? At first glance, the one-room hotel appears to be a cheery red house in the middle of the lake—yes, it's in the middle of a body of water but how strange is that, really? Don't be fooled: The room isn't actually in the house; it's 10 feet underwater. It's also the only functioning underwater hotel that started out as an art installation. Designed by artist Mikael Genberg, the 10-year-old inn's sole room consists of two twin beds with panoramic windows on all sides. There is no electricity, but there is lighting and a portable gas heater. When ready to come up for air, guests can relax on the deck or take the dinghy out to one of the nearby uninhabited islands. 011-46/21-39-0100, vasterasmalarstaden.se, from $328 for two people, open April–Oct. • Photos of Hotel Utter Inn 1 of 2 6. HOTEL KAKSLAUTTANEN, FINLAND It's hard enough to pronounce "Kakslauttanen" sober, so don't even think about attempting it after a shot of Finlandia vodka (we do, however, recommend a few glasses of the stuff to keep warm while staying at this Finnish resort near the North Pole). The snow igloos here are cool (pun intended), but what really caught our eye were the futuristic glass igloos, which guarantee unrestricted views of the aurora borealis from the comfort of your zebra-striped bed; the phenomenon turns the night sky dazzling shades of green, red, and blue from late August to April. (The special thermal glass doesn't frost over—even if outdoor temperatures drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius.) Staff supply wool socks and down sleeping bags for guests who opt for one of the 12 "real" igloos, where the interior temperature hovers between 21 and 27 degrees Fahrenheit. If you get cold feet, the property also features more conventional accommodations like wood cabins. 011-358/1666-7100, kakslauttanen.fi, glass igloos from $468 for two people. • Photos of Hotel Kakslauttanen 1 of 2 7. JUMBO STAY, STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN For most jet-setters, getting on a big jet plane and going nowhere might seem like a prank of transatlantic proportions. Then again, most people have never boarded Jumbo Stay at Stockholm's Arlanda Airport. The 450 seats on this retired Boeing 747 have been replaced by 27 rooms, all of which, we assure you, have plenty of legroom. To fly really high, book the cockpit-located suite, where you can move the controls and push as many buttons as you'd like without ever worrying about crashing. 011-46/8-593-604-00, jumbostay.com, doubles from $149. • Photos of Jumbo Stay 1of 2 8. LES ROULOTTES DE LA SERVE, PROVENCE, FRANCE Gypsy (Roma) circus performers once traveled through the French countryside in the three restored caravans that now welcome guests at Les Roulottes de la Serve. It's run by Pascal and Pascaline Patin, who bought this lush plot of land for their horses more than 20 years ago. They outfitted the caravans (roulottes) with eclectic bohemian and Indian touches: lanterns, garlands, woven carpets, framed images of deities, and plush armchairs. Guests share bathrooms, a kitchen, and a campfire—a communal setup that's gypsy-like indeed. 011-33/04-74-04-76-40, lesroulottes.com, doubles from $87, open early Apr.–late Oct. • Photos of Les Roulottes de la Serve 1 of 2 9. WIGWAM MOTEL, SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA The Wigwam Motel—located on Route 66—feels less like a place one might commune with Native Americans and more like a quirky stopover on a 1950s road trip. But whatever authenticity this hotel lacks, it makes up for in serious kitsch, starting with the tepees themselves. The western-themed interiors are simple: Each wigwam is outfitted with a wagon-wheel headboard as well as air-conditioning, a 25-inch TV, free Wi-Fi, and an in-tepee bathroom. There's also a kidney-shaped pool, a barbecue pit, and a gift shop stocked with Americana. 909/875-3005, wigwammotel.com, doubles from $66. • Photo of Wigwam Motel 1 of 1 10. ELEPHANT SAFARI PARK HOTEL LODGE, BALI  The first confirmation that you're not at just any old luxury resort comes when pachyderm "chauffeurs" show up to transport you to your room at the Elephant Safari Park Hotel Lodge. The 26-room property is adjacent to an 8.5-acre sanctuary for the largest herd of rescued Sumatran elephants in the world. The rooms feature elephant art—literally painted by the park's pachyderms—and elephant-inspired decor and artifacts. Guests can hang out in the on-site baby nursery and catch the 29 resident Sumatran elephants performing in four shows per day. They roam the property, and you can admire them while you're lounging in the pool or dining in the restaurant. 011-62/36-172-1480, elephantsafariparklodge.com, doubles from $260. • Photos of Elephant Safari Park Hotel Lodge 1 of 2 STILL WEIRD! • A wine cask, a hotel that defies gravity, and more from 2009 • A beagle-shaped B&B, a sewer-pipe hotel and more from 2008 MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL • Photos: 8 New Natural Wonders • Best Places You've Never Heard Of • For more travel inspiration, deals, and news, sign up for our E-mail newsletter

Inspiration

Witness a Total Eclipse

When the moon slides between the earth and the sun at just the right angle to create a total solar eclipse, astonishing things happen: "As the sun disappears, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck," says Vicki Buchwald, a dental hygienist from Crystal Lake, Ill. "I've cried and screamed. It's like looking into the eye of God." She and her husband, Greg, an electrical engineer, have traveled to see five eclipses and can't get enough. Let others chase tornadoes or the northern lights; for these fans, there is no better show, and the next one to catch is July 22 (July 21 if you're in the South Pacific). What makes this eclipse extraordinary is that it'll create the longest stretch of darkness in the daytime that the planet will see for more than a hundred years. Even though it takes about three hours for all the phases of an eclipse to unfold, totality (when the moon entirely blocks the sun) is stunningly brief. This year, it'll last up to 6 minutes and 39 seconds. The next one to come close isn't until 2132. Of course, being in the right place at the right time is key. As July's occurrence travels from India to the South Pacific, it will be visible along a 150-mile-wide swath. Since eclipses are lengthiest at the midpoints of their routes, the prime viewing destinations this summer will be on the coast of eastern China, a day trip from Shanghai. There, you'll see how local perceptions have also come a long way: What was once considered a bad omen is now cause for celebration. Eclipse viewing 101 No matter how well you plan, catching an eclipse is a game of chance—clear skies are hard to predict a week ahead, much less months in advance. Nor does it help that the event takes place during monsoon season. Uncontrollables aside, here's how to maximize the marvel: Reach for higher ground Head to a roof or a mountain to get away from buildings and ambient light that interfere with visibility. Wear protection It's safe to look at the sun only when it is completely obscured by the moon. Staring at a partial eclipse with the naked eye can give you retinal burns and even cause temporary or permanent blindness. Regular sunglasses won't protect you, so play it safe and wear a pair of eclipse-viewing glasses—they may look like 3-D movie specs, but they actually contain specialized filters (seymoursolar.com, shades $1.50). Snap away Regular digital and film cameras are fine for capturing the event, as long as you place a filter on your viewfinder to shield your eyes while shooting the partial stages (rainbowsymphonystore.com, filters from $10). For best results, use manual focus, turn off the flash, and remove the filter for totality. First-time viewer? Put down the camera and just take it in. Be at ease Since you'll be staring skyward for hours, bring along snacks and a pillow or a folding chair. Then get comfy. Let them take you there These outfitters are offering expert-led eclipse trips in July: TravelQuest International has a 15-day cruise through the South Pacific with lectures by Harvard astronomy professor Owen Gingerich and former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine Rick Fienberg (800/830-1998, tq-international.com, from $6,995 without airfare). Spears Travel hired NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak to head a 10-day trip from Beijing to Shanghai, with stops at the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou. On July 22, the group will be in the seaside town of Haiyan, on a hotel roof directly in the path of the eclipse (800/688-8031, spearstravel.com, from $3,695 without airfare). Ring of Fire Expeditions called on Paul Maley, expedition coordinator for NASA's Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society, to guide a 10-day journey through China and Tibet. The itinerary includes a ride on the Xining–Lhasa train, a visit to the Wolong panda reserve, and an eclipse-viewing at a spot determined by Maley on the day of the event (281/480-1988, eclipsetours.com, from $3,789 without airfare).

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