The smartest ways to see seven wonders of the modern world.
What you'll find in this story: Dream vacations, International travel information, Victoria Falls tips, Grand Canyon travel, Great Wall of China details, Galapagos Islands travel, Stonehenge information
We all have a list of the iconic places and adventures we hope to experience someday. Isn't it time to turn those daydreams into reality?
"Mountain Lying Down" is what the Paiute tribe called it. Teddy Roosevelt said it's "the one great sight every American should see." At 5,000 feet deep, an average of 10 miles across, and millennia in the making, the Grand Canyon is the earth's most famous scar.
Getting there Phoenix and Las Vegas are less than five hours away by car. You can drive right up and gaze out over the rim, but some of the best experiences require months, even years, of planning. Camping permits (summer only) tend to sell out four months in advance, while bunks at Phantom Ranch, an eight-mile hike to the canyon floor, get snagged a year ahead (888/297-2757, grandcanyonlodges.com, $27). The same goes for guided rafting trips: A six-night trip through the entire canyon with meals and gear starts at $1,575 (800/525-0924, canyoneers.com).
You made it Admission for a vehicle and its passengers costs $20 for a week (928/638-7888, nps.gov/grca). In peak months, you must use free shuttles to get around many areas. Stay at the Maswik Lodge, a quarter mile from the canyon's edge (grandcanyonlodges.com, $67). Or go for a log cabin at the quieter North Rim, which 90 percent of the park's 4 million annual visitors ignore (open mid-May to mid-October, grandcanyonnorthrim.com, from $92). An even smaller group--about 25,000 a year--makes the trek to Havasu Canyon, in the Havasupai Indian Reservation (928/448-2121, havasupaitribe.com, $20 entrance fee per person). Havasu Canyon's turquoise waters shoot out over three towering waterfalls. Supai, the reservation's only town, provides a base, with a café, store, camping ($10 per person), and a basic lodge ($80).
Who knew? Campsites, bunks at Phantom Ranch, and spots on white-water trips can open up at the last minute, even in summer. For camping inside the canyon, show up at the Backcountry Information Center (across from the Maswik Lodge) before 8 a.m. and get on the waiting list. If you have no luck, repeat the next day. (By the third day, you should have a camping permit; find a campsite or hotel on top of the canyon or just outside the park while you're on the list.) Phantom Ranch also has cancellations, but don't just hike down and hope that something is available. Call two days before you arrive to see if anything has opened up. Scoring a last-minute seat on a rafting trip is a crapshoot, but it can work. There are 16 river outfitters officially approved by the park service, and you'll have to contact them one at a time (nps.gov/grca/river). For all of these possibilities, the smaller your group, the better your chances.
Is it a prehistoric astronomical tool? The burial ground of chieftains and kings? A site for human sacrifices to vengeful pagan gods?
Stonehenge is a peerless monument to 1,500 years of backbreaking dedication. Yet the exact purpose of these circles of massive rocks--which were dragged hundreds of miles here between 3,500 and 5,000 years ago--remains a mystery.
Getting there Guided day tours from London start at $90 from Stonehenge Tour Company (011-44/700-078-1016, stonehengetours.com). But Stonehenge's location, in Wiltshire, is an easy 80 miles from London if you want to go it alone. Rent a car from $60 a day (EasyCar, 0906-333-3333 in the U.K., easycar.com). If you'd rather not drive, there's hourly rail service from Waterloo to Salisbury (90 minutes each way, $43). From there, a 10-mile taxi ride to Stonehenge costs roughly $30; the bus (route 3) is $11.
You made it Visiting hours are longest in the late spring and summer (9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.) and general access costs $10. Stonehenge consists of a number of ditches, banks, and stones arranged in concentric circles. Ropes went up around the inner circle in 1978, keeping visitors about 10 feet away. Splurge on a helicopter tour and you'll also get spectacular views of Old Sarum Castle and Salisbury Cathedral, a medieval jewel (WesseXplore, 011-44/172-232-6304, dmac.co.uk/wessexplore, half hour from $150). Stonehenge, which draws 850,000 visitors annually from around the world, is the centerpiece of a Wiltshire landscape studded with archaeological finds documenting 10,000 years of human history. The remains of Durrington Walls, Vespasian's Camp, the 1.8-mile-long parallel banks of the Cursus, as well as some 350 Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds are among the attractions. Don't miss Avebury, 25 miles from Stonehenge. It has its own group of impressive earthworks and megalithic monuments. In fact, the entire town--pub and all--sits within an ancient stone circle.
Who knew? A $500 million refurbishment of Stonehenge is currently under way, including a new visitors center slated to open in 2006. (Check out the progress of architectural firm Denton Corker Marshall's eco-fabulous building and its state-of-the-art exhibitions at thestonehengeproject.org.) But the development isn't without controversy. Although no one is lobbying for a return to the days when tourists could rent hammers from a nearby blacksmith to chip off a souvenir, many weekend pagans and modern druids are upset about restricted access to the site. They're somewhat mollified by the Stone Circle Access policy, which allows small groups of people to enter the inner circle before or after regular visiting hours ($22). Permission is required in advance but, depending on the season, can be granted quickly. For dates, times, and an application (which asks that you "please give full details of ceremony proposed and equipment to be used"), call 011-44/198-062-6267 or log on to english-heritage.org.uk/stonehenge.
Over a mile wide, the falls spew up to 144 million gallons of water per minute. And the plume of spray is visible 30 miles away.
The roaring Zambezi River plummets from a dry savanna plateau 350 feet into Batoka Gorge, a lush, palm-packed ravine that forms a natural border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Getting there Flights to Livingstone International Airport in Zambia (the gateway for Victoria Falls) are only available from Johannesburg, South Africa; British Airways flies thrice weekly (from $290 round trip), and Nationwide Airlines operates daily service (from $190 round trip). 2Afrika (2afrika.com) has a package priced from $465 that includes air from Jo'burg, two nights with breakfasts at the Zambezi Sun (where rooms are usually more than $200), unlimited entrance to view the falls, and a half-day cruise on the Zambezi River aboard the African Queen, a triple-decker catamaran. Another popular option is to combine a safari at the Chobe or Okavango game regions in Botswana, or the Luangwa or Kafue reserves in Zambia, with a day trip to Victoria Falls. Ask at your game lodge for a guide/driver who knows the roads and border protocol (about $100 per person).
You Made It The entrance fee at Victoria Falls National Park starts at $15. Bring a change of shirt in case of spontaneous rainfall or a windblown blast of waterfall spray. The steep paths and metal bridges are slippery, so wear shoes with good treads. Don't be afraid of the baboons throughout the park--they're tame--but do keep any food hidden while on park paths unless you seek a very close encounter. For excitement, the bungee jump off of the Victoria Falls Bridge offers 340 feet of free fall (Zambezi Safari & Travel Co., zambezi.co.uk, single jump $75, tandem $105); or go white-water rafting--choose the Low Water option, which offers the best glimpses of the falls--on the grade V Batoka Rapids (Safari Par Excellence, safpar.com, full-day trip from $95). For something more civilized, take afternoon tea on the veranda at the Royal Livingstone Hotel (from $16), a short walk from the park entrance.
Who knew? If you hire a driver, make sure he has third-party insurance--you're not allowed to cross the borders without it. Inspect his credentials closely; expired licenses can cause hours of delays and inflate the cost of the trip. Always carry U.S. dollars--they're widely accepted and preferred--but beware of scams. If you secured a visa prior to arrival (capitolvisa.com/tourist/zambia.htm), you shouldn't have to pay anything at the borders. If you're buying a visa on the spot, it should cost no more than $40.
Each of the 13 major islands is a unique habitat overflowing with creatures that evolved independently--and spectacularly.
Charles Darwin didn't discover the Galápagos, a volcanic archipelago 600 miles west of Ecuador, but when he honed his evolutionary theory after an 1835 visit, he gave the world the insight necessary to appreciate it.
Getting there All-inclusive guided cruises are the way to go, but packages booked from home tend to be overpriced ($4,000 without airfare is common). G.A.P Adventures, a trustworthy operator based in Toronto, runs an eight-day trip that includes meals, air from Quito to the islands, a cabin aboard a 16-passenger ship, and two nights in a Quito hotel for $1,395 (800/465-5600, gapadventures.com). You'll find even lower prices by booking last-minute at one of the travel agents in Quito's New Town (fly to Quito from Miami for about $400 on American Airlines). In January, Safari Tours (Foch E5-39 at Av. Juan Leon Mera, 011-593/2-255-2505, safari.com.ec) sold weeklong trips on the Sulidae for $560, while American dealers charged up to $1,089 for the same cruise. If you're worried about your boat, do some research at the South American Explorers club in Quito (samexplo.org). The $50 membership grants access to a library full of honest reviews. With the cruise squared away, fly to the Galápagos on Tame for $389 round trip (tame.com.ec). Cruise prices don't cover the $100 entry fee (cash only; $20 bills work best).
You made it The most popular and well-rounded cruise itineraries take in the eastern and southern islands, with chances to spot blue-footed boobies and red-throated frigate birds on North Seymour, as well as the waved albatross--which has an eight-foot wingspan--on Española. To ensure that your guide speaks English, check that he or she is registered as a "naturalist II" or higher. Bring your own mask, snorkel, and wet suit, too--the islands' animal show extends below the waterline, and most boats' loaner sets are in ragged shape. Sea lions are everywhere, and they love it when people swim in the surf with them. Don't forget to bring some extra cash ($50 or so) to tip your crew and guide at the end of the journey.
Who knew? "The young tortoises make excellent soup," Darwin wrote. Nowadays, dining on the locals is frowned upon--as is even touching them. Many of the animals will let you get within arm's length, but don't make contact. Guides have the power to throw you off the islands.
Tour de France
Cheered on by crazed fans, rail-thin gladiators race for 2,000 miles up steep mountain roads and through pristine countrysides.
It's France's favorite summer pastime: a three-week trek that snakes through the heart of the country every July. While six-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong has yet to decide whether he'll chase another victory this year, his much-heralded success has turned Americans on to the spectacle that has riveted Europeans for decades.
Getting there Scores of bike-touring companies sell ride-and-watch packages, most quite expensive--a seven-day trip from VéloSport Vacations costs $4,395 (800/988-9833, velovacations.com). With prices like that, many spectators prefer to go the independent route. After all, the Tour de France is free. There are no tickets, no stadiums, no grandstands. The best way to follow the Tour's hopscotch route is by car. Try Auto Europe (autoeurope.com) or Kemwel (kemwel.com), which does short-term leases that can be cheaper than renting--a brand-new Peugeot with insurance starts at $740 for 17 days.
You made it The Tour changes course each year, so check the route (letour.fr) and plot a plan of attack. It's too exhausting to try to watch all 21 stages. Instead, pick a few key spots and soak up the atmosphere of the race. During one of the longer, flat stages that dominate the first week of the 2005 Tour, follow the locals to any number of roadside cafés and sip a chilled Côtes du Rhône while you wait for the racers to roar past. There are seven mountain stages this year; summit finishes at Courchevel on July 12 and at Saint-Lary Soulan on July 17 will best capture the Tour's passion. Arrive early and stake out a spot on a twisting switchback or a hilltop with sweeping views of the road. Or cycle the race route yourself; you're allowed to ride on the road up to 90 minutes before the pros arrive. There's no charge on international flights for toting a bike, though it'll count as a checked bag. Or rent a bike locally for around $30 a day. With the Tour entourage topping 4,000 racers, journalists, and officials, hotels fill up early. Check the two- and three-star family-run hotels in the Logis de France network for doubles starting at $65 (logis-de-france.fr/uk). One hotel we can specifically recommend: Le Coin Fleuri, which is near stage 12 at Digne-les-Bains and has a large garden that's perfect for a relaxing déjeuner (011-33/492-310-451, from $52).
Who Knew? Held since 1903, the race is now the world's largest annual sporting event. Last year's was watched--in person--by 15 million spectators.
Sydney Opera House
What is now an enduring symbol of the Harbour City was inspired by both Mayan temples and the tiled mosques of Iran.
But the Sydney Opera House is not simply a whimsical palace to be admired from afar--there are endless ways to experience the beauty of Danish architect Jørn Utzon's 1973 creation.
Getting there Flights to Sydney start at $1,000 from L.A., $1,300 from New York. Package deals are often the better value--from $1,399 including air from L.A. and eight nights' hotel split between Sydney and Melbourne (Qantas Airways, 888/505-6252, qantasusa.com). The Opera House sits on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbour and is impossible to miss.
You made it To have a look from every angle, board a ferry at Circular Quay's Wharf 4 (dial 131-500 in Sydney, sydneyferries.info, from $14), or walk over to the nearby Royal Botanic Gardens (rbgsyd.gov.au, free). To actually get inside the Opera House, pay $17.50 for the standard tour (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Christmas Day and Good Friday). A two-hour backstage tour takes you to usually off-limits areas like the orchestra pit, dressing rooms, and the stage, and includes breakfast (daily at 7 a.m., $107). There are performance packages available that combine a tour with dinner and a show in one of the opera house's five theaters (from $130). For details, call 011-61/2-9250-7250 or log on to sydneyoperahouse.com. Tickets to performances are rarely discounted (from $38). If you're desperate to see a sold-out show, hang around the box office that night and pester the attendants for any returned tickets. Inside the southern shell you'll find Guillaume at Bennelong, a superb restaurant where chef Guillaume Brahimi--trained in Paris by the famed Michelin chef Joel Robuchon--creates food worthy of the setting. Expect to pay about $70 each for a three-course meal, not including drinks, or $50 for a three-course pretheater prix fixe (011-61/2-9241-1999, guillaumeatbennelong.com.au). For something more casual, head downstairs to the lower concourse and try the popular indoor/outdoor Opera Bar (011-61/2-9247-1666, operabar.com.au, entrées from $13). Or have a cocktail at the Park Hyatt's Harbour Bar, overlooking the water on the opposite side of Circular Quay (7 Hickson Rd., 011-61/2-9256-1500, sydney.park.hyatt.com, drinks from $12).
Who knew? Up close, you'll notice the tiles are a pale gray rather than the brilliant white they appear to be in photos. Depending on the light, they can look soft pink, even gold.
Great Wall of China
Originally built to keep foreigners out, it's now the very thing that draws tourists in.
An astonishing testament to human ambition, ingenuity, and xenophobia, the Great Wall looks much like the scaly tail of a dragon. It drapes the mountains in sections for 1,500 miles, from the Yellow Sea to its curiously unceremonious and abrupt conclusion in the middle of the far-west Gobi Desert.
Getting there Beijing is the best gateway. Airfare starts at $700 from L.A. or San Francisco; it's $100 more from Chicago or New York. All U.S. travelers need a visa (china-embassy.org/eng, from $50). If you want a guided tour, hire one of the touts in Tiananmen Square (from $25 a day). Though it sounds sexist, always buy from a man: Those seduced by the pretty saleswomen speaking English may end up with trips guided by men who don't speak it well, whereas salesmen usually lead their own tours. It's far more fun to explore without guides, though. You can reach several sections by taxi.
You made it Like aerobics, the Great Wall offers the low-impact (Badaling), the high-impact (a trek from Jinshanling to Simatai), and the extreme (Huanghua Cheng). Badaling--a reconstructed portion with guardrails and a 360-degree amphitheater showing short documentaries on the landmark--is so popular and crowded that the entry fees doubled this year to $10 during peak summer months (it's a 40-minute cab ride from Beijing, from $50 round trip). Badaling's good for tourists with little time, but those wanting to see the ancient monument in its more authentic, decayed condition should consider the winding, rocky 6.2-mile Jinshanling-to-Simatai hike (90-minute cab ride, from $100 round trip). It'll take at least five hours, but it offers breathtaking views of the vast countryside from a series of parapets. Have the taxi drop you off at Jinshanling. It's easier to get a ride back to Beijing from Simatai, which is popular because there's a cable car to lift visitors to a higher perch. (Admission $3.75 at Jinshanling, $4 at Simatai.) For an even more unusual experience, head to Huanghua Cheng with some lightweight camping gear and sleep on the wall. There's no formal entrance for this section, but taxi drivers will know how to find it. (Ask your concierge to write Huanghua out in Chinese characters, and show it to the driver. One-hour ride, from $100 round trip with the cabbie waiting overnight.) Not comfortable trying that on your own? Hire William Lindesay, who leads hikes to more obscure parts of the wall (wildwall.com, weekends from $365 including transportation and lodging).
Who knew? The party line for years was that the Great Wall was one of the only man-made objects visible from space. After the Chinese sent their first astronaut, Yang Liwei, into orbit in 2003, reporters asked if that was true. "No," Yang said without hesitation, it wasn't visible. Intriguingly, many wrote with certainty that the Chinese government would force him to retract the comment. But Yang wasn't silenced, further evidence that China is changing. In fact, articles appeared in the government's English-language China Daily newspaper discussing the debunking of the myth.