Confident that you’ve ticked most, if not all, of the planet’s extraordinary sights off your bucket list? Then it's time to think again.
Look beyond the Grand Canyon, Eiffel Tower and Angkor Wat and you’ll find a shadow world of marvels that you never knew existed. Some of them are astounding natural phenomenon; others are man-made yet no less magical for that; and all of them are under the radar.
In this excerpt from Lonely Planet’s Secret Marvels of the World, we take a whistle-stop tour of some of the most mysterious, mesmerising and downright bizarre places on Earth.
Rainbow eucalyptus trees, Hawaii, USA
The road to Hana is one of the most incredible drives anywhere on the planet, featuring an overwhelming abundance of sights, sounds and colours as the road winds its way down to the sleepy town nestled in the fragrant bosom of Maui’s rainforest.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing you’ll see on this journey is the ‘painted forest’ of rainbow eucalyptus trees: a quirk of nature producing trees that literally look like frozen rainbows. The reds, purples and greens are particularly vivid within these spectacular oddities of evolution, thanks to sections of bark shedding at different times during the year. The real beauty of this phenomenon, however, is that the process is ongoing, so the multicoloured streaks continuously evolve, forming a grove of living kaleidoscopes.
The rainbow eucalyptus grove can be found at mile marker 7 on Maui’s Hana Highway in Hawaii. You can also see some of the trees at the nearby Keʼanae Arboretum.
Zhāngyē Dānxiá National Geopark, China
Bands of colour from vermilion to pale green cover a mountainous 500 sq km site in Gansu province, where more than 20 million years of geological movement have pressed the sandstone into a multicoloured layer cake. Over centuries, the sandstone was weathered into pillars, while extreme desert temperatures split the rock to form creeks and cliff faces hundreds of metres high.
The name given to this kind of Martian landscape is ‘danxia’, and it can be found elsewhere in China, such as at the Binggou Danxia Park. There, too, is a landscape of towering rock columns and sheer cliffs, but its colours don’t come close to matching the geopark, where the hills blaze in shades of yellow and red.
The park is threaded with walking trails and sightseeing cars trundle through, allowing access to lookout points over the spindly rock formations and tiger-striped hills. Most arresting is the ‘Seven-Colour Mountain’, which can be admired from the park’s fourth and largest viewing platform (easily reached by the park’s sightseeing cars). The hills flame scarlet and gold during sunrise and sunset, so photographers should rise early. A spot of rain also makes the colours of the rainbow hills pop, so time your visit for between May and September.
Take a train to Zhangye (30km from the information centre) or fly via Xi’an. Plan on zydanxia.com.
Moray, Cusco, Peru
In a remote part of the hilly Sacred Valley sits a perfect amphitheatre of grass-covered terraced rings. Left behind by the Incas, its exact purpose had long baffled archaeologists. Compared to the sophisticated masonry and elaborate stone cities the Incas left elsewhere, these concentric terraces seem simple but are in fact ingenious.
Their design, their depth, variation in size and positioning in relation to the sun and wind all seem to suggest that they may have been an agricultural research station. The subtly varying climatic conditions on every terrace have resulted in the creation of different microclimates that correspond to the varied growing conditions across the Incan Empire. At its height, the empire encompassed a huge swathe of South America, from the coast and jungle of Ecuador and the Peruvian highlands to the lakes, desert and mountains of Chile, with thousands upon thousands of subjects who required sustenance.
With a 15°C variation between the top and bottom terraces and soil samples proven to have been brought from different parts of Peru, it is likely that the Incas, remarkable agriculturalists that they were, used the terraces to test the growing prowess of different crops under varying climatic conditions, using modification and hybridisation to adapt potato, maize, quinoa, sweet potato and amaranth to make them suitable for human consumption.
Come to Moray either by taxi from Maras village, 5km away, or by guided day tour from Cusco.
Vale da Lua, Alto Paraíso de Goiás, Brazil
It has taken millions of years and trillions of litres of water to sculpt out the beautiful rock formations at Vale da Lua (Moon Valley), on Brazil’s São Miguel River. Stretching along a 1km course of water, just beyond the southern edge of the Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Veadeiros, is a bizarre-looking series of natural rock formations, caves, waterfalls, pools and crevices. It’s a bit like a water park, but without the screaming tourists or garish swimming trunks.
According to Brasilia University’s Instituto de Geociencias, the endless curves are all caused by something known as uvial abrasion, where the pressure of sand and continuously flowing water over several millennia has carved out the cups, bowls and smooth lines that you see today. And they are carving it out still – so it is, in effect, a constantly evolving sculpture.
There’s a distinctly lunar feel to the entire landscape, hence the name Vale da Lua. Visitors can walk across the rocks, bathe in the rock pools and wade down many of the water courses. (Except during heavy rain when flash flooding makes proceedings very risky indeed.) But most amazing of all are the quartz crystals embedded within the rocks. Thanks to these, some visitors report feeling an added energy and healing power.
Vale da Lua is on private property, 4km southeast of São Jorge village. The final approach is on foot.
Quinta da Regaleira wells, Sintra, Portugal
The spiral staircases of these towers aren’t just forbidding, they represent a journey from death to rebirth. Hints at dark alchemy are scattered around the Unesco-protected estate of Quinta da Regaleira – a flamboyant blend of Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance architectural styles – especially around its showy gardens.
Beneath this lavish residence, commissioned by coffee tycoon António Carvalho Monteiro, burrow two wells. But there’s no water: these hidden tunnels were once used in secretive Masonic initiation rites. One has nine moss-rimmed levels, hinting at Dante’s nine circles of Hell and Heaven, across its 27m height. The other has straight staircases, with steps numbered according to Masonic principles, descending to a huge Knights Templar cross.
Quinta da Regaleira is open daily; it’s located 700m west of central Sintra.
Italian Chapel, Orkney, Scotland
An ornate Italian-style chapel, which was built by prisoners of war, is now a symbol of reconciliation on the wind-blasted island of Lamb Holm, one of Scotland’s Orkney Islands.
In 1942, Italian prisoners of war were brought to work on causeways linking Orkney to the southern islands. When Italy capitulated in 1943, they were prisoners no more. They lobbied for a place of worship, and were soon using every spare hour to line the chapel’s walls, paint frescoes, and mould a font out of concrete.
The chapel’s elaborate decorations are all the more remarkable considering wartime constraints on building materials. Its interior has a womb-like ambience, with a rosy brick vault framing an altar decorated with the Virgin Mary and cherubs.
Lamb Holm is a short drive from Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall. The chapel is open daily, but hours vary. Call ahead before visiting (+44 (0)1856 781580).
Hang Nga Guesthouse, Dalat, Vietnam
Resembling a melted candle, this guesthouse in Dalat was inspired by the surreal art of Salvador Dalí. ‘Crazy House’ is different from every angle: on one side, warped walls seem menacing and windows glare like eye sockets; from another, traditional Vietnamese designs adorn the eaves.
Architect and owner, Mrs Dang Viet Nga, sculpted jungle vines and ragged stairs to give Crazy House an organic feel. Beds are cradled in cauldron-like chambers, latticed windows look like spider’s webs, while fittings are decorated with giraffe-skin patterns or camouflaged as tree stumps. This place aims to unleash guests’ repressed feeling of freedom; stay the night and let your heart soar.
Dalat is in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Book a night’s stay at crazyhouse.vn.
Lake Hillier, Western Australia
Look at any map and chances are that all the bodies of water have been coloured blue. But if you were to draw Middle Island, part of Australia’s little-known Recherche Archipelago, you’d need a pink crayon (preferably of a bubble-gum hue) to accurately depict its most striking landmark: Lake Hillier.
Scientists aren’t entirely sure how the lake got so pink. After all, it stands in stark contrast to the deep blue waves of the Southern Ocean just metres away. Unlike most coloured lakes, Hillier’s hue is neither a reflection of the lakebed nor influenced by the dye of seasonal bacteria. As such, it retains its pink colour even when placed in a bottle.
Middle Island is part of a wilderness area that’s off-limits to tourists, but you can still view Lake Hillier on a two-hour helicopter tour from Esperance, Western Australia.
Valley of Geysers, Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia
Stretching towards Japan, the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s far east is a place where the Earth’s fuming fury is never far from the surface. Kamchatka’s 6km-long Valley of Geysers is fed by the 250°C heat of the stratovolcano Kikhpinych. More than 100 hot springs and geysers huff steam into the frigid air.
This basin in Kronotsky Nature Reserve is so far-flung that its geological marvels were only fully explored in the 1970s. One of the most chilling discoveries was the Valley of Death, a narrow 2km-long creek where volcanic gases accumulate in such a high concentration that they kill animals and birds who stray too close.
Reach the Valley of Geysers by helicopter on a tour with Travel Kamchatka (travelkamchatka.com). Flights from Moscow reach the closest airport, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.