If you’ve felt a disturbance in the Force lately, you’re not alone: millions of film fans are awaiting the new Star Wars movie, which comes out this week.
Whether the reboot gives devotees new hope for the franchise or proves to be a phantom menace remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: you’ll struggle to avoid Luke Skywalker and co. for a while. Even if you’re not a fan, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is coming to a commercial break, fast food chain and probably a cereal packet near you.
So if you can’t beat ‘em, why not join ‘em? Slip into the cockpit of the nearest X-wing and set a course for one of the even-better-in-real-life places to have featured in that galaxy far, far away.
The film-makers of the latest instalment could have plonked their cameras almost anywhere in Iceland, such is the otherworldliness of its landscape. Rumours suggest the Star Wars crew focused its attention on the northeast Mývatn region, which is a good bet: home to a spectacular lake, the Krafla volcano, and more gurgling mud pots, steaming fumaroles and weird lava formations than you can shake a stormtrooper at.
The oh-so-huggable Ewoks once frolicked in California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, but insiders say they’ve taken up residence amid the ancient trunks of Puzzlewood, deep in the Forest of Dean. It’s certainly a hallowed spot for fictional worlds, having inspired Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien and Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, among many others. Walk, cycle or paddle your way through England’s oldest oak forest and look for a telltale pair of furry ears.
Skellig Michael, Ireland
Just what role this island off the west coast of Ireland plays in the Star Wars universe is unclear (Jedi boot camp? Lair of the Sith? Former holiday home of deceased ‘monkey-lizard’ Salacious Crumb? Clearly, we have no idea). But it’s not hard to see why location scouts chose this atmospheric, wind-scoured rock, which is home to a Unesco World Heritage-listed monastery. The crossing is choppy but worth it: catch a boat from the mainland between May and September.
Abu Dhabi, UAE
Tunisia supplied the sand for Star Wars sets of years gone by, but scenes from the new film were shot near Abu Dhabi. This city built on oil money boasts space-age malls, but director JJ Abrams was more interested in the restless, romantic dunes of the Rub' al Khali – one of the world’s largest and, oh yes, emptiest desert seas. Never mind Luke Skywalker; a trip here means you’re following in the footsteps of legendary British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger.
Head north from the remote village of Finse and you’ll end up on the ice-bound planet of Hoth, backdrop of arguably the greatest battle scene in Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (okay, okay: in reality, it’s the Hardangerjøkulen icecap). Finse, which is accessible only by train, bike or foot, is one of the best places in Norway for a pure Arctic-like wilderness experience. But remember that you’re more likely to spot a reindeer than a wampa.
Han Solo’s shaggy sidekick had to come from somewhere special; Guilin fitted the bill for Chewbacca thanks to its verdure-draped karst limestone mountains. These jagged rock forms are one of China’s most popular tourist attractions, and Guilin (aka the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk from Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, since you’re asking) is a major gateway to the intriguing Guangxi region.
Death Valley, USA
Various desert destinations have stood in for Tatooine, perhaps the most important planet in the Star Wars saga. Tunisia has supplied backdrops, as has Abu Dhabi. But the film-makers also found inspiration in their own backyard: step forward California. The panoramic view from Dante’s Peak in Death Valley, one of the most inhospitable places on earth never mind the USA, appears in Episode IV – A New Hope. The surrounding national park is a wonderland of water-sculpted canyons, sand-surfing boulders and palm-shaded oases.
George Lucas felt Guatemala was a fine stand-in for a ‘jungle moon’ when he made the original Star Wars film in the mid-1970s (now somewhat confusingly known as Episode IV – A New Hope). We can only agree. The forest-clad base from which the rebels launch an attack that ultimately destroys the Death Star is, in fact, Tikal – the ruins of an ancient Mayan empire. Star Wars trivia aside, this Unesco World Heritage-listed site full of temples, altars and artefacts is a bonafide highlight of Central America.
Mt Etna, Italy
Fire your enthusiasm for the franchise with a guided tour of grumbling Mt Etna, the bad-tempered volcano on the east coast of Sicily. This 3329m mound of trouble doubled as the planet Mustafar in Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker had their handbags out on its fiery slopes (or rather, they appeared to… in reality, Lucasfilm sent camera crews to film one of Mt Etna’s regular eruptions, then used the footage as the backdrop for the pair's dust-up).
Alas, Grindelwald (aka the planet Alderaan, home of Princess Leia) doesn’t get much screen time; apart from its brief, disastrous turn as target practice for the Death Star’s super-laser in Episode IV – A New Hope, it appears just once, as a mountainous backdrop in Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. But don’t let that put you off, friends: this outpost in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps is a popular base for skiing in winter, hiking in summer, and ascents of the formidable north face of the Eiger. Come to think of it, even Yoda might pass on that...