Landmarks: World’s Most Fascinating Aquatic Wonders

What makes these natural formations so inspiring?

By Kate Appleton

A lagoon with healing powers. A waterfall that has wooed countless couples. A coral reef visible from outer space. Water covers 70 percent of our planet, and it takes some truly incredible forms. So when winter strikes and, with it, the urge to pack your bags, the beach is just the beginning. You may find yourself blissfully floating in the Middle East’s Dead Sea, diving into the Great Blue Hole, off the coast of Belize, or exploring the canals of Venice, Italy—where the season promises fewer crowds and piping hot bowls of risotto.

Great Barrier Reef

The world’s largest coral reef system—which extends along the coast of Queensland, Australia, for more than 1,400 miles and is so vast it’s visible from space—teems with tropical fish, baleen whales, dolphins, leatherback turtles and many more fascinating creatures great and small. A helicopter ride can give you a dazzling aerial perspective on the innumerable green and blue hues and coral-fringed islands. Snorkeling, scuba diving and glass-bottom-boat excursions are other popular ways to explore the Great Barrier Reef, whose waters are warm enough to enjoy year-round. It’s listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, which has been monitoring how coral bleaching, invasive species and other factors are affecting this fragile system.

The Everglades

South of Orlando, Florida, the landscape gives way to a river of grass—or, more precisely, ecosystems of mangrove forests, saw-grass marshes and cypress-lined swamps that amount to the 1.5-million-acre Everglades National Park. Fed by summer’s rainfall, these subtropical wetlands support 360 known species of birds, including storks and ibis, as well as manatees, crocodiles and the occasional Florida panther. Keep your eyes peeled for such wildlife while canoeing, fishing, biking or taking part in a ranger-led activity. It’s an intriguing part of the U.S., with its own eccentric swamp culture.

Blue Lagoon

How’s this for an Icelandic jet lag cure: soaking in milky blue-green water rich in mineral salts, algae and silica mud that condition and exfoliate the skin? The temperature’s just right, at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and as steam rises from the surface, you feel the stress of the journey slip away—you and countless others, that is. Only 25 minutes from the airport and 45 from Reykjavík, Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction can feel like a tourist trap, complete with a gift shop, swim-up bars and Twitter account @BlueLagoonIS. Fed by the output of a geothermal plant, this man-made wonder is nonetheless a remarkably beautiful place—and ready to welcome you, with tickets available every day of the year, until midnight in summer.

Lake Baikal

You can’t describe Lake Baikal, in Russia, without superlatives: oldest (dating back 25 million years), deepest (extending about 5,300 feet) and fullest (containing 20 percent of the planet’s freshwater). It’s also exceptionally lovely and pristine, thanks to its remote location amid the snowcapped mountains, small settlements and taiga forest of Siberia. Fly from Moscow to the gateway city of Irkutsk—more than 2,500 miles to the east—or book your berth on the Trans-Siberian Railway. In winter, hardy souls dogsled or drive along the frozen lake; summer beckons with fishing, hiking and ample wildlife spotting. Lake Baikal is known as “the Galápagos of Russia” for its more than 1,500 species of animal life, most of which are found only here.

Niagara Falls

From the late 1800s through the 1950s, when Marilyn Monroe starred in the thriller Niagara, Niagara Falls was the preferred place to honeymoon. Millions of annual visitors are still smitten with the two main and mighty waterfalls, fed by the Great Lakes. Don a poncho to join them for a classic Maid of the Mist boat ride to the base or walk the series of redwood platforms leading to the daintier Bridal Veil Falls. Casinos and kitschy attractions have sprung up on the Canadian side, while its New York counterpart has struggled with post-manufacturing economic decline. A $40 million infusion now aims to turn things around by supporting the area’s nature and history, including the debut of an Underground Railroad museum.

Nile River

Beginning south of the equator, the fabled Nile flows for more than 4,200 miles through 10 African countries—including, most famously, Egypt—until it meets the Mediterranean Sea. The fertile Nile Delta region has been farmed since the days of the pharaohs, and this river, the world’s longest, deserves credit for sustaining the civilization that brought us innovations as varied as paper and the 365-day calendar. Marvel firsthand at ancient Egyptian wonders as part of a luxury Nile cruise, typically from Aswan to Luxor, or embrace the romance of a shorter sail on a felucca, a traditional wooden boat that can navigate where bigger cruise ships can’t.

The Dead Sea

Let’s be clear: The sea itself, in the desert between Jordan and Israel, isn’t quite dying, but it is shrinking at the worrisome rate of about three feet per year. That lends urgency to experiencing its restorative water, so rich in minerals and compounds such as magnesium chloride, sulfur and bromide that it’s at least eight times saltier than your typical ocean. The Dead Sea is too salty to support any plant or animal life and too salty to swim in (hence the classic photo ops of people floating while reading the paper or slathering up with its mud). It occupies the lowest point on land, more than 1,300 feet below sea level. And it’s been a refuge since biblical times, with the nearby holy sites and ancient ruins to prove it.

Venice Canals

Canals link the 100-plus islands that make up Venice, Italy, where candy-colored palazzos, churches and hotels rest on limestone stilts—an increasingly precarious position. (St. Mark’s Square happens to be at one of the lowest points.) This city is famously sinking, by a rate of about two millimeters a year, and it’s overwhelmed not only by rising sea levels but also by visitors. They’re bait for the traditional poled gondolas that ply the Grand Canal; vaporetti (public water buses) and water taxis are alternatives. It’s delightful to lose yourself among the maze of smaller canals and wander into a waterside restaurant for local specialties like seafood risotto or an Aperol Spritz.

Lake Retba

Lake Retba can be called bubble-gum pink or terra-cotta red, but one word will never describe it: blue. Just outside Dakar, the capital of Senegal, this lake gets its distinctive hue from the Dunaliella salina bacteria (it looks especially intense in the dry season, roughly November to May). Lake Retba rivals the Dead Sea for salt content, making it easy to float in. It also attracts salt collectors. These workers set out in wooden boats to harvest the mineral and pile it to dry on the white sand dunes that separate the lake from the Atlantic Ocean.

Great Blue Hole

In 1971, after plumbing the 410-foot depth of Belize’s Great Blue Hole, Jacques Cousteau declared it one of the world’s top 10 diving spots—and it’s been making bucket lists ever since. An almost perfect circle, nearly 1,000 feet in diameter, this giant sinkhole in the Lighthouse Reef atoll was once a limestone cave; when sea levels rose, it eventually flooded, and the roof collapsed. That means stalactites and stalagmites as long as 40 feet now lurk below the surface of the deeply indigo water. That hue makes an enchanting contrast to the turquoise of the Caribbean and the surrounding coral. Sea life is scarce except along the shallow rim, where snorkelers may encounter angelfish and sea urchins.

  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Winter 2016