Drama lessons: The traveller's guide to natural wonders

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You don't need a beauty contest to select the planet's greatest hits, says Chris Leadbeater. After all, there's a world of possibilities out there

Last week saw the unveiling, amid considerable publicity, of the "New Seven Wonders of Nature" – a septet of what are supposedly the most iconic natural landmarks on the planet. (The list is provisional; the final seven will apparently not be confirmed until early next year.) Reaction to the news was mixed: joy from the countries of the "attractions" that made the list, anger from those who missed out – and confusion from everybody else.

There is no denying the wonder factor and global renown of several of the "winners". Spread across nine countries and covering an area six times the size of France, the Amazon rainforest is arguably the natural wonder. Journey Latin America (020-3468 0994; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) serves up a 13-day Cruise The Amazon itinerary that includes eight days sailing on the fabled river, plus trekking forays into the jungle – from £3,067 per person, flights extra.

A second winner, South Africa's Table Mountain is a distinctive flat-topped bluff looming to 3,558ft above Cape Town. Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com) offers a 15-day Cape Mountain Zebra self-drive safari that, along with wine and wildlife elements, spends five nights in the city. From £3,571 when booked before 15 December, with flights.

Iguazú Falls, where water fizzes and snorts through the wide bowl of the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat), is a fine inclusion in the sensational seven. Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) offers a five-night trip to the superstar waterfall that helps split Brazil from Argentina. The journey also calls at another grand water feature, the natural bay that hosts Rio de Janeiro – from £2,190 a head with flights, and accommodation at the Orient Express hotels Copacabana Palace and Das Cataratas.

Similarly, Vietnam's Halong Bay, fourth in the list, is a worthy candidate. Pinned to the lip of north-eastern Vietnam, the limestone karsts that fill its shallows (some two thousand in all) are a true spectacle. Bales Worldwide (0845 057 1819; balesworldwide.com) does a 12-day Historic Vietnam tour that visits the Bay – from £2,290 per person, with flights.

Yet the three other Asian finalists may not be so familiar. True, there is much beauty to Jeju Island, an outpost 100 miles off the southern coast of South Korea. The dormant Hallasan volcano rears to 6,398ft and a labyrinth of lava tubes tell the tale of the isle's infernal birth. To decide if it should rank alongside, say, Spitsbergen or the Galapagos, sign up with On The Go Tours (020-7371 1113; onthegotours.com) for its nine-day Seoul Searching and Jeju trip – from £1,649 per person, flights extra.

Similarly, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park, left, in the Philippines (where six miles of underground waterways drip with stalactites) is not on everyone's travel plans. However, Responsible Travel (01273 600 030; responsibletravel.com) runs a 12-day Palawan Expedition that covers the Filipino island of Palawan, including the Puerto Princesa network – from £1,995 a head, flights extra – which will enable you to compare it with a Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Indonesia's Komodo National Park (home of the Komodo Dragon, the planet's biggest lizard) possess camera-calling charm. But should it displace Yosemite in California? Decide for yourself with Audley Travel (01993 838 100; audleytravel.com), which operates a 15-day East Indonesia Explored tour that ticks off the Komodo archipelago – from £3,030 per person, with flights.

Of course, the natural wonders of the world are very much in the eye of the beholder. If this writer were to compile a group of seven natural wonders, it would certainly feature Kaieteur Falls, a waterfall hidden in the jungles of Guyana. At 822ft, it is five times taller than Niagara but, with just a handful of visitors a day, is magnificent in its isolation – yet not inaccessible. Wilderness Explorers (020-8417 1585; wilderness-explorers.com) does an eight-day Kaiteur Overland trekking expedition to the Falls from US$1,841 (£1,153) per person, not including flights to Georgetown and domestic transfers.

The rest of this feature looks at landmarks that can be deemed "Wonders of Nature" – and explains how to visit them. But the list is far from exhaustive. If you feel your favourite has been overlooked, email your suggestions to travel@independent.co.uk.

Wonder why?

Seven is frequently deemed to be a lucky number. But when it comes to travel and geography, this much-mythologised digit has – of late – been subsumed in controversy.

Decided via an international poll conducted over four years, the "New Seven Wonders" list had begun to provoke questions long before its make-up was revealed eight days ago – one issue being the role of the New 7 Wonders Foundation, the Zurich-based marketing organisation that has been responsible for the whole concept. Initially, 220 countries submitted 440 sites for consideration, although the Maldivian and Indonesian governments tried to withdraw involvement in May and August respectively.

Further concerns related to the ballot: 28 "wonders" made the shortlist, but with nothing in place to prevent interested parties from casting repeat votes, the results that appeared last week are, at best, unscientific. Other criticism was specific. Despite the frontrunner status of Table Mountain, Gordon Oliver, an ex-mayor of Cape Town, asked ahead of the poll: "What authority does this organisation have to determine a natural wonder as a finalist?"

We have, of course, been here before. The same organisation was behind the search for the "New (ie man-made) Seven Wonders of the World" – a poll that, in July 2007, produced a line-up of the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum, Machu Picchu, the "lost" Jordanian city of Petra, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and the Mayan archaeological site of Chichen Itza in Mexico. The Great Pyramid of Giza was added as an "honorary" eighth site after Egypt declared the absence of the only extant member of the original Seven Wonders of the World "absurd".

But then, perhaps the difficulty here is the format. Seven is a small number that proffers much scope for omission when applied on a global scale. Even that first septet – attributed to the ancient poet Antipater of Sidon, and reputedly drawn up as a guide to the sights of the areas that lay under Greek control in the first and second centuries BC – bears retrospective analysis. Whither the Parthenon – by this time the jewel of Athens?

Storming sands

Defiantly faceless, the Sahara Desert is earth at its most gloriously inhospitable. Yet this beast can be managed. Elite Tour Club (0800 619 3450; elitetourclub.com) does an eight-day Highlights Of Sudan tour that dips into the wilderness – from £1,547 per person, flights extra.

In Chile, meanwhile, the Atacama Desert is a raw expanse fringed by volcanoes and blessed with clear skies, that make it an astronomy hotspot. Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2211; abercrombiekent.co.uk) can arrange a 10-day Chilean adventure that also dashes to Santiago and Valparaiso – from £3,995 per person, with flights. Further north, Monument Valley, pictured below, is a postcard of the American West, its fame encapsulated by the weathered buttes – such as the East and West Mittens – that dot its surface. Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012; bon-voyage.co.uk) sells a Contrasting Colorado and Utah road trip that pays a visit – 14 days from £1,475 a head, with flights.

Rock stars

Table Mountain's grandeur is emphasised by its solitude – a trick repeated by Mount Fuji, pictured above, Japan's symmetrical volcano. Inside Japan (0117 370 9730; insidejapantours.com) has a 14-night Mount Fuji, Kyoto and the Japanese Alps trip, through which you can climb the symbolic peak. From £2,240 a head, not including flights.

Smaller but no less emblematic, Uluru is Australia's red celebrity, 2,831ft of sacred sandstone rising from the Outback dust. Steppes Travel (01285 880 980; steppestravel.co.uk) proffers a 19-day Classic Australia journey that also heads to Sydney and Melbourne – from £5,295 per person, flights extra.

Now freed from the shackles of civil war, Sri Lanka also boasts a mighty monolith. The magma plug of Sigiriya has been used as monastery and fortress since the 5th century BC. Mountain Kingdoms (01453 844400; mountainkingdoms.com) does a 16-day Gentle Trekking Kandyan Kingdoms tour that visits the site from £1,895, with flights.

Forest fervour

The world's third-largest island, Borneo, is rainforest-clad and home to rare species such as the orangutan and the Sunda Clouded Leopard. Explore (0844 499 0901; explore.co.uk) runs a 17-day Borneo Jungle Adventure in the Malay part of the isle that climbs the 13,435ft Mount Kinabalu from £2,886, with flights.

Australia has its forested corners, notably the Daintree Rainforest, which coats areas of Queensland. Freedom Australia (0844 567 8050; freedomaustralia.co.uk) sells a one-week North Queensland Discovery road trip from £568 a head with car hire, flights extra.

Waterworld

There's something eternally wondrous about a waterfall in full flow. The world's highest, Angel Falls, pictured below, plunges 2,648ft in Venezuela's Canaima National Park and is covered by Veloso Tours' (020-8762 0616; veloso.com) eight-night Bolivar Tour – from £2,014 a head, flights extra.

Alternatively, a visit to Victoria Falls, where the Zambezi roars between Zimbabwe and Zambia, is catered for by Africa Sky (0844 3329 374; africasky.co.uk), whose Victoria Falls Wonder trip has three nights at the Falls, from £1,299 a head, with flights.

If you prefer placid water, Lake Superior is the world's largest body of fresh water. Complete North America (0115 961 0590; completenorthamerica.com) sells a 14-night Great Lakes Experience road-trip that skirts lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior – from £1,899 a head, with flights and car hire. For those wanting to glimpse the wonders beneath, the merits of Australia's Great Barrier Reef are clear – 1,600 miles of coral off Queensland's coast. Seven nights on the Taka liveaboard via Dive Worldwide (0845 130 6980; diveworldwide.com), costs £1,689, flights extra.

Colossal chasms

No list of natural wonders can ignore the Grand Canyon, Arizona's 277-mile geological scar, with its subtle shifts in colour. America As You Like It (020-8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) sells a 15-night Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Utah National Parks, Grand Canyon, Scottsdale and Tucson road trip – from £1,040 with flights.

The Grand Canyon is not the only hole in the soil. Peru has a rugged miracle in Colca Canyon, a serrated slice twice as deep as its Arizona rival, where Andean Condors surf the thermals. Encounters Travel (0800 088 6002; encounterstravel.com) has a 21-day Mountains to the Lakes tour through Peru that tips its hat to Colca – from £1,370 a head, flights extra.

South Africa joins the party with the Blyde River Canyon. This is a tear in the eastern flank of the Drakensberg Escarpment noted for the Three Rondavels, pictured above – a trio of giant, rounded outcrops. Voyages Jules Verne (0845 166 7003; vjv.com) offers a three-week Grand Tour of South Africa that acknowledges the Canyon – from £3,495, including flights.

A few alternatives

A wonder of nature need not be universally revered to justify the tag. It just has to be wonderful. In which case, Loch Ness counts, its 23-mile length and dark depths abuzz with monstrous legends. Caley Cruisers (01463 236 328; caleycruisers.com) hires out holiday boats from £512 per week.

If lone-rider peaks are a cause célèbre, then Italy has one of the original rebels – Vesuvius, AD79's slayer of Pompeii.

KE Adventure Travel (01768 773 966; keadventure.com) runs an eight-day Vesuvius, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast walking break that ascends the volcano – from £845 a head, flights extra.

Then there is that final exclamation mark. In many ways the last corner of the planet, the steep-sided fjord of Milford Sound, below, lurks at the lowest ebb of New Zealand's South Island – accessible via the 18-night New Zealand Wanderer tour sold by Discover The World (01737 214 251; discover-the-world.co.uk) – from £4,067 a head, with flights. Rudyard Kipling once called the fjord the "eighth wonder" – as great a recommendation as any poll.

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