40 Natural Wonders in Small States For Your Travel Bucket List
TRAVEL BUCKET LIST
Swap life-sucking concrete jungles for sensation-boosting natural heritages
Small states are scattered across the world and contain all major types of ecosystems, with many of them unexposed to human disruptions. So whether you want to just relax on the beach or be amazed by mother nature, read on below for a list of natural wonders in small states, including unique landscapes that even made it onto the Game of Thrones and Star Wars.
Seychelles: Anse Source d'Argent
If you have always wanted to re-live Tom Hanks' journey in Cast Away, then you have to visit Seychelles. Anse Source d'Argent is the backdrop of Tom Hanks' struggle, as well as the world's 4th best beach as voted on by CNN. As you approach the sea, you will spot tropical fish and turtles before you even put on your snorkel. The best part about it? It faces west, so brace yourself for a great Indian Ocean sunset.
Turks & Caicos: Grace Bay
Ranked as the World's 6th best beach by the Flight Network, Turks & Caicos' Grace Bay is quintessentially what people look for in a beach - soft, white sand, pristine water with luxury resorts. For the scuba divers out there, Turks & Caicos is also home to one of the longest coral reefs, and there is even an opportunity to adopt a coral and help defeat the invasive lionfish that has unsettled the ecosystem.
Vanuatu: Champagne Beach
“Powdery white sand and effervescent waters that take on a champagne-hue at low tide, make Champagne Beach a favorite spot on the east coast of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu.” – John Elston, Author of The Remote Revolution
Champagne Beach comes with the sound of a champagne fizz, caused by gas escaping from volcanic rocks during low tides. Outside of tourists, you could be treated to cows roaming around on the beach too.
The Bahamas: Great Exuma
You have seen people swimming in the ocean. But what about pigs? At Pig Beach, Great Exuma Island of The Bahamas, you can swim with pigs in the ocean. No one knows where they came from. Some say they survived a shipwreck. Others say that they were deserted on the island by sailors, with the intention to return and feast on the pigs. With the pigs now being the star tourist attraction, it seems likely that they will not be feasted on anytime soon. Are you ready for a swim with the pigs?
If you are tired of the typical beach on a tropical island, you might want to consider seeing Iceland's Reynisfiara Beach instead. Rather than the usual white sand, Reynisfiara offers black sand formed from heavily eroded volcanic rocks.
Off the coast of Reynisfiara stands the Reynisdrangar Columns, another attraction of the beach. These columns were once connected to the Reynisfjall mountain range during the last ice age. But overtime, they were eroded and now stand by themselves, disconnected. Reynisfiara is so unique that it even made it onto both Star Wars and the Game of Thrones, giving you yet another reason to visit.
Sint Maarten: Maho Beach
The tiny Caribbean island of Saint Martin is divided into a French part and a Dutch part. There are 36 beaches on the island, but the most spectacular one is Maho Beach, located on the Dutch side. Due to the beach's proximity to the airport, it offers a spectacular view of airplanes landing and take offs right above you while as you enjoy yourself in the Caribbean Sea.
A "Must Snorkel" destination based on the Oceanic Society, Palau boosts the most diverse coral fauna in Micronesia with 700 types of corals, as well as 1300 types of reef fish. Palau's coral has also been found to be more resilient to global warming, giving tourists a more vibrant view and more vivid memory.
This is not to mention that Palau has taken the extraordinary step to ban commercial fishing and set aside fully protected marine areas to help fish population thrive. It is also the first country to take the extraordinary step of asking visitors to sign a pledge to protect the environment before entering into the country. A country for those of us who love the environment.
Belize: Belize Barrier Reef & Great Blue Hole
As part of the second largest coral reef system in the world, Belize Barrier Reef is famous for its Great Blue Hole which is great for both scuba diving and snorkelling. It is also extremely diverse - there are over 100 coral species, 500 species of fish and it is estimated that only 10% of all species at the reef have been discovered. So you may even run across a new species that no one has seen before.
While you are at beautiful Belize, why not volunteer Belize Ocean Wildlife Volunteer Program and help scientists monitor coral reefs and gather needed data on sea turtles, dolphins, and manatees?
Puerto Rico is perhaps lesser-known for its coral reefs. Yet, like other Caribbean islands, the US territory also has easy access to a large area of coral reefs as well. Unfortunately, during Hurricane Maria in 2017, 10% of Puerto Rico's corals were damaged. This is why you should come - Oceanic Society runs a coral reef volunteer program annually where you and your friends will have a chance to learn about the marine environment and to help save the corals.
Djibouti: Lake Assal
Djibouti's Lake Assal literally means "Honey Lake". But there is nothing sweet and everything salty about this lake. It is a saline lake with no outflow. Due to the high level of evaporation, this makes the salinity level of the Lake Assal 10 times of the sea, and ranking it as the third most saline body of water in the world, and the world's largest salt reserve. The lake also sits below sea level, making it the lowest point on land in Africa.
Dominica: Boiling Lake
Dominica is an island state in the Caribbean that was formed by geothermal-volcanic activities. You can see evidence of this by visiting Boiling Lake, which represents an opening of a volcano. The Boiling Lake is the second largest hot lake in the world, only after New Zealand's Frying Pan Lake. The water can be up to 92 degrees Celsius, even at the edge of the lake. You won't need your bathing suit here.
Saint Lucia: Sulphur Springs
You might have been to a drive-in theatre, but have you been to a drive-in volcano? On the small island state of Saint Lucia, Qualibou (also known as Soufrière Volcanic Center) is the main volcano. It last erupted in 1766, and today it is dormant and safe enough for tourists to drive right up to one of its openings. Interestingly, the water here appears dark, a result of a chemical reaction between sulphur and iron. Further away from there, you can also enjoy a mud bath, an experience that has helped St. Lucia stand out from other Caribbean islands.
Not many people know about Samoa - after all every year, less than 200,000 visitors arrive in the country, mostly from New Zealand and Australia. But those who know Samoa would know To Sua Ocean Trench. To Sua literally means a "swimming hole", and this swimming hole is 30 meters deep and was formed from lava that came from nearby volcanoes. Through this hole, experienced divers can swim through a tunnel that will even lead you to the open sea. Perhaps it's time to add Samoa onto your bucket list?
Palau: Jellyfish Lake
In Palau, outside of coral reefs, you can also have a unique experience in swimming with jellyfish. The Jellyfish Lake is estimated to be 12,000 years old and here, you can snorkel with scores of golden jellyfish. At its peak in 2005, there were 30 million golden jellyfish in the lake. But the number has been shrinking, with experts blaming rising sea temperature, which led to a decrease in algae, a major food source for jellyfish. The golden jellyfish all disappeared in 2016 during a drought. The lake was only re-opened to tourists in 2019.
Iceland: Blue Lagoon
It is impossible to mention lagoons without discussing Iceland's Blue Lagoon, one of the most Instagram-friendly locations. Even though the water here is naturally heated up, the lagoon itself was completely man-made. The water in the lagoon comes from runoff of the geothermal power plant next door, cooled off to a very comfortable 37-39°C that you can safely enjoy.
Blue Lagoon's water has a milky shade of blue, caused by the high silica content in the water. It is said that the lagoon even has a beneficial effect on the skin disease psoriasis. If you are suffering a bad skin day, it's a sign to plan your Iceland trip.
Guyana: Kaieteur Falls
Guyana is home to the Amazon Rainforest, and your itinerary exploring the Amazon must include Kaieteur Falls, the World's largest single drop waterfall by volume. It is just about 4 times taller than Niagara Falls in Canada, or twice the height of Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Get here by flight, or if you feel adventurous, take the overland expedition option which will take five days, including a boat trip, some tough hikes and overnight camping in the jungle.
Perhaps no waterfall in Iceland is as culturally important as the Gullfoss, a waterfall that was saved by a heroine.
In the early 1900s, Gullfoss was at the center of a controversy with foreign investors who wanted to utilize the waterfall for a hydroelectric plant. This was rebuffed by a farmer's daughter, named Sigríður Tómasdóttir. To fight this in court, Sigríður travelled time and time again, on foot, to Reykjavik, a distance of over 100km. She even threatened to throw herself into the waterfall if any construction began.
It took two decades, but she finally won the fight to protect the Gullfoss. A lawyer, Sveinn Björnsson, helped Sigríður. He later became an independent Iceland's first president in 1944.
Jamaica: Dunn's Water Falls
So a visit to a waterfall should be a nice easy stroll and some nice pictures from afar right? Not at Jamaica's Dunn's Water Falls. The real photo op here occurs when you make the climb up the falls. Yes, that's right, to enjoy Dunn's, you will have to climb up the falls. The falls are 180 feet high and 600 feet long, and it takes about an hour to get to the top. The falls empty into the Caribbean Sea, the only waterfall in the Caribbean to do so.
Suriname: Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon Rainforest spans across nine different countries, and you can get an amazing experience from each of these countries. Yet, Suriname offers a unique cultural experience on top of the ecological experience.
Back in the colonial days, slaves used to escape into the harsh rainforest in a bid for freedom. Some of them were lucky to survive and formed settlements together. The Maroons, as they were called, have since lived in the rainforest. It wasn't until 30 years ago when they met the first tourists. Today, they are still fighting to keep both the rainforest and their distinctive culture intact, despite the increase reliance on tourism.
Papua New Guinea: Papua Rainforest
After the Amazon Rainforest and Congo, the island of New Guinea, shared by Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (PNG), is the site of the World's 3rd largest rainforest and it is made up of an estimated 25,000 species of higher plants. Papua Rainforest is also home to 760 bird species and 250 species of mammals, including the tree kangaroo. However, PNG is best known for Sir Richard Attenborough’s favourites: the brilliantly coloured birds of paradise, with 38 of the 43 known species found there.
Puerto Rico: El Yunque National Forest
Even an American without a passport can see a tropical rainforest. Puerto Rico's El Yunque National Forest covers approximately 29,000 acres, and is the only tropical rain forest in the United States National Forest System. It is also one of the oldest reserves in the Western Hemisphere, having been initially set aside in 1876 by King Alfonso XII of Spain. You’ll find photo opportunities and spectacular views with waterfalls, exotic plants and wildlife.
New Caledonia: Le Cœur de Voh
If you think that Bora Bora is the most romantic French territory, think again. New Caledonia's Cœur de Voh is perhaps the best way to visually show to your travel partner what love really look likes. Cœur de Voh, or "Heart of Voh" in English, consists of a mangrove swamp that is surrounded by saline flats, which has little plant life. Interestingly, the flats naturally developed into a heart shape. Perhaps there is something in the French waters that can even turn plants romantic?
Namibia: Namib Desert
The oldest desert of the world, at 55 million years old, Namibia's Namib Desert is also home to the largest conservation area in Africa. It is here that you will find Sossusvlei, a salt and clay pan surrounded by high red dunes, as well as famous tourist attractions Dune 45 (composed of 5-million year old sands) and the Sesriem Canyon. Beyond the dunes, the Namib-Naukluft National Park is also the largest game park in Africa and supports populations of African Bush Elephants, Mountain Zebras, and other large mammals.
Botswana: Kalahari Desert
Did you know that 84% of Botswana is covered by sand? Most of this belongs to the Kalahari Desert, which stretches from Botswana into Namibia and South Africa. It is also home to Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, one of the largest salt flats in the world today, but once an extremely fertile area with lakes and grasslands.
Because Kalahari is a semi-desert with small amounts of rainfall, it is capable of supporting more animals and plants. It is home to the second largest zebra migration in the world, with about 25,000 zebras arriving here every year.
Bahrain: Tree of Life
Trees don't often shoot to celebrity status, but the Tree of Life in Bahrain is an exception. The Ghaf tree is now over 400 years old. But it is famous not for its age, but for being the only major tree surviving in its area in the Arabian Desert.
Bahrain has little to no rainfall throughout the year, so it is still a mystery as to how the tree survives. Some say the tree is protected by Enki, a god of water in Babylonian religion, while others claim that the tree is standing in land that was once the Garden of Eden. But more likely, the tree's 50-metre deep roots is the answer. The tree and its open-air platform can even turn into main stage for special events, such as the Bahrain International Music Festival.
When it comes to the Himalayas, most people think of Mount Everest, which sits on the border of Nepal and China. In fact, the Himalayas stretches from Bhutan, through Nepal to Afghanistan. You can enjoy a view of the Himalayas from almost everywhere in Bhutan, either by going on a stroll in the city or a day hike. Or consider the Snowman Trek, a 25-day trek. Just don't expect an easy, comfortable journey with luxurious lodging along the way.
Montenegro: Tara River Canyon
A 150-meter high bridge over the Tara River and an 82-kilometer Tara River Canyon make up perhaps the most beautiful sights in Montenegro. Here you will find also dense forests and clear lakes, all embedded within Durmitor National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Head up to Mount Ćurevac if you are looking to enjoy a quiet but astonishing view. But for those who enjoy a bit of an adrenaline rush, you can also enjoy the alternative options of whitewater rafting, canyoning and zip-lining here.
In years past, European skiers used to overwhelmingly prefer the Alps for skiing. But in recent years, the microstate of Andorra has created a space for itself in the skiing world. It appeals to beginners with its relatively gentle slopes of Pyrenees, as opposed to the more intimidating Alps. Compared to the Alps, it has one additional trump card – shopping. Thanks to its low VAT rate, products in Andorra are often 15% cheaper than its neighbours France and Spain, giving you yet another reason to visit.
Iceland's Kirkjufell may just be Iceland's most famous mountain after being featured in Seasons 6 and 7 of Game of Thrones. The mountain looks almost like a cone, and is covered in green during the summers but is covered in snow and turns white during the winters. Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall sits at the foot of the mountain, creating a magnificent view that will be difficult to forget. You can also hike up the mountain, an adventure that would take 90 minutes. And if you are visiting in the winter, you may just be lucky enough to catch the amazing northern lights over the Kirkjufell.
St. Lucia: The Pitons
The Pitons in St. Lucia is a UNESCO World Heritage, and it is easy to see why from pictures like these. The two volcanoes are called Gros Piton and Petit Piton, linked together by the Piton Mitan ridge. In fact, the value of The Pitons is not only in its beauty, but also in its diversity. The area is home to at least 148 plant species, 27 bird species and the surrounding ocean is home to coral reefs that support 168 species of finfish. It is no wonder that tourists love to both hike and sail around the Pitons to appreciate its different elements.
Iceland is made up of perhaps thousands of mountains. But there is one distinctive feature about many of them. They are what is called a "tuya". A tuya is a flat topped volcano which was formed when lava erupts through a thick glacier or ice sheet, and they are not very commonly found globally. Iceland happens to be home to many of them. One of the most famous tuya is Herðubreið, considered by many Icelanders as the most beautiful mountain in their tiny country.
What can possibly happen when a volcano erupts in a small island state? Many Europeans would remember Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull, the culprit that created complete chaos in European air traffic in 2010 when its ash clouds spread to cover most of Europe. This led to the grounding of 48% of total air traffic and roughly 10 million passengers, with $1.7 billion in lost revenue for the airlines industry. But since 2010, the volcano has been dormant. Today you can visit or hike the beasty Eyjafjallajökull peacefully.
Vanuatu: Mount Yasur
Mount Yasur is just one of 17 volcanoes in Vanuatu, and it is a relatively young volcano at only about 100,000 years old. But it could be the most thrilling one, with 500 explosions each day in the volcano. It was active even before the Europeans arrive, and apparently, it was this glow that attracted Captain James Cook to the island in 1774. If the volcano is in a stable condition, there are tours to the crater rim where the floating lava underneath will surely get your heart beating. Mount Yasur is perhaps the closest you can get to an active volcano.
Bermuda: Crystal Caves
In 1905, two 12-year-old boys, Carl Gibbons and Edgar Hollis, were looking for a lost cricket ball. They ended up finding something much more valuable: a 1600-foot long, 200-foot deep cave system now known as the Crystal Cave.
Cave systems are common in Bermuda, a country made up of limestone islands. During the Ice Age which started 30 million years ago, much of the Earth’s oceans froze and sea level dropped. This allowed rainwater to percolate through the limestone and dissolve it over time to create cave. After the Ice Age, oceans melted, sea level rose and the caves were flooded and hidden. But thanks to the boys, more than 85,000 visitors now enjoy Crystal Caves annually.
Gibraltar: St. Michael's Cave
A walk through Gibraltar's St. Michael's Cave is a walk through history. The cave is actually a series of caves made of limestone found on the Rock of Gibraltar, and according to legend, it extends all the way to Morocco, which was how the world-famous Gibraltar Monkeys first arrived in Gibraltar. Pre-historic men, perhaps from 40,000 BC, were here also, leaving behind their artwork on the wall.
In the early 1700s, after the capture of Gibraltar by the English-Dutch forces, as many as 500 Spanish soldiers hid here overnight before their an unsuccessful surprise attack on the British. The British used it in a much more joyful manner, with caverns being used for parties, weddings, picnics and even duels during the Victorian era.
World War Two saw the cave designed as a military hospital, which thankfully, was not used in the end. Today, St Michaels Cave houses an auditorium in the largest chamber, called Cathedral Cave. It is set up with a concrete stage and seating for about 400 people. It has hosted fantastic light shows, ballet, drama, Miss Gibraltar beauty pageants, philharmonic orchestras and even rock bands. So, what can you not do inside a cave?
Iceland: Blue Glacier Caves
Iceland is home to many glaciers, and caves, known as glacier caves, are sometimes formed within these blocks of ice. Caves can be formed when water enter the glaciers through cracks, which slowly enlarge overtime due to erosion and melting. Glacier caves often have a stunning blue colour, since blue is the only colour that is not absorbed by the thick ice.
The most popular glacier caves in Iceland are the Crystal Cave and the Blue Diamond Cave in Vatnajökull Glacier. Glacier caves can only be entered during winter, when the structure is frozen, so prepare yourself for the harsh Icelandic winter if you are keen.
Greenland: Ilulissat Icefjord and Disko Bay
Could this be the world’s coldest UNESCO World Heritage Site? Located in western Greenland, and approximately 350km north of the Arctic Circle, the Ilulissat Icefjord is the most touristic spot inside Greenland. The area is as big as 66,000 football fields, and it's filled with icebergs.
Sadly, the world may not have this heritage for long as the icefjord is quickly disappearing: 20 years ago temperature used to average around -40c, while today it rarely gets colder than -20c. And 10 years ago the icebergs were about 90 meters high, while today they are about 25 meters.
Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard: Northern lights
The coldest weather yields the most remarkable memories. That's why to see the memorable Northern lights, you have to travel to the most northern part of the world, during Northern Hemisphere's winter months.
From November to February, you have a chance of seeing the Northern Lights over the skies of the Nordic islands. You would need a night with clear sky, and the temperature would have to be around or below freezing point. Of course, if it's too cold outside, you can also appreciate the northern lights with a hot chocolate in one of these hotels instead.
Namibia: The Stars at NamibRand Nature Reserve
Namibia's desert is wonderful to see during the day, but it is even more breath-taking during the night. NamibRand Nature Reserve was the first reserve to achieve Gold Tier status when the international Dark-Sky Association was first formed, making it a prime stargazing destination. Low humidity in the desert makes great clear sky, and the reserve itself is located 100 km away from the nearest town. Prepare yourself for a view of gegenschein, zodiacal light and the center of our galaxy.
Ascension Island: Mars on Earth
An isolated volcanic island in mid-Atlantic, where Charles Darwin once proclaimed as "an arid island, devoid of fresh water and trees", is the site of the world's ecological experiment. Between Darwin and his friend Joseph Hooker, they convinced the Royal Navy to transform Ascension Island.
Beginning in 1850, trees were shipped to the island from across the world - Europe, South Africa and Argentina. A forest was created artificially, and the island became a self-sustaining and self-reproducing ecosystem within decades. Thanks to the plants, the soil and the hydrology of the island also completely changed. Ascension Island may hold the key to how we can shape our planet in order to survive climate change.