By KATHRYN ROMEYN
We refer to a lot of things as “magical” these days, from mermaid toast to adaptogens and flower-strewn baths. It’s a term that’s equally as applicable to dreamy travel destination—evidenced by the 10 otherworldly escapes below.
These are spots around the globe that create, to some degree, a feeling that you’ve actually left planet Earth. Adventure seekers, especially, will appreciate these outdoorsy destinations where your perception of reality may be challenged alongside your fitness levels.
Scroll down to see the can’t-miss places that deserve entry on any travel bucket list.
1. The Pinnacles, Western Australia
Thousands of limestone spires jut up almost like raw crystals out of shifting yellow sands in the desert of Western Australia’s Nambung National Park. The natural phenomenon is best experienced on foot—just know there will be some sand in your shoes at the end of the day. While in WA, take a jet boat trip through the Horizontal Falls of Talbot Bay, where fast-moving tidal currents squeeze through narrow gorges for a topsy-turvy waterfall-like effect, only sideways.
2. Coral Garden, Taha’a, French Polynesia
Drift snorkeling off the coast of this Polynesian island is truly spellbinding. A typical snorkeling trip in this shallow coral garden is exceptional—chock-a-block with alien-looking marine life. (Think: fish with pouty purple lips, watermelon-hued scales, and iridescent blue flecks.)
3. Sahara Desert, Morocco
It’s a long, somewhat arduous, trip out to the red dunes of the Sahara. The constantly shifting landscape (part of which is traversed on camel back) takes you deeper and deeper into a feeling of being nowhere. But know that the end result is truly fantastical. The gorgeous ways in which wind shapes the billions and billions of grains of sand seems almost master planned, while the extreme quiet and sense of solitude one feels in the middle of nowhere is the ultimate analog experience.
4. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The famed salt flats of Bolivia are already likely on any photography buff’s bucket list, and should be on anyone’s who appreciates an otherworldly scene. The world’s largest salt flats rise almost 12,000 feet above sea level, giving you less oxygen to work with and an already dizzying sense of perspective that’s enhanced by the extreme flatness of the landscape. By day, the mirror-like reflection of the sky—and you—on the ground is spectacular, but by night, the stars are enough to blow your mind.
It’s no surprise that this Nordic country is full of winter wonderland-like landscapes you have to see to believe. It’s not necessarily easy to reach them, but totally worth the trip. The new Retreat at Blue Lagoon Iceland makes it one step easier to experience the blue magic of the geothermal mineral waters, but day trips are required to climb or pick your way through ice caves in unbelievable colors, or hike across expansive lava fields.
6. Vinicunca (Rainbow Mountain), Peru
The colors may be amplified in the Instagram posts you’ve seen, but still, this day trek from Custo is pretty incredible. You’ll have to put in the work though—the hike is at a punishing 14,000-plus feet, and you’ll face winds between verdant peeks and bright red rock. But take in the breathtaking mountain streams along the way to the famed rainbow-striped lump of rock that emerges from the earth in all shades of pink, yellow, and green.
7. Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
Not only is this the first national monument in America, it was also the backdrop for the alien movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and is a sacred space for Native Americans. Climbing is the sport of choice on the igneous rock laccolithic butte (a super steep hill with a flat top) that rises 867 feet from the plains, while stargazing is also epic. Scientists aren’t totally sure how the structure was created, making it all the more mystical.
8. Coober Pedy, South Australia
The locals in this opal-mining town actually live underground since it’s so blazing hot, and places like the Desert Cave Hotel exist 82 feet below the surface. Guest rooms are carved out of the earth, making the walls naturally textured sandstone. When not underground, travelers walk across the gorgeous orange, yellow, and white–hued shale Painted Desert, which is actually an ancient Inland Sea bed. Also nearby is the lunar-like Moon Plain, where Mad Max, among other movies, was filmed.
9. Algar do Carvão, Azores
This ancient volcanic vent/lava tube called the Cavern of Coal is an unbelievable place for hiking and canyoning. Covered in vivid green moss, it’s like a sinkhole to another time and planet (though you just need to fly Delta direct to this diverse terrain). It’s one of the exotic destinations tour operator Azores Getaways takes travelers to, along with mountain biking on the Lagoon of the Seven Cities (which is in the crater of a dormant volcano), soaking in geothermal hot springs, and swimming with wild dolphins.
10. Lake Baikal, Siberia
This massive lake (larger than Belgium, BTW) is like an Arctic Galapagos for scientists studying evolution, since it’s so remote, there are incredibly rare plants and animals. The most insane time to go, though, is when for several of the coldest months every year, the lake freezes, creating giant, eerily neon blue crystals, graphic cracks, and chunks of ice that look like nothing you’ve ever seen. Step carefully!