7 of the most extreme places to visit on Earth
Thomasin McCuaig suggests you test your limits and experience the extreme by embarking on a trip that is sure to push you out of your comfort zone.
We’ve all had relaxing island getaways or fun trips to bustling cities, so why not take a chance, be adventurous and try the unconventional by visiting one of the most extreme places on Earth on your next holiday? Whether it is intense weather conditions, grand natural features or isolated destinations, each of these places will be a once-in-a-lifetime journey.
As the coldest continent on Earth, Antarctica is the winner of extreme weather conditions (and also the most untouched by humankind). The further one goes from the coast, the higher and colder it becomes – the temperature hits -20 degrees Celsius at 1,000 metres, -60 at 4,000 metres and, in the coastal regions, the average annual temperature is -12. During your intrepid sail through the scenic wilderness you will have the opportunity to encounter local wildlife in their natural habitat, including orcas, humpback whales, seals and many different species of penguins. What’s more, the wildlife is generally unafraid of humans – visitors will most likely be greeted with an uninterested nod or waddle. If you are bold enough, brave the cold and step foot on the rock and ice to truly immerse yourself in the sublime, barren land.
The luxe touch: The best way to discover the Antarctic Peninsula is to hop on board a Quark Expeditions’ ship. After a day walking on the ice and whizzing through frozen glaciers, you can retreat back to your ship to enjoy exquisite dining, educational lectures, relax in the health and wellness facilities, or enjoy a cocktail at one of the lounges.
Death Valley, California
Located in California, Death Valley is regarded as the hottest place on Earth, as it is where the world’s hottest temperature (56.7 degrees Celsius) was recorded. Although nearly 1,600 kilometres of paved and dirt roads provide access to popular and remote locations, 91% of the park is protected as officially designated wilderness. Picture this: rugged mountains rising 3,352 metres, deep and winding canyons, barren salt flats crusted on low valley floors and rolling sand dunes. In this below-sea-level basin of steady drought and extreme summer heat, there are surprising contrasts. The towering peaks of mountains are frosted with snow from the winter next to hidden oases, serving as a refuge for wildlife and humans. Death Valley offers hundreds of scenic trails, allowing visitors to experience the extreme land with knowledgeable guides. However, do not forget to bring sufficient supplies, as it is called ‘Death Valley’ for a reason.
The luxe touch: The Inn at Death Valley is a serene sanctuary for you to return to after a long day of exploration. Guests can chill out by the spring-fed pool, wander around the quaint stone patios and saunter through the date palm gardens, contrasting dramatically with the desert landscape. Other features include a tennis court, library, bar, historic paintings, exercise room and massage therapy.
Mount Chimborazo, Ecuador
Most people believe that Mount Everest is the highest point on Earth. While the summit of Mount Everest is the highest point above sea level, Mount Chimborazo is the highest spot above the centre of the Earth, making it the closest place to outer space. By venturing on an adventure to Mount Chimborazo, visitors can put themselves in a position closest to outer space than man can ever reach on foot. If you want to test your limits, there are several routes for brave climbers. The El Castillo route is the standard route used by climbers, ascending 1,300 metres up the west side of the mountain and taking between eight and 12 hours to the Whymper summit and three to five hours to descend.
The luxe touch: If climbing isn’t your thing, gazing at the beauty of this magnificent mountain and the surrounding scenery will be just as rewarding. The nearest town to Mount Chimborazo is Riobamba. Here, you can zip through narrow streets and visit the city’s top attractions: take a stroll through the Museo de Arte Religioso, a beautifully restored 18th-century convent that showcases 200 religious pieces in 15 different rooms, before shopping at Feria Artesan market. Declared as a Cultural Heritage of Ecuador, stay at the highly acclaimed Hosteria La Andaluza to learn about its fascinating history and admire the beauty of its architecture.
Gansbaai, South Africa
If you were scared of the movie Jaws when you were a kid, the waters of South Africa’s Gansbaii are sure to bring those memories to the fore. Gansbaai has the most treacherous waters on Earth, as it is prime great white shark territory. With the densest population of these beasts, Shark Alley – a small channel of water between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock – has become a popular destination for tourists who want to get an up close and personal view of these deadly creatures by jumping on board one of the many shark cage diving tours. If this sounds a little overwhelming, you can go whale watching instead from the sandy, white shores of Pearly Beach. After an adrenalin-filled day, the fishing village of Gansbaai offers an abundance of fun opportunities, including scenic horse rides, great surfing and numerous restaurants and bars with panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean.
The luxe touch: For five-star accommodation, book a room, suite or private villa at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve. Listed as one of the Unique Lodges of the World by National Geographic, the reserve offers three accommodation options: Garden Lodge, Forest Lodge and Private Villas. No matter which room you choose, it will complement the pristine wilderness and surrounding 1,000-year-old Milkwood forests.
Angel Falls, Venezuela
Situated in Canaima National Park, Angel Falls is the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall – 19 times the height of Niagara Falls, with the water dropping 979 metres off the plateau at the top. Standing in an isolated jungle region, this grand natural feature may seem inaccessible; however, Rutaca and Avior airlines provide flights to and from the airstrip at Canaima Airport. From here, audacious travellers can view Angel Falls by either flying to Canaima lagoon or hopping on board a motorised canoe that will wind through waterways that are edged with dense forest and exotic wildlife. Once you arrive – if the falls flow is gentle enough – you can swim in the pools that are formed by the plummeting water.
The luxe touch: For a spectacular stay surrounded by vibrant forests and rushing rivers, settle in at Waku Lodge. This jungle hideaway offers a warm environment filled with outdoor hammocks, dining areas, cosy rooms and incredible views of neighbouring waterfalls. There are many other things to see and do during your visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, including hikes, boat trips and excursions to isolated caves and indigenous villages, and the lodge will organise expeditions for you.
Tristan da Cunha, South Atlantic Ocean
Portuguese author, Fernando Pessoa, wrote: “Freedom is the possibility for isolation. You are free if you can withdraw from people.” To test this theory, challenge yourself and travel to the most isolated and remote inhabited place on Earth. Discovered by Portuguese explorer Tristao da Cunha in 1506, the small island of Tristan da Cunha is home to fewer than 250 citizens. Located approximately 2,431 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town, Tristan da Cunha has no airport. In order to visit the secluded island, you must have prior approval of the island council and obtain a local police certificate before boarding a ship. Nonetheless, Tristan de Cunha has established a number of attractions with visitors and tourists in mind, such as Café da Cunha, the Thatched House Museum, Volcanic Park and Love Island, a mecca for lovers that offers a stunning view of its heart-shaped crater lake.
The luxe touch: For inviting accommodation, go on a short sail to the island of St Helen and stay at Mantis St Helena Hotel, a combination of historic and contemporary buildings, situated in the capital of the British Overseas Territory, Jamestown. The hotel is only a short walk from the seafront, swimming pool, museum, shops, buzzing bars and enticing restaurants.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Salar de Uyuni is the champion of extremes. Not only is it the world’s largest salt flat, but it is also the flattest place on Earth and, when the area is covered in clear water, the world’s largest mirror. The barren and ineffable terrain is a remarkable sight, as all you can see is blue sky, white ground and yourself. The salt flat measures 12,106 square kilometres, sits at 3,653 metres and was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. To get here, book a flight or catch a bus from the capital, La Paz, to Uyuni. The small town is so close to the salt flats that tourists can easily book a day trip to the bucket list destination.
The luxe touch: To make this adventure extra special, stay at Kachi Lodge, the first and only accommodation within the Uyuni Salt Flats. Live your fantasy of being on another planet by unwinding in one of the six futuristic domes that look like a surreal space station. For a memorable culinary experience, dine at the lodge’s restaurant, Proyecto Nativa, where Chef Juan Pablo Gumiel blends local flavours with international influences.