By Ruth Cawley

Across the world, there are many naturally occurring phenomena that people add to their bucket list, making tacit plans to see ‘at some point’ in their lifetime. But when, where, and how will these dreams be realised? A list of the most memorable, mysterious, and beautiful natural phenomena was compiled to outline their best attributes, when they should be seen, and where to travel to see them. It’s also a welcome change from travelling to see manmade structures in central Europe like the Eiffel Tower or St Peter’s Basilica.

1. Northern Lights

The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are one of the most magnificent phenomena to occur in nature. They appear in the dark, cloudless Arctic sky and often in colder temperatures. From the scientific perspective, the lights are a result of highly charged solar wind particles from the sun colliding with gas molecules in Earth’s atmosphere. The energy is turned into light of colours like green, pink, purple, blue or you must venture beyond the Arctic Circle to catch a glimpse of them in all their brilliance. This is because the Polar Regions are where magnetic fields meet.

It is typically recommended to travel far north in one of the Nordic countries for the best chance to see them in action. Such countries include Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Canada, or Greenland. Anytime between late September and late March are ideal times to spot them, but it is mostly reliant on daily/nightly weather conditions. There are multiple apps or websites you can check routinely for updates on when they might be most visible. However, if you were in Ireland or the UK in early May, then you probably got a rare midnight viewing of the Northern Lights when the weather permitted.

Alternatively, the Northern Lights have a southern cousin that is just as enchanting and worthwhile albeit in warmer temperatures. People rarely talk about the illustrious Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) which are often seen at seasonal intervals in Tasmania or New Zealand. The same conditions are required for the Southern Lights to emerge.

It is advised to listen to locals about Aurora hunting trips and when is best to venture out to see them. Take precautions, plan ahead, and best of luck!

2. Bioluminescent Beaches

Sometimes the best time to visit the beach is at night, especially in places such as Vaadhoo Island (a.k.a. Mudhdhoo Island) in the Maldives where the waters are home to bioluminescent plankton. When darkness falls, the plankton are stimulated by the motion of gentle waves, and they emit a radiant light. Due to the sheer number of glowing organisms, the ocean appears to reflect a star-scattered sky. If you walk along the shore during this time, sometimes the footprints you leave behind will have trace amounts of the ethereally blue glow. You can even swim with the bioluminescent plankton for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The bioluminescence is actually a defence mechanism for dinoflagellates (the name for this specific type of plankton). Predators are deterred by the quick flashes of blue light as it confuses them. Dinoflagellates naturally produce luciferin which is the chemical that causes the bioluminescence or ‘cold light’ to occur.

In the Maldives, the peak time for viewing this particular phenomenon is approximately between June and October when there are higher numbers of plankton inhabiting the ocean. It is highly recommended to visit five days following a full moon and preferably in the summer from May onwards. This is because the warmer weather and darker skies enhances the glowing effect in the water. Alternatively, the winter months are cheaper, and less moonlight increases the intensity of the lights. However, there are many other destinations in the world with similar bioluminescent phenomena with differing peak times. For example, Puerto Rican bays have the same effects between late spring and early autumn when the weather is hotter, and micro-organisms are more active.

These beaches are truly a magical sight to behold at night. They are certainly an ideal recommendation for anyone looking for the most astoundingly beautiful scenes or the perfect romantic setting.

3. Cherry Blossom Season

Japan has a well-earned reputation for hosting wonderful festivals during cherry blossom season between late March and early May annually. The country is populated with the largest number of sakura trees worldwide. Sakura have only a two-week lifespan during which time they shed their colourful blossoms in beautiful display.

This annual celebration holds cultural significance in Japan. According to the legends and histories, sakura trees were brought to Japanese villages from Kyoto (which used to be the capital city) by local samurai (warriors) and became something of a commodity among the upper-class families. Japanese culture refers to cherry blossom season as a reminder that despite how fleeting life can be, we must live it to the fullest. It is a somewhat bittersweet notion, but certainly a factual one. The Japanese word for this hanami which translates to ‘flower viewing’.

Cherry blossom season is widely considered unmissable by tourists to Japan and accommodations are reserved far in advance. Since this is an annual celebration, it is recommended to research the best places to stay and visit. Make your bookings several months beforehand to get the best deals and ensure your travel plans go smoothly. The festivals occur all over Japan, so there are many options for regions to visit. Most people take picnic baskets and cameras with them to complement their viewing experience.  

4. Rainbow Mountains

One of the most visually fascinating phenomena out there are Rainbow Mountains found in places like Peru and China. A buildup of minerals and sedimentary deposits over several millennia interact with each other to form vibrantly colourful streaks across these mountain ranges. From a scientific perspective, red clay and deposits rich in calcium carbonates chemically react to create the colours. It almost resembles brushstrokes of paint over the hilly landscape.

Vinicunca in Peru are the most famous and vibrantly toned Rainbow Mountains and are thus named for the locals’ word for ‘coloured mountain’.  It is also a fairly recent discovery as the mountains were ice-covered until it thawed in 2013, revealing the surprising, yet beautiful, array of colours. Before then, the ice and snow completely shielded the colours from view. There are fourteen colourful minerals in this specific range whose hues become starker in overcast weather. The site has become a vastly popular tourist spot, especially considering it is located nearby to the famous Machu Picchu kingdom.

There is another less-known range of Rainbow Mountains in China at Zhangye National Geopark. The colours here are no less stark and eye-catching than those in Peru. They were also formed in a similar manner, although different chemicals are likely present in the earth and had different reactions. In fact, there are viewing platforms and sideroads being installed to improve the viewing experience for visitors without compromising the site itself. The most recommended visiting time for tourists is between July and September. There two other Rainbow Mountain ranges located in Iceland and Arizona in the United States.

5. Forest of Knives

Tsingy de Bermaraha National Park is home to the rocky formation known as the Forest of Knives in northwest Madagascar. The name roughly translates to ‘place where one cannot walk barefoot’.

The site is aptly named as it consists of over 150,000 hectares of razor-sharp limestone spikes that can reach heights of up to seventy metres. It was formed after approximately 200 million years’ worth of heavy rainfall eroded the thick beds of limestone and created vast caves and tunnels as a result. Earthquake activity over time caused the sea levels to drop during the Pleistocene ice era and brought limestone to the surface where it is now visible. It now resembles a rocky labyrinth of sorts with its deep canyons, and extensive tunnels. One of the most well-known caves in this system is Anjohibe Cave which is an enormous underground chamber with high-reaching peaks around it.

The Forest of Knives is also a unique habitat to many indigenous species in Madagascar. Among them are white sifakas and red-fronted brown lemurs as well as various species of flora and fauna and reptiles. They live in the smaller environments formed with this rock structure and likely thrive there. This makes the site more of a protected zone for wildlife as well as a point of geological fascination. 

Designated trails are available for tourists to explore with park rangers acting as guides. The site must remain undisturbed by the public and hence, do not stray from the paths outlined. This destination is ideal for adventurers who like to explore cave systems and offers opportunities to take photographs of unique rock formations.

6. Bolivian Salt Flats

The only time worth visiting the Bolivian Salt Flats, or Salar de Uyuni, is during its wet season which falls between December and April. It is estimated that around 10 billion tonnes of salt are present on the flats and can even be seen from space. The salt layers are approximately 10m thick and stretch across 10,582 kilometres which is a stunning sight in its own right. During the wet season on a still day, a thin layer of water surrounds the salt, and it perfectly reflects the sky above it. This is known as the natural mirror effect. It becomes almost impossible to tell where the ground begins and the sky ends.

Another secret of the Salar de Uyuni is that below the salt flat lies almost 70% of the Earth’s lithium sources. The lithium is extracted from this site to give power to electronics like phones, laptops, and electric cars.

It is possible to book tours on the salt flats in advance with an option to extend to overnight visits. Drivers are provided as the flats are extremely tough on most vehicles and the environment is difficult to navigate. Needless to say, the Bolivian salt flats are a truly breathtaking destination for avid travellers who want to see all those unmissable natural phenomena.

7. Giant’s Causeway

Finally, this list includes a destination lying a bit closer to home for the Irish population. Located in Co. Antrim and a mere three miles from Bushmills town, this geological marvel is a must-see for visitors to Ireland.

According to legend, the Giant’s Causeway was formed by the Irish giant named Fionn Mac Cumhaill who had a longtime rivalry with a Scottish giant by the name of Benandonner. Fionn tore up the Antrim coast into stepping stones so he could reach the Scottish coast and engage in a one-on-one battle with his opponent. However, he discovered that Benandonner was larger and likely stronger than he was. Thus, he disguised himself as a baby when the Scottish rival arrived in Ireland. Benandonner believed Fionn to be Fionn’s child rather than a fully grown giant. Fearing that he would lose to a stronger and more fearsome giant, Benandonner raced back to Scotland, ripping the stepping stones up as he went. These 40,000 polygonal-shaped stones remain where they are today, and the formation is now known as the infamous Giant’s Causeway. On a realistic note, these perfectly hexagonal-shaped basalt columns were created when lava cooled after a volcanic eruption over 60 million years ago. They are aligned in horizontal sectors, looking almost deliberately placed into a pavement format.

Tourists are recommended to see the sights on the Green Route, which is a 3.2km walk that takes approximately an hour and a half to complete. Therein lies the best opportunities to take breathtaking photographs of nautical landscapes and even get glimpses of the Scottish coast. Ireland has a great reputation for magnificent coastal views and fascinating rock formations. Locals even refer to the Giant’s Causeway as the eighth wonder of the world. It is certainly worth a day trip!