Mind-Blowing Natural Destinations

by Jimmy Im

Destinations all over the world are known for their ravishing landscapes and topography that have spellbound visitors for centuries. From the Grand Canyon to the Great Barrier Reef, staggering settings take our breaths away.

PALAU, MICRONESIA
Palau is such an effort to get to (approximately 24 hours from New York via multiple connections, including an overnight in Guam) that there’s very little tourism (not even Survivor Season Two, which was filmed here, gave it a boost), but this has worked to the island destination’s advantage. It still remains an undiscovered gem that hasn’t been com- promised by large crowds, and the independent commonwealth comprising 400 islands (of which only eight are inhabited by 19,000 natives) remains utterly pristine.

A kayak or boat ride around the islands gives you a sense of place: there’s virtually nothing that makes you feel like you’re part of the 21st century (no beach bars, no cruise ships, no jet skis), truly immersing you in a band of unspoiled beauty, from electric-blue waters to lush rain forests. Palau is a jewel of a destination with a truly laid-back island vibe that’s infectious, and most sun-kissed travelers happily unplug for digital detox to fully embrace the lifestyle.

Palau

Palau

The rich colors of the islands (deep green forestry, tantalizing blue sky) are intoxicating; it’s like a tropical coloring book. The diving here is unbeatable, and Jacque Cousteau wasn’t exagerating when he pronounced Palau as one of the best diving spots in the world. There are approximately 40 spots (including the Big Drop Off, considering one of Palau’s best underwater dive spots), ranging from wreck and wall dives to cavern dives. If you’re not certified, the crystal-clear waters make the perfect underwater paradise for snorkelers who find themselves among more than 1,000 species of fish, diverse sea creatures, WW2 artifacts, and colorful coral reefs. Fish ‘n Fins, the premiere tour operator in Palau, offers plenty of diving excursions as well as exciting land excursions with friendly staff to boot.

Nothing prepares you for the divine moment you’ll experience at Jellyfish Lake, hailed as one of the most phenomenal natural attractions in the world. As soon as you arrive, the water is a little murky and the hovering trees above contribute to the lack of clarity. But as you swim forward, the sunlight illuminates the lake to capture a surreal moment: stingless mastiga jellyfish come into view, transparent and serene, ranging from the size of your fingertip to the palm of your hand. Before you know it, you’ve swum toward the mother- lode in the warm sunlight’s glow. There are millions of jellyfish surrounding you, pulsating and nonchalant, unresponsive as there are no predators in the lake (they lost their sting thousands of years ago). The experience is unreal and completely awe-inspiring, getting visitors up close and personal with some of the underwater world’s most elusive creatures.

Simple island motifs and decor is reflected throughout Palau Pacific Resort. Rooms are large with private terraces and there are four water bungalows. Unwind in a private cabana, watch the sunset and, if you are so bold, try chewing betle nut, the traditional Palauan treat—a concoction of buuch nut, lime powder and tobacco wrapped in a pepper vine leaf that is known to calm and keep you relaxed, as it has kept the Palauans since the 1700s.

NARVIK, NORWAY
Among the dozens of captivating natural phenomenon on our planet, the Northern Lights are one of the most famous, and they don’t even technically happen on Earth. The sun’s magnetic fields emit solar flares, which travel 93 million miles to Earth by solar winds and create the dramatic, extraordinary, and mind-boggling display in the atmosphere known as aurora borealis. This otherworldly spectacle in the sky is particularly drawn to the magnetic north and south poles, where they dazzle with deep hues of pink, green, yellow, and blue. Scandinavia is the best place to see them, though due to Northern Nor- way’s perfect setting, low light pollution, and crisp, clean air in winter, the country offers excellent vantage points.

Founded in 1905, Narvik is a sleepy town with a population of 18,500, though it’s known to be one of the best places in the world for Northern Lights sightings thanks to it’s remote location and prime visibility. It’s also one of the cleanest cities we’ve ever discovered, where the tap water is seemingly more pure than bottled water (thanks to the nearby fjords). Reach great heights at the new Lights at the Lodge, a viewing platform only reachable via cable car. At 2,100 feet from sea level and high in the Narvik Mountain, the panoramic view of the mysterious Northern Lights glow is mystical and surreal over the small town, like something from a science fiction movie.

Wolf in Narvik, Norway

Wolf in Narvik, Norway

What truly makes Narvik the ultimate place to see the lights is the myriad activities and attractions just outside the city center. The Northern Lights is like a safari (there is no guarantee you’ll see it) so having other memorable experiences is the consolation prize, but travelers don’t go home empty hand- ed. Hop aboard the Arctic Circle Train, a 1980’s train and the northernmost in the world, that romantically snakes through the majestic fjord landscape for sensational, snow-capped vistas.

Just two hours from Narvik is Polar Park, an educational wildlife park literally in the middle of nowhere. Here, wild animals like wolves are born and bred in sprawling enclosures, socialized with their animal keepers and, as one of the most unique experiences in the world, interact with visitors with a “Kiss the wolves” program. The park is now home to a new, five-room modern Norwegian farmhouse so visitors can actually stay overnight in the park. It’s the ultimate experience: watching the Northern Lights while wolves howl in the background. My journey was unforgettable with Off the Map Travel, the premiere adventure tour company that arranged the best of Narvik adventures and helped me chase the Northern Lights. Check into Scandic Narvik, a contemporary hotel right in the center of town with a top-floor restaurant offering commanding views.

VICTORIA FALLS, ZIMBABWE
For decades, the southern African country of Zimbabwe has had a troubling past with a small-minded dictator who publicly advocated against the gay community. This didn’t stop my gay friend and me from visit- ing one of the world’s most beautiful countries for 12 days. Despite the president’s convictions, there’s a strong gay community in the capital city Harare. The reality here is that locals are sick and tired of Mugabe’s dictatorship and are ready for change. In the meantime, they welcome visitors of all backgrounds with open arms.

Because the country survives on tourism, safety is a priority, and most staff members I encountered (from front of house and management at resorts to guides on tours) were well cultured and diverse, and many were ex-pats from gay-friendly destinations like London. I never once felt threatened here. The president may be anti-gay, but many of the people here not.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

“The hospitality our GLBTQ clients have experienced in Zimbabwe is world class,” says Jim Bendt, owner of Pique Travel Design, a gay-friendly travel agency based in the US. “Many people don’t know Zimbabwe’s literacy rate is amongst the highest in Africa at over 90%. As a result, the service level from the luxury safari lodges and hotels will make all visitors feel very welcome.”

The big draw in Zimbabwe is obviously the safari lodges, which I visited with Pique Travel Design who arranged all transportation, lodges, activities and attractions. The independently owned safari lodges here rival those in more popular safari destinations like South Africa and Kenya. They’re intimate, well maintained, and have tons of soul.

The national parks in Zimbabwe sprawl for miles, as if Mother Nature unfurled a sheet of unspoiled landscape that’s teeming with wildlife. Most safari lodges are unbound, meaning animals can be viewed without even hopping onto the safari jeep (though highly recommended). At Kanga Camp in Mana Pools National Park, a rustic, six-tent lodge “room with a view” was an understatement as my patio was right on the bank of a wateing hole where a four-foot crocodile protruded from the surface, a monitor lizard slinked by on land a 100 feet away, a young elephant to my right had taken refuge in the cool mud for a bath, and a family of baboons skipped abound in their natural playground. It’s like a Disney movie come to life.

Another great choice is Singita Pamushana, the crème de la crème of lodges with seven immense villas, a heated pool (a rarity), a wine cellar, and a platform overlooking a massive lake. It’s so posh, celebrities like Bill Gates and Shakira have shacked up here.

Victoria Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is arguably the most beautiful waterfall in the world. Unlike other captivating waterfall destinations, Victoria Falls is unique in that the Zimbabwean town was built entirely within a national park. Visitors literally see herds of elephants and packs of baboons roaming freely on the roads. The best way to get the lay of the land is by taking a helicopter tour that offers birds-eye, aerial views of the park, with the majority of airtime hovering the dramatic falls and its six gorges.

Stay at Victoria Falls Hotel, a five-star, post-colonial hotel that’s just a ten minute walk from the falls. The majestic and historic hotel, the first to open in the destination, received a $3 million refurbishment in August 2013 that includes a complete redesign to its Stable Wing. The Stable Wing courtyard has an herb garden and 42 contemporary rooms touting antiques and modern furnishings.

Victoria Falls is also home to a Preferred Pride Collection hotel, Stanley & Livingstone, a top game reserve sporting the Big Five and luxury safari lodging. Preferred Pride hotels meet strict criteria to be part of the portfolio, which proves the LGBT community is welcomed here.

Mind-Blowing Natural Destinations Resources

SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA
Chile Tourism is the official CVB of Chile. www.chile.travel

Explore Atacama, Domingo Atienda Sn, San Pedro de Atacama, Tel: 56-22395-2800. Intimate, 50-room all-inclusive resort with its own observatory, daily “explorations” and a dynamic conservation program. Three- night, all-inclusive for two, $4,596. www.explora.com

SEDONA, ARIZONA
Claudia Coronado, is a world-renowned psychic who gives reading out of her homes and vortex tours with donations. www.claudiacoronado.com

L’Auberge de Sedona, 301 Little Lane, Tel: 800-905-5745. Incredibly charming and rustic resort with cliff villas harboring enchanting views of the Red Rocks. Rooms from $395. www.lauberge.com

Trail Lovers Excursions is the only permitted Sedona-based company that offers private guided hikes from Sedona through the Great Southwest. Fun guides and experiences. www.traillovers.com
Visit Sedona is the official CVB of Sedona, Arizona. www.visitsedona.com

PALAU, MICRONESIA
Fish ‘n Fins, PO Box 964, Tel: 680-488-2637. Excel- lent tour operator in Palau. www.fishnfins.com

Palau Pacific Resort, Meyungs, Korar, Tel: 680-488-2600. Gorgeous, beachfront resort with traditional Palauan bungalows. Rooms from $380. www.palauppr.com

Pristine Paradise Palau, is the official tourism board of Palau offers amazing insights into this tropicla paradise. www.pristineparadisepalau.com

NARVIK, NORWAY
Off The Map Travel is a top tour operator that arranges trip to Northern Lights. www.offthemaptravel.co.uk

Polar Park, 9360 Bardu. 114 acre park with enclo- sures that include animals in the wild like wolves and bears. www.polarpark.no

Scandik Narvik, Kongensgate 33, Tel: 47-7696-1400. Central modern hotel with amazing views. Rooms from $129. www.scandichotels.com

Visit Norway is the official tourism authority for Norway. www.visitnorway.com

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

ZIMBABWE
Kanga Camp, Kanga Pan, Mana Pools National Park, Tel: 263-9234-307. Intimate, all inclusive safari lodge with wildlife galore. $595 per person in high season. www.africanbushcamps.com

Pique Travel Design is a gay-friendly travel agency building itineraries for exotic destinations, arranges trips to Victoria Falls and Zimbabwe and has excellent ties with the destination. www.piquetraveldesign.com

Singita Pamushana, Lone Star Ranch, Chiredzi, Tel: 263-4369-136. The crème de la crème of safari lodges in Zimbabwe. $1,095 per person in one-bed- room suite, all inclusive. www.singita.com

Stanley & Livingstone, Old Ursula Road, Tel: 263-13-41004. Gay-friendly safari lodge on 6,000-acre game reserve. Rooms from $336. www.stanleyandlivingstone.com

Victoria Falls Hotel, 1 Mallet Drive, Tel: 263-13-44751-9. Five-star, post-colonial hotel that recently celebrated its 110th anniversary. Just ten minutes from the falls. Rooms from $423. www.victoriafallshotel.com

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