Water is one of the main reasons we travel. Even Orlando, 88.5 kilometres from the closest Florida beach, has lots of ways to get wet: lazy rivers, water slides, hot tubs, swim-up bars—and wave pools. Sure, Mickey Mouse is king, but we’re betting water helped draw some of Orlando’s record-breaking 62 million visitors in 2014.
The Cycladic archipelago strings together a necklace of pebble-beach islands, such as storied Naxos and Paros. Enric Sala, leader of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project, calls the island of Amorgos, with its crystalline coves ideal for diving and snorkelling, “the essence of the Mediterranean.”
Thanks to a preservation order that prohibits development from encroaching on the nearby Roman ruins, the 19-kilometre stretch of sand at Patara on southwestern Turkey’s “Turquoise Coast”—one of the longest beaches on the Mediterranean—is blissfully unspoiled.
Legend has it that Hotu Matu‘a, the Polynesian chief who first settled Rapa Nui (Easter Island), landed on Anakena, a rare stretch of beach that interrupts the island’s mostly rocky shoreline. Today, carved moai keep a watchful eye on beachgoers and swimmers.
With regular sightings of humpback whales, elephants, and western lowland gorillas, the 97-kilometre coastline along Gabon’s Loango National Park is “the wildest beach on the planet,” says Pristine Seas’ Enric Sala. Swimmers beware: Hippos have been known to bodysurf here.
One of the handful of beaches that skirt northwest Corsica’s protected scrubland, Désert des Agriates, Plage de Saleccia can be reached by boat or a rugged hike through the fragrant maquis. Your reward: nearly a kilometre of soft white sand, sloping gently into the Med, all to yourself—well, almost.
Dubbed the Amazon of the oceans, this archipelago off the coast of West Papua is “the heart of marine biodiversity,” says photographer David Doubilet. “Raja Ampat is under-explored and laden with life. The currents can rise like a wind, bearing nutrients that feed this ocean wilderness.”
Few know that the waters off this island are strewn with shipwrecks, perfect for adventurous scuba divers. Interesting relics include a 17th-century European ship laden with soda bottles off the coast of Galle. Sri Lanka’s wrecks are usually surrounded by schools of brightly coloured fish.
The Gardens of the Queen, a protected 2,590-square-kilometre stretch off Cuba’s southeast coast, teems with sharks, large reef fish oblivious to divers, and crocodiles that patrol at the edge of dense mangroves. “This time capsule of a national park represents what the Caribbean was 50 years ago,” says Doubilet.
Built over 1,000 years ago, Chand Baori stepwell near Jaipur, is considered one of the oldest and deepest in India. About 3,500 steps descend 100 feet, creating a lattice that is a masterpiece of symmetry. Temperatures at the pool at the bottom of the well are always much cooler than at the surface.
TIPS When photographing underwater, work within about ten feet of your subject. The deeper you go, the less light you’ll have and the more important flash becomes. Flash will bring out all the colours in the fish and reef. It will also allow you to “freeze” or convey the movement of a subject.
On the longest day of the year, Iceland’s famed geothermal spa stays open until midnight, with music playing and waitresses serving drinks while visitors soak in the 36-40°C waters. In winter, the lagoon becomes a prime spot for aurora-watching.
Help revitalize the Yamuna River during the annual clean-up drive spearheaded by Swechha, a Delhi-based non-profit. The organisation runs awareness programmes about the high levels of pollution in the river with a 15-kilometre-long monthly Yamuna Walk.
Water for People works to bring sustainable solutions for safe water and sanitation in nine countries. This March, join a tour visiting project sites in the villages of Khuchumuela and San Pedro, where the non-profit has reached its goal of providing water in every household.
Dig a latrine and teach hygiene alongside locals in rural Cambodia with the non-profit Wine to Water. Operating in more than 24 countries, the group provides clean water and improved sanitation through the sale of five wine varietals from California’s Brutocao Vineyards.
Since its opening in 2014, the Sabarmati Riverfront promenade has become a popular spot for an evening jaunt with residents and visitors. Once overrun with urban waste, the rejuvenated riverfront offers leisure activities like boating, and hosts annual celebrations including flower shows and a kite festival.
An easy way to get involved in water sustainability is to avoid buying plastic bottles of water while on the road. A campaign by Travelers Against Plastic encourages people to carry a reusable container and treat their drinking water, instead of using disposable bottles.
This mighty Asian river flows through Tibet, India, and Bangladesh. Try the thrilling river rafting excursions in the upper Brahmaputra, or take a leisurely cruise on the lower reaches. Along the route, make a pit stop at Kaziranga National Park to see the great Indian one-horned rhino.
The longest river in Southeast Asia glides through Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Cruise itineraries vary depending on seasonal water levels (generally higher in fall and winter), but typically include Cambodia’s buzzing capital city of Phnom Penh.
From its source in Peru, the world’s largest river system by volume sprawls across six South American countries before emptying into the Atlantic. Indigenous peoples navigate this watery lifeline, and colourful wild animals compete for visitors’ attention.
The dramatic Columbia River Gorge is the highlight of the largest river in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. Cruises feature Lewis and Clark history; the progressive city of Portland, Oregon; historic Fort Clatsop; and natural wonders such as Multnomah Falls.
In the Saxony region of eastern Germany, the Elbe flows past the baroque towns of Dresden and Meissen. In 2017, the Elbe town of Wittenberg will mark 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of All Saints Church, sparking the Protestant Reformation.
It may not be the widest or tallest waterfall in the world, but it is without doubt the most impressive. Not only can you see it, you can hear it (from about a mile away), feel it, smell it, and taste it. Locals call it Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders.”
Known for a dramatic combination of volume and height, the three cataracts that make up Niagara Falls straddle the border between New York state and Ontario, Canada.
Set in the karst hills and spanning the border between Vietnam and China, Ban Gioc–Detian Falls become one when the Quay Son River swells with summer rains.
Plunging more than 3,200 feet, Venezuela’s Angel Falls is the world’s highest waterfall.
Fed by the Langjökull glacier, Gullfoss, in southwest Iceland, streams into a steep canyon, creating a rainbow on sunny days.
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia’s largest national park, is a series of cascading lakes linked by waterfalls and natural dams.
The largest chain of freshwater lakes on the planet, the Great Lakes offer numerous experiences in and around the water, from surfing to shipwreck-diving. Here, South African kayaker Steve Fisher paddles downstream on the Black River, which flows into Lake Superior.
The cruise industry carried more than 23 million passengers in 2015, and nine new oceangoing ships will debut this year.
Nadru or lotus stem is a delicacy that holds pride of place on menus of Kashmiri restaurants. Grown in Dal Lake, which is usually carpeted with the plant’s delicate pink blooms, the stem is best showcased in the popular nadru yakhni, a dish in which its starchy slices are smothered in a thick yogurt-based sauce, with hints of cardamom and mint.
Next time, try something different in Goa. Go fishing for mud crabs in the rivers of the state. This rewarding local experience also lands you fresh catch for lunch and allows interactions with local fishermen. Over a leisurely boat ride, absorb the sights of the river and pick up simple lessons and insights from the fishermen.
Each evening the Malvan shore is the site of a glorious cacophony. A hundred voices haggle and negotiate for fresh catch from the sea coming off wooden fishing boats. There are crabs, sharks, and eels, and numerous varieties of fish. Try to wrangle an impromptu cooking class in a local home.
Trout was introduced into the waters of Himachal Pradesh to provide recreation for British officers. Thanks to them, the fish flourished and still continue to provide avid anglers with a reason to travel. The Himalayan rainbow trout is the much-coveted catch advertised in all hillside restaurants.
Savour the goodness of fried pearl spot and prawn curry as you glide through the state’s backwaters. Numerous private operators from Alleppey and Kumarakom offer dinner on their evening houseboat cruises. With views of swaying palm trees silhouetted against the night sky, even the payasam tastes sweeter.
Sitting on the shores of Lake Michigan, the Windy City might as well be nicknamed Water City. A cruise along the Chicago River highlights the city’s historic architecture, and in Millennium Park the playful Crown Fountain always draws crowds.
The Italian capital is home to one of the world’s most famous fountains, the Trevi, completed in 1762. Since the Trevi’s renovation last year, visitors can again toss in coins to ensure that, as the legend says, they’ll someday return to Rome.
In a city known for breaking records, it’s no surprise that next to the world’s tallest building is the world’s biggest dancing fountain, the Dubai Fountain, which is synchronized to lights and music.
Travellers journeying to the chilly continent can kayak past imposing icebergs, snorkel in frigid waters, and walk among frolicsome penguins.
Visit Zov Tigra National Park, in far eastern Russia, for a chance to spot endangered Siberian tigers, whose footprints are easier to track in snow. Ride the Trans-Siberian Railway for views of frosty landscapes from the comfort of a heated car.
Reindeer sledding makes for an exhilarating way to explore Norway’s landscape. Plus, nighttime riders may get a glimpse of the northern lights.
In this Swedish town 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, the famed Icehotel will soon be open year-round, thanks to a new solar-powered building design that keeps the ice from melting even in summer.
When temperatures drop in northeast China, a theme park made entirely of ice pops up. The annual Harbin Ice Festival (5 January-25 February, 2016) features towering castles and intricate ice sculptures, all colourfully lit at night.
Sea turtles and dolphins keep kayakers company in the aquamarine waters of Pamban Island near Rameswaram, part of the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park. The area is known for its technicolour corals.
This Cycladic island has built a reputation as a gourmet destination. At Manolis Restaurant typical dishes such as mastello (lamb with wine and dill) are slow-roasted in a wood-fired oven. Or try the baby calamari tempura at the Omega3 fish and wine bar.
Only one proper road traverses this rugged westernmost island in the Dodecanese group. Treacherous tracks lead to pebble beaches such as Vatses and Kaminakia, where the farm-to-table fare at Linda’s restaurant includes mutton stew.
This historic Hudson Valley spa town offers 18 mineral springs, each with its own distinct flavour. A soak in the caramel-colored waters at Roosevelt Baths can feel like floating in root beer.
Fizzy Perrier water sputters up from a single spring in this Provençal village. Louis Perrier bought the spring in 1898 with the intent to sell the water as a curative. Roam the museum and witness the parade of green bottles that are shipped daily to 140 countries.
There are about 20,000 onsens or hotspring baths in Japan, and they are very popular. Different onsens have different minerals and therapeutic properties, and most good ones have some kind of tourist accommodation or facilities attached.
The Italian bubbly surfaces in its namesake town in the Bergamo Alps, an hour outside Milan. A day pass at the recently renovated QC Terme San Pellegrino spa lets you soak a dozen different ways.
Then there are the secret water spots, the ones you simply call “the stream” or “the swimming hole”, and you tell your friends to meet you there on an endless summer afternoon. And nothing could be better.
By Margaret Loftus, Amy Alipio, Maggie Zackowitz, Raul Touzon, Norie Quintos, David Swanson, Andrew Evans, Elaine Glusac, Rachel Howard, Hannah Sheinberg, Edward Readicker-Henderson, & others.
Appeared in the February 2016 issue as “Into The Blue”.
Hey there! Like what you see (or not)? Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.