the world wonders blog

my ongoing quest to capture icons of world travel

Icon is a word much overused in travel writing. But what I have here are the indisputable icons - the instantly recognisable, the internationally renowned. The wonders of the world include the man-made, the geographical and the ancient. ‎Some suffer from the heavy traffic of travellers, others manage to maintain a sense of self respect. Of course, such icons of world travel are not the be all and end all - but they are key punctuation marks in any half-committed traveller's bucket list: in short, you ain't seen much if you ain't seen them. Often, icons are internationally known, but also act as touchstones to the cultures and civilisations which built them. More often than not, icons are super-sized, too, pronouncing their importance through being the biggest this or the longest that. If size does not matter, then age certainly does. The older, the better. Obviously, I am very lucky to have seen some of those sights for which the word 'iconic' is not backpacker hyperbole: the Statue of Liberty in the United States, St Basil's Cathedral in Russia, the Taj Mahal in India, the Pyramids at Giza,the lost city of Petra in Jordan, Canada's Niagara Falls, the Blue Mosque in Turkey, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Burma. It's only when you've seen the globe's most impressive sights that you can truly say you've arrived. 



the great wall of china

posted january 2018

A trip to Beijing is a golden opportunity to walk along the famous Great Wall of China. I am very glad we ended up at the Mutianyu section because, off season and harder to get to, there were times when we had entire stretches of the wall, between its 26 Ming-era watchtowers, entirely to ourselves. Aside from a group of Americans, an Italian couple and, bizarrely, a stray cat, we walked the 3km stretch of Mutianyu without much human traffic to spoil the experience. The beige blocks of the wall snake up the taupe-coloured scrub of the mountainside and, set against the deep purples of the wider mountain range in the distance, cut a dramatic sight; this stretch of the Great Wall in winter is a travel photographer's dream.

What: The Great Wall of China
Where: Mutianyu, China
Expectation Vs Reality: 9/10
Letdowns: Of course, much of the wall has been 'restored' which dampens the sense of authenticity.
One fact: The Great Wall of China, contrary to popular belief, cannot be seen from space.



milford sound

posted january 2017

Further southward into Fiordland at Te Anau brought us tantalisingly close to the majestic Milford Sound (Piopiotahi), an iconic composition of interlocking mountains and the highlight of many a person's visit to New Zealand's South Island. We arrived early to avoid the tourist hordes who we knew would be winging their way on scores of coaches from 8am onward. We took a two hour cruise to get up close an personal with this famous fiord's waterfalls and seals but, perhaps ironically, I managed to capture a stunning photograph of Milford Sound from the car park. It is, quite arguably, the best photograph I have ever taken: the purple moodiness of the peaks are reflected perfectly in the fiord's morning tide. This just goes to show that often the best views to be had are ones that are free - no need for expensive helicopters or even the considerably cheaper boat cruise. 

What: Milford Sound
Where: South Island of New Zealand, Oceania
Expectation Vs Reality: 10/10
Letdowns: The race against the coach hordes descending en masse.
One fact: Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world.



the white cliffs of dover at seaford

posted march 2016

Nothing says England quite like the iconic chalk White Cliffs, known as the Seven Sisters, which look out across the English Channel at Seaford Head towards France. It's a sight which would make the hairs of even the most strident of English-born internationalists stand on end and, like a chalky beacon, they herald the approach of England to those approaching the Isle by water. Cited by Caesar and Shakespeare as well as being the place where the first ever international radio transmission was made by Marconi, has given these cliffs a metaphorical (aside from their obvious actual) longevity in the collective mind - a reliable constant in a world of change. Despite being the site where British forces returned from Dunkirk during WWII, these white chalk cliffs have also become a sign of peace for many - simultaneously embodying protection and a homely welcome.

What: The White Cliffs of Dover
Where: South coast of England at Seaford Head, UK, Europe
Expectation Vs Reality: 10/10
Letdowns: Absolutely none - they are beguiling and beautiful.
One fact: The first ever international radio transmission was made from these cliffs by Marconi. 



the pyramids and sphinx at giza

posted january 2016

Giza is home to one of the remaining Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Pyramids. Getting to them takes just under an hour from Cairo and, surprisingly, there is no public transport which goes directly there from the capital. On a more positive note the pyramids are stunning and, in my opinion, the sphinx was even more so. I felt extremely lucky that the forecast of cloudy skies did not materialise blessing me with photos of brown pyramids set against bright blue skies. The drop in tourism also meant that the releasing of tickets in batches of 500 resulting in queues and disappointment no longer applied: we walked straight in with no queues and no waiting.

What: The Pyramids and Sphinx Where: Giza, Egypt, Africa
Expectation Vs Reality: 6/10
Letdowns: The whole set up is fractious and antagonistic. To put it bluntly, work on the basis that everyone on the approach to, and inside the site of, the pyramids is there to scam you. They probably are.
One fact: The pyramids are the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still in existence.



the sydney opera house

posted august 2015

The afternoon comprised of an impatient walk, fuelled by excitement, down to Sydney's famous harbour with its iconic bridge and even more iconic opera house. A short ferry ride out to Kirribilli and back gave us advantageous views of both of them. In the back of my mind I couldn't help but brood over the fact that in half a day's time I'd be climbing to the top of one of them. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is the largest single span arch bridge in the world and was, incongruously, designed by a company in Middlesbrough, UK. For around £150, and by booking well in advance online, you can climb over the top of the bridge's famous iron arch. It just so happened to be my birthday, too. Viewing the famous Sydney Opera House and the glittering towers of Sydney's CBD from a unique 360 degree standpoint was a pretty amazing way to spend my birthday.

What: Sydney Opera House & Harbour Bridge
Where: Sydney, Australia, Oceania
When: August 2015
Expectation Vs Reality: 6/10
Letdowns: Struggling to get the right aspect for a photogrph.
One fact: The design of the opera house mimics the shapes of shells.



the sagrada familia

posted august 2015

Barcelona is renowned internationally for its architecture - most famously that of Gaudi. Anyone visiting the Catalan city is magnetically drawn to the Sagrada Familia - an as yet unfinished fairytale creation of his which fuses gothic and organic elements and which is the most visited sight in the country. The Sagrada's tapered spires appear to have grown naturally out of the ground like tree trunks. This comparison is particularly apt when you consider the length of time trees and the building itself have taken to grow. The Sagrada Familia: a work in progress for over a century. On the outside, the profile of the Sagrada Familia is dramatically affected surrounded, as it is, by ongoing building work, cranes and builders' netting. Its image is so obstructed that I almost didn't bother photographing it. However, it is on the inside where the marriage of art and architecture can really be appreciated.

What: The Sagrada Familia
Where: Barcelona, Spain, Europe
When: August 2015
Expectation Vs Reality: 6/10
Letdowns: The cranes which continue to swamp the unfinished building.
One fact: The cathedral is still being built.



the sheikh zayed grand mosque

posted may 2015

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the world's largest with eighty two domes and golden chandeliers. A visit inside also means you get to walk on the world's largest hand-woven carpet. It is a breathtaking sight which ranks highly on my list of travel wow moments. Its white minarets and bulbous, egg-shaped domes are almost otherworldly in appearance. To enter a mosque removal of shoes and socks is required. Don't, however, remove them and then walk on the marble floor which has been in the sunshine all morning and burn the soles of your feet like I did. 

What: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Where: Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Middle East
When: May 2015
Expectation Vs Reality: 7/10
Letdowns: The boiling hot marble flooring which made it impossible to walk on (with shoes removed).
One fact: The mosque can house 40,000 worshippers.



Classic Cars & Pastel Buildings in havana

posted january 2015

Havana is vibrant and alive. The pastel shades of buildings are only out-coloured by the neon worn by both men and women. Cubans dress to impress, too, and chances are you'll look dowdy and drab in comparison. Your travel slacks just won't cut it here. With this in mind make sure you include your most colourful and very best clothes amongst your travel khaki‎. We spent an hour with Paco and his 1950 Chevrolet convertible driving around Havana and along the Malecon - a bargain at 30CUC (£20). So often when I think of communism my mind skips to scenes of repression, creative sterility, social control. This doesn't seem to be the case in Cuba where creativity seems to be flourishing.

What: Cuba Classic Cars & Pastel Buildings
Where: Havana, Cuba, Americas
When: January 2015
Expectation Vs Reality: 9/10
Letdowns: Nil
One fact: The classic cars are in Cuba because of the US embargo which froze the country in time. Cubans have been unable to get hold of more modern car and thus were forced to make do and mend their old cars.



the registan ensemble

posted august 2014

Samarkand is the reason why so many people brave Central Asia. It was a key city along the Silk Road which linked China to India and Persia and is home to The Registan - a large ensemble of three azure coloured mosaic entrance ways topped gloriously with bulbous turquoise domes. It is quite a sight to behold and easily rivals, if not betters, in my opinion, other world sights like the Taj Mahal in India. The Registan has some of the world's oldest madresahs (old Islamic education centres) dating back, as they do, to the fourteenth century. Minarets and entrance ways tilt at dizzying angles thanks to the earthquakes they have had to endure over the centuries. The Registan ensemble is a sight which really did make me say "wow" out loud. 

What: The Registan Ensemble
Where: Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Asia
When: August 2014
Expectation Vs Reality: 10/10
Letdowns: The blistering heat and trying my best to take good photographs whilst overcoming a serious bought of Kyrgyzstan belly.
One fact: The name Registan means "Sandy place" or "desert" in Persian.



the shwedagon pagoda

posted december 2013

Rangoon's sights are truly stunning. The Shwedagon Pagoda has got to be one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. Greeting you as you enter any one of four entrances is a pair of giant stone lions. Shwedagon, the most sacred Buddhist temple in the country, is a religious complex of world significance comprised of golden pagodas, stupas and as many Buddha statues as you care to photograph - and all the while monks and nuns drift past your lens. I hazard that the only reason this complex is not included in the list of the 'new7 wonders of the world' is because of Burma's recent isolation and status as pariah state which has lasted for over five decades. Only now is Shwedagon being lifted from relative obscurity to basking in a new-found international prominence - and rightly so, I believe. 

What: Schwedagon Pagoda
Where: Rangoon, Burma, Asia
When: December 2013
Expectation Vs Reality: 10/10
Letdowns: Nil
One fact: The pagoda is the largest in Burma (Myanmar).



bagan's ancient pagoda plain

posted december 2013

Bagan is famous for its ancient pagoda-covered landscape and, along with Lake Inle, is the must-see sight for anyone visiting Burma. We went one better by booking a hot air balloon ride at sunrise on New Year's Eve with 'Balloons Over Bagan', a company with a very good reputation and whose pilots are all English. We opted for the 'VIP' balloon service involving eight rather than sixteen passengers in the basket. As part of the deal we had transfers to and from our hotel in the Nyaung U township of Bagan, coffee and biscuits on arrival (in the middle of a field in the dark), champagne and croissants on touchdown, as well as a photograph (taken up in the air by a camera suspended on ropes) and a baseball cap.

What: Bagan Ancient Pagoda Plain
Where: Bagan, Burma, Asia
When: December 2013
Expectation Vs Reality: 10/10
Letdowns: Nil
One fact: T he remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day.



st paul's cathedral

posted august 2013

When a man is tired of London, he's tired of life" goes Samuel Johnson's famous maxim and, indeed, he is not wrong. Having been to some of the key international cities now, including New York, Moscow, Tokyo, Berlin, Istanbul, Toronto and Paris, it is only now that I can really appreciateLondon and its international significance.

What: St Paul's Cathedral
Where: London, United Kingdom, Europe
When: August 2013
Expectation Vs Reality: 10/10
Letdowns: The increasingly crowded skyline is beginning to obscure the iconic cathedral from ground level.
One fact: The cathedral was the tallest building in London until 1962.



the golden pavilion in kyoto

posted may 2013

Kyoto's highlight, and possibly the highlight of the whole trip, is the Golden Temple. It sits on a small lake surrounded by reeds, Japanese maple and fir trees. The gold temple building reflects beautifully on the waters of the lake which plays host to a number of miniature islands with accompanying trees. The sight is so wonderful not even the rain on the day could spoil it - although the security guard, who kept racing us on because it was closing time, did. My photos of arguably Japan's most stunning sight were a little rushed. A tip: most tourist attractions in Japan (temples and places of historical interest) close around five o' clock so make sure you get there in plenty of time.

What: The Golden Pavilion 
Where: Kyoto, Japan, Asia
When: May 2013
Expectation Vs Reality: 11/10
Letdowns: Nil
One fact: The pavilion was burned down by a monk in the 1950s.



the taj mahal at agra

posted december 2012

Agra is about three hours' drive from Delhi, and holds much of the 'golden' in 'Golden Triangle' being home, as it is, to the world icon of the Taj Mahal. The Taj can, at some points in the year, be elusive. The fog that descends means that your hopes of capturing an amazing shot of the building may be dashed. Very luckily for us the fog cleared just in time.It was a case of taking the same photos we had tried previously but all over again! I am glad the fog lifted - to travel all the way to India and not be able to photograph what is arguably the world's most recognisable building, is a crying shame.

What: The Taj Mahal
Where: Agra, India, Asia
When: December 2012
Expectation Vs Reality: 9/10
Letdowns: The huge crowds and the fact that smog could scupper your chances of a decent photograph.
One fact: The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum to a dead wife and not, as many mistakenly believe, a mosque.




posted july 2012

Stonehenge is a mystical sight comprised of a series of standing stones, known as 'sarsans',arranged in a circular formation. Historians continue to argue about the reasons for its construction with myths abound. Owned by the British Crown and set within a landscape owned by the English National Trust, this ancient stone arrangement is a beguiling sight: it's difficult to know exactly what you're looking at. It's powerful and puzzling in equal measure and one of England's greatest treasures.

What: Stonehenge
Where: Wiltshire, UK, Europe
When: July 2012
Expectation Vs Reality: 6/10
Letdowns: The rope cordon which surrounds the construction and which prevents you from getting anywhere close. Also, the small fact of a busy road being not too far in the distance goes a long way to mitigating any sense of spiritualism you may have felt. Traffic + car horns = letdown.
One fact: The building of Stonehenge began around 5,000 years ago.



the treasury building at petra

posted february 2012

Petra is Jordan's must-see destination, so much so that it is the symbol of the country. Tell people you are travelling to Jordan and they all assume you're going to Petra. It is not an undeserved assumption, either. The BBC listed it as one of the '40 places you must see before you die'. Walking around the once capital city of the Nabataeans (the ancient peoples of Jordan), it becomes clear that what they achieved in this part of southern Jordan was rather remarkable dating back, as it does, to 1200BC. Their buildings are carved out of, and in to, the mountain sides with ornate and grandiose precision. Like Jerash, Petra had an eerie Pompeii or even Lost City of Atlantis feeling - a pervasive eeriness which could not be shaken off no matter how many annoying locals offering you donkey, camel or horse rides there happened to be around you.

What: The Treasury
Where: Petra, Jordan, Middle East
When: February 2012
Expectation Vs Reality: 10/10
Letdowns: Nil
One fact: Petra was named amongst the New7Wonders of the World in 2007.



niagara falls

posted august 2011

Niagara is a world-recognised icon of travel - one of the key sights to see before you die. Its iconic status means it attracts 25m visitors annually - a number which will not surprise anyone who makes a trip here. The falls were rather spectacular, but the sheer number of tourists and the tacky, mediocre restaurants lining the lake really detracted from some of the magic. It was crammed with families with children screaming, poor food outlets and questionable alternative tourist 'attractions'. It was a real tourist trap - a fate undoubtedly experienced by other sights of world renown. The area around the falls had a distinct whiff of theme park which was difficult to shake off. 

What: Niagara Falls
Where: Niagara, Canada
When: August 2011
Expectation Vs Reality: 6/10
Letdowns: The tacky tourist outlets which have built up around the falls.
One fact: Niagara Falls is made up of three waterfalls that straddle the international border between Canada and the United States.



the dome of the rock in jerusalem

posted february 2011

The views of Jerusalem's icon - the Dome of the Rock, glittering in the sun, was a sight to behold, as was the sight of scores of Jews kissing The Western Wall itself. More strangely was the sight of Israeli soldiers with machine guns dangling, looking serious and armed to kill, sharing such emotion and respect at the Wall. Never before have I seen religion and imminent violence live so tightly together. Whilst we were there, a group of ultraorthodox Jews, and an Australian tourist, were engaged in a heated debate which looked like it could so easily have spilled over into violence. It was time to leave the Western Wall Plaza and head for eats.

What: Dome of the Rock
Where: Jerusalem, Israel, Middle East
When: February 2011
Expectation Vs Reality: 8/10
Letdowns: The religious tension and machine gun wielding security guards.
One fact: The site's significance stems from religious traditions regarding the rock, known as the Foundation Stone, which bears great significance for both Jews and Muslims.



the blue mosque in istanbul

posted may 2016

Istanbul's iconic sight, The Blue Mosque, was truly breathtaking and the city views from the Bosphorous River, and from our hotel, were rather impressive - a real mix of old and new. Minarets from a plethora of stunning mosques pierce the sky at seemingly every turn you take. Each minaret, each call to prayer, each dome signalling in the starkest fashion that you are on the very fringes of two continents and gestures very starkly towards the Middle East.

What: The Blue Mosque
Where: Istanbul, Turkey, Eurasia
When: May 2009
Expectation Vs Reality: 8/10
Letdowns: Nil
One fact: The mosque is popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue. tiles adorning the walls of its interior.



st basil's cathedral and kremlin

posted august 2008

Although I have only travelled a tiny proportion of this vast country, Moscow definitely felt like the dark, beating heart of Russia. I was desperate to see some of the huge and imposing Stalin palaces, the red brick towers of the Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral. These are truly iconic sights which elicited a gasp from me on my approach to Red Square - and were worth travelling to Russia in themselves. St Basil's is a truly stunning sight and one I had been desperate to see for so long. It is so otherwordly in its colours and swirls that it becomes hard to imagine that man built it.

What: St Basil's Cathedral
Where: Moscow, Russia, Europe
When: August 2008
Expectation Vs Reality: 10/10
Letdowns: Nil
One fact: The one time cathedral is now a museum.



the statue of liberty

posted may 2008

I would like to think this is not going to be my only visit to New York; so full of colour and activity we only had time to cover the basic tourist honeytraps: the Brooklyn Bridge, Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty, Greenwich Village gay scene, Times Square, Central Park, Madison Square Gardens, the Flatiron and Chrysler buildings, Central Station and Macy's Department Store. New York was a wow place - the best city break going which trumped any other city I'd been to.

What: The Statue of Liberty
Where: New York, USA, Americas
When: May 2008 
Expectation Vs Reality: 6/10
Letdowns: We passed the statue at too far a distance. I wish I'd have see in close-up.
One fact: The well-known fact that the statue was a gift to the United States from France.



the coliseum in rome

posted august 2007

We stayed some distance outside of Rome - accommodation was very difficult to find at the prices we were prepared to pay so annoying journeys back and forth on the very gritty and urban Rome Metro were the order of the day. Essentially we paid for a double room in someone's house - a little weird but I don't suppose you can blame anyone for wanting to make a bit of money on the side. I was really surprised with Rome: much of what we saw of 'off the beaten track' Rome was dirty and covered in graffiti. It had a real edge to it which I wasn't really expecting. Of course, visiting Rome meant I got to take in one of Europe's most famous sights - The Coliseum. 

What: The Coliseum
Where: Rome, Italy, Europe
When: August 2007
Expectation Vs Reality: 7/10
Letdowns: Like all world wonders, the crowds get in your way somewhat.
One fact: It is the largest amphitheatre ever built.



basilica santa maria in venice

posted august 2006

Venice was one of those cities I'd wanted to visit for a long time and I was not disappointed. It is surely one of the great travel destinations of the world being, as it is, almost entirely unique with its waterways lapping against foundations of age-old buildings. Venice is, undoubtedly, Europe's most memorable and unique destination.

What: Basilica Santa Maria
Where: Venice, Italy, Europe
When: August 2006
Expectation Vs Reality: 8/10
Letdowns: Nil
One fact: Most of the objects of art housed in the church bear references to the Black Death.



the parthenon in athens

posted august 2004

First stop was the capital city of Athens where our flight took us. I am always keen that a trip to a country should, in most cases, capture the capital city somewhere. We spent a three days exploring the ruins of ancient Greece including the Acropolis Parthenon and the stunning Athens Amphitheatre. The vistas and almost 360 degree views of Athens from the top of the Acropolis Hill - home of the Parthenon - were superb.

What: The Parthenon
Where: Athens, Greece, Europe
When: August 2004
Expectation Vs Reality: 7/10
Letdowns: The cranes and other gear getting in the way of a decent photograph. Having said that, it would have helped if I had a decent camera at the time.
One fact: It is considered to be the most important surviving construction of Ancient Greece.