500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights 29 hiking, biking and riding trips throughout the world. The six picks below are located in some of the most beautiful parks and public spaces in the world.
What: Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia's Red Rock Center
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia
It's a bit of a mystery why people trek from all over the world to gawk at Ayers Rock. For its size? Hardly -- nearby Mount Conner is three times as big. For its shape? Probably not -- most folks agree the neighboring Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) is more picturesque. And yet, undeniably, a faint shiver goes up the spine when you gaze on its serene, hulking mass.
People used to believe that Uluru (Ayers Rock's proper Aboriginal name) was a meteorite, but we now know it was formed by sediments laid millions of years ago in an inland sea and thrust aboveground by geological forces (there's twice as much again underground, it's thought). On photos it may look like a big smooth blob, but face to face it's dappled with holes and overhangs, with curtains of stone draping its sides, with little coves hiding water holes and Aboriginal rock art, all of it changing color dramatically depending on the slant of the sun. The peak time is sunset, when oranges, peaches, pinks, reds, and then indigo and deep violet creep across its face as if it were a giant opal. At sunrise the colors are less dramatic, but many folks enjoy the spectacle of the Rock unveiled by the dawn to bird song.
Aborigines refer to tourists as minga -- little ants -- because that's what we look like crawling up Uluru, which to them is sacrilege. And yet despite this, and despite ferocious winds, sheer rock faces, and extreme temperatures, visitors still feel compelled to scramble up the rock, taking anywhere from two to four hours; the views from the top are amazing, but is it worth it? There are plenty of other options. The paved 9km (5.6-mile) Base Walk circumnavigates Uluru, with time to explore water holes, caves, folds, and overhangs; an easy kilometer (.6-mile) round-trip trail from the Mutitjulu parking lot visits a pretty water hole with rock art near the Rock's base. On the free daily 90-minute Mala Walk, a ranger, who is often an Aborigine, discusses the Dreamtime myths behind Uluru and explains the significance of the rock art and other sites you see. Another peaceful way to see the Rock is on hour-long camelback forays through the red-sand dunes with Frontier Camel Tours (tel. 1800/806 499 in Australia, or 08/8956 2444; www.cameltours.com.au). If it's aerial views you want, several local companies do scenic flights by light aircraft or helicopter over Uluru and other local landmarks.
With a glorious sunset viewing of Uluru your goal, start your day at Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), 50km (31 miles) west of the Rock. Kata Tjuta means "many heads," an apt name for this monolith of 36 momentous red domes bulging out of the earth like turned clay on a potter's wheel. The Olgas are more important in Dreamtime legend than Uluru, and many modern visitors find they're even more spiritual. Good hikers may do the challenging 7.4km (4.6-mile) Valley of the Winds walk among the domes; there's also an easy 2.6km (1.6-mile) Gorge walk.
What: Lake Titicaca: Jewel of the Andes
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Copacabana, Bolivia & Puno, Peru
Face it: The kids will talk a lot about their upcoming trip to Lake Titicaca -- they just won't be able to resist saying the name. But that's okay. Once they get there and see this huge deep-blue freshwater lake sitting in its cup of mountain peaks, an awesome 3,600m (11,811 ft.) above sea level, they'll stop snickering.
To locals, measuring the altitude is irrelevant: Lake Titicaca is a mysterious and sacred place. Here, in the midst of the lake, Manca Capac and Mama Ocllo -- the Adam and Eve of the Incas -- were supposedly born on the Isla del Sol (Sun Island), which you can visit on a day trip from the picturesque lakeside town of Copacabana, Bolivia. (A 3-hr. bus ride from La Paz, Copacabana is also known for its Moorish-style cathedral, with a deeply venerated miracle-working statue of the Virgin inside.) On Sun Island, you'll visit the ruins of Chinkana, a huge stone labyrinth built as a seminary for Inca priests. The path back to the town of Challapampa passes the sacred rock, shaped like a puma, from which Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo first stepped; farther on, you can look down and see the two huge footprints the sun is said to have made when it landed on earth to give birth to them. Tours also stop at Isla de la Luna (Moon Island), site of an ancient convent where the Virgins of the Sun performed ceremonies honoring the sun.
On the Peruvian shore (several local tour packages include both sides of the lake), the main town of Puno is not nearly as lovely as Copacabana, but the kids will want to come here to take a boat tour to the Uros islands. Since the time of the Incas, the local Uros Indians have lived on these tiny floating islands built on soft patches of reeds. Walking on the springy islets is truly a strange sensation. Some Uros wait for the tour boats to arrive so they can hawk their handmade textiles and reed-crafted items, but many others keep to their thatched huts, far from the snapping cameras, fishing and catching birds and continually repairing the reed underpinnings of their islets. Full-day trips also include stops at Taquile and Amantani islands, serene and rustic natural islands with Inca ruins to explore.
Other Andean peoples subscribe to a different myth: that Viracocha, the creator deity, called up the sun, moon, and stars to rise from icy Lake Titicaca to lighten the dark world. Powerful spirits still live in this amazing sky-high lake, they say. Gliding over the calm blue surface, you may find yourself staring down into the water's cold depths to connect with them. But you don't need to believe in these ancient legends to sense the magic of Lake Titicaca.
What: The Cliffs of Moher, Where Ireland Plunges into the Sea
Who: All ages
Where: Lahinch, County Clare, Ireland
Something as spectacular as the Cliffs of Moher could never go undiscovered by the tourist throngs. They are County Clare's foremost natural wonder, 213m (700 ft.) high and 8km (5 miles) long, a series of sheer rock faces plummeting to the crashing Atlantic surf below. The views from here are truly panoramic, especially from 19th-century O'Brien's Tower at the northern end. On a clear day you can see the Aran Islands up to the north in Galway Bay. It's a dramatic place, with the roar of the waves crashing below and the call of circling seagulls. Daredevils might venture onto a forbidden area of north-facing cliffs which have been half-heartedly fenced off, but there's plenty enough room on the main cliffs, with their well-paved path and lookout points; the heights are awesome without feeling perilous (and believe me, I'm borderline acrophobic). Because the cliffs jut out into the sea on a headland, you can gaze clearly over the sea to the north, west, and south.
Talk about the middle of nowhere -- the Irish country road R478 meanders down from The Burren and Galway, with little along the roadside and very few cars in sight. Then suddenly you round a curve and there's an immense parking lot filled with cars and tour buses and you've arrived at the Cliffs of Moher. Proximity to Shannon Airport means that this is often a tour group's first stop upon hitting Ireland, so don't be surprised if you see a lot of folks staring out to sea with the glazed eyes of jet lag. There's no admission fee per se, although you'll have to pay to get into the parking lot, and some tacky souvenir stalls are set up along the footpath to the cliffs. Just shepherd the children past it all and head uphill.
And while you're here, explore further along the craggy Clare coastline, where you'll find many off-the-beaten-path delights with intriguing names like Pink Cave, Puffing Hole, Intrinsic Bay, Chimney Hill, Elephant's Teeth, Mutton Island, Loop Head, and Lover's Leap. The tour buses won't follow you, that's for sure.
What: The The Giant's Causeway, Hero's Footsteps in Black Rock
Who: All ages
Where: Bushmills, Northern Ireland
Often called the eighth wonder of the world, the Giant's Causeway is a one-of-a-kind natural rock formation that captures the imagination as few others do. It doesn't take much effort for children to imagine the striding giant who purportedly left these immense stone footprints in the sea off of Northern Ireland.
A World Heritage Site, the Causeway consists of roughly 40,000 tightly packed basalt columns that extend for 5km (3 miles) along the North Antrim coast. The tops of the columns form a dense honeycomb of stepping stones that sprawl outward from the cliff foot and eventually disappear under the sea. They're mostly hexagonal, about 30cm (12 in.) in diameter, and some are as tall as 12m (40 ft.). How did they get there? Scientists estimate that they were formed 60 or 70 million years ago by a series of volcanic eruptions and cooling lava. In the surrounding cliff faces you can see dark stripes of volcanic basalt interrupting the sheer red rock.
But all that is the scientific explanation; the ancients, on the other hand, believed the rock formation to be the work of giants. Another even more romantic legend claims that the Causeway isn't natural at all, but the handiwork of Finn MacCool, the great Ulster warrior and commander of the king of Ulster's armies, who built it as a highway over the sea to bring his girlfriend from the Isle of Hebrides.
Tourists have come here to marvel over the Causeway since the late 17th century, and there were many years when visitors were forbidden to walk out onto the stones, or had to pay extra to do so. Thankfully today they are open to the public. Watch your footing as you scamper over the uneven surface, traipsing from stone to stone. Delicate flowers and mosses grow in the crevices, and all sorts of seabirds nest in the nearby cliffs. To reach the causeway, follow the path from the visitor center's parking area. Along the way you'll pass plenty of other extraordinary volcanic rock formations, amphitheaters of stone and striated columns and formations with fanciful names like Honeycomb, Wishing Well, Giant's Granny, King and His Nobles, and Lover's Leap. From the causeway, a wooden staircase climbs up Benbane Head and back along the cliff-top walking path, where you'll get spectacular views of the North Antrim coast. Or, to get a bird's-eye view, book a spectacular helicopter ride over the coast through The Helicopter Center, Newtownards Airfield (tel. 028/9182-0028).
What: Les Calanches: Going Coastal in Corsica
Who: Ages 4 & up
Where: Corsica, France
L'ile de beauté, Corsica is called -- "island of beauty" -- and rightly so. This mountainous Mediterranean island combines rugged landscapes with stunning vistas of the sea, while native herbs and flowers perfume the air with an unforgettable fragrance. Although Corsica is technically a French possession, the island is in fact much closer to Italy (you can practically swim to Sardinia from Corsica), and everything here seems to have an Italian accent. You're lulled into thinking it's simply a fragment of the Riviera that worked itself loose from the mainland -- and then you drive through a landscape that looks as though it fell from Mars: Les Calanches.
Ferries from Marseille arrive at Corsica's main city, Ajaccio, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, a Riviera-like town with palm trees and promenades. Up the western coast from here, driving or cycling along coastal D81, you curve around a headland to the tranquil village of Piana, with its red-tiled roofs rising 440m (1,444 ft.) above the azure sea. But beyond Piana, you enter an altered reality: The granite landscape to either side of the twisting road begins to turn red and become strangely striated and crumpled. The highway seems hacked out of the mountainside, and it zigs and zags crazily to cling to the corrugated rock faces. And so it goes, all the way along the southern end of the Gulf of Porto, from Piana over to Porto.
Les Calanches remind me of the buttes of Monument Valley , but smaller and more eccentric, crabbed like the figures of arthritic old crones. And then, of course, there's that dynamite seaside backdrop setting it off, the hazy blue of the Mediterranean contrasting dramatically with the sharp-focused red rocks. As you drive along, ask the children to try to decide what these oddly shaped boulders remind them of -- a rearing stallion? A fire-breathing dragon? A stegosaurus? Patches of green pine scrub, snarls of gray thorn, and bursts of dark red and yellow flowering shrubs decorate the creased red-granite spires here and there, and the shoulder of the road drops with heart-stopping suddenness to the waters below. The road bends so sharply you can't see beyond the next curve -- honk to warn oncoming drivers of your presence before you pull around to the next dizzying view.
Several walking paths have been laid out through this tortured landscape -- park your car and get out to take a short scramble over the rocks. (Trail maps are available from the Piana tourist office.) From Porto, you can go on a boat tour to view the spiky red rocks from the water; contact Nave Va (tel. 04-95-21-83-97; www.naveva.com). And I'm sure I don't need to tell you that sunset is the most glorious time of all to view Les Calanches, especially one of those lingering summer sunsets that the Mediterranean does so well.
Where: D81, between Piana and Porto (www.corsica.net).
What: Phang Nga Bay, Thailand's Secret Caverns
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Phuket, Thailand
The James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed here, on this gorgeous bay north of the well-developed Thai resort island of Phuket. It's a stunning backdrop, with limestone karst towers jutting precariously from the water's glassy turquoise surface, creating more than 120 small islands that look like something out of a Chinese scroll painting. Kids, of course, are notorious for not appreciating beautiful scenery; what they will appreciate is the unique way you get to explore this craggy seascape -- lying down in small canoes to slip inside secret caves. It lives up to every pirate fantasy they've ever had, and then some.
An arm of the Andaman Sea, its warm waters edged with white beaches, red mud banks, and tropical stands of mangrove trees, Phang Nga Bay is a national park 1½ hours' drive north of Phuket Town. Two-passenger kayaks, with an experienced paddle guide at the helm, dart around the bay's distinctive craggy island rocks; you'll be told to lie flat in the boat to slip through tight cave openings. Once inside, magnificent chambers open up above the internal lagoons (called hongs, which is Thai for "rooms"), where it's believed pirates once hid their operations -- or, if you're James Bond, secret agents hid their evil devices.
Touristy as it is, it's something you've got to do, especially with kids. The daylong tours include transport to and from Phuket Town, a cruise to the part of the bay where the islands cluster, a paddle guide, a bright-yellow inflatable kayak, and lunch. Once you've finished the tricky maneuvering around the caves, the guide may even let you paddle a bit yourself. The premier operator for these trips is Sea Canoe, Box 276, Muang Phuket 83000 (tel. 07621-2252; www.seacanoe.net).
Of course, if you want to do things the cushy way, you can just cruise around this lovely tropical bay on a restored Chinese sailing junk, the Bahtra (contact East West Siam in Patong, 119 Rat-U-Thit 2000 Year Rd.; tel. 07634-0912). You won't get inside those caves, but you'll still feel plenty pirate-y.
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Family Travel Message Boards today.