What in the world is out there?
Before the internet was invented I stumbled upon the incredible Nick-Nack crisps look-o-like landscape that is Bryce Canyon.
I’d had no sneak Google previews and had literally seen nothing like if before (or since).
What I suddenly wanted to know was how much other weird stuff was out there? And is the world just too big to see all of it?
I have decided that the answer is yes and no. In a lifetime, there is a chance to sample a tapas style taster menu of all it has to offer. There are opportunities to wander amongst weird dreamlike architecture in Barcelona, explore golden and monkey – strewn temples in Thailand and to breakfast on steaming volcanos in Bali, even if you don’t get to see everything.
I’ve also found a few sneaky preview local versions of bucket list contenders. If you can’t make it to the US, I give you Spaghetti Western Spanish deserts. Singapore’s Gaudi impersonator fountains are evidence of what a country can achieve in terms of bringing the bucket list to you when it puts its mind to it.
is for Spain
The letter S is brought to you from Spain, land of fiestas, siestas and wild bendy buildings.
Things you might not know about Spain
To kick us off, here is a Smorgasbord selection of Spanish animal-based trivia:
- The land of rabbits: Ispania (from “sphan” meaning rabbit) was named in 300BC, due to the floppy eared abundance living in its hills.
- The tooth fairy’s place is taken by the “tooth mouse”, a 19th-century literary character who goes by the name of Ratoncito Perez.
- The land of bunnies is also home to Europe’s only wild monkey, the tailless macaque.
- Party animal: Spanish Festivals feature running bulls, house-sized effigies, baby jumping (they are jumped over and not the protagonists) and tomato pelting, originating from a street food fight which got out of hand in the surprisingly recent, 1945. (The Tomatina is so on by bucket list.)
Ideas for bucket lists #1 - Gaudi's Barcelona
I caught my first plane at 18 into the summer heat of Barcelona’s beating heart. Strolling the city streets, I was struck by the fact that straight lines had apparently been relegated to the bin and ceramic mayhem was afoot. It was very much as if Dr Seuss himself had been at work undulating all the buildings. To this day I am totally in awe of Gaudi’s eccentric creations and invite you to put this city at the tip top of your ideas for a bucket list.
Gaudi's best city hits
Gaudi’s creations are dotted around the city and you would be wise to seek them out and poke around their bizarre interiors.
Casa Vicens: The first art nouveau building in the world was built for the owner of ceramic factory who must have done very well out of Gaudi’s insatiable demand. This building admittedly has more straight lines but with its multicoloured flourishes is very much like something you would want to build out of Lego or gingerbread.
Gaudi does gardens - Park Guell
I soon discovered that it was not just the odd building along the Ramblas that had been fashioned into an exotic Toon town, but that a whole park had been designed by this nutty genius.
Built between 1900 and 1914 as an English Garden-city type of housing development, the project was initially something of a flop. Ornate terraces and market places were constructed before it was realized that locals considered it just too much of a commute from the town centre. Only 2 houses were ever built and Gaudi ended up taking up residence in one of his former show homes.
The local residents’ loss was future generations of Gaudi fans’ gain. The park opened in 1922 and is now a designated UNSECO world heritage site. So, he can probably take that as a posthumous win after all.
Park Guell is possibly the most glamorous abandoned housing estate you will ever encounter.
Things not to be missed at Park Guell
- Gaudi’s idea was that the experience of arriving through the main entrance at the South gate should be is akin to entering Paradise. There are fountains, fantastic creatures and stairways to pottery heaven.
- A 2 metre salamander guards the main stairway and lion headed gargoyles look down on you from above. Snakes decorate the staircase and octopi hang from ceilings.
3. Look out for the 2 blue and white harlequin patterned porters lodges, which appear to have been topped with a dollop of shiny ceramic ice cream.
4. The main terrace with views over the city is skirted by a twisty turny ceramic seat. Fish and flowers can be found in the shards of wildly coloured mosaic on this bench balcony. Dali himself hailed the design the precursor to surrealism.
5. Beneath the benched terrace you will enter the equally dreamlike Hall of Columns, the site of the never-to-be market. In its place, string quartets strike up between the pillars, the music echoing around the earthen caverns. Covered walkways spider off supported by wobbly organic-styled legs. Look out for the lady holding up the ceiling with only a head basket.
6. The political and religious symbolism in the park is the subject of much theorizing. Catalan political states are represented in the entrance way. There are nods to Catholicism and parts of the park are thought to be inspired by the temple of Delphi.
Park Guell is not just a very pretty face.
Park Guell Practicalities
Singapore does Gaudi
Interestingly, there is a copy cat version of Gaudi’s work on Merlion Walk, Sentosa Island in Singapore with a water feature for paddling which is fun if you live in that neck of the woods.
Bonus Ideas for bucket lists - S
- Can I recommend sipping cava and tucking into a a take out bocadilla whilst watching Barcelona’s infamous all-singing-and-dancing Montjuic fountains just off the Ramblas?
- Or to finish off your Gaudi tour, head over to the less colourful but no less architecturally excessive Sagrada Familia – the church that never seems to be finished.
Unique ideas for bucket lists future - S
Spain's Wild West
Spanish ideas for buckets list future:
- Mini-Hollywood: No need to go to the US to catch a bit of Hollywood cinematic mountain scenery. Home to the Spaghetti Western, the arid deserts of Almeria have played the backdrop in Clint Eastwood’s trilogy: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Saloons and sets still available for visiting wannabe-cowboys today (me).
- Fancy sleeping in a castle or maybe a monastery? The Spanish Government has very thoughtfully set up the parador scheme whereby historic buildings now function as inexpensive restaurants and hotels so you can holiday in the manner of Spanish royalty.
Rest of the world: Sea glass beaches and disappearing horizons
- For your further afield bucket list S’s, how sparkly does a sea glass beach sound? Like shiny diamond crystals? I hope so. Americans can head over to MacKerricher State Park, Fort Bragg in California where thousands of coloured chippings from the local glass works have been smoothed by the seas. In the UK you can just pop up to Seaham by South Shields. I’ll get my coat (and maybe some beach shoes just in case of sharp corners).
- Alternatively (or as well!) I need to see the a Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia where reflections blur the boundaries between earth and sky.
is for Thailand
Take-your-breath-away land of opulent temples, misty mountains and jungle-clad sea stacks.
Things you might not know about Thaliand
- Time travel: Time itself is different in Thailand. I left London in 1993 and arrived in Bangkok in 2536. See the Buddhist calendar for details.
- Young monks: Thai streets teem with particularly youthful looking religious folk as most teenage boys spend some time as a monk.
- Bags of bugs: The pick and mix food selection from the skillets along Bangkok’s Khoa San road includes chicken hearts and locust. Good for a game of dare for the yellow-bellied out of towner.
- No ovens: Home cooking is not a thing (love this). Eating out is the way Thais roll at tea time.
- No whistling at night: do so and you are in danger of summoning the dead. So don’t.
- The name game: From 1939 Siam became Thailand meaning “Land of the Free” (from Western colonisation). Bangkok’s canals and floating markets have earned it the title Venice of the east.
- Stranger things: Thailand is home to the blind, waterfall-climbing cavefish, which uses its fins to crawl both up waterfalls and on land.
Ideas for bucket lists #1 - Grand Palace
Of the 40,000 temples in Thailand, the gleaming jewel is the Grand Palace in Bangkok, site of multitudes of temples shimmering in the eternal Thai sunlight.
Built as a king’s palace in 1782, the site hosted the royal family and government for 150 years, each successive incumbent adding their own architectural touch.
The resulting complex is vast, eclectic and jaw-droppingly shiny. The preponderance of gold is due to its association with the sun, enlightenment, purity, happiness, and freedom. How uplifting is that?
Stroll amongst giant demon guards, towers housing royal ashes, pavilions, temples and lawns. Add to this the floral tributes, smoking incense, chiming bells and serene russet-robed monks and you have yourself an experience for all the senses to remember.
Entry is 500 Baht (about £11)
Open daily 8am-3pm
Be warned local tuk-tuk drivers will “inform you” the palace is closed today for a ceremony in an attempt to take you to their friend’s jewellery shop instead. It probably isn’t.
What to see at the Grand Palace?
It is worth taking a Lonely Planet to guide you through the labyrinth of glittering historic architecture, but here are my highlights:
The temple of the Emerald Buddha
It may only be 66cm high and made of jasper rather than emerald, but the Emerald Buddha is the most revered in the land. Only the king is allowed to touch it.
It has a different set of clothes for every season, each fashioned from enamelled gold and embedded with precious stones.
Dating from either the 15th century or 40BC, depending on to which legend you believe, it is quite the nomad, having moved around the kingdom on the orders of various kings before taking up residence in its own temple in the Grand Palace
Buddha’s ashes can be found in the gleaming golden tower of Phra Si Rattana Chedi, which is so reflective it doubles up as a mini- sun.
The world’s most glamorous library?
Golden tiger feet appear to dance all along the sides of the Phra Mondop, a literal gem of a library housing sacred Buddhist scriptures.
The royal banqueting hall
The Throne Hall (Chakri Maha Prasat) which hosts state banquets, was built in 1877 with a European base and a Thai topping, fringed with a flourish of pom-pom trees.
Nearby: Biggest Buddha in the land
Just to the south of the Grand Palace lies (quite literally) the Reclining Buddha, the largest Buddha in Thailand. You will also encounter King Rama I’s ashes and a Bodhi tree believed to have been grown from the tree under which Buddha became enlightened.
Bonus Ideas for bucket lists - T
For a bonus once in a lifetime bucket list activity, book on to a 3-day trek through the jungles of Chiang Mai featuring elephant and “boat” rides. Crafting your own bamboo raft adds a possibility-of-sinking edge to the activity but also a sense of conquering the world!
Practicalities: Book locally and it will only cost you from about £80. Bucket list money well spent.
Unique ideas for bucket lists future - T
Thailand: World's biggest water fight
One day I totally intend to tool up with pistols and head into the fray at Songkran, the Thai water festival and world’s biggest water fight.
From April 13-15, Traditional Thai New Year, scented water is poured into the hands of monks and over buddhas in temples to wash away last year’s bad luck.
More recently tourists and Thais alike have armed themselves with water pistols, fuelled by iced water from bars or street vendors for a 3-day water battle. Hoses are not unknown. Motorcyclists and tuk-tuk riders not immune from aquatic attack. Bring the bucket list contenders on!
Thailand's white temple - Wat Rong Khun
Just when you think temples cannot get any more magnificent, along comes this vision in white, rebuilt by a local artist. The white represents the purity of Buddha. Mirrored glass shards multi-task, both encouraging self-reflection and reflecting the twinkling sun.
On the inside things take a surprise turn to the dark side. Check out what this reviewer found:
“Inside the temple, the decor swiftly moves from pristine white to fiery and bewildering. Murals depict swirling orange flames and demon faces, interspersed with Western idols such as Michael Jackson, Neo from The Matrix, Freddy Krueger, and a T-800 series Terminator. Images of nuclear warfare, terrorist attacks such as the World Trade Center attack, and oil pumps hammer home the destructive impact that humans have had on earth. The presence of Harry Potter, Superman, and Hello Kitty confuses the message somewhat, but the overall moral is clear: people are wicked.”
Madness. I’m sold!
Much like a Gaudi project, although open from 1997, works will continue posthumously and are not expected to be complete until 2070. You might need to pop along before then to ensure you visit before the bucket is kicked.
Rest of the world:
Stay in a fairy tale Trullo
Can I interest you in staying in a 500 year old conical roofed Trullo house in Alberobello, Italy? With their round, white washed walls, pointy roofs and hobbity feel these mini-houses could come straight out of a fairy tale.
Loving the theory that the Trulli were designed in such a way that they could quickly be demolished to hide from any tax inspector who may come a-calling.
is for Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
U is brought to you from Ubud, land of rolling rice terraces, watery temples, shadow puppetry and cheeky monkey forests.
Things you might not know about Ubud
- Island of the Gods: Combining Hinduism, Buddhist mythology, ancestral spirits, animism, black magic and indigenous deities, Balinese religion has more than your average number of gods and shrines.
- Healing hands: Ubud, meaning medicine, has been a centre of healing from the 8th century, and the good work continues today in its many, many spas.
- Ma name is: In Bali here are just 4 names: Wayan, Made, Nyoman and Ketut, to be used in this order. If you go for 5 kids you start again at the top.
- Coffee from a cat: A cup of coffee, where the beans have been filtered through the body of a civet will set you back £30. You might not fancy it.
- Shh: New year is celebrated with a Day of Silence when no work, travel, beach attending or noise are permitted.
- Take a walk on the wild side: Prior to turning up in 1999, I was only familiar with the traditional white sand palm-fringed poster child version of this island, but behind the scenes are 2 active volcanos, bubbling hot springs and black volcanic sand beaches.
- Internationally celebrated terraced rice fields: The island’s pretty as a picture and eco-perfect water irrigation system dating from the 9th century, has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
- Animal magic: The Balinese tiger is now extinct but you may well run into a crab-eating macaque, leopard cat or squirrel.
Ideas for bucket lists #1 -
Cook an egg in volcanic steam on Mount Batur
It almost seems rude to pick only one Ubud activity as the ultimate bucket list experience, but I am going to have to plump for the trek up Mount Batur which doubles as an active volcano and home of the gods.
The day starts at an un-bucket list-y time of 3am but bear with it as in doing so you a) beat the heat of the day for your 2 hour hike to the summit, and b) see the sun rise over the Island of Bali before having a breakfast cooked on the volcanic steam.
Take in the views of the misty morning mountains all the way out to the outlying Indonesian island of Lombok.
Afterwards, for a bit of fun, you get to run down the shifting volcanic scree sand. Think builders variety rather than soft – it is capable of trouser-ripping as I learned to my very limited wardrobe’s dismay.
Mount Batur Practicalities
You will need a guide as the “path” is not easy to see and walking in the dark is no walk in the park. They will also have an idea of the current chances of an actual eruption.
Practicalities: Cost approx. £40 including transport from Ubud.
Bonus Ideas for bucket lists - U
Ubud: Sacred Monkey Forest
Who wouldn’t want to visit a monkey forest? Especially when the setting is tropical jungle filled with ancient temples straight out of an Indiana Jones film. Look out for the brilliantly named Great Temple of Death.
Upwards of 700 of the Balinese long-tailed monkeys can be found monkeying around the site, stealing sunglasses and causing general mayhem.
At one point we saw about 30 of them clinging to a tree in a pond taking it in turns to dive bomb into the water from the top. Dousing nearby tourists in their wake was possibly their ultimate intention, that is the level of cheekiness we are talking about.
The entry fee is around £4 per person.
Open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Bring food at your peril!
Near Ubud: Komodo Dragons and tri- coloured lakes
With a bit of local island hopping from Bali you can tick off these bonus bucket list activities:
- Walk with dragons on the actual island of Komodo. Do a guided tour and watch the carnage that is feeding time.
Scale Mount Kelimutu to see the volcanically tri-coloured Lakes on the island of Flores. The colours change dramatically and apparently on a whim from blue to green, red to black as the sunlight reacts with micro organisms in the water. To add a bit of spookiness it is considered to be a resting place for departed souls.
Be warned its another dark 3am hike to catch that sunrise.
Unique ideas for bucket lists future - U
Ubud: Temples and swings
- I now realise I somehow missed about 25 temples of paradise on my trip, including the watery Gates of Heaven themselves at Pura Lempuyang Temple. That is now going firmly on the list!
- Also, apparently big Balinese swings are a thing. At least 10 of them are dotted around Bali swinging out over jungly terraces at various heights, depending on your appetite for the perfect photo/risk.
Rest of the world: Utah’s land of fire
Utah is the bucket list king. We have seen the tangerine walls of Antelope and Bryce Canyons but the list is nowhere near ticked off.
It still has a Grand Staircase of cliffs, Vermillion cliff and Coral dune National Parks landscapes and a fabulously named Dead Horse Point.
is for Vancouver Island, Canada
Edged with stormy, surfy seas, crested with snowy peaks and thicketed with rainforest Vancouver Island personifies nature wild and free, with some serious wildlife to match.
Things you might not know about Vancouver Island
- Lions, tigers and bears (without the tigers): The Island has the densest population of black bears (7000) and mountain lions (800) in Canada. Animal fans should look out for the rare “swimming wolves”.
- More British than Britain? Victoria (named after the Queen) is in British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, named after the British Captain Vancouver. Not only does its landmark Fairmont Empress hotel serve over 500,000 cups of tea a year, the Queen herself has popped in for a cuppa.
- Teeny tiny: Fan Tan Alley in Victoria’s Chinatown measures just 35 inches across.
- Surf n turf: It is possible to both ski and surf in a single day at Mount Washington and Tofino. Sounds a bit bucket list-y to me.
- Beware of the signs: Here you will encounter disconcertingly permanent tsunami warning street signage and advisories about whale-related boat capsizing.
Ideas for bucket lists #1 Catch a seaplane
Can I suggest adding taking to the skies over the sparkly waters that separate Vancouver Island from the mainland in a vintage 1950’s propeller-powered sea plane to your bucket list?
I’d seen them used by wilderness hunters, flying doctors and private eyes on American TV shows but had never envisaged one ever crossing my path.
I did a little dance when I found out this was an apparently everyday commuter transport option to the island, tickets costing a relatively modest £60 from Harbour Air.
Cambering aboard with the other handful of passengers, you can feel the craft bobbing around on the sea. Buckle up in your flying tin can and then experience the engines vibrating into life through your entire being.
The views of the receding city, low lying islands and oncoming mountains are as good as they sound. Whales, dolphin and porpoises are poised to break the shimmering surface at any point below. You have to remember to breathe.
Those commuters are living their best lives. Total bucket list territory.
Bonus Ideas for bucket lists - V
Vancouver Island: Climb the biggest trees in the world
Feel like a Lilliputian amongst some of the oldest (800 years), tallest (250 feet) and widest (29 feet) trees in the land. In the awe-inspiring Cathedral Grove the sun shines through the towering canopy as if through real church windows.
Follow the woodland path clambering over mangrove-like root systems and running along fallen boughs the size of small lorries.
You may struggle to find words to convey the enormity of these trees. Using units of children, they are big enough to swallow a small boy. Attempt tree hugging only if travelling in a group as it will take at least 4 of you to complete your circle.
Vancouver Island: Outdoor adventuring
Horse ride with bears: Book a trek at Tiger Lily farm and forge through the undergrowth. Don’t be surprised to hear bears shuffling in the bushes around you.
Paddle board on crystal waters: Take a paddle board or inflatable pizza/donut and spend the afternoon apparently hovering over the impossibly visible depths of Lake Cameron. Watch out for Canada’s version of Nessie, who purportedly lurks in the deep.
Wild Tubing: In winter, pop your big coat on and tube down snowy Mount Washington into the crash barrier of haybales below. Like sledging but bouncier and less terrifying.
Check out more fun stuff to do Vancouver Island here.
Unique ideas for a bucket list future - V
Vancouver Island: Big tubing
On our most recent Canadian Road trip we took to the shallows of Top Bridge for some mini-tubing but the kids were just a bit too young and early on in their swimming careers to risk a big river tube – but we are so ready for it now. There is a 2 and a half hour drift down the Cowichan River by way of beaches and rapids which has our name on it this summer.
Rest of the world: Climb inside a volcano
Journey to the centre of the Earth: Fancy abseiling inside a volcano in Iceland (maybe not when in active service)?
Being crayzee expensive, we could only afford one tour in Iceland and headed into a glacier. We immediately popped the “inside the volcano” tour at the top of our bucket list for future trips should we win some kind of lottery.
Unique ideas for bucket lists summary
You are often asked to pick if you are a beach or a city person, forest or jungle, one for wandering ancient ruins or city slicking. Why choose, I say? Can’t I be all these people?
Creating your own bucket list, don’t let them put you in a pigeon hole. Rise up and democratise travel, enjoying sparkly and ruined Thai temples, Hollywood sets and wobbly surrealist Spanish architecture, both Canadian sea and mountain fun.
And rest assured, with a bit of digging you may well find you have something very similar to your bucket list destination on your own doorstep.
What are your bucket list dreams? Would love to find some more quirky corners of this weird and wonderful world in the comments section below…
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