The World's Wake-Up Call
From the plains of Africa to the skyscrapers of New York City,
these five locales encourage visitors to embrace the dawn
By Kathryn E. Worrall
It was 4 a.m. on our first day in Cambodia, and my sister, Lizzie, and I began the trip with the country's top billing, Angkor Archaeological Park. As we crept through the silent forest, a shooting star flashed across the sky, surely a good sign this wasn't the start to a bad horror movie -- two young women in a new country, following a stranger into the shadows.
We approached the looming main temple, Angkor Wat, from behind (a local, albeit creepy, route to avoid crowds) as our truly lovely and harmless guide, Lekh, explained its history. King Suryavarman II built the Khmer temple in the 12th century, and it remains the world's largest religious structure, constructed by some 300,000 workers with the help of 6,000 elephants.
Upon reaching Angkor Wat's main facade, we joined the throng of camera-wielding tourists ready to catch the bucket list sunrise. Warm beams slowly emerged over the temple, transforming the dark sky into hues of blues and pinks and casting a mirror image of the monument onto the still water of the moat below.
It's a mystical moment -- the chatty crowd hushes, drinking in the seemingly spiritual sunrise.
After spending time in Siem Reap, Angkor's gateway city, we embarked on AmaWaterways' eight-day "Riches of the Mekong" river cruise. AmaWaterways also offers an 11-day itinerary that includes a pre-cruise exploration of Siem Reap and the Angkor temple complex, ensuring passengers a similar experience.
Departures for the 11-day version of the trip run January through April, the region's dry season, and are priced from $3,198. Visit the river cruise site of Vacations To Go for details and to learn about other pre- and post-cruise stays, like time in Vietnam's Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Read on for four more ways to start the day off right.
Haleakala National Park
According to local lore, the island of Maui was formed by its namesake demigod, who fished the land from the depths of the sea. Maui then scaled a volcano, snared the sun and harnessed it there to make the day's sunlight last longer.
Thus, the volcano was named Haleakala, meaning "house of the sun."
Today, this sacred site -- a wahi pana in Hawaiian -- is a national park home to one of Hawaii's most impressive spectacles. Atop the dormant volcano, early risers watch the glow spread over the vast crater as the sun peeks through the clouds. Head to the 10,023-foot Puu Ulaula ("Red Hill") summit, one of four outlooks, for the best view.
Despite Hawaii being a tropical paradise, it gets chilly atop Haleakala, so layer up. Beware that a snowy morning or obstructive cloud coverage is possible, but for those who make the trek on a crisp, clear day, it's a stunning sight as the sun emerges above the clouds. Bring a picnic breakfast or hike the summit area's 30-plus miles of trails, ranging from quick 10-minute walks to overnight adventures.
Make reservations ahead of time -- the park only grants a certain number of visitors passage for the 3 to 7 a.m. slot -- or sign up for the "Haleakala Crater at Sunrise" shore excursion. Norwegian Cruise Line visits Maui as well as Oahu, the Big Island and Kauai during its seven-night sailings, and while docked in Maui, cruisers can pay $144 per person for this roughly six-hour excursion that heads out around 3 a.m. (luckily, coffee is included).
Discover the Hawaiian sun and peruse departure dates, priced from $1,479.
Empire State Building
New York City
Some say the city never sleeps, but from a bird's-eye view at dawn, it certainly seems to be awakening.
Take in all the Big Apple has to offer during an early morning stop at the Empire State Building. On select days, 100 guests are allowed up to the 86th floor's open-air observation deck before normal operating hours to scan golden panoramas of the city below.
Tickets cost $125 -- the view is worth it -- and for an extra 25 bucks, coffee and breakfast at the State Grill and Bar are waiting when you descend to the lobby. Purchase tickets online or at the Empire State Building's ticket office. How early do you have to be there? That depends on the time of year, fluctuating from 5:00 a.m. in the summer to 6:45 a.m. in the winter.
After having your "Sleepless in Seattle" liaison or "King Kong" climb here, set off from Manhattan's port for a cruise of New England and Canada. Several companies traverse these waters, including luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Four autumn departures aboard the Seven Seas Navigator stop in locales such as Boston, Bar Harbor in Maine and Halifax, Nova Scotia; prices open at $4,649 for these 10-night cruises, which include shore excursions, gratuities and beverages.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Go up, up and away at the nine-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Thanks to a unique weather pattern called the Albuquerque Box, hot air balloons are able to take off and land in roughly the same location, making ABQ a go-to spot for balloonists.
The nearly 50-year-old fest produces some staggering stats: The 2018 edition featured 663 balloons from 15 countries and some 886,000 visitors. The 2019 dates are Oct. 5-13, and you can expect fan favorites like a "rodeo" of creative shapes and a chance to walk around grounded balloons before a fireworks display.
But for a magical morning, head into the fest by 6 a.m. for the Dawn Patrol show. Grab a coffee and green chile breakfast burrito and settle in to ooh and aah as a dozen or so balloons perform a choreographed inflation and launch set to music. Bursts of fire fuel and illuminate these figures in the dark sky, transforming them into twinkling creatures. They return as the sun starts to creep over the Sandia Mountains -- just in time for the Mass Ascension, the most popular event, when 500-plus balloons take flight around sunrise.
Globus' five-day "Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta" attends the event and lets tour-goers meet a local balloonist for a presentation on the sport. Time also is spent in the nearby state capital of New Mexico, Santa Fe. The Oct. 4 departure begins at $1,569.
Kalahari Plains Camp
Leave the alarm clock and white-noise machine at home, and don't worry about eye masks and blackout curtains.
When you sleep under the stars in Africa, a nighttime routine looks a little different. You don't count sheep to fall asleep -- you count the constellations above. The sun slowly chasing out the darkness works as a wake-up call, and forget the snooze button when wildlife is rumbling in the bush below.
Kalahari Plains Camp offers an outdoor sleeping platform, or "skybed," above each of its eight canvas units, so occupants can enjoy star-studded nights and sunrises while remaining snuggled in bed. Rooms are speckled across the camp's grounds to guarantee privacy, and the main area offers a lounge, dining venue and pool.
Kalahari is a remote, solar-powered camp in the 12 million-acre Central Kalahari Game Reserve, one of the largest conservation areas in the world. The most notable Kalahari Desert resident is the black-maned Kalahari lion, and this is one of the best places to spot cheetahs. From your perch at the breakfast table, pick out gemsbok and wildebeests grazing in the broad pan below.
Natural Habitat Adventures caps off its 12-day "Botswana: Kalahari, the Delta and Beyond" with a two-night stay here. Expect wildlife drives and bush walks with the local San (also known as Basarwa) people. Learn about their hunting and gathering skills and language with its distinct clicking sounds. Often, a traditional dance is performed around a roaring bonfire as the sun sets.
The tour also includes cruises on the Zambezi and Chobe rivers, an expedition to Victoria Falls and plenty of up-close encounters with critters. Dates through March and in December begin at $10,995.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Winter 2019. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.