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Wonders of the World

From wildlife havens to cutting-edge skyscrapers,
these 12 stunning sights are top picks from around the globe

By Alexis Hilts

Vacations Magazine: Wonders of the World
Peter Marble/Fotolia
Roughly 2,000 years ago, the Greeks came up with a list of "must-sees." This list eventually became recognized as the famous Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. While it's unknown whether all the named structures even existed, the concept of a "world wonder" has been circulated, and claimed, across the globe ever since.

In 2007, the New7Wonders Foundation announced its popular updated roster of wonders. This year, millions of people are voting for the group's newest tally: the seven wonders of nature.

While we're not looking to create the definitive ranking for the top seven, we have put together a list of destinations that certainly inspire wonder. From centuries old to brand new, each of these breathtaking attractions can be the highlight of a journey of a lifetime.

Escorted tours provide easy access to these gems. This type of vacation package provides a particularly good value by combining accommodations, some meals and sightseeing in one price you pay up front. You'll be accompanied by expert guides who are well-versed in the destinations and can share their histories, stories and myths.

To learn more about escorted trips that visit these marvels, call the tour department of Vacations To Go at (800) 680-2858 or visit the website and click "Find a Tour" to do a custom search.

The Ancients

The only wonder from the original list that still survives, the Great Pyramid of Khufu remains one of the most fascinating landmarks on Earth. The oldest and largest of the three pyramids towering above the desert sands of Giza, Egypt, this massive pharaoh's tomb stands 449 feet tall, though it originally was 30 feet higher. An incredible feat of engineering, the structure utilizes 2.3 million stone blocks, each one weighing about 2.5 tons.

Ancient Egyptians believed that, in death, the pharaoh became the king of the underworld. In order for him to perform his duties from beyond the grave, his body had to be mummified and his resting place filled with everything he would need, from food to furniture.

An archaeologist's playground, Egypt contains treasures beyond the pyramids. Tours also visit the nearby Sphinx and various temples dedicated to gods and goddesses, such as the one at Kom Ombo, built in honor of the falcon and crocodile gods.

Like the Egyptians, the Chinese believed in the afterlife, and Qin Shi Huang (259-210 B.C.) began the construction of his tomb complex in Xian when he was just 13 years old. For the emperor that unified China and began construction of the Great Wall, it seems only fitting that his mausoleum would be mythic. Legend has it that a complete replica of the capital, including rivers and lakes of mercury, was buried with his body.

While the tomb itself remains unopened, scientists have been excavating three pits estimated to hold more than 8,000 terra-cotta warriors -- along with hundreds of horses and chariots and weapons -- since farmers discovered the first clay figure in 1974.

Each statue is one of a kind, crafted with different expressions and armor, and stands life-size. Hundreds of thousands of workers helped make the emperor's vision a reality, embellishing the figures with details and painting them in once-bright colors.

The burial chambers of ancient rulers are not the only monuments to leave visitors awestruck. Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is home to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and its star attraction, El Castillo pyramid.

In its design, El Castillo represents the Mayan astronomical calendar. Including the top platform, the number of steps adds up to 365; its 18 terraces mark the 18 months of the Mayan calendar. Crowds gather here during spring and fall equinoxes to watch a serpentine shadow make its way down the pyramid. Vacationers can tour the ruins during the day and then return at night for a sound and light show.

Though they are thousands of years old, these historic sites continue to yield their secrets. Continuous research gives birth to new theories and greater understanding as archaeologists uncover more pieces from the past.

For example, just this year excavations revealed more relics (clay warriors, chariots, weapons) in Xian, and Egypt has made headlines with 45 tombs unearthed in cemeteries in Fayoum and two statues (one of the god of wisdom, Thoth) found in Amenhotep III's temple.

The Mysteries

Nowadays, with the Internet at our fingertips, it seems like every question has a readily available answer. But there still are some unsolved mysteries in the world. Sleuths, adventurers and conspiracy theorists should add a tour of one of these big puzzles to the top of their travel wish lists.

On what are largely barren plains near the southern coast of Peru, you will find the Nazca Lines, large geoglyphs -- first observed from an airplane in 1927 -- that continue to baffle researchers today.

Among the gigantic shapes drawn into the ground are a whale, a hummingbird, a monkey with a spiral tail, a spider, a dog and a figure resembling an astronaut. The arid desert has preserved hundreds of these earth drawings, the longest of which stretches for more than seven and a half miles.

Despite various theories -- including those centered around alien visitors -- most scientists believe that the lines were engineered by the Nazca people who inhabited this region from about 200 B.C. to A.D. 600. The question that remains, however, is why?

One thing is for sure: Getting an aerial view is the best way to experience the magnitude of these mythical etchings. Tour companies like Gap Adventures, Gate 1 Travel, Trafalgar Tours and Brendan Vacations take guests aloft to view the Nazca Lines on some Peruvian itineraries.

A tiny Polynesian island boasting its fair share of intrigue -- Easter Island -- is another spot that poses plenty of questions for visitors to ponder. Named by Dutch explorers who arrived on Easter Sunday, the isolated isle has captivated archaeologists with its stone statues for years.

There are roughly 900 of these large carved sculptures, called moai, dotting the landscape; the average statue is 13 feet tall and weighs 14 tons. They were produced by the early inhabitants of the island, but it's unknown how the hefty monoliths were moved and what inspired their creation.

One prominent theory is that the moai represent the spirits of the indigenous people's important ancestors, such as their chiefs. But with no written history of what is now an extinct culture, the secrets of this island remain untold.

Across the ocean on another isle stands an equally enigmatic sight that attracts the curious to the English countryside. Like the moai, the prehistoric concentric stone circles of Stonehenge have mystified experts for centuries. The slabs of rock weigh up to 50 tons each and originated from as far as 240 miles away. It's unclear how they were lifted and transported without modern means.

And similar to other mysterious wonders, the major puzzle of Stonehenge is its purpose. Historians continue to speculate on the reasons for its construction, which is thought to have begun 5,000 years ago. Most agree that it held spiritual or ceremonial significance. Some have suggested Stonehenge was a temple, while others theorize that its alignment with the sun indicates some sort of ancient calendar.

The recent discovery of megaliths with similar characteristics in Dartmoor, about 120 miles to the west, adds more evidence to the debate, though we will probably never resolve the questions surrounding the giant stones.

The Architectural Wonders

For whatever reason -- be it love or religion, politics or money -- we continue to build structures to rival those that came before. The following picks are spectacles of design that even those unversed in engineering can appreciate.

China is asserting its influence and making use of the spotlight this year as it hosts the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, a city with one of the most distinctively modern skylines on the planet. The six-month international event, which will last until Oct. 31, is bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors a day to the Pudong district, known for its unusual skyscrapers.

Over the last 20 years, this rapidly expanding area has put itself on the architectural map with its cutting-edge structures. These include China's tallest building at 1,614 feet, the Shanghai World Financial Center, and its predecessor for this title, the Jin Mao Tower, which is still impressive at 1,380 feet.

Adding its uncommon touch to the cityscape is the Oriental Pearl Tower. While colossal like its Pudong companions -- it is the world's third-largest TV and radio tower -- this high-rise is more famous for its strange exterior, which features two pink-ribboned spheres.

Another powerhouse for innovative development, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has once again garnered attention with this year's opening of Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. At 2,717 feet, the acicular tower punctures several other records as well, claiming the highest number of stories (more than 160) and an elevator traveling the longest distance.

A mass of concrete and steel, as well as 26,000 glass panels, went into the construction of the gargantuan edifice, which dominates the Middle Eastern city's skyline. The Burj Khalifa's highlight is its observation deck, located on the 124th floor.

Other outlandish sights in the area: the sail-shaped luxury hotel, Burj Al Arab, and The World, 300 man-made islands off Dubai's coast.

Not as contemporary as our other design marvels -- and one part romantic icon, one part architectural treasure -- the Taj Mahal is nothing short of legendary.

Built on the banks of the Yamuna River in the north Indian city of Agra, on a platform that allows a backdrop of nothing but sky, this 17th-century masterpiece required the work of 20,000 people. Constructed of white marble and adorned with intricate patterns of semiprecious stones, the result is a Mughal king's promise fulfilled.

Ruler Shah Jahan gave his favorite wife the name Mumtaz Mahal, meaning "chosen one of the palace." Upon her deathbed, shortly after the birth of their 14th child, Mahal purportedly asked her husband to build her a mausoleum unrivaled in beauty as a last request. Heartbroken, Shah Jahan set out to honor his wife's wishes, starting his plans for the Taj that same year.

Later imprisoned by his power-hungry son, Shah Jahan is said to have spent the remainder of his life gazing at his labor of love through a window. In a final reunion, he was buried next to his wife in the grand mausoleum.

The Wildlife

Some of the most exhilarating destinations are not those that humans have built, but rather those that most resemble the world before we arrived -- places where wild beasts still dominate and their environment remains nearly intact.

Charles Darwin was inspired by an exceptional Pacific archipelago like this, about 600 miles west of Ecuador. The famous scientist wrote that the Galapagos Islands seemed "to be a little world within itself, the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else."

For amateur scientists, nature lovers and avid bird-watchers, these volcanic isles are unmatched. Never attached to a large landmass, the Galapagos represent one of the most isolated habitats on Earth, home to a range of endemic species including marine iguanas (the only kind that swims in the ocean), penguins and several species of finch.

This May, in an effort to restore the natural balance on one of the Galapagos' major islands, Pinta Island, 39 giant tortoises were released into the wild. Tortoises have not inhabited that land in more than 35 years, when Lonesome George -- the last of his species -- was removed to ensure his safety.

Much like the Galapagos Islands, the Ngorongoro Crater in northeast Tanzania is a rare biosphere conservationists are working to preserve. The result of a giant volcano collapsing upon itself roughly 2 million years ago, the circular rim encloses more than 100 square miles, which is home to some 25,000 animals.

For the majority of people on safari in Africa looking for the "big five" -- lions, leopards, buffalo, rhinos and elephants -- this caldera does not disappoint. The concentration of wildlife in the Ngorongoro Crater allows vacationers to see the coveted five many times over. It also offers one of the best chances to encounter the endangered black rhino.

And if spotting big game isn't enough, travelers can make a quick trek to Olduvai Gorge, where anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey discovered the remains of some of the earliest humans.

To see an amazing array of creatures of the sea, set a course for northeastern Australia. With more than 2,900 reefs and 900 islands stretched across 1,600 miles, the Great Barrier Reef is unlike any other underwater system in the world.

The reef system is so expansive that it is the only living organism visible from space. It's no surprise that ocean explorers lust after a chance to take the plunge along this massive coral structure. Below the blue waves of the Coral Sea, this complex and fragile ecosystem brims with color.

Over thousands (perhaps millions) of years, roughly 400 types of coral have formed a wall; living polyps built upon dead polyps for centuries, making the reef both ancient and new.

The reef is consistently named as one of the best spots for scuba diving and snorkeling. More than 1,500 species of tropical fish can be found here, as well as 30 species of whale and dolphin, and six species of sea turtle.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in July/August 2010. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.

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