There are all kinds of superlatives when it comes to waterfalls: tallest, widest, sheerest, biggest by flow rate. It’s easy to understand why huge spills of water are huge tourist attractions. There’s the unbridled power of nature. There’s the spectacle of seeing something that is at once wondrous and permanent (at least in our lifetimes), wholly unique and completely accidental.
And there’s the feeling of well being that negative ions — which occur around crashing waves and even the shower, but nowhere more than at the site of waterfalls — deliver. Here are some of the world’s most distinctive falls:
Angel Falls, Venezuela
At more than 3,200 feet, these are the highest uninterrupted falls in the world. The site is so remote that the modern world didn’t become aware of it until American aviator Jimmy Angel flew over it in 1933 (though the falls have been around for 130 million years). In addition to their height, these falls are unique because they spill over red-hued tabletop mountains. Campamento Tapuy Lodge is a thatched-roof hotel in Canaima National Park; guests can see the falls from the hotel’s beach.
Iguazu Falls, South America
These magnificent falls, which boast the second-highest water flow in the world, rage in national parks on the Brazil-Argentina border. Both parks are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but Argentina contains 80 percent of the falls and gives the best bang for the buck (you’ll need a visa to enter Brazil). The edge of the falls curves mightily, offering visitors vastly different vistas and experiences. The Devil’s Throat, close to the park’s entrance, is a commanding cataract. But the lower trails are the most impressive, affording viewers opportunities to take photos of improbably distinct rainbows over the river as well as a curtain of water framed by palms. The superb bird and butterfly watching is a bonus. Stay at the newly renovated Iguazu Grand, with its vast, two-tiered swimming pool set in lush, mature gardens.
Akaka Falls, Big Island, Hawaii
Located just north of Hilo, Akaka Falls State Park is accessible and serene (as long as you race ahead of the tour-bus crowd dawdling in the parking lot). The falls are hardly the highest or biggest in the world, but composed of a single drop into a tropical oblong pool, they’re very elegant. Much more of a secret — few locals I’ve asked have even heard of it — is the Inn at Kulaniapia, a 10-room B&B located outside Hilo among 2,000 macadamia nut trees and a bamboo forest. The inn has its own waterfall, which is unprecedented in my experience. A 10-minute downhill walk leads you to a stunning, round natural pond fed by a thick torrent. Swimming is allowed during low to medium flow. The inn’s breakfasts are tasty and ample, too.
Victoria Falls, Africa
Dividing Zambia and Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls is widely regarded as the largest “curtain” waterfall in the world. Its width alone is more than 5,600 feet (at 354 feet high). It’s popular with both locals and international tourists and has seen a fair amount of development. One unique feature is the Devil’s Pool, where intrepid visitors swim at their own risk; it sits right above a drop on the Zambian side. Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls Hotel (a member of Leading Hotels of the World) is a century-old grande dame in an estate-like setting; it offers helicopter flights over the falls.
McWay Falls, Big Sur, California
While there are no distinct boundaries to this central California natural wonder, most people agree that it’s composed of roughly 90 miles of coast south of Carmel. And there’s no real “there” there, but in the best way (not the way Gertrude Stein meant it about Oakland): Highway 1 has thrilling twists and turns and passes over gorgeous bridges (like Bixby Bridge, 13 miles south of Carmel) that star in car commercials. But of several Big Sur spots that qualify as iconic, McWay Falls is among the most famous: it’s 80 feet high and pours onto a perfect, inaccessible (by land) sandy beach located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Waterfalls that empty into the ocean are very rare, which is why this one appears on so many postcards.
Take the quarter-mile McWay hiking trail to get a direct view; the more daring will clamber up onto the rocky headland to admire this beauty. The nearby Hyatt Carmel Highlands, set above a spectacular coastal bend of Highway 1, is unforgettable for its streamlined rustic luxury. Enjoy its cozy rooms with fireplaces, its wow-factor Pacific Edge restaurant and its aptly named Sunset Lounge.
Niagara Falls, North America
Set dramatically on the US-Canada border, Niagara Falls offered the backdrop to both the Man of Steel (in “Superman II”) and Marilyn Monroe (in “Niagara”). It hardly needed such cinematic promotion, as the three falls (Horseshoe, Bridal Veil and American) that make up the site lend Niagara the top spot in the world in terms of flow rate. The Canadian side offers both an observation spire called the Skylon Tower and underground passages that lead to observation rooms behind the falling water. The Sheraton on the Falls affords nighttime views of the colorfully illuminated waterworks.
Icefields Parkway, Canada
Alberta, best know for views of the majestic Canadian Rockies and wildlife sightings (grizzlies, bighorn sheep), also offers a series of stunning waterfalls along the 144-mile Icefields Parkway. South of Jasper, the Athabasca Falls boast powerful water flow in a pristine setting. But for me, this drive was especially memorable for its numerous lacy waterfalls against sheer cliff faces, such as the Weeping Wall in Banff National Park, best observed in May. When I visited at that time of year, I enjoyed the long days (nearly 16 hours) at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, with its laid-back log cabin atmosphere and stellar spa.