Image: Burj Al Arab Hotel
Courtesy of Jumeriah
At 1,053 feet, Dubai's famous Burj Al Arab, is the tallest building in the world to be used exclusively as a hotel. Situated on its own man-made island, the Burj commands rates even more impressive than its height.
updated 10/9/2008 11:57:33 AM ET 2008-10-09T15:57:33

There's something about getting high that helps you see things from a whole new perspective—and no, we're not talking about a trip to Amsterdam. Inspired by the March 2007 opening of the Grand Canyon Skywalk—a cantilevered, glass-bottomed walkway that lets you peer 4,000 feet down from the tips of your toes to the bottom of the gorge—we've searched high and low (but mainly high) to uncover a dozen stratospheric spots around the world that will have you gasping at the view or clinging, white-knuckled, to whoever is closest. You'll need special gear to enjoy some of these experiences; for others, a credit card and a smile will do. But all require nerves of steel and a resistance to vertigo. If you've got that, we'll show you the way to Cloud 9 (that's the name of the world's highest bar, by the way).

For a complete slideshow of the World’s Highest Destinations, click here.

1. Walking on air

The summit: Grand Canyon Skywalk

Location: Northwestern Arizona

High notes: A U-shaped walkway made of steel and three-inch-thick heat-strengthened glass, the Skywalk juts out 70 feet beyond the canyon's rim at Eagle Point. Look down, and it's a stomach-churning 4,000 feet to the Colorado River—that's around three times the height of the frankly snack-sized Empire State Building. The Skywalk is the brainchild of the Native American Hualapai tribe, which is hoping to lure visitors to its reservation in the seldom-seen Grand Canyon West area with the promise of a bird's-eye view (assuming the bird doesn't get vertigo). The walkway is open from dawn till dusk, and lets 120 people at a time tiptoe out over the void. Fingers crossed you aren't there when a bunch of schoolkids decide to goof off by jumping up and down simultaneously. The engineers assure us that with one million pounds of steel involved, the Skywalk is perfectly safe and able to take 71 million pounds in weight and 100-mph winds. To ensure that nobody's stilettos or trail boots mark up the glass floor, every visitor is given a pair of numbered souvenir shoe covers. The more acrophobic might prefer a souvenir parachute.

Where to catch your breath: There are basic lodges on this side of the canyon, but true highfliers stay in Las Vegas, 120 miles (or a 45-to-60-minute helicopter ride) away. The Bellagio is still the peak of luxury on the Strip.

Grand Canyon Skywalk
Tel: 877 716 9378
$75 per person package includes access to the Skywalk, plus other activities, including lunch and transportation between the sites.

Tel: 888 987 6667 or 702 693 7111
Doubles from $159 to $6,000

2. French connection

The summit: Millau Bridge

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Location: Tarn Valley, France

High notes: Never particularly keen on forming a line, the French decided in the late 1980s that something had to be done about the holiday gridlock on the A75, the main route linking Paris to the south of France. In 2004, they revealed the fruits of their impatience: the highest vehicular bridge in the world and, some would say, the most beautiful, thanks to architect Norman Foster. Suspended from seven enormous piers, the Millau Viaduct soars above the Tarn Valley at a maximum height of 1,125 feet—63 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower—and is 1.5 miles long. With the right combination of cloud cover and the local red wine, the support cables of the bridge almost look like the rig of a sailing ship on a phantom sea of mist. Given that it was built to make the life of tourists a bit speedier, it's a little ironic that the Millau Viaduct has become a tourist attraction itself. It costs about $10 to cross the bridge in a car during July and August (a bit less in winter). If you're feeling all Lance Armstrong and intend to cycle across, then go from south to north so you'll benefit from the three-percent slope that runs in that direction. Just don't look down.

Where to catch your breath: The charming Château D'Ayres, which dates to the seventh century, is 25 miles from the bridge and a great base for exploring the Tarn Valley and the cliffs and gorges of France's Massif Central.

Millau Viaduct

Château D'Ayres
Tel: 33 4 66 45 60 10
Doubles from $134

3. Head in the clouds

The summit: Cloud 9 Bar

Location:Shanghai, China

Image: Cloud 9 in the Grand Hyatt Shanghai
Grand Hyatt Shanghai
Cloud 9 in the Grand Hyatt Shanghai

High notes: Nestled way up on the 87th floor of the Jin Mao Tower, one of the tallest buildings in Asia, the Grand Hyatt's Cloud 9 bar sometimes actually rests above its namesake nimbuses and cumuli. But you should hope for better weather: On a good day, guests can enjoy a 360-degree panorama of the financial district, the Huangpu River, and the Bund from over 1,200 feet up, while enjoying a stiff drink to steady their nerves. If the house cocktail, the Polaris—made with dry sherry, limoncello, and crème de framboise—steels you to go even farther up, take the elevator one floor higher to the viewing deck. Some say you can see the curvature of the earth from up there, but that could just be the Polaris talking.

Where to catch your breath: The hotel, the world's highest in terms of distance from the ground, takes up the top 34 floors of the skyscraper; book a west-facing room for the best skyline views.

Shanghai Grand Hyatt
Tel: 86 21 5049 1234
Doubles from $563.50 including tax
$15 cover at Cloud 9 bar for nonguests

4. What goes up must come down … and up … and down

The summit: Bloukrans River Bridge Jump

Location: Eastern Cape, South Africa

High notes: If a vacation just isn't a vacation without a few minutes of heart-stopping terror, then consider a visit to South Africa. Not for the wildlife: When it comes to inducing fear, no marauding lion or stomping hippo can measure up to a bungee jump from the Bloukrans Bridge, 15 miles from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. Africa's tallest span is home to the highest commercially operating bungee jump in the world, and adrenaline junkies flock here to plummet 210 feet before being snapped by the rope back into the sky—hopefully along with their lunch. Stats fans note that while the jump isn't technically a free fall, the actual drop lasts seven to eight petrifying seconds. Just the walk along the see-through grid to the launch point under the bridge's span should be enough to separate blowhards from the genuinely foolhardy thrill-seekers. The less adventurous can sit on the observation deck, nurse a cold one, and enjoy the screams of the jumpers as they fall into the void.

Where to catch your breath: Steadier ground can be found at the Plettenberg, a five-star Relais & Châteaux Hotel which is 40 minutes from the bridge. The 38-room hotel has fantastic views of Formosa Bay and is a perfect spot for whale watching.

Bloukrans Bridge Bungy Jumping
Tel: 27 42 281 1458
$72 per person

Tel: 27 44 533 2030
Doubles from $212

5. A cut above

The summit: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Golf Course

Location: Yunnan Province, China

High notes: Much like the competition for tackiest golf-wear, the battle for the title of world's highest golf course is fierce. At 14,335 feet, the Mount Tuctu Golf Club in Peru was legendary in golfing circles but has long been abandoned, possibly because no one could reach the back nine without suffering a nosebleed. La Paz Golf Club in Bolivia, founded in 1912 and still going strong, seems to be the winner at 10,800 feet. But despite its being nearly 800 feet lower, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Golf Course in China gets our nod, on the strength of its name and its stunning location among the snowcapped peaks of a mountain massif in the southwest of the country. At 8,548 yards, the Neil Haworth–designed course is also one of the longest in the world—so thank the laws of physics that the thin air causes balls to travel farther up here than they do at sea level. This is one of the few courses where cloud cover is as much of an obstacle as a sand bunker.

Where to catch your breath: The Banyan Tree hotel and spa in Lijiang is 1.5 hour's drive from Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and has 55 luxurious villas with traditional decor; some have outdoor pavilions, others have private gardens or swimming pools.

Yunnan Golf
Tel: 86 871 352 9806
Green fees from $135, including caddy

Banyan Tree Lijiang
Tel: 86 888 533 1111
Doubles from $450

6. Plane fare

The summit: 360 Bar and Dining at Sydney Tower

Location:Sydney, Australia

High notes: Revolving restaurants atop space-age observation towers aren't usually our gig, but the long-esteemed 360, recently revamped by Michael McCann of Dreamtime Design, is a refined exception to the cheese-ball rule. Located atop Sydney Tower, the highest restaurant in the southern hemisphere is just over 1,000 feet above ground, and the views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge are spectacular. But chef George Diamond does his best to distract visitors, presenting plate after plate of culinary eye candy: Tasmanian oysters with Champagne granita, harissa-spiced tataki of tuna. (Make sure your booking is for the fine-dining restaurant on level one, not the level two self-service buffet.) Alternatively, hop on a stool at the 20-foot-long tortoiseshell bar, order a martini, and admire the pendant light sculptures. Masochistic types looking to burn some calories in advance of the poached veal loin can take the 1,504 stairs to the restaurant; in fact, there's an official race up those stairs every year (the current record is 6 minutes, 52 seconds). The high-speed elevators, on the other hand, take 40 seconds and will leave you looking distinctly less disheveled for your date.

Where to catch your breath: If you haven't had your fill of the Sydney skyline, check into the InterContinental, a 360-feet-tall landmark with rooms overlooking the Harbour.

360 Bar and Dining
Tel: 61 2 8001 6790

InterContinental Hotel
Tel: 61 2 9253 9000
Doubles from $276

7. Come hell and high water

The summit: Ski Mount Chacaltaya

Location: The Andes, Bolivia

High notes: At 17,388 feet above sea level, the ski run at Bolivia's Mount Chacaltaya makes Aspen's Ajax mountain look a bit wimpy at 11,212 feet. But thanks to global warming, adventurous snow bunnies have only another three years (at most) before it all melts. Over three quarters of the glacier has already evaporated in the last 20 years, with implications as menacing for La Paz's water supply as they are for intrepid skiers. Of course, those used to the swank facilities of Vail or Chamonix may find Chacaltaya a challenging experience: Here it's more about the endeavor than wallowing in luxury. The Bolivian Andean Club built a lift at Chacaltaya in 1939, but recent reports say that the automobile engine that powered it has finally broken down. (Even in the lift's younger, more robust days, skiers were advised to bring their own fuel.) Instead, intrepid snowboarders and skiers face a bracing 30-minute hike to the top of the piste. As well as stunning vistas to Lake Titicaca, Chacaltaya offers other unique pleasures: You won't find coca leaf tea on the menu at Val d'Isère, but it's a popular après-ski choice in nearby La Paz. We should point out that it's popular more for its benefits in combating altitude sickness than for any recreational buzz.

Where to catch your breath: The five-star Hotel Europa is an elegant 110-room hotel located in downtown La Paz, 90 miles from Mount Chacaltaya, and is a comfortable spot to acclimatize. Book a room on the top floors for breathtaking views up to Illimani mountain.

Bolivian Andean Club
Tel: 591 2 231 2875

Hotel Europa
Tel: 591 2 231 5656
Doubles from $170

8. Size matters

The summit: Burj Al Arab


High points: There's a whole lot of posturing going on in Dubai at the moment, with assorted hotels competing to top out as close to the stratosphere as possible. The current big boy is the famous Burj Al Arab, at 1,053 feet the tallest building in the world to be used exclusively as a hotel. Situated on its own man-made island, the Burj commands rates even more impressive than its height, starting at about $2,450 and rapidly spiraling up into the sort of figures that would shake a sheik. Some guests like to arrive at the Burj in the hotel's chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, while others prefer the slightly more discreet helipad on the 28th floor. For all its undeniable luxury (its 202 duplex suites have floor-to-ceiling windows, huge marble bathrooms, and sumptuous—some might say sickly—decor with liberal use of gold), the Burj Al Arab is about to lose its tallest title to the upstart Rose Tower on Dubai's Sheikh Zayed Road. The 72-floor hotel is due for completion sometime in 2007, but it has already topped out at 1,092 feet, looking down on the Burj and the rest of the emirate.

Where to catch your breath: The Burj Al Arab's mini-island location means every room is afforded an excellent view, but opt for the Club Suite, with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking both sea and desert. Out of the eight bars and restaurants, chose Al Muntaha restaurant for the best view of the Palm Jumeirah and the World Islands.

Burj Al-Arab
Tel: 971 4 301 7777
Doubles from $2,450 (including taxes)

Rose Tower
Tel: 971 4 224 3325

9. The last resort

The summit: Luna Runtun

Location: Baños, Ecuador

High notes: Fancy an alfresco Reiki session among towering mountain peaks? At 13,000 feet—or a little under two and a half miles—above sea level, the Luna Runtun in Ecuador is arguably the world's highest spa. It's situated above the picturesque town of Baños, itself no slouch in the altitude stakes at 6,000 feet. Half a millennium or so ago, the area was where the Inca emperor Huayana Capac came to party—the name means "Fortress of the Moon"—but these days it's a haven for nature lovers and outdoor sports enthusiasts (a prime spot for mountain biking, hiking, river rafting, and Amazon rain forest treks). Just to spice things up a little, the spa sits on the flanks of Tungurahua, an active volcano that indulges in the occasional mini-eruption, which must put a bit of a dent in the relaxation process. However, every cloud has a silver lining: Luna Runtun's proximity to the mountain the locals call "fire tongue" means there is seldom a shortage of ashes for use in the spa. All treatments tend toward the natural, so as well as a volcanic ash and salt exfoliation, you could also try a nettle treatment (grown in the 63-acre garden) or a mud and clay facial with ingredients from Luna Runtun's mine.

Where to catch your breath: The spa's owners also run the pretty 30-room Baños Hotel, which has wooden-beamed ceilings, large verandas, and wide windows. Guests have a choice of view: to the Llanganates National Park, over the expansive garden, the volcano, or the town of Baños.

Luna Runtun and Baños Hotel
Tel: 593 3 274 0882
Doubles from $207
Spa treatments from $15

10. Vroom at the top

The summit: A MiG-29 fighter jet

Location: The outer troposphere

High notes: For the ultimate high—with the added adrenaline rush of supersonic speed—take the controls of a piece of military hardware previously reserved for the USSR's top guns. American company Incredible Adventures takes civilians up in MiG-29 Fulcrum planes piloted by Russian test pilots. The flights take off from an airstrip outside the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod and quickly climb 13 miles to an altitude that the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics refers to as "near space," pilots refer to "no-man's-land," and civilians refer to as "truly terrifying." The pressure suit all passengers have to wear won't please the most style-conscious man about town, but it will prevent his rib cage from collapsing. Besides, a brief episode of sartorial inelegance seems a small price to pay for seeing the curvature of the earth. However, the actual price of the 45-minute flight—$17,500 and up—is a bit higher.

Incredible Adventures
Tel: 941 346 2603
From $17,500 (includes the flight, a cockpit video, transfers to and from Moscow to the air base, and use of a pressure suit)

11. Heaven's gate

The summit: La Cumbre pass

Location: Argentine/Chilean border

High notes: Before a tunnel linking Chile and Argentina was opened in 1980, unfortunate travelers between the two countries had to navigate La Cumbre, the scary mountain pass at the highest point of the old road link. From the village of Las Cuevas, the road winds upwards for a vertiginous five and a half miles before peaking at 12,572 feet. Anyone who makes it that far can be forgiven for thinking they're hallucinating when they get to the top and spot a 22-foot Jesus. But it's not the lack of oxygen playing tricks: The figure is a statue, "Christ the Redeemer of the Andes", erected in 1904 to remind the two countries that in times of heightened border tension it was better to stop and think "What would Jesus do?" than automatically roll out the artillery. These days, it's only tourists who travel up to La Cumbre (also known as Los Libertadores) and then only in the summer months. During the winter, the temperature drops to a bone-numbing 22 degrees below zero.

Where to catch your breath: The pass is 125 miles from the wine center of Mendoza. Cavas Wine Lodge, 20 minutes out of town, has 14 spacious rooms with minimalist decor, set in 35 acres. There's also a well-stocked wine cellar that will help steady your nerves.

Cavas Wine Lodge
Tel: 54 261 410 6927
Doubles from $350

12. Reach for the stars

The summit: Space Hotel, name TBD

Location: Low earth orbit, 350 miles above sea level

High notes: Las Vegas billionaire Robert T. Bigelow, the rocket jet behind Bigelow Aerospace, hopes to have a space hotel in low earth orbit by 2012. Room service is feasible, but don't expect great pool facilities 350 miles above the home planet. Currently the only private company to already have a spacecraft circling the earth, Bigelow's efforts are the first step of a master plan to drop ready-made habitable modules on the moon for use as hotel accommodation. Suggested in-house entertainment for the lunar hotel includes space walks and laser shows on the dark side of the moon. No doubt Steve Wynn will have a casino up there shortly afterwards. Meanwhile, British entrepreneur Richard Branson is taking bookings for his Virgin Galactic: Any Joe Blow with a spare $20,000 to put down as a 10 percent deposit can sign up for a suborbital space trip on the VSS Enterprise. The maiden flight is scheduled for 2009.

Bigelow Aerospace
Tel: 702 688 6600

Virgin Galactic
$200,000 per person


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