Top places to watch the sun rise and set

Last updated 09:33 03/03/2014

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From sunrise on an African safari to sunset on the ski slopes of Japan, the start and end of days make for memorable moments.

SAMOA

The highlight of a trip to Samoa has always been standing on a rocky promontory at Cape Mulinu'u, the westernmost point of the planet, and - nudging the International Dateline only 30 kilometres away - gazing into tomorrow.

The western point of Savai'i, Samoa's largest island, was the last place in the world to see the sun set, hence the country's slogan; "We're so relaxed, it's yesterday."

But not any more. Last year Samoa headed back to the future, skipping over to the other side of the dateline.

Now it's the first place in the world to see the sunrise, but Samoa's sunsets (now also the first in the world) will always steal the show. At dusk the island's sole ring road is a vignette of daily life - chickens dart across the asphalt, brightly coloured buses raise comet tails of dust in the golden light while swimmers loiter in the bathwater-warm ocean shallows.

And then, almost without fail, the sky blazes in an above-water volcanic eruption of blood red and firebomb orange, bleeding across the water and staining the horizon before fading to muted apricots and bruised violets.

Head to waterside Le Lagoto (aptly translating as "sunset") for a cocktail to watch the day die in this technicolour extravaganza. For the rest of the world behind them, a Samoa sunset is a hard act to follow.

See samoa.travel.

SANTORINI, GREECE

On the island of Santorini, you just need to point a camera to capture a scene so saturated in colour it needs no Photoshopping: red rock, silvery olives, sky so blue it's practically purple.

But Santorini's fabled sunsets are the eagerly awaited finale to the day, when whitewashed houses turn pink, the sea indigo and the sky burns red.

Everyone has their favourite sunset perch on the rim of the volcanic island's dizzying cliffs.

Oia's ruined fort is a fabled spot shared with tourist busloads.

If you're after a more active sunset experience, make the 10-kilometre walk past blue-domed chapels between Oia and Fira, a little town where beribboned donkeys with tinkling bells take cruise passengers up and down the cliffs to the harbour.

Less-congested Imerovigli, where cliffs are 360 metres high, is the most elevated spot on the island; chic, minimalist hotels here allow you to enjoy the spectacle from your own plunge pool.

Perhaps the best spot is tranquil Skaros in the island's north-west, where a little chapel and ruined mediaeval castle sit on a promontory, and cliffs of black volcanic glass reflect the dying sun.

See santorini.net, visitgreece.gr.

GUATEMALA

I can feel the heat on my face - and through the soles of my trainers. Thick rivers of lava are languidly snaking down Pacaya volcano.

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We stand a metre from one flow and it's so toasty that when our guide, Hector, dangles a marshmallow above it, it frazzles within a second.

Rising 2552 metres, this craggy pyramid has blown its top more than 20 times since the Spanish conquest of Guatemala in the 1500s (the last time was in 2010).

It's part of a chain of active volcanoes clustered around the beautiful former colonial town of Antigua. I can see some of these volatile peaks, cloaked in cumulonimbus. But not for long.

The sun sets. The sky becomes streaked with lava-tinged stripes. Then it darkens with eerie speed.

Pacaya's lava glow accentuates and the atmosphere grows increasingly surreal.

It feels like we've been transported to The Lord of the Rings' Mount Doom.

We must now trek back down the volcano in the pitch black.

Luckily, torch-wielding Hector assures us that he knows a safe route. And he does.

An hour later, we're back in Antigua, enjoying cocktails and telling other travellers that, whatever they do, they definitely shouldn't miss the Pacaya sunset hike.

See guatemalavolcano.com.

LAKELAND, FINLAND

There are, I'm told, 187,888 lakes in Finland and right now, I have no idea which one I'm floating in. The water is clear and warm, the shores are fringed by birch and pine forest - but that narrows it down not at all.

It's midsummer in Finland, when confusion reigns. Finns spend much of the year hunkered down in the dark and the cold, waiting for summer and the midnight sun. When it does show up, they make the most of it, heading to the lakes for a hedonistic holiday of sauna, swimming and getting sozzled.

I'm on holiday with my Finnish friends, none of whom have been quite sober since we got here.

For that matter, I'm not exactly sparkling, either. Staring up at the sky as I do a lazy backstroke, I wonder what time it is. It seems to be either dusk or dawn - hard to tell which. At midsummer, they're virtually interchangeable, following each other in rapid succession. First the sky turns pink a bit, then gold - or is it the other way around? When you next look up, it's blue again -a new day has dawned. Right now, the sky and the water both glow a startling shade of pink, the one reflecting the other.

My friend Jani plunges into the lake, his naked body still glistening from the sauna, and swims towards me.

When I ask him the time, he shrugs. "Maybe 2am?" he offers.

Shrugging, I take a deep breath and plunge under. When I surface, the horizon is turning blue. It's a new day.

See visitfinland.com.

ZIMBABWE

It begins before dawn; well before. It's dark and cold as you huddle around a fire at Somalisa Camp with a cup of coffee to warm the hands and anticipation to warm the soul. Soon you're in the safari jeep, cold breeze on cheeks as the light begins to strengthen, revealing the beauty of the Zimbabwean plains around.

The silhouette of an acacia tree appears on the horizon; the sky glows purple and orange; the grass on the savannah turns a burnt gold.

Africa is awakening.

A sunrise safari in Zimbabwe means big cats.

The lions stalk their prey, or crouch in the long grass, scanning their surroundings. The cheetahs cluster on dirt mounds, wary and alert. And then the elephants appear from out of the murky dawn, huge herds wandering single-file across the plains, their feet raising clouds of dust that mingle with the day's first light.

You'll be out all morning on safari at Somalisa, seeing things you never thought you'd have the chance to see, but nothing compares to that skin-tingling moment when the wild comes to life.

See andbeyond.com.

BROKEN HILL, NSW

Outback sunsets are among the best in the world: long, golden light softens harsh desert landscapes, kangaroos hop and orange skies explode. A little hilltop on the vast mulga-dotted plains some 10 kilometres out of Broken Hill provides a truly splendid vantage point from which to watch the daily spectacle, with a series of monolithic sculptures adding plenty of human interest to the wide-open landscapes.

The Sculpture Symposium was created by 12 international sculptors who worked onsite. Some of their creations celebrate the sun itself, like a monumental head called Facing the Day and Night or the Mexican-inspired Under the Jaguar Sun.

Stand in the right place and the last rays of sunlight burst through the jaguar's stylised mouth. Then sandstone turns pink, wind sighs, and the sun becomes a sinking fireball on the horizon.

Small wonder many artists have been attracted to the sweeping landscapes, clear light and startling colours of the Broken Hill region. The town has a vibrant arts scene, and later you can browse galleries for your own flamboyant sunset scene, bringing a spark of outback brightness back to your wall at home.

See brokenhillaustralia.com.au, visitoutbacknsw.com.

HA LONG BAY, VIETNAM

While it's true parts of Ha Long Bay have become hugely overcrowded, if you choose a longer cruise (minimum two nights), you'll be able to escape the hordes and explore more secluded parts of this mind-blowing natural wonder, where more than 2000 limestone islands meet the Gulf of Tonkin.

Come sunset, we take to the water by kayak, paddling through the emerald gulf between looming limestone islets and remote bays.

Periodically pausing to watch birds and macaques thrashing in the upper branches of the surrounding rainforest, we glide into darkened caves where the water's reflection casts strange patterns on to rocky roofs. Back onboard our beautifully restored junk boat - painted brilliant white with crimson sails - the champagne is flowing on the outside upper deck. Watching the sun recede behind hundreds of islands scattered towards the horizon, we toast the day's adventures.

See bhayacruises.com.

SOSSUSVLEI, NAMIBIA

During the day, as temperatures soar towards the 40s, the Sossusvlei Desert is far from inviting. Of course the landscape is spectacular - the area's sand dunes, rearing like frozen waves, are the tallest in the world. But in this lifeless desert, nothing moves, except the tourists bussed in from the coast, who trudge single file to the crest of a dune, then depart, their expedition over.

Those of us staying at Little Kulala, a boutique camp on the edge of the Sossusvlei National Park, are prepared to wait.

We stay cool with dips in our private pools, only venturing out at sunrise and sunset, when we have the place to ourselves.

The dawn excursions reveal signs of life in the dunes - tiny traces that show the desert truly is alive. Those tiny scratchings are mouse tracks. The strange squiggle pattern is the trail of a snake. We even spot some jackal tracks. As we watch, however, sand is gently blown over the tracks. In an hour, nothing will remain. If our dawn experience is exciting; our dusk experience is magnificent. For our late afternoon sundowner, we perch on a high dune. What happens next is electrifying.

As the sun sinks, its rays hit the dunes, setting them alight: jewel-like, they blaze with inner fire. They darken as the sun sinks below the horizon - but that's when the low clouds blaze into life, like lava roiling above us. Just magnificent.

See namibiatourism.com.na.

BORACAY, THE PHILIPPINES

Happy Hour on White Beach - the pearl of Boracay island - has begun; and in the alfresco bars lining this luscious four-kilometre strip of sand, mango mojitos and ice-cool San Miguel beers are going down almost as quickly as the sun, which is slipping into the gently swaying sapphire waters of the Sulu Sea.

Last night I enjoyed this famously fiery Filipino sunset, slouched, with a tipple in hand, in a rattan armchair. Tonight I'm jogging, bare-footed, along the silky smooth sands, dodging satisfied-looking drinkers, groups of camera-wielding Korean tourists, romantic couples, solitary strollers, massage ladies, fishermen and gangs of wiry topless blokes dragging their paraws (traditional sailing boats) ashore.

I hurdle the occasional pebble. And a few coconuts, which have dropped from the bountiful palm trees that tower over the beach-hugging resorts, watersports agencies, juice bars and seafood restaurants.

Energy levels sapped by the tropical heat, I'm tempted to join those swimming in the bath-warm sea. But I get a second wind when a cooling breeze whips in and the steamy sun vanishes over the horizon, transforming the sky from a fading blue canvas into a mesmerising one smeared with oranges, pinks and velvety purples.

Exercise has rarely felt so good. Or scenic.

TRANS-SIBERIA

Travelling east to west on the Trans-Siberian Express, we were literally riding into the sunset.

Between Beijing and Moscow we lost all track of time, our watches falling so far out of sync that they might as well have frozen completely, only starting again whenever we stopped for long enough to get off the train.

Our longest single journey was 55 hours from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg, over two days and nights across the Russian steppes without ever changing out of our pyjamas.

The view made us sleepy and dreamy, a lateral autumnal scroll of grasslands, forests, and wheat-fields, punctuated by brightly painted station buildings and wooden houses with triangular roofs.

On the second evening, I shuffled down to the restaurant car to sit pretentiously with my book of Chekhov short stories, and looked up from the page to see the Russian countryside exactly as the great author was describing it:

"On the surveyor's right hand stretched a dark frozen plain, endless and boundless. If you drove over it you would certainly get to the other side of beyond.

"On the horizon, where it vanished and melted into the sky, there was the languid glow of a cold autumn sunset ... "

See transsiberianexpress.net.

CAPPADOCIA, TURKEY

If you want to see Cappadocia at its best, you're going to have to crawl out of your cave early.

Cappadocia is a peculiar place for many reasons, the fact that many tourists sleep in caves being just one of them. Over the centuries, its landscape, made of porous volcanic rock, has been eroded into a surreal mix of caves and towers, which G-rated guidebooks refer to as fairy chimneys. To the rest of us, they're ridiculously phallic.

Sleeping in a cave hotel is one of the obligatory Cappadocia experiences. The other is an early-morning balloon ride.

While there are lots of ways to explore the landscape - from hikes to horseback rides, visits to cave churches and underground cities, they say the area's true beauty is best appreciated from above.

So I'm up in the pre-dawn darkness, off for my first-ever balloon ride.

I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea, but as we arrive at the launching ground and I see the dozen or so balloons, draped on the ground as their burners heat up, I start to feel safer. Clearly these guys get a lot of practice.

As we rise and float slowly over the spires and valleys, the view is indeed entrancing. To my surprise, however, I find the balloons almost as enchanting as the landscape. Dozens of them are sailing against the pearly pink dawn sky, each one colourful as a flower.

It's a sight worth getting out of bed for.

See butterflyballoons.com.

GOKYO RI, HIMALAYAS

Among mountaineers and hikers, it's tradition to summit before sunrise, climbing through darkness to watch from on high as the sun rolls over the horizon.

It can be admired from any peak in the world, but there's something particularly special about doing it on the mountain said to have the finest of all Mount Everest views.

At 5360 metres above sea level, Gokyo Ri is the goal for one of the most popular treks in the Everest region, and it's dark as we set out from the ramshackle village of Gokyo at its foot on our summit day. The ground crunches with ice underfoot and Gokyo Ri is just a darker shadow in the night.

Faint light creeps into the sky as we climb, stepping slowly through the altitude, ascending towards a mass of prayer flags that marks the summit. In the lee of the flags we huddle, hiding from the dawn chill, watching as sunlight touches first the tip of Everest and then three more of the world's highest six mountains, lighting them like birthday candles.

See worldexpeditions.com.

COOK ISLANDS

In the night, the Pacific Ocean is like ink. The only lights are the stars and the occasional flash of phosphorescence in the water.

I'm sailing through darkness, travelling between islands on a vaka, a traditional Cook Islands canoe. The boat has no modern navigational equipment, and the stars, swell and wind are our only guides as we sail towards the impossibly perfect lagoon at Aitutaki.

I'd feel a bit like Gilligan - adrift, lost - if it wasn't for the presence of master navigator Tua Pittman, one of the Pacific Ocean's finest sailors. This sky flecked with stars is his GPS, he assures me.

He needs nothing else.

If Tua is at home in this oceanic darkness, I still find myself willing the dawn to come, if only for confirmation that the world is still out there. Eleven hours after it plunged into the ocean, the sun finally does rise again, illuminating our sails and confirming our position in the sea. There is land ahead.

bookings@islanddiscoveries.co.ck.

LOMBOK, BALI

The beach in front of Jeeva Klui Resort looks west across the Lombok Strait to Bali, and this evening it's a sunset you'd pay money to see. It's an absolute pearler, a bleeding palette of scorched colours, golden shafts exploding from backlit clouds.

Front and centre of the frame is the perfect cone of Gunung Agung, rising from Bali's eastern skirt.

It's tempting to believe that smoke and ash from the 3000-metre volcano is partly responsible for tonight's unfolding drama.

Every so often the black silhouette of a boat passes across the scene, its double outriggers straddling the water like a giant water spider. Even Sammy, the ebullient boatman who prowls the beach looking for passengers to take out to the Gili Islands, and Ayu, the sarong seller, are quietened by the spectacle.

There's a crackling of amplified static in the background as the call to prayer comes from the mosque down the road, and this time - Allah be praised - it's the muezzin with the golden throat rather than the wobbly voiced apprentice.

As the final notes die in the night air, a soft crunching sound comes from where Sammy and Ayu are sitting, among the roots of a giant tree, below the sea wall.

They're eating peanuts. It's Ramadan and they've gone without food or water all day.

They must be famished, and now they can finally eat, but for the moment they sit until the fire dies in the darkening sky, and all is calm, and all is quiet.

NISEKO, JAPAN

Ordinarily, if I was stuck on a mountaintop watching the sun disappear behind the horizon as the mercury plummets, I might worry. Not in Niseko, though.

Having just seen the final rays of daylight vanish behind Mount Yotei from a 1300-metre mountain peak, I'm in no hurry to make it back to my hotel. Though this region might be famed for its powder, it's the night skiing that's Niseko's best-kept secret. As the largest floodlit area in Japan, the chairlifts stay open way after dark when the mountain takes on a totally different feel.

Guided by moonlight, I cruise down largely deserted runs, the sound of my board slicing through snow the only sound. It's as though I have the whole mountain to myself. When I'm finally done, legs burning, I snowboard straight to the front door of my hotel, unclip and head straight to the soothing hot waters of the onsen.

See skijapan.com.

- FFX Aus

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