A pre-dawn balloon flight is designed to catch the sunrise over Thebes, the City of the Dead. There are bird’s-eye views of bemused donkeys, and the voyeuristic pleasure of spotting families asleep on mud roofs, or an antlike funeral procession treading across the desert.
Set on the West Bank of the Nile, facing Luxor, Thebes was the counterpart to Luxor’s City of the Living. As dawn turns the desert tawny, views across the valley reveal the Nile on one side and mountains on the other. Beside the world’s longest river lie mud-brick hovels, harsh limestone cliffs—and the tombs.
The balloon drifts from the Valley of the Kings to the Valley of the Queens, revealing Pharaonic honeycomb tombs, including Tutankhamen’s resting place and Queen Hatshepsut’s tomb, carved from the rock face. The balloon also hovers over the excavations taking place around the Avenue of Sphinxes. Watch the sun rise over the Temple of Hatshepsut at Luxor, burning off the last vestiges of the night.
If you visit in October, consider getting married in Karnak Temple; during that month couples can tie the knot in Pharaonic style—just as Egyptian kings and queens did more than 5,000 years ago.
Brussels Royal Greenhouses in Laeken
This experience is equally exotic so dismiss the "boring Brussels" stereotypes. Brussels’s surreal side emerges in the mysterious paintings of Magritte—and in the clash of the magical and the mundane seen in the Royal Greenhouses in Laeken. Set on the edge of the city, these palatial greenhouses are where the heady scents of the colonial Congo are transported to everyday Brussels. Entranced visitors drift past orchids, azaleas and camellias, breathing in the steamy fragrances of bitter oranges and damp ferns. The sinuous art nouveau lines reveal shifting perspectives and sudden glimpses of green canopies, cupolas, turrets, and vaulted tunnels of glass.
The city’s tropical greenhouses began as a royal whim, a work of self-glorification spearheaded by King Leopold II (1835–1909). Leopold never deigned to visit the Belgian Congo, but, as a passionate plant man, he expected the Congo to be shipped to him at regular intervals. The challenge was to create “an everlasting springtime in a perfect palace of glass,” teasing a tropical garden to grow in northern climes.
Leopold’s architects and gardeners fulfilled his every wish, but credit must also be given to the king, whose passion for building was matched by his fascination with exotic plants and palms: from rubber plants and weeping figs to pineapples and dwarf bananas. In these winter gardens, Leopold entertained his friends, swam in his glass-canopied pool, and paraded on an African elephant. (Do contact Laeken before travelling, however, as the greenhouses can only be visited for a brief period every year).