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There’s a reason why I always choose the window seat on a plane. I’m an observer, you see. And being able to peer out off the window to see the layout and terrain of the airport upon take off is fascinating. In Singapore, for example, the garage of oil tankers and cargo ships parked just off the edge of the runway is absorbing. And then there are the landings; my first glimpse of a new city (or old friend of a city).
1. London City Airport
Location: London, UK
Heathrow is a nondescript maze of industrial white buildings surrounded by cosy roads of red-roofed houses. Hardly representative of the world’s financial centre. London City Airport, with an approach that takes in the spires of Canary Wharf, the Square Mile and the bends of the Thames en route to the runway in the Royal Dock, is far more dramatic and fitting. The choice of the high-powered business executive, the airport is also the hub for private aviation in London.
2. Princess Juliana International
Location: Saint Maarten
Undeniably the most dramatic airport approach on the list; if not for the passengers then certainly for the observers, lounging on white sands only to have their reverie interrupted by a jumbo jet gliding mere metres above their heads as it heads to the runway just across the road. Plane spotters never had it better, and snapping a selfie with a Boeing 747 just above you is de rigeur in this Dutch outpost in the Caribbean.
3. Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport
Location: Saba, Caribbean Netherlands
The sense of adventure is palpable. First, there is nothing but the deep cobalt blue of the ocean. Then suddenly there is a dot in the horizon. It gets bigger and bigger as you approach it, but not that much bigger – this is the tiny island of Saba and it is home to one of the world’s shortest commercial runways, nestled on a tiny plateau between steep cliffs and sharp reefs. While the pilot delicately navigates the approach, enjoy a breathtaking view of Mount Scenary, the island’s aptly-named active volcano.
4. Malta International Airport
Gibraltar might be famous for its runway that bisects the isthmus linking Gibraltar and its towering Rock with mainland Spain, but a few hundred miles east of that in the Mediterranean is another fantastic airport approach. Malta’s strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean serves as a backdrop for a theatrical descent – planes zoom in towards the direction of the capital Valetta, with its unbelievably dense collection of historical buildings that forms a UNESCO World Heritage Site beckoning travellers to whet their travelling appetite.
5. Barra Airport
Location: Barra, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
That can’t be a runway, can it? There’s no tarmac! Well who needs tarmac when you have what nature provided – a perfectly level tidal beach, the only beach in the world where scheduled flights are permitted. Outwordly and somehow romantic, approaching Barra is also at the whim of nature – high tide will plunge the beach runway under water, and if the water level is high enough, a landing will send up a silvery shower of water, as if liquid fireworks were celebrating the plane’s arrival.
6. Donegal Airport
Location: Carrickfinn, Donegal, Ireland
With the windswept beach of Carrickfinn on one side and the majestic Mount Errigal on the other, landing at Donegal Airport feels like an arrival in a place where there might be magic in the air. The Emerald Isle inspires poetry and the experience of landing here is sure to inspire some lyrical words of praise.
7. Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport
Location: Toronto, Canada
The downtown area of any city is always the most expensive, so few city airports are ever built there. The few that have are always spectacular – like the now shuttered nerve-wrecking Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong or the spectacular welcome of Nice Cote D’Azur in France. Then there is the Toronto City Airport, built just off the shoreline of Toronto in Lake Ontario, with glorious views of the city’s phalanx of skyscrapers and the piercing CN Tower greeting all arrivals.
8. Queenstown Airport
Location: Frankton, Queenstown, New Zealand
This is where the Lord of the Rings was filmed, and were it not for the lanes of tarmac and the cluster of buildings surrounded it – as if nestled together for safety from the surrounding wilderness – it would be easy to imagine we traipsed into a fantasy. The unending fields promise adventure, the vast forests promise mystique and the snow-capped mountains yonder promise thrill-seeking; appropriate, as Queenstown is New Zealand’s capital of outdoor thrills. Breathtaking.