The day before Thanksgiving is a notoriously exasperating travel day. It’s the final hurdle Americans must face before indulging in their annual feasts among friends and family, and some airports become the stage for a hellish scene. Security lines creep forward at a sluggish pace. Snarls of impatient travelers clog the boarding gates in their rush to be among the first on the plane.
Instead of letting the madness make you spiral into an existential crisis about whether you really do need to spend the holiday with your new partner’s distant cousins, let your thoughts drift to these wondrous and weird airports.
For some lucky travelers, airports can still render a travel experience worth remembering. Whether it’s charming Art Deco features, innovative design, or truly amazing runways, these airports make the hassles that typically accompany a brief stint in the sky worth the trouble.
Barra, United Kingdom
At the Barra Airport in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, the tide determines the landing time. It’s one of the only commercial airports in the world where the planes land on the beach. When high tide isn’t hiding the runway beneath a layer of water, passengers can depart the aircraft and stretch their legs on the golden-white ground, often to the applause of curious spectators who’ve stopped to watch takeoffs and landings.
Alton, New Hampshire
Pilots landing at New Hampshire’s Alton Bay Seaplane Base have to lay off the brakes to avoid skidding across this frictionless runway. The landing strip, which is no more than a thick layer of ice, is the only one of its kind the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States recognizes within the lower 48 states. Naturally, it’s only open during the winter, but this doesn’t stop locals and tourists alike from stopping by to witness the icy spectacle.
Zion’s Hill, Caribbean Netherlands
A small airport on the Dutch Caribbean island of Saba has a harrowing claim to fame. It houses the shortest commercial landing strip in the world. According to some pilots, it’s also the most dangerous. Planes must slide to a halt before reaching the end of a 1,312-foot runway flanked by cliffs to avoid plunging into the ocean below.
The Queen Tamar Airport looks like it belongs on the set of a sci-fi movie rather than beside a rural, mountainous town in the Republic of Georgia. Its J-shaped structure links the control tower and terminal with one smooth curve. The architecturally ingenious airport was built to draw people to the historic region of Tbilisi and was modeled after Mestia’s famous watch-towers.
Residents around the Cange Street on the outskirts of Anchorage can head to the airport without leaving the comfort of their own homes. A cooperatively owned runway slices right down the middle of the small settlement, which is exclusively for the people who live in the neighborhood. Each house even has its own small airplane hangar, making it easy for residents to soar skyward.
Shoreham-by-Sea, United Kingdom
This charming airport, which boasts picturesque views of the South Downs National Park, is one of the oldest commercial airports in the world. Its geometric exterior and modern interior contain original and restored Art Deco ceilings. Today, the airport is mainly a hub for independent aircraft and aviation schools, but tours are offered for anyone curious enough to inquire.
Though airports are typically associated with great heights, this one stands out for a different reason. The international airport, located 72 feet below sea level, is the lowest commercial airport in the world. It’s located on the grassy, flat stretches of land that surround the city of Atyrau. It plays a vital role in the local economy because it’s close to some of the country’s major sites for oil exploration. An oil company called KazMunayGas primarily uses the airport, though it still serves commercial traffic.
Landing at Bhutan’s only international airport is so hairy, there are only eight pilots who are certified to complete the daunting feat. The 6,500-foot-long airstrip is shorter than the Himalayan valley is high. Pilots must fight through vicious winds to land within the mountains—which boast some of the world’s tallest peaks—that pierce the horizon. Planes can only take off and land during daylight hours, so passengers are guaranteed spectacular views of the landscape.
Wellington, New Zealand
Arriving at Wellington International Airport is a hair-raising adventure, as it sometimes takes pilots a few attempts to nail the bumpy landing. A wind tunnel funnels the air across the Cook Strait, battering the planes as they aim for the thin ribbon of asphalt that serves as the landing strip. It’s no picnic for passengers either: The runway is flanked by water and cuts through steep terrain, so it often looks like the plane will either soar into the sea or crash into a hill.
This article originally ran on November 22, 2017, and was updated with the addition of the Paro and Wellington airports.