8 Movies Where Scenery Is the Star

Natural beauties

The famous rock-cut architecture of Petra, Jordan. (Photo: Kanuman/Shutterstock)

Ever watched a film set in a gorgeous place and thought, “I want to go there” only to be disappointed to learn that the exotic locale is the result of CGI wizardry or an elaborate soundstage? Lest you fear that Hollywood has decided to manufacture all its scenery, we've rounded up movies (and a television show) with impressive natural scenery that you can see in person like The Treasury at Petra, Jordan where several scenes of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" were filmed.

'City of Ghosts,' Cambodia

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This indie film, released in 2002 and starring James Caan and Matt Dillon as fugitive white collar criminals, was made in Cambodia. Much of the movie was shot in and around Phnom Penh before the city’s landscapes were changed drastically by a construction boom. Visitors familiar with the movie might recognize sites like Phnom Chisor, an ancient temple complex near Phnom Penh.

Nature lovers will be seduced by the beautiful seaside scene that was set in the underdeveloped beach town of Kep and by the film's climactic scenes, which take place in the colonial-era ruins of Bokor Hill Station (pictured here). The abandoned buildings of the hill station sit inside Preah Monivong National Park, which is often referred to as Bokor National Park. This protected area is home to wild elephants and tigers, and features walking trails and great scenic overlook areas. The Bokor area is almost as wild as it appears in the film, with trekkers opting to hire a ranger to act as guide and protection during their time inside the park.

'The Hunter,' Tasmania

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This understated thriller was not a box office smash when it was released in 2011. However, it was set in one of the world's most beautiful places. Filmed on the Australian island of Tasmania, "The Hunter" features Willem Dafoe as a mercenary hired to locate and extract the DNA from the last remaining Tasmanian tiger. The high-quality acting and writing of are often overshadowed by the unique landscapes. It's possible to visit the old-growth forests, highland lakes and valleys where Dafoe travels in the film.

The Upper Florentine Valley, where some of the filming took place, can be reached via a three-hour drive from the provincial capital of Hobart. The lake and wetland-filled Central Plateau Conservation Area, where the most scenic outdoor scenes were shot, is a protected part of Tasmania that can be explored on foot or by boat. Visitors can also spend time in the adjacent Walls of Jerusalem National Park, which has unique rock formations, pine forests and lakes (including Lake Salome, shown here).

'The Constant Gardener,' Lake Turkana, Kenya

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This film, based on John le Carre's novel of the same name and starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, was released in 2005 and shot on location in Kenya and Sudan. Much of the film is set in and around Nairobi, with a focus on the dense slums of Kibera. However, the Lake Turkana region in northern Kenya is the setting for some of the movie's most memorable scenes.

Turkana is a huge lake, which sits in the northern part of the Great Rift Valley. Tribespeople still live in this region, surviving as livestock herders and hunter-gatherers. The lake itself, called the largest permanent desert lake in the world, features unique arid landscapes. The lake and its environs were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the late 1990s. Much of Turkana is protected as part of a network of national parks: Sibiloi National Park, Central Island National Park and South Island National Park. Tourists come to this area for the wildlife, with herds of mammals using the lake for water and hundreds of exotic bird species living near the shores or at least stopping by during their annual migrations.

'The Beach,' Krabi, Thailand

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This film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was shot on location in Thailand. Based on the Alex Garland book of the same name, much of the story takes place on Koh Phi Phi Le, a Thai island in the popular Krabi province. Though DiCaprio was arguably the biggest movie star in the world in 2000, when "The Beach" was released, the location itself steals the show. The titular beach made its own headlines, first when its sand dunes were altered during filming, angering environmentalists and drawing lawsuits. Then the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated the island in 2004. However, the disaster also had a strange benefit: It restored the sand dunes.

Today, the lush jungles, fine sands, blue lagoons and unique limestone formations fit perfectly with many people's definition of a tropical paradise. Currently though, it's not possible to visit Maya Bay (seen above) to see the exact spot where the movie was set. The government closed it to tourists indefinitely due to destruction of the ecosystem. But the attraction of this part of Thailand is that there are numerous islands with similarly idyllic landscapes. Some are popular with tourists and others are more wild, with hidden beaches and plenty of opportunities for kayaking, swimming, climbing and diving.

'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency,' Botswana

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This television series, broadcast in the U.S. on HBO, didn't appear in cinemas, but certainly deserves mention because of the way the country in which it is set, Botswana, was portrayed. The TV series, based on Alexander McCall Smith's novels of the same name, takes place in the quaint capital city, Gaborone, and in natural destinations like the Kalahari Desert and Okavango Delta (shown here).

Both the television show and book series inspired tourism in Botswana, a sparsely populated but economically strong and politically stable south African nation. Some tour companies have created trips to show visitors where the scenes from the book and series took place. Botswana's tourism industry is based around high-end safari tours, so it is also possible to enjoy a classic safari experience in places like the wildlife-rich Chobe National Park.

'Motorcycle Diaries,' South America

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The 2004 film "The Motorcycle Diaries" portrays Argentinean guerrilla fighter Che Guevara's journey through Latin America before he took up the cause of communism. Long before the movie was made, intrepid travelers from around the world had followed the route that Guevara and friend Alberto Granado took.

The movie locations in South America can be found in the starkly beautiful landscapes of Patagonia, the high deserts of Chile, the mountains of Peru and even the Amazon River (that's Patagonia's Mount Fitz Roy pictured above). In a sense, the film visits many of the most famous and scenic natural destinations in South America. It is possible to retrace much of Guevara's journey on a motorcycle (travel writer Patrick Symmes did it even before the movie came out), but there are tour companies that take “Che” tourists along parts of the route.

'The Lord of the Rings,' New Zealand

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"The Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" movies were mainly filmed in New Zealand. While these movies (the first was released in 2001) were heavy on special effects, the amazing natural beauty of New Zealand has inspired many people to visit and seek out the movies' most stunning natural settings.

While J.R.R. Tolkien geeks won't find every single detail from the film, a surprising amount of the scenery was filmed without digital enhancements, meaning that many visitors find New Zealand as beautiful in person as it appears on screen. While there are LOTR and Hobbit-themed tours (including the Hobbit houses which are still intact), much of the filming took place in New Zealand's national parks, so it is possible to enjoy the stunning scenery from the film without signing on for an official tour.

'Harry Potter,' Scottish Highlands

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Perhaps more CGI-enhanced and sound-stage-shot than "The Lord of the Rings," the Harry Potter franchise (which began in 2001) is another blockbuster that features great scenery that actually exists. Many of the panoramas and landscape shots were filmed in Scotland, arguably one of the most naturally beautiful regions in Europe.

Parents who want to introduce their kids to the world of nature tourism could get them excited about a trip to the U.K.'s most nature-oriented nation by talking up the trip as an expedition to see the Potter locations, like Scotland's Glenfinnan Viaduct shown here. The lochs of the Fort William area, which sit in the shadow of Ben Nevis (Scotland's tallest mountain), featured heavily in several Potter films, while many of the panoramas of the lands surrounding Potter's Hogwarts School were filmed in the stunning Glencoe area.