Hit The Road: The Globe’s Best Drives

Posted on: 16 July 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Everyone loves the idea of a classic drive – a hazy dream of open roads, spectacular scenery and perfect playlists. But when does reality match the fantasy? Chris Haslam explanis.

From the Pacific Coast Highway to the Amalfi Coast, the world’s great drives have become traffic-clogged, overexploited victims of their own success. The greatness of a road diminishes with fame. So forget these hackneyed tourist trails and try our new classics, including one drive that's exclusively online, Miami to Key West.

Packages, unless otherwise stated, are per person, for seven nights, including accommodation and return flights from London.


The Classic -

The Ring Of Kerry

Ireland’s biggest cash crop is a thing called Blarney, which they dry and refine, then sell to advertising agencies as pure, pharmaceutical-grade hyperbole (street name: hype). Hype can be added to any product, instantly improving public perception and thus increasing popularity, as seen on the tourist route they call the Ring of Kerry.

It’s a perfectly lovely road, with sheep, whitewashed pubs and lovely views, and it’s popular with German backpackers and American tour groups. That’s all you need to know.

The Alternative - 

The Causeway Coastal Route

Distance:190 miles

Time: 2 days

The Ireland of 50 years ago, before the craic dealers turned the place into a fiddle-de-dee fantasy, has long gone in the south. Venture north, however, and you’ll find it hidden on the beaches, in the glens and in the villages along the Antrim Coast Road.

Starting from Belfast, head north along the A2, via Carrick-fergus to Larne. So far, so-so, but then, as you drop down into Ballygally, the word “wow” will come to mind. You’ve entered the land of the nine glens, a rebel stronghold so wild and so isolated, it was never subdued. The road hugs the coast like a nervous army, ducking and diving through the glens and taking cover in gorgeous seaside villages such as Cushendall and Cushendun.

Passing the 600ft cliffs of Fair Head, the road swings west to follow a coastline undiscovered by tourism. The exceptions are the Giant’s Causeway, at its best at sunset, and the distillery at Bushmills, at its best over ice.

Spend the night on the farm at Carneety House (028 7084 8640; doubles from £50), on the coast at Castlerock, before heading inland on the A29 to Garvagh and the mysterious Sperrin Hills, a land of cloud-topped peaks, rushing waterfalls, secret churches and whispered legend.

There’s more whispering in Londonderry, the only place on this entire road trip where the Troubles seem more than a distant memory. Look down on the Bogside, scene of the Bloody Sunday shootings, from the ramparts of the walled city and you won’t have to imagine Ireland as it was.

The ideal car: a Massey Ferguson would blend in well. Book it: you can fly to Belfast from most UK airports. Try Flybe (0871 700 2000, www.flybe.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www. ryanair.com), or Easyjet (0871 244 2366, www.easyjet.com). Three days’ car hire is £45 with Budget (0844 581 2231, budget.co.uk). For accommodation, go to www.discovernorthernireland.com. If you still fancy the classic: start in Killarney and follow the ring anticlockwise – tour buses travel the other way, so you won’t get stuck behind them.


The Classic -

The Road to the Isles

The route from Fort William to Mallaig, which passes through some of Scotland’s most easily accessible and awe-inspiring scenery, is usually described as one of the places you must see before you die. Fine, except most of those clogging the road have left seeing it until immediately before they die.

The Alternative - 

The Wester Ross Loop

Distance:240 miles

Time: 2 days

This round trip from Inverness starts on the A9, then joins the A835 at Tore. Try to get the conversation out of the way before you reach the turn-off for the A832, 40 miles northwest, because thereafter you’ll be dumbstruck. First stop is the thundering Falls of Measach, where the River Droma plunges 150ft into Corrieshalloch Gorge. Chances are you’ll have the place to yourself.

Get used to it: from here, the road unspools like a car ad. At Laide, detour to the lovely beach at Mellon Udrigle, and at Ault-bea, stop to buy home-smoked salmon from the Sleepy Hollow Smokehouse (01445 731304) at Mellon Charles.

The road to Poolewe, along the shores of Loch Ewe – where Trident submarines occasionally surface at the secret Z dock – is another stretch of outstanding beauty. Stay overnight in Gair-loch, at the Old Inn (01445 712006, www.theoldinn.net), which has doubles from £55 – and watch out for seals.

Next morning, follow the A832 along the wild shores of Loch Maree to Kinlochewe, then take the lonely A896 through Glen Torridon. After 18 miles, bear right onto the single-track road. Travelling via Fearnmore to Applecross, there are wonderful views across the Inner Sound to Raasay and the Black Cuillins of Skye – look out for sea otters at Ob Chuaig.

Stock up on cake at the Applecross camp site’s cafe (01520 744268, www.applecross.uk.com) before you begin the tortuous climb up and over the Pass of the Cattle. From here, it’s a long drive through deserted Glen Carron to Achnasheen and the A832 to Garve. Enjoy a picnic lunch by the shores of Loch Luichart and you’ll be back in Inverness for tea.

The ideal car: a Mini Cooper. Book it:the Scottish short-break specialist McKinlay Kidd (0870 760 6027, seescotlanddifferently.co.uk) offers a three-day Mini Cooper adventure, including accommodation, but not flights, from £299. Alternatively, you could rent the Cooper for £50 a day from Focus (01463 709517, www.focusvehiclerental.co.uk) and find your accommodation at www.visitscotland.com. EasyJet (0871 244 2366, www.easyjet.com) flies to Inverness from Gatwick, Luton and Bristol. If you still fancy the classic: come in winter, when, if it’s passable, the Road to the Isles is at its empty best. March is especially good – the peaks are snow-capped and there’s ice in the glens.


The Classic -

The Amalfi Coast, Italy

They say that anyone who loves driving should drive the Amalfi coast road at least once. Wrong. Anyone who loves driving should leave this overcrowded, tarmac goat track to the suicidal coach drivers hurtling along a route that is to driving what drunken self-trepanning is to neurosurgery. Whilst indisput-ably beautiful, it’s not a road trip. It’s not even driving. It’s Russian roulette, Italian style.

The Alternative - 

The Italian Riviera, Genoa to Portovenere

Distance: 80 miles

Time: 2 days

If the Amalfi coast is Amy Wine-house – popular but overrated – then the Italian Riviera is Nina Simone – the connoisseur’s choice. Start early from Genoa and head south on the narrow SS1 coast road, from where, far below, you’ll see fishing boats chugging home, their wakes like ploughed snow against a cerulean sea.

First stop is Camogli, a huddle of pastel-painted houses built around a black-sand beach with the usual Italian disdain for topography. Park on the outskirts and walk down to the harbour for a caffe macchiato, which will taste just as good at half the price you’ll pay in Porto-fino, the millionaire’s playground next door. The Church of San Giorgio claims to hold the mortal remains of St George, but he’s rarely the only celebrity resting here.

Head back to the SS1 and put your foot down for a 30-mile stretch of lemon-scented road, the ocean a strobe-like flash of blue. Don’t miss the turn-off for the SP566dir at Carrodano. Stay inlow gear for the dramatic descent through the Parco Nazi-onale delle Cinque Terre to the fairy-tale port of Monterosso al Mare. Stay at the Villa degli Argentieri (00 39 0187 818516, www.lavilladegliargentieri.it), which has sea views and doubles from £190.

Next morning, follow the widest road (names and numbers are irrelevant now) southeast along the cliffs to Vernazza, then to Manarola, where you’ll park and walk down through the prettiest village on the entire coast. Lunch? Find the Bar Via dell’Amore (0187 921026), a narrow, sun-drenched terrace high above the Ligurian Sea in neighbouring Riomaggiore, and order sciacchetra cheese and foccacia. One of you should also try the sciacchetra wine – a 15% Cinque Terre speciality and the tipple of popes – but ideally not the driver.

From here, it’s just a 15-mile drive to Portovenere, but the route is so tortuous, and the views are so mesmerising, it will take you all afternoon.

The ideal car: a Fiat Punto. Book it:fly to Genoa with Ryanair (from £92; 0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) or BA (0844 493 0787, www.ba.com) and rent a Punto from Avis (0844 581 0147, www.avis.co.uk) for £111 a week. For accommodation options, visit www.cinqueterre.it. If you still fancy the classic: rent the smallest, narrowest car you can – you’ll rarely need more than three gears – and come in autumn, when the light is better and the tourist hordes have gone.


The Classic - 

The Overseas Highway — Miami to Key West

On paper, it's a winner: 126 miles of blacktop that flees downtown Miami like a rum-running fugitive, leap-frogging the Gulf of Mexico across 32 islands from Key Largo all the way to Key West. It should be a blast, but sadly the Overseas Highway isn't a road trip. It's a bridge trip, and driving it means joining a slow-moving convoy of Winnebagos, watched by cold-hearted cops who are meaner than a half-starved 'gator.

And to what end does one endure this watery highway? Key West is a cynical, overcommercialised atrocity where you'll probably end up staying the night because you can't face the four-hour drive back to Miami.

The Alternative - 

The Tamiami Trail

Distance: 275 miles

Time: 2 days

Route 41 is Florida's real highway. From Tampa to Miami, it plunges through the dark heart of the sunshine state. First stop as you head south is Gibsonton, a retirement community for sideshow freaks established in the 1940s by 8ft 4in Al Tomiani and his wife, Jeanie, 2ft 6in. If you're in the town's Showtown Bar and Grill (10902 Highway 41 South) and you spot a tattooed dwarf and a bearded lady duetting I Will Survive, don't blame the booze.

Continue south along the Redneck Riviera to Fort Myers Beach — where they make the crazy golf crazier by adding live alligators — and Naples, where the trail swings east. You'll see more 'gators here, stroppy monsters who bask on the roadside, glaring at the few passing cars. "Men, money and machinery," cried the entrepreneurs who commissioned the road in the 1920s. "Much misery and moccasins," countered the workers who dug and dynamited their way across this snake-infested wilderness.

Spend the night in Everglades City (pop 534), at the Rod and Gun Club (00 1 239 6952101, www.evergladesrodandgun.com; doubles from £60), where the edge-of-nowhere ambience is the closest you'll get in Florida to the sultry mystery of John Huston's Key Largo. From here east, you'll find the last of the tourist traps that once littered the Trail.

Stop off at America's smallest post office (mile marker 79.1), then drop into the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters (40904 Tamiami Trail East; www.skunkape.info) where bonkers Dave Shealy ("You might recognise me from hit shows like Unexplained America") will try to convince you of the existence of Florida's own yeti. Indian Gator Wrestling (mile marker 70; www.miccosukee.com) is self-explanatory, as is Gator Park Airboat Tours (24050 SW 8th Street, Miami; www.gatorpark.com; rides £14). From here, the neon strip of South Beach lies but a few miles east, so hurry, before the Skunk Ape gets you.

The ideal car: a VW Beetle convertible. Book it: Trailfinders (0845 050 5871, www.trailfinders.com) offers a seven-night fly-drive package, including return flights to Miami with United and a convertible Beetle, from £419. Still want to do the classic? Go early in the morning, when the light is at its best, the commuter traffic is flowing in the other direction, and the Winnebagos are still sleeping. (But resist the temptation to floor it: the cops are famously humourless.)

The Classic -

Highway 1 San Francisco to Los Angeles

America’s most celebrated coast road should be a freewheelin’ California-dreamin’ drive between two of the world’s most exciting cities. It isn’t. The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), as this part of Highway 1 is also known, was probably at its best sometime in the summer of ’69, but since then it’s become way too popular. From the ersatz nostalgia of Cannery Row to the overpriced homes of Malibu, the PCH is much better in your imagination than in reality.

The Alternative - 

Highway 1 San Francisco to Eureka

Distance: 360 miles

Time: 23 days

It’s the same road, you just head in the other direction, with the added bonus that you can do the California winelands tour on the way back. Start early: I hit the road at sunrise and was the only car on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Once across, breakfast at the Station House Cafe, in Point Reyes Station (11180 State Route One; www.stationhousecafe. com). If the place looks scarily familiar, that’s because it was the location for the 1980 horror flick The Fog.

There’s more horror on offer in the fishing village of Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock filmed The Birds. Spend the night in Mendocino, the quintessential northern Californian seaside town. Try Nic Petti’s crab cakes at Mendo Bistro (00 1 707-964 4974, www.mendobistro.com); and stay at the Little River Inn (937 5942, www.littlerriverinn.com), which has sea-view doubles from £120.

Look out for migrating grey whales as you continue north to Rockport, when the coast road swings inland to join the 101. You’re in redwood country now, so get the mandatory photograph at the Chandelier Drive-Thru tree in Leggett, detour at Redway for the awesome 31-mile Avenue of the Giants, then watch for the Mattole Road on your left past Weott. Rated by National Geographic as one of America’s finest scenic routes, it loops along the Lost Coast to Cape Mendocino, California’s disturbingly seismic westernmost point. From here it’s a short run to Eureka, an unexpectedly charming town of ornate Victorian architecture and happy little brewpubs. Check in at the Bayview Motel (442 1673, www.bayviewmotel.com), which has doubles from £60.

The ideal car: a Ford Mustang convertible. Book it:a sevennight California fly-drive, ticking off our stretch of Highway 1, in the Mustang convertible, starts at £1,324 with North American Highways (01902 851138, www.nahighways.co.uk). Or fly to San Francisco with British Airways (from £400; 0844 493 0787, www.ba.com) and rent a Mustang from Avis (0844 581 0147, www.avis.co.uk ) for £291. If you still fancy the classic: go during the week, when there’s less traffic, and drive from north to south, so you’re on the ocean side of the road.


The Classic -

The Nullarbor route

There are things in life we have to undergo. Exams, tax returns and emptying the bins. Mostly tedious, occasionally excruciating, they impart a sense of satisfaction once they are complete. The same goes for the Nullarbor route, a four-day, 1,250-mile slog from Ceduna, South Australia, to Perth, Western Australia. It’s hot, dull and so easy your gran could do it, so what’s the point? If you need to see Perth, fly.

The Alternative - 

The Australia Trail

Distance:1,171 miles

Time:11 days

While you could probably complete the Nullarbor in a G-Whiz electric job, you’ll need something tougher for this new monster motor across the top of Oz. Starting in Darwin, you’ll head through the Kakadu National Park to Katherine, where you’ll stop off to canoe the Katherine Gorge (00 61 8 8999 5511, www.nt.gov.au; double canoes with overnight permit £65).

Next comes a 180-mile run on the Victoria Highway to Timber Creek, rising and falling through a blood-red land that sprouts twisted ghost gums and thickets of towering spear grass. Another 60 miles brings you to the state line, where your first stop in Western Australia is Kununurra. This once tough mining town is now bathing in the limelight generated by the Baz Luhrmann epic Australia (released in the UK on Boxing Day), which stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman as a couple driving cattle along – you guessed it – this very route.

From here, the going gets tougher – you’re taking the unsealed Gibb River Road for 400 miles across the Kimberley, traversing a desiccated world of bone-white boabs, vast cattle stations and ancient Aboriginal legend. Allow five days to make the crossing and make sure that you’re carrying sufficient food and water for any unexpected delays. Sleep in a swag beneath the stars, swim in turquoise billabongs and have the fillings shaken from your teeth by a road surface bumpier than a crocodile’s back.

You’ll emerge in Derby, 90 miles from Broome. The tarmac Northern Highway is nothing special, but it will feel like driving on velvet.

The ideal car: a Toyota Land Cruiser. Book it: the Australia specialist Bridge & Wickers (020 7483 6555, www.bridgeandwickers.com) offers a two-week Australia Trail trip from £2,610, including car hire, a fly-safari into the Bungle Bungles and a cruise on the Katherine Gorge.

If you still fancy the classic: boredom can be fatal on the Nullarbor, so use the rest stops, drink lots of coffee and, as there’s no radio reception, load up with music before you go.

By Chris Haslem

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