Whether it’s the California coast or the Australian Outback, there’s nothing like the freedom of being behind the wheel.
The Drive: The Pacific Coast Highway
The Route: Los Angeles to San Francisco – the scenic route
The Distance: 460 miles.
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The Experience: The drive across Central California needn’t be a case of grimly barreling up the interstate for six-and-a-half hours. Hug the coast on Highway One, dipping into the various forests and reserves by the side of it, and the journey can be turned into a hugely enjoyable multi-day vacation.
After escaping from the LA sprawl, the first stop is Ventura – the best gateway for boat trips out to the Channel Islands – and the Santa Barbara wine region isn’t far beyond. Wine tours here tend to be more relaxed and less costly than in the Napa Valley further north, and cute towns such as Danish-themed Solvang make for a good overnight stay.
Beyond Santa Barbara, things get progressively wilder. The sand dunes at Guadalupe feel positively Saharan, whilst the beaches near Cambria are often crammed with sea lions. Cambria is the logical stopping off point for exploring the extraordinary Hearst Castle. Created by newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, it’s the most expensive home ever built, and the tales attached to it are almost as jaw-dropping as the lavish rooms and swimming pools.
From there, it’s state parks and moody coastline all the way through Big Sur to Monterey Bay, where civilization begins to rear its head again. But it’s all very laid back – the rickety rollercoasters of Santa Cruz’s boardwalk evoke another era, whilst the bay itself is prime territory for spotting orcas, whales, sea otters and dolphins.
The Drive: NewFall Foliage Loop
The Route: Starting and finishing in Boston, via Providence, Deerfield, St Johnsbury, the White Mountains, Coastal Maine and Portsmouth.
The Distance: Around 700 miles
The Experience: A lap round New England’s highlights is ideally taken in the fall, when the leaves bring a blaze of color and the grapes from the vineyards are being harvested. But there’s no reason why the route can’t be tackled at another time of year.
Plot it right and each day on the route can bring a different flavor. The stretch from Boston to Providence is lined with vineyards – it’s probably best to stake a claim for not being designated driver that day in advance. The next day can be about history – Providence has plenty, Old Sturbridge Village in Central Massachusetts is the largest outdoor history museum in the north-east and many of the buildings in 300-year-old Deerfield have been beautifully maintained.
Along the Connecticut River and into Vermont, it becomes about the uncrowded roads and scenery, whilst the adrenalin should start pumping in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The Cannon Aerial Tramway in Franconia Notch State Park provides spectacular views, and it’s possible to have a go at zipwiring at Loon Mountain.
After the mountains, it’s time for the coast – which can be about gorging on chowder and lobster or exploring in kayaks or sea planes. The route back is lined with engaging stop-offs such as Portland, Kennebunkport and Portsmouth – and this underlines its strengths. It’s all about short, manageable drives, with a flurry of appealing distractions along the way.
The Drive: Best of Ireland circuit
The Route: A loop from Dublin, stopping at Kerry, Galway and Waterford
The Distance: A basic 500 miles, with optional sidetracking.
The Experience: Aside from having to drive on the left, Ireland is the ideal spot for an overseas road trip. It’s relatively compact, so driving distances between the major sights are comfortably small, whilst much of the time is spent on scenic roads. It’s never far between castles, crystal factories, national parks and Guinness-fuelled fishing villages.
A highlights reel loop from Dublin is easy enough to tackle in a week. Man-made attractions such as Blarney Castle and the 5,000-year-old Celtic tombs at Newgrange contrast with natural wonders including the Burren karst in Country Clare and the wild expanses of the Connemara.
The route includes Ireland’s most famous drive – the 100 mile ‘Ring of Kerry’ which takes in many of the prettiest spots on Ireland’s notoriously rugged West Coast. It’s a route of pristine beaches – some of the best in Europe, albeit ones suited only to the hardiest of swimmers – and rich green headlands.
A cultural aspect can also be weaved into the trip. The Heritage Centre in Cobh explores the stories of Irish emigrants who fled across the world, whilst the port town also has a walking trail that ties together elements of the Titanic story.
Minor deviations can be added to the route, such as a visit to the still strongly-Irish speaking Aran Islands in Galway Bay and the photogenic Dingle Peninsula.
The Drive: Up the middle of
The Route: Adelaide to Darwin, via the Flinders Ranges, Uluru and Kakadu National Park
The Distance: 2,570 miles – before any additional detours
The Experience: If a truly epic drive is what you’re after, then the Australian Outback can’t be beaten for scale, isolation and stark desert beauty. There are rough, unsealed tracks that cross the outback for well-prepared four wheel drive enthusiasts, but the main south to north highway – and the most popular deviations from it – can be tackled in a conventional vehicle.
Before hitting the desert proper, it’s wise to stop for fuel of the red or white kind in the Barossa Valley wine region. It’s not much further north before you hit the vast horizons of scorched earth, interrupted every couple of hours by roadhouses that pass as towns. The big hitters – walking around the mesmerizing giant red rock that is Uluru, crocodile spotting in Kakadu, cruising on the Katherine Gorge and hiking up the rubbly mountains of the Flinders Ranges – don’t disappoint. But it’s the little things on the way that make the journey special; the giant salt lakes, stopping for impromptu camel rides at gas stations or being shown round underground cave houses that double as opal mines in the hyperweird town of Coober Pedy. Throw in bizarre rock formations at dawn, big-hatted characters in remote pubs and traces of the oldest continuous culture on earth – Australia’s indigenous people – and it’s an unforgettable adventure. Just watch out for the kamikaze kangaroos…
This story was originally written for ASTAnetwork.
All content copyright David Whitley.