Get behind the wheel for the drive of your life – or at least of your holiday. Jill Starley-Grainger hits the road around the globe.
Jill Starley-Grainger is commissioning editor for the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Each month she'll be musing for us on some of the finer things in life when it comes to travel. This month, she's sharing her favourite road trips.
Like most Londoners, I’d rather not drive most of the time. After all, who enjoys navigating London’s streets, dodging pedestrians and potholes in the frantic search for a parking place?
But the open road – now that’s a different thing altogether. Nothing blows away the cobwebs like zipping in a convertible along the edge of an ocean or through the clouds on soaring mountain passes. I’ve hit the road all over the globe, and these are among the best.
Best for mountain highs
First, a confession: I grew up in America’s Deep South, and my parents taught me to drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This means I might be biased, but I’m pretty sure it’s the most glorious road on earth. It stretches for 469 miles – from Cherokee, North Carolina to Front Royal, Virginia – skimming over the Appalachian Mountains, which flank America’s east coast. I’m not alone in my love of it. The Parkway is the most visited part of America’s National Park network.
Despite its popularity, its great length means you’ll pass few other vehicles. A small group of grizzly bearded Harley riders and a rubber-necking family in a sedan were my sole companions for the first day of my most recent drive up the Parkway. The pace was zippy, and I took the top down to inhale the aroma of the forests of pine, oak and ash. Every so often, the woods gave way to vistas of the mountains, undulating in a sea of green, with eagles circling overhead. It goes on like this for days, interspersed with barbecue shacks, square-dance halls and plantation homes tucked into the hills.
At the other end of the spectrum, on my first trip to South Africa, I discovered that its most famous drive, the Garden Route, is among the most overhyped on earth. At a push, you can do it in a day, driving through pastoral farmland and past a handful of Indian Ocean beaches from Cape Town east to St Francis Bay. It's pleasant enough driving, but nothing special.
As I turned the car the next day to head back to Cape Town, I nipped south off the Garden Route to stand briefly at Agulhas, the southern tip of Africa. Then I drove the rest of the way back to the city along the Whale Coast. This drive was heaps better: where the N2 is straight as an arrow, the Whale Coast skirts the jagged shoreline, skimming past empty white-sand beaches and over tumbling rocky escarpments.
Image: Whale Coast Route, South Africa
I hopped out at Hermanus, the best place on earth for land-based whale watching, and spotted two Southern Right whales breaching barely 200 metres from shore. Further along in Betty’s Bay, I stood within arms’ length of hundreds of African penguins, who swam in formation out to sea to fish, then waddled back to their nests amid the rocks on land. And then a herd of bounding springboks briefly raced my 4x4, bouncing over the Hottentots-Holland Mountains on my right as the ocean waves crashed just below my vehicle on the left. Finally, as I neared Cape Point, the tip of the peninsula by Cape Town, a herd of baboons leered at me from the roadside. I might not have seen lions, but the Whale Coast felt like a self-drive safari.
Image: Whale Coast Route, South Africa
I’d wanted to explore Norway’s fjords for ages, to hike along the edges and kayak in the waters. And, I found my first waterfall barely an hour from Bergen Airport. Excitedly, I snapped a few photos – not realising it would be the first of dozens I’d drive past over the next few days. The glaciers and thick snows that top the fjords in winter melt in summer, sending thousands of tonnes of water towards the sea. They spring up every few miles, some tumbling over the flat-tops of fjords straight into the bays, others disappearing into hidden ravines on the mountains that line the coast. I walked behind one, cycled beside to another, and uploaded so many photos to Twitter that my followers thought I’d moved to Victoria Falls.
Image: Sognefjord, Norway © Visitnorway.com
Best fairytale setting
Rapunzel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty – the tragic princesses of my childhood were poisoned and locked up, their fairytale towers transformed into prisons. The Brothers Grimm, who penned dozens of the most famous children’s stories, grew up in the countryside between Frankfurt and Hannover. They published their first book of stories – Children's and Household Tales, later known as Grimm's Fairy Tales – in 1812. But they didn’t dream up any of them. Instead these were the written versions of tales told to them by the region’s storytellers, mostly women. Some have a thin basis in reality, but even if the plots are largely fictional, the scenery is real. Driving the 372-mile Fairytale Route, I passed through forests dotted with isolated towers (including the small one seen in early editions of Rapunzel), lakes and woodlands presided over by turreted castles, and villages of medieval half-timbered houses that looked like they’d come straight out of a storybook.
Best epic adventure
I haven’t booked it yet, but I know where my next road trip will be. Next winter, I’m hoping to spend a month navigating the 3,000 miles of Argentina’s Ruta 40. It spans the length of the country, from the Atlantic coast north to Bolivia, skimming the Andes mountains along the way. One of the longest roads in the world, it’s also one of the most remote. Che Guevara toured it by motorbike, but I think I’ll opt for the more practical 4x4 since parts of it are still unpaved. It skirts lakes, crosses rivers and traverses salt flats. Some of it goes through vineyards – so I can stock up on Malbec. If I get stuck in one of the road’s notorious ruts, maybe I can use it to tempt some passing llamas to help pull me out...
Image: Monte Fitz Roy, Argentina