Zac de Silva discovers it’s not about the destination but the journey on the world’s most exhilarating roads.
Robert Frost was certainly onto something when he wrote about the benefits of taking the road less travelled – although here, it’s more squealing tyres than introspection. So whether you’re burning along one of America’s most iconic roads on a Harley Davidson, rolling past kasbahs in Morocco or winding around mountain pass hairpins in a Porsche, there’s a road out there for every kind of driver.
Furka Pass, Swiss Alps
Best known for its role in the iconic car chase from Goldfinger, this is one of the highest paved roads in Switzerland at 2,429 metres above sea level. The Furka Pass winds its way through 22.5 kilometres of the Swiss Alps, with alpine lakes and towering peaks surrounding you along the way. Stop at the Rhone Glacier Ice Grotto, a tunnel that has been carved into the Rhone Glacier every year since the 1870s, and watch the ice chamber glow in fine shades of blue. For those who want to reenact their James Bond dreams, companies such as Colcorsa and Leo Trippi offer multi-day supercar tours through the Alps. Due to the altitude, the road is usually only open from June to October, so plan accordingly.
North Yungas Road, Bolivia
Known as ‘Death Road’ – and for good reason – this one is not for the faint of heart. Originally cut by Paraguayan prisoners during the Chaco War in the 1930s, North Yungas Road was, until 2006, the only route between Bolivia’s capital La Paz and the industrial centre of Coroico. It’s now popular among downhill mountain bikers due to the steep grade of the road, but the precipitous 3.5-metre-wide dirt track is equally gripping for car-based thrill seekers, although not recommended. With drops of up to 600 metres on one side and sheer rock walls on the other, it’s the only road in Bolivia where cars drive on the left of the road, allowing drivers to see how close they are to the edge.
Highway 1, Big Sur, California
This stretch of road snakes its way along the craggy, unspoilt coastline of California between San Francisco and Los Angeles, where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly out of the Pacific Ocean. While the 122-kilometre drive can be done in as little as two hours, it’s better to take a full day and make a few stops along the way. Highlights include Bixby Bridge, one of the world’s highest single-span bridges; McWay Falls, a waterfall that plunges directly into the ocean; and the purple sands and jagged rock formations of Pfeiffer Beach. Depending on the time of year, you may also spot whales from one of the many panoramic lookouts.
Inuvik-Aklavik Ice Road, Canada
For most of the year, the hamlet of Aklavik is almost completely closed off from the rest of the world, accessible only by plane or boat charter. In winter, though, the Mackenzie River Delta freezes over, allowing the Canadian Government to construct an ice road between Aklavik and the closest regional centre, Inuvik. This 116-kilometre ice road is usually open from late December to April, but is best traversed on Easter weekend. This will bring you to Aklavik for the Mad Trapper Rendezvous, a weekend of dog and snowmobile racing, drum dancing and community feasts.
Dadès Gorge, Morocco
Curving through Morocco’s rugged, ochre landscape, the Dadès Gorge takes drivers deep into the Atlas Mountains, North Africa’s highest mountain range. At its narrowest, the gorge is just over nine metres wide, with cliffs ominously towering more than 200 metres above the road. The Dadès Valley is known as the ‘Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs’, and it certainly lives up to its name with the 45 kilometres of cramped road passing crumbling kasbahs and ancient ksour. Depending on when you make the drive, you may glimpse local nomads who still live with their herds in the surrounding peaks.
Route 66, USA
This road barrelled its way into America’s collective consciousness in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, before the rest of the Western world took notice in 1946 with Nat King Cole’s recording of ‘(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66’. Now comprising segments of various Interstate Highways, America’s ‘Mother Road’ covers over 3,940 kilometres, stretching through eight states. Any number of companies offer tours along the historic route, but Australian travellers should consider Route 66 Tours, which offers Harley Davidson or Ford Mustang tours for a true retro Americana experience.
Great Ocean Road, Australia
Hugging Victoria’s southwest coast for 243 kilometres from Torquay to Allansford, the Great Ocean Road covers some of the best scenery Australia has to offer. This three-day route encompasses everything from the rainforests of the Great Otway National Park to the crumbling limestone stacks of the 12 Apostles. History enthusiasts will appreciate the road even more: built by returned servicemen after World War I, it’s the world’s longest war memorial, dedicated to those who fell during the Great War. Between the serpentine clifftop roads and the rocky arches of Port Campbell National Park, this is one of the most scenic drives on Earth.