Road trips aficionado LEE ATKINSON nominates her all-time favourite overseas drive - in the US state of Colorado - closely followed by seven more of the world's best road adventures.
Getting high in Colorado takes on a whole new meaning when you're driving the San Juan Skyway and Million Dollar Highway. Known as the "most beautiful road in America", this twisty, curvy, 320-kilometre strip winds across the Rockies, up and over some of the highest paved mountain passes in the country, through wild west towns full of history, past hot springs, ski slopes and ancient villages carved into cliff faces. Forget Route 66: when it comes to getting your kicks this really is America's ultimate road trip.
Start in Cortez, not far from the Four Corners Monument, where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet. The area is home to the highest density of archaeological sites in the US, inhabited by Ancestral Puebloan cultures for at least 10,000 years. Pueblo means village, and the best known one - Cliff Palace - was carved into the side of a cliff in what is now Mesa Verde National Park around 1200 CE. Rangers lead tours into the dwellings that involve taking a lot of steps and scaling a few ladders, but this is America so you can also explore the park in your car on a scenic drive that takes you to several lookouts where you can see excavated villages, hundreds of metres above the valley floor. Imagining how families ever managed to go about their daily lives that far above the ground is guaranteed to make you giddy.
From ancient canyonlands to winding mountain roads, the next section of our road trip was a complete change of scene. The San Juan Skyway is a truly spectacular route that snakes though the San Juan Mountains to the ski resort town of Telluride (before it was famous for skiing, it was better known as the place where Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank, back in 1889 when it was a gunslinging mining town) and beyond to Ouray, a historic town well deserving of its nickname "the Switzerland of America". It sits at an elevation of 2377 metres, encircled by even higher peaks, and it's impossible not to be bowled-over by the beauty of the location. The mountains are laced with waterfalls, canyons and rock-climbing routes, so it's a bit of a magnet for outdoor adventurers, but we opted for more gentle pursuits like soaking in the town's hot springs and bar-hopping from one beautifully restored Victorian-era hotel to another, all looking like they were built for a Hollywood movie set.
Just when you thought this road trip couldn't possibly get any better, it does. Known as the Million Dollar Highway, the 40-kilometre section of the road between Ouray and Silverton is one of America's most dramatic mountain drives.
No-one quite remembers how the road got its name: some say that's how much it cost to build, per mile, back in the 1930s. Others reckon it's all about the gold ore in the roadway's fill. Either way, it's a million-dollar view at every turn, of which there are very many. Climbing up and over three high passes well above 3000 metres, it's narrow with no shoulder or guardrails between you and a rather dizzying drop. Catch your breath - although at these elevations it may be harder than you expect - with a stroll around Silverton, yet another town straight out of wild west central casting with a main street full of colourfully painted wooden buildings.
It will take about an hour to drive down through the San Juan National Forest to Durango, a charming riverside town with good boutique shopping - think fashion, outdoor gear, local art and tribal jewellery - and a wide range of places to eat and drink. Much like this road trip, it really is a taste of everything that makes this part of America great.
GOOD TO KNOW: A great drive for those who have a good head for heights. Allow at least five days to drive the 320 kilometres because there's lots to see and do. Time your trip for the summer months; we did the trip in early May and, while the road was clear, there was deep snow on either side; in winter it has the highest avalanche hazard per mile in the country.
UNFORGETTABLE: Drinking in the splendid views with a sundowner or two on the rooftop of the Ouray Brewery (ouraybrewery.com).
EXPLORE MORE: colorado.com
BEST ONE-DAY DRIVE
Icefields Parkway, Alberta, Canada (288 kilometres): This road trip packs in more OMG moments and scenic wonders into a relatively short space than just about any other road trip I've ever done. Writhing its way between two UNESCO World Heritage-listed national parks of Banff and Jasper via Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies, this is a ravishingly photogenic stretch of road, with waterfalls, rivers, lakes and lots of rocky peaks. You've also got a good chance of seeing bears, moose, caribou, elk and bighorn sheep.
To drive non-stop from Banff to Jasper would theoretically only take about three-and-a-half hours - it took us two-and-a-half days.
There's a lookout or scenic pullover every couple of kilometres. We didn't stop at every one but some, like Lake Louise, are non-negotiable. This turquoise lake fed by glaciers and encircled by mountains is one of the most visited spots in the Canadian Rockies. Most visitors head straight to the lakefront viewing area, snap a pic and leave. So rather than jostle for space there, stroll along the Lakeshore Trail around the northern edge of the lake and you'll soon leave most of the crowds behind. The other stop everyone makes is the Athabasca Glacier. It's part of the massive Columbia Icefield - one of the largest non-polar icefields in the world - and you can walk to the toe of the glacier. It's not as close as it used to be: in 1890, according to the rather sobering signs along the way, it was practically beside the road - these days it's about a half-hour walk from the car park.
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Other highlights include the view from the lookout at the parkway's highest point, Bow Summit, the Weeping Wall, where several waterfalls cascade down a cliff face, and walks to Sunwapta Falls, Athabasca Falls and the Valley of the Five Lakes, a five-kilometre hike near Jasper that lives up to its name visiting five stunningly beautiful jade-green lakes.
This trip's so good we were tempted to turn around and do it all again in the opposite direction: many road trippers do.
GOOD TO KNOW: Perfect for viewfinders, wildlife watchers and nature lovers. The Icefields Parkway is open all year, but can be very busy in July and August, when parking at Lake Louise and lookouts can be hard to find.
UNFORGETTABLE: Explore the mountain roads on a sidecar adventure with Jasper Motorcycle Tours (jaspermotorcycletours.com). Getting kitted up in leather riding chaps and jackets is half the fun. No experience is necessary - all you need to do is enjoy the ride.
EXPLORE MORE: icefieldsparkway.com
BEST BEACH ROAD TRIP
Grand Terre, New Caledonia (969 kilometres): Mention that you're planning a week-long road trip around New Caledonia's main island, Grand Terre, to most people and the first reaction is often disbelief, but this subtropical island - part of France since 1853 - is much bigger than you might think. This coastal loop is an off-the-beaten-track way to discover the Kanak culture of the South Pacific as you journey from one beautiful bay to the next.
The west coast is cowboy country, and as you drive north from Noumea you'll pass plenty of cows grazing beneath the shade of spreading banyan and tamarind trees, and herds of wild horses along with broussards (bushmen) in big hats that look like they've been transplanted from a ranch in Wyoming. Horse riding tours are popular and, if you're here in August, many of the towns stage rodeos and agricultural shows.
From the northern tip, drive across La Chaine, the line of mountains that runs the length of Grande Terre, to circle back to Noumea along the lush east coast, with rainforests, waterfalls, tree ferns and coconut groves. Much of the road is right on the edge of the sea, and it's one mesmerising ocean view after another almost the entire way.
Cowboys, coconuts, croissants, coral reefs and beachside resorts - what more could you ask for on a holiday road trip?
GOOD TO KNOW: A great trip for those who like getting away from the cruise-ship holiday crowds and exploring, it's warm year round.
UNFORGETTABLE: Take a scenic flight over the much-photographed Heart of Voh, a natural heart-shaped clearing in the mangroves.
EXPLORE MORE: newcaledonia.travel
BEST ROUND TRIP
The Ring Road, Iceland (1332 kilometres): Volcanoes, gushing geysers, treeless peaks, thundering waterfalls, glaciers, ice caves and steaming hot pools - a lap of Iceland is a road trip into an otherworldly landscape that's wild, desolate and wonderfully quirky, every day delivering a new natural wonder. It's home to less than 380,000 people - although if you believe the Icelanders, there's also a healthy population of elves and trolls. There's little traffic to battle and, with just one main road to follow, navigating is easy. Which is just as well, because trying to pronounce the town names is practically impossible.
GOOD TO KNOW: If you're a keen photographer you'll love Iceland, but to see the best of it allow at least 10 days. We drove it in late September and enjoyed next to no traffic, daylight till about 9pm, and were even treated to a northern light show in the middle of the night.
UNFORGETTABLE: Covering 8 per cent of Iceland, Vatnajokull is Europe's largest glacier. Strap on some crampons and join one of the guided tours that will take you out onto the ice at Skaftafell. For a less energetic close-up look at the ice, stop at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, where bergy bits and mini-icebergs jostle for space; go early in the morning for beautiful reflections and fabulous photo opportunities.
EXPLORE MORE: visiticeland.com
WORLD'S WILDEST DRIVE
North Coast 500, Scotland (830 kilometres): Starting and finishing in Inverness this well-signposted touring route follows the coastline of northern Scotland for more than 500 miles (hence the name) or 800 kilometres, traversing some of the wildest and most remote countryside in Britain. From quaint fishing towns and windswept beaches to awe-inspiring mountain passes and beautiful lochs and forests, this really is a special drive. In the spirit of keeping the best to last - in terms of dramatic scenery - we drove the loop in an anti-clockwise direction, east to west, and each day, just when we thought it couldn't get any more spectacular, it invariably did.
GOOD TO KNOW: There are several steep and winding sections unsuitable for motorhomes. Avoid the summer crowds and traffic tailbacks and go during spring or autumn.
UNFORGETTABLE: Take your time driving between Durness and Ullapool, because it's cinematic scenery with row upon row of peaks unfolding before you as you drive south into the Assynt.
EXPLORE MORE: northcoast500.com
THE CURVIEST STRETCH
Mae Hong Son Loop, northern Thailand (675 kilometres): According to the fridge magnets and T-shirts on sale in the Pai markets, there are 1864 curves on this famously - or infamously, depending on who you ask - twisty route between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son in the Thai highlands. But that's only half of it; do the full loop and it's closer to 2500. It's a beautiful trip across some of some of Thailand's highest mountains, through teak forests and jungles, fields of sunflowers, past waterfalls, hot springs and hilltop temples that glisten in the sun. Not for the faint-hearted, it's a challenging drive but the scenery is spectacular.
GOOD TO KNOW: If the idea of driving in Asia is daunting, hiring a driver is reasonably affordable, but if you are prone to motion sickness this road trip is probably not for you. Winter - mid-October to mid-April - is the best time to drive it, when days are dry and warm rather than sticky and hot, and nights can be cool.
UNFORGETTABLE: There are dozens of caves sprinkled along the Mae Hong Son Loop, but the most interesting is Tam Nam Lod (sometimes called Tham Lot). Guides carrying gas lanterns lead you deep into the cave system and a highlight is punting on the underground river between the chambers on a bamboo raft.
EXPLORE MORE: tourismthailand.org
BEST FOOD AND WINE TRAIL
Via Chiantigiana, Tuscany, Italy (75 kilometres): This might not be a long drive, but just like your best elastic-topped pants you'll be keen to stretch it out because you'll want to squeeze in as many meals as you can. The SR222 links the great medieval city of Siena with Renaissance capital, Florence, and slices right through the middle of the Chianti wine region, through half a dozen picture-perfect hilltop towns. Spend at least a day in Siena and a couple in Florence. How long you take to get between the two depends on how much you want to eat. Let your appetite be your guide (and leave your diet at home).
GOOD TO KNOW: This is a road trip that will appeal to food and wine lovers just as much as it does art and history buffs. We did this trip in the middle of winter and it felt like we had all of Tuscany to ourselves.
UNFORGETTABLE: You'll never forget your first glimpse of the towers of San Gimignano shimmering on the horizon above the vine-clad hills like a medieval Manhattan. About 700 years ago the walled hilltop town had 72 towers, some a sky-scraping 70 metres high. Today only 14 are left standing, but it's still pretty impressive, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
EXPLORE MORE: chianti.com
BEST RV ROAD TRIP
Southern Scenic Route, NZ (2330 kilometres): Kiwis have always been good at calling it as it is (the island in the north is the North Island, the one in the south is, well, you get the idea) so you know that when they call a route scenic it will be. This signposted route from Dunedin follows the coast around the southern tip of the South Island before curling north through Fiordland to finish in Queenstown, but tack on a few extra days at each end to extend the loop to Christchurch - because there are just too many great roads on the South Island not to and Christchurch has an international airport and is the place pick up and return your hired car or RV. It delivers the best of the South Island in one trip.
GOOD TO KNOW: November offers long warm-ish days and is in the middle of whitebait season, which means you can find the delicious fishy fritters that Kiwis are (rightly) obsessed with everywhere you go.
UNFORGETTABLE: "Freedom camping" - camping for free or just a few dollars in roadside reserves and parking areas - is allowed in hundreds of places across the country, many in gorgeous spots beside beaches and rivers, overlooking lakes and encircled by snow-covered peaks. What's not to love about waking up to a million-dollar view for free?
EXPLORE MORE: southernscenicroute.co.nz