“Adventure Before Dementia!” hoots the bumper sticker on the van ahead of you. At the wheel might be two “grey nomads” burning up the highway and their kids’ inheritance. The scene is repeated on almost every continent, but not only by retirees. The highway is a grand canvas for the epic quest you’ve always wanted to do. Chase the vanishing point on a few of these great drives.
Mereenie Loop, Northern Territory
Travelling Central Australia’s Mereenie Loop is like driving through an enormous Albert Namatjira image — not surprising, as this was exactly the painter’s country.
Running west from Alice Springs, down through Hermannsburg and Kings Canyon, and then extending on to Kata Tjuta and Uluru (Ayers Rock), the journey is a humbling reminder of how one is a mere dot amid all this space, all this time.
The graded but unsealed road runs via the waterholes of the West MacDonnell Ranges and Watarrka National Park and is no country for old cars, or anything that can’t handle several hundred kilometres of corrugations.
You may need to carry extra fuel and water, and don’t underestimate the heat and driving times. With that sorted, this is magical country where, among other splendours, your evening meal beneath the giant night sky amounts to five-million star dining. Take it easy — take two days. northaustraliaholidays.com.San Francisco to Los Angeles Coast Highway
Highway One hugs the California coast. Join or leave it where you will but San Francisco and Los Angeles make perfect bookends for a sortie. The names are legendary — Carmel, Salinas, Santa Barbara — and in the middle is the 150km stretch of Big Sur coast.
It was Henry Miller, I think, who called Big Sur “God’s front drive”. The Santa Lucia Range rises beside you, while the Pacific Ocean rolls in on the other side. The road climbs from sea level to 300m then spirals down again. Long-legged bridges, jaw-dropping views, burst-pillow fogs, San Simeon Castle and, finally, a string of early Spanish mission towns threaded like rosary beads along what is still known as El Camino Real, the Royal Highway.
Give yourself at least two days for this 600km jaunt — that the locals will tell you is 380 miles. bigsurcalifornia.org.
Queenstown to Christchurch, New Zealand
One of the world’s great, unsung roads is the 490km Central Otago route that winds through New Zealand’s South Island.
Heading north from Queenstown it insinuates itself amid the snow-capped vertebrae of the island’s spine, the Southern Alps.
Passing through whistle-stop hamlets like Arrowtown, Cromwell, Omarama and Twizel, the route is overshadowed by marzipan ranges and turquoise lakes. The dish of diamond peaks accentuates the stunning blueness of lakes Pukaki and Tekapo.
Take the all-day drive slowly and enjoy this alpine alley’s highlights, including Aoraki-Mount Cook, Australasia’s highest peak (3755m) and the lush pastures of South Canterbury. And then you’re in Christchurch.
Despite being hit for six by earthquakes, it’s still a pretty place, complete with a mid-city brook with Shakespearean pretensions — the Avon River. centralotagonz.com.
Great Ocean Road, Victoria
The Great Ocean Road loops and swoops west from Torquay to end wherever you wish. Torquay is “surf city” thanks to the classic waves of nearby Bells Beach.
At Anglesea, there’s an odd golf course where kangaroos lounge like bone-lazy caddies. The former whaling port of Apollo Bay is an excellent place to overnight. Then the Jurassic grandeur of the Otway Ranges engulfs you in its tunnel of tall trees.
The next 130km to Port Fairy is the “Shipwreck Coast”, thanks to some 80 major wrecks that occurred there.
“If you’re still standing, the wind’s not blowing hard enough,” they say around the Twelve Apostles, the road’s most famous icons. At Port Fairy, over a Devonshire tea, you might decide where, for you, the Great Ocean Road ends — 56 km away at Portland? Or much further? If you’re that kind of wanderer, it’s that kind of road. visitvictoria.com.
Tahiti Island Circuit
This one’s different. Having had your fill of Papeete’s neon Polynesia, hit the road. You can easily drive around the island in one longish day.
The road is narrow but sealed, with plenty of lookouts, villages, blowholes, old churches and glimpses of emerald peaks and cobalt seas.
Drive cautiously — there are plenty of kids, bicycles and animals about — and on the French-hand side of the road.
One highlight is the Gauguin Museum at Papeari (51km from the capital) with its collection of memorabilia and minor works that recreate the artist’s prolific, profligate years of 1891 to 1903 in Tahiti.
Another is Point Venus on Matavai Bay where both James Cook and William Bligh anchored on their famous 18th century voyages.
On the southern peninsula, Tahiti-Iti, there is a cool, upland plateau and, if your timing’s right, the suicidally spectacular reef surf of Teahupoo. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Paul_Gauguin_Museum.
Napier to Cape Palliser, North Island, New Zealand
Your trip starts with an earthquake. (Don’t worry, it happened more than 80 years ago.) Napier was levelled in 1931, but from its ashes grew one of the finest Art Deco townscapes anywhere. The 300km route from Napier to the southernmost tip of the island first brings you to Cape Kidnappers and the largest mainland nesting place of gannets in the world — see, hear, smell the 1500 breeding pairs.
At Porangahau Beach check out the world’s longest place name: Taumatawhakatangihangakoauau otamateaturipukakapikimaunga horonukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu — “The place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, sat on a hill and played a tune on his flute for his loved ones.”
South of Waipukurau “Norwegian Wood” could be the local signature tune, with towns like Norsewood and Dannevirke recalling the 19th century Scandinavian immigrants who cleared the vast forests. Masterton is the portal to the rich Wairarapa region and towns with historic streetscapes that range from Victorian-Edwardian to almost Wild West.
The hills are alive with fabulous wines and the Cape Palliser lighthouse is the perfect exclamation mark to signal both your trip and the North Island. newzealand.com/int/ north-island.
Hana Highway, Maui, Hawaii
The Hana Highway reminds me of playing Snakes and Ladders on wheels: down to the beaches, up the volcanic ridges and then shimmy along the escarpment.
This tenacious trail clings to the north coast of Maui for 80 dramatic kilometres, crossing 56 one-lane bridges and twisting through 617 bends.
You start at Kahului and soon hit the sugar-and-surf town of Pa’ia, home of the massive “Jaws” waves. Being narrow, the Hana is, of necessity, a polite highway.Slow from a crawl to a halt, giving way with a wave to oncoming cars at the bridges. Waterfalls bloom beside the road. The trees seem more like a fruit salad factory than a jungle, being laden with mango, breadfruit and bananas. Little wonder that the region is called Heavenly Hana. gohawaii.com/maui.
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