Driving from A to B in an old beater can be dull and tedious. Cruising through a spectacular landscape in gleaming steel can be absolutely epic. Escape the traffic jams and road rage. Aim your headlights into the horizon, and take control of that roaring beast under the hood. Let your senses feast on the smell of fresh air, the dazzling views, the rush of wind against your skin, and the frisson of excitement coursing through your veins.
For $350 USD to $1500 USD, you can drive off into the sunset in a vintage convertible or a sleek racer from any mainstream car rental. Or for just the price of a full tank, grab the keys to the family sedan and relive the thrill of youth when you first got your licence. Whatever your means or taste, roll down the window, crank up your playlist, and celebrate the exhilaration of freedom on the road.
Here is a list of 10 spectacular driving escapades that cover the globe, merging a passion for speed with a yearning for liberation. Some are engineering masterpieces that allow you to skim across oceans; others are ancient passageways carved into mountains by local artisans. And if Mad Max is more your idea of an entertaining road trip, here are also 10 treacherous trails that are deserving of their dubious reputations. Road Warriors, start your engines. Get set. And just go!
20 High Drama: Hwy 1 to Big Sur, California
The sweeping drama of California’s legendary coastal road is filled with theatrical twists and turns. It’s flanked by soft, grassy hillsides inland and bold, rugged cliffs along the shoreline that plummet into the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Big Sur owes its grandiose name from Spanish missionaries who christened it El País Grande del Sur (the Big Country of the South). The route from Carmel-by-the-Sea to San Simeon runs 145 km along the coast. Notable highlights include the sprawling, decadent Hearst Castle, the purple sands and crashing waves of Pfeiffer Beach, the graceful architecture of Bixby Bridge, and the tropical turquoise waters of McWay Falls. Turn your road trip into an instant classic by cruising there in a Mustang convertible.
19 A Romantic Affair: Amalfi Drive, Italy
Like a whirlwind romance, the Strada Statale 163 known as the Amalfi Drive is a winding, challenging, colourful jaunt that marries the ruggedly handsome shoreline of Southern Italy with the voluptuous countryside full of blossoming lemon groves. It runs 40 km along the southern edge of Sorrentine Peninsula in the Salerno Gulf, and it features dashing, vertical villages like Positano that cascade down the cliffs. The Amalfi Coast is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its natural beauty and its historical significance as a settlement by numerous communities since the Middle Ages. You'll fit right in with a flirtatious open-top VW Beetle.
18 ReV Your Engine: Icefields Parkway, Canada
Lumber along in a comfy RV for a leisurely drive. Pull over at any time to chill out and explore the numerous hiking, picnic and camp sites along the spectacular Icefield Parkway (Hwy 93) in Alberta, Canada. The 232-km road is named for the vast Columbia Icefield and its numerous glaciers visible along the route, following the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains. From Banff to Jasper, it passes through two national parks and features non-stop, eye-popping views of soft-blue lakes, rocky riverbeds, thundering waterfalls, dramatic limestone cliffs, and vibrant canyon walls painted with lichen and moss.
17 A Super Road for Supercars: Gotthard Pass, Switzerland
The Gotthard Pass in the Lepontine Alps of southern Switzerland rises up to 2 km and runs 26 km long. Although it was an ancient trail that was known to the Romans, the path came into common use in the 13th century as a link between Italy and central Europe. Today, the modern paved road climbs over the Alps, tying German Andermatt in the north to Italian Airolo in the south. Unlike other mountain passes, Gotthard features more than just a pretty view. It’s an obstacle course with magnificent feats of engineering such as the flying bridges that seemingly leap off a precipice then land onto the next. And if you happen to be a member of the Supercar Owner’s Circle, you’re welcome to race down the pass in a Bugatti Veyron during a time when the road is conveniently closed off for your club’s private run.
16 RPM Revolutions: Route de Napoléon, France
The Route de Napoléon follows the historical path taken by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1815 on his march from Elba to Grenoble, leading to his eventual journey to overthrow Louis the XVIII. From the French Riviera, the road heads northwest along the foothills of the Alps and is dotted by statues of the French Imperial Eagle. Even while it traverses the remote countryside, the route is smooth and level, making it a tranquil driving experience for any kind of vehicle. The vistas are filled with bucolic images of natural flora and pretty villages. One of the highlights is Sisteron, a pre-Roman town built at a narrow, rocky gap where the Durance and Buech rivers join.
15 Caro Mio: Karamea Hwy, New Zealand
The endearing Karamea Highway is a picturesque drive on the west coast of South Island, New Zealand. It runs 53 km and includes 68 bends, which helps keep drivers focused throughout the long journey. They’re rewarded with the astounding sights of beautiful sub-tropical rainforest hills, dotted with quaint coal-mining towns. In summer, rata trees are in full bloom, decorating the route with masses of fiery, red flowers. Along the coast is a straight leg that opens up to an incredible view right out to the Tasman Sea. The Karamea Highway is often referred to as "The Road to Nowhere," as the southern end changes dramatically into the Heaphy Track, which is basically just a foot and bike dirt path.
14 “The Highway That Goes to Sea”: Overseas Hwy, Florida Keys
Florida's Overseas Highway connects an astounding 42 bridges over 171 km, bisecting the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. Thus, it offers spectacular sunsets and sunrises from either side. Known as “The Highway That Goes to Sea,” it leads visitors from Florida's mainland across countless coral and limestone islets to the historical and colourful Florida Keys. The road was originally the Florida East Coast Railway before it was damaged by a hurricane in 1935. Construction of the highway began a year later, using some of the original railway spans and coral bedrock for its foundation. Coasting along the Overseas is akin to skimming across a vast ocean in a speedboat, so choose a sleek, white convertible and prepare for the spritz of salty mist on your skin.
13 “The End of the World”: Ruta 40, Argentina
National Route 40 (Ruta 40) is one of the longest and most remarkable highways in the world. It runs 5,000 km parallel to the Andes mountains, from the border of Bolivia to the tip of Patagonia. Travellers are treated to a geological wonderland full of paleontological treasures within the parks of Talampaya and Ischigualasto, while majestic condors circle high above. Driving a 4x4 with extra tires on hand is probably the wisest choice to view the multi-coloured hillsides and to make off-road tourist stops along the way. At its southern terminus is Cabo Virgenes, which points down to Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia. Known as “The End of the World,” Ushuaia is the southernmost city on earth and the port of call for trips to Antarctica.
12 “Great” is an Understatement: Great Ocean Road, Australia
It’s an iconic coastal drive like no other. The Great Ocean Road in Australia features the towering 12 Apostles which are giant, isolated rock stacks that rise up to 45 metres high. They were created by constant erosion of the limestone cliffs on the mainland which began 10 to 20 million years ago. Thrashing waves of the Southern Ocean and blasting winds ceaselessly toiled like master artists to carve out caves in the cliff sides which eventually became arches. The arches then collapsed, leaving behind the stranded rocky columns. Drive an open-top convertible for gorgeous 360 views of the flat terrain. Catch the 12 Apostles at sunrise or sunset to witness their transformation from ominous shadows to dazzling monuments under the bright Australian sun.
11 Come Full Circle: The Golden Circle, Iceland
Topping the list of the most Stunning Scenic Drives is the Golden Circle of Iceland—a 300-km looping trek through an otherworldly landscape. Ethereal northern lights flicker high overhead in winter over the rugged, icy terrain of the volcanic island. The road circles east of the capital, Reykjavik, and provides a connection between numerous prominent landmarks such as geysers, lagoons, waterfalls and heritage sites. The dependable Strokkur geyser erupts every five to 10 minutes. The Gullfoss waterfall glimmers golden yellow under sunlight. Most impressive is the Thingvellir site where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates split apart a few centimeters every year. It’s an eerie topper to this magical journey that portends the eventual splitting of the island in two by unstoppable natural forces.
10 Trolls and Ladders: Trollstigen, Norway
Carved into the mountains off the western coast of Norway lies the steep, zigzagging road called Trollstigen, or “Trolls Ladder.” According to Norwegian folklore, the rugged terrain is attributed to stone-like trolls who roam the mountainside at night, turning into jutting rocks during the day. In ancient times, it was an important footpath that linked Åndalsnes to Valldal. Now the road is part of Norwegian County Road 63, and it provides spectacular views of skyscraping mountains and the sparkling waters of Geiranger Fjord. Each of the 11 tight hairpin turns has its own name, bearing tribute to the skill and tenacity of the construction crews who toiled on the steep mountainsides, often hewing the rock by hand. Other conditions that add to the road’s foreboding lore include a steep 10% gradient, narrow width, poor traction and visibility due to frequent rain and fog, and a relentlessly winding and undulating path.
9 Take a Pass: Zojila Pass, Kashmir
It’s one of the most dangerous roads in the world. This narrow path that sits in the western section of the Himalayas climbs to a staggering 3.5 km above sea level and should probably be avoided on any sightseeing trip to Kashmir. For the people of the Ladakh region who live in the Kunlun mountain range and the Great Himalayas, it’s a necessary evil in order to remain connected to the rest of the world. Transport trucks that carry supplies regularly risk steep drops into the rocky chasm, often battling sudden landslides and ferocious winds. There are no barriers, which makes even picturesque waterfalls over the trail extremely perilous to cross.
8 No Insurance: Skippers Canyon Road, NZ
Drivers are warned: no insurance company will cover rental cars on this passage. The Skippers Canyon Road, located on the South Island of New Zealand, is a frightening gravel path where mishaps are a given. While the route is extremely scenic, it’s also mercilessly coarse, narrow, winding, and offers few barriers from the vertical drop into the gorge below. The road was hand-carved by miners in 1862 and was named after “Skippper” Malcolm Duncan who was a pioneer of the gold rush that took place in the island’s Otago region. Very few improvements have been made since then, so the road continues to be challenging when dry and an absolute nightmare when wet.
7 Loneliness is a Highway: James Dalton Hwy, Alaska
Carved out of the permafrost layer in northern Alaska is a road through vast nothingness: no radio reception, no gas stations, no signs of life. The James Dalton Highway was constructed out of necessity in 1974 to provide an access route during construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. A simple path of gravel runs 640 km through the Arctic Circle from the pit-stop town of Livengood to the icy beaches of Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Aside from the frosty coniferous forests and occasional muskox sighting, the landscape is bleak and barren. A journey over this highway in solitude is a threat to anyone’s spirit of survival.
6 Sink Your Teeth into This: Transfagarasan Hwy, Romania
The Transfagarasan Highway (officially the DN7C) is an intense, serpentine paved road between Transylvania and Wallachia in Romania. Built as a strategic military route after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, the 90 km of twists and turns runs across the tallest sections of the Southern Carpathians reaching 2 km above sea level at its highest point. About 40 soldiers lost their lives during its construction, establishing a grim history for the infamous road. The greatest hazard of driving on the Transfagarasan is the necessity of quickly changing gears every three or four seconds to avoid any spin-outs around the ruthlessly snaking route. Add to that a series of long, pitch-black tunnels, and it makes for an exhilarating drive through the land of vampires.
5 Hostile Terrain: Karakoram Hwy, Pakistan
The Karakoram Highway is the highest paved international road in the world. Tracing one of the many paths of the ancient Silk Road, it connects China and Pakistan across the Karakoram mountain range at a soaring elevation of 5 km above sea level. While it's also known as “The Friendship Highway,” there is nothing amiable about the terrain. The unforgiving environment is constantly barraged by spontaneous avalanches and landslides that can jostle vehicles and block passages. 810 Pakistani and 82 Chinese workers lost their lives laying asphalt to the route. It was completed in 1986 after 27 years of construction but still remains frighteningly primitive and hazardous to drive.
4 Walking on Water: Passage du Gois, France
The Passage du Gois (also known as Gôa) is a 4-km submerged causeway that connects the island of Île de Noirmoutier to the mainland commune Beauvoir-sur-Mer on the west coast of France. Prior to its construction in the 16th century, the only way to reach Noirmoutier was by boat. The surrounding land floods twice a day for one or two hours, and the road only becomes accessible 1.5 hours before and after the lowest tide. When the window closes, flooding occurs at an alarming rate, leaving many drivers either stranded on the island or left floating out to sea in waters up to 4 metres deep. The stone-paved causeway is named “Gois” from the verb “goiser,” which means “to walk while wetting one’s shoes.”
3 Surf’s Up: Atlantic Ocean Road, Norway
When the ocean is tranquil, and the gulls cry gleefully overhead, the scenic drive over the undulating, curved Storseisundbrua Bridge is relaxing. When a northwest storm slams crushing waves onto the sleek, elevated conduit, the foam-sprayed journey is undeniably terrifying. The Atlantic Ocean Road is an 8.3-km long section of a country road that connects the island of Averøy with the mainland at Romsdalshalvøya peninsula by eight bridges. It passes by Hustadvika coastline, an exposed part of the Norwegian Sea that features a series of small islands and islets. If you plan to drive over the bridges, check the weather forecast beforehand, and bring a surfboard just in case.
2 DIY Mountain Pass: Guoliang Tunnel, China
In 1972, a mere 13 people from the tiny village of Guoliang in Henan Province set about the Taihang Mountains to build a homemade road. Armed with only handheld tools, they chiselled a path along the cliffs in order to replace a precarious set of 720 ancient steps that connected the village to the outside world. Included in the route is an incredible 1.2-km long tunnel through the rock, 5 metres high and 4 metres wide. With more than 30 windows in the tunnel, the remaining rock forms pillars that serve as the only supports which prevent the ceiling from total collapse.
1 Life in the Fast Lane: Autobahn, Germany
The German autobahn is legendary. It’s now a magnificent network that spans 13,000 km across most of the country, and it’s comprised of several layers of freeze-resistant concrete to ensure a smooth, quiet drive. Though speed limits and traffic jams do exist at main arteries, large rural expanses of the highway are completely unrestricted, making it the ultimate fierce driving experience for engineering enthusiasts and speed junkies alike. Tearing across the smooth autobahn at super-speed mimics the freedom of flying. But that euphoric sensation quickly U-turns into heart-stopping, stomach-churning panic the moment another vehicle suddenly appears and, in less than a second, gets up close and personal.
There are many rules on the autobahn which are strictly enforced by unmarked police cars and automated photo radar: drive slow on the right, pass on the left, obey speed limits, never run out of fuel. But most importantly, keep your distance.