x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The drive of your life

We choose the 11 drives to make your heart soar, although several demand nerves of steel and comprehensive car insurance.

The road that Napoleon built: Le Grande Corniche is a winding 32km stretch from Menton to Nice. Nearly 500 metres above sea level, it is one of France's most spectacular and elegant drives, with stunning scenery on both sides.
The road that Napoleon built: Le Grande Corniche is a winding 32km stretch from Menton to Nice. Nearly 500 metres above sea level, it is one of France's most spectacular and elegant drives, with stunning scenery on both sides.

What makes a great drive? Is it the pleasure of cruising the open road, the thrill of unfettered speed or the satisfaction of executing a tight bend perfectly? For some it is. For others it's watching fantastic scenery unfurl as you bowl along, the wind in your hair. Here are 11 trips that can be done in a hire car, although several demand nerves of steel and a comprehensive insurance policy.

 

Germany: the no-speed-limit Nürburgring

There's no better place to play out the racing driver fantasy than the Nürburgring near Cologne. Built in the 1920s to test cars and host races, the 20km circuit twists and turns through the wooded Eifel Mountains. The German Grand Prix was held here until 1976, when the circuit was deemed too dangerous for modern Formula One cars.

Now the bulk of the original circuit, known as the Nordschleife, is open to the public, who can lap in their own vehicles (cars, motorcycles, even motorhomes) for a toll of €22 (Dh112) per lap.

This roller-coaster ride features blind bends, unexpected crests and steep inclines. Each corner has a different radius, camber and gradient. There's no speed limit and no oncoming traffic. You can rent a Lotus to do the circuit in style, through www.ringprojekt.com. For more information on the Nürburgring, visit www.nurburgring.org.uk.

 

France: La Grande Corniche

The high road from Nice to Menton is an engineering masterpiece. Built by Napoleon to pave the way for his invasion of Italy, it took 30 years to create this aerial trunk road that leaps across rocky outcrops 500 metres above the sea.

The Corniche is 32km of pure motoring pleasure: wide lanes, perfect curves and crisp white lines. And it's surprisingly quiet; most traffic uses the coast road or the highway.

If a road can be said to have elegance, the Corniche has it in spades. The best-selling Rolls Royce Corniche was designed to drive along it, taking the rich effortlessly to Monte Carlo.

The section between Nice and Eze stars in many car advertisements, the road caught between the snow-capped Alps and the sparking blue sea. Le Château de la Chèvre d'Or (www.chevredor.com) in the pretty stone village of Eze is one of France's best hotels. Book well ahead for lunch in its terrace restaurant, which has a fabulous sea view.

 

Spain: Picos de Europa

This seven-hour drive through the Picos de Europa National Park deserves the accolade "spectacular". Coming from Santander, the road disappears into the Desfiladero de la Hermida at Panes, a twisting slot through rock walls with knife-sharp pinnacles.

A side valley leads up to Fuente De from where a cable car glides up sheer rock for top-of-the-world panoramas. Back in Potes, a quiet road circuits the southern part of the park through forested valleys hemmed in by formidable mountains.

From Cangas de Onis, a friendly and historic market town, a magnificent valley leads to Arenas de Cabrales. There is hiking through beautiful gorges or, if you're not feeling quite that energetic, catch the newish funicular railway that bores through the mountain to the hidden valley of Bulnes.

Drive directions can be found in Landscapes of the Picos de Europa (www.sunflowerbooks.co.uk). Stay in a historic parador, a luxury hotel in a castle or former monastery (www.paradoresofspain.com).

 

Italy: the Amalfi Corniche

The coast road from Sorrento to Salerno is arguably the most beautiful in the Mediterranean. It's also the scariest. Driving this way more than 50 years ago, the novelist John Steinbeck wrote: "We hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing. In the back seat my wife and I lay clutched in each other's arms, weeping hysterically, while in the front seat Signor Bassano gestured with both hands."

From Sorrento it's a short steep drive up to Sant'Agata sui due Golfi. The bird's-eye view over two great bays is matched by lunch at the two-Michelin-starred Don Alfonso 1890 (www.donalfonso.com).

The road hurtles back down to Positano, its pastel villas clinging like limpets to the mountainside, and the welcoming embrace of Le Sirenuse, a gorgeous 18th-century palazzo perched over the sea (www.sirenuse.it).

From here the Corniche loops round gullies and plunges across rivers to Amalfi. It's so narrow in parts that wing mirrors clatter as cars pass. After another nail-bitting ascent to Ravello, on a squiggle of road wound as tightly as spaghetti, it is plain sailing to the port of Salerno.

 

Scotland: the road to the Isles

The finest scenery in the Scottish Highlands unfolds on the 210km from Glasgow to Mallaig. After skirting Loch Lomond, the A82 climbs up Rannoch Moor before diving into the hauntingly beautiful Glencoe, described by Charles Dickens as "bleak and wild and mighty".

When Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain, comes into view, turn west on the A830, which crisscrosses the West Highland Railway. The 21-arch Glenfinnian Viaduct is where Harry Potter chased the Hogwarts Express in a flying Ford Anglia. Make a stop at Banavie to watch boats negotiate the eight-lock Neptune's Staircase on the Caledonian Canal. The road hugs Loch Eilt all the way to the sea at Arisaig before curling behind some of the most remarkable beaches in Europe - all soft white sand and flower-filled machair dunes - with Skye's brooding Cuillin mountains as a backdrop.

Visit www.discoverglencoe.com and www.road-to-the-isles.org.uk for more information.

 

England: St Ives to Cape Cornwall

The moment the B3306 leaves the artists' colony of St Ives, it enters a brooding timeless landscape. Craggy boulder-strewn moorland sweeps down to wild headlands that drop into a royal blue sea.

On the narrow plateau in between, ancient stone walls enclose tiny, luminous green fields. When the mist rolls in, shot through with a brilliant northern light, you are immediately transported to prehistoric times when men wore skins and blue warpaint. Ancient farmsteads straddle the road; ruined castles, stone circles and burial chambers litter the moor. Men-an-Tol, a holed stone large enough to climb through, is still used for healing and fertility rituals.

The clifftop Gurnard's Head Hotel (www.gurnardshead.co.uk) is a very comfortable base for walking along the coastal footpath, where ruined engine-house chimneys stand sentinel to the days when Cornwall provided most of the world's tin.

Hire an Austin Healey 3000 for the ride from Cornwall Classic Car Hire (www.cornwallclassiccarhire.co.uk).

 

South Africa: the Garden Route

The Garden Route tag is a misnomer. It's not a string of designer gardens but a stunning drive on the N2 around the Western Cape, a coastline covered with fynbos, a thick fragrant bush.

The drive starts at Mossel Bay, an old-fashioned seaside resort, where you can arrange a close encounter with sharks using a diving cage (www.whitesharkafrica.com).

The simply named Wilderness National Park is ravishing lakeland best explored by canoe, bicycle or on foot. Moving on, Plettenberg Bay has a long beach of golden sand and is the place to see southern right whales, which breed in the bay from June through November.

After "Plett", leave the N2 for Nature's Valley, a superb beach and unspoilt lagoon. The Tsitsikamma National Park beyond has superb hiking paths and an underwater trail for snorkellers.

 

Morocco: Marrakech to Taroudant

The Tizi n Test, which crosses the High Atlas (or the Grand Atlas Mountains) between Marrakech and Taroudant, is the most stunning road in Morocco. It's a drive that demands skill, caution and confidence. Only one vehicle wide in places, there are no crash barriers to guard against the 500-metre drops. Nervous drivers should do the five-hour trip in a taxi, which costs US$85 (Dh312).

From Marrakech the road climbs towards the snow-capped peaks of the Toukbal National Park, passing Berber villages hardly changed by the passage of time. At Asni there's a turning for Imlil, which leads to the restored Kasbah du Toubkal (www.kasbahdutoubkal.com), a very comfortable base for summitting the 4,165-metre Mount Toubkal, North Africa's highest mountain.

Tipping over the pass, a vast panorama opens up over the arid south. The Great Mosque of Tin Mal, a symphony in pink brick, has welcomed travellers for 854 years. The drive ends with a flourish at the gates of Taroudant, a lively market town surrounded by crenellated walls.

 

Australia: the Great Ocean Road

From sleepy Torquay, one of the world's best-known coastal drives hugs the contours of Victoria's rugged south coast for more than 300 kilometres. On one side is the pounding surf of the Southern Ocean, on the other, very tall eucalyptus trees. Driving this road, built more than 80 years ago, is a real pleasure and the views are far-reaching. At Apollo Bay the road leaves the coast and winds through the rainforest of Cape Otway. For a closer look at this botanical marvel visit the Otway Fly, a tree-top walk 25 metres above ground (www.otwayfly.com). The Twelve Apostles, massive weathered stone pillars that rise out of the surf near Port Campbell, are the most impressive of the many arches, blowholes and caves that can be seen from the road on this protected coast.

 

Jordan: the King's Highway

The 335km King's Highway, which winds its way from the capital, Amman, to the sea at Aqaba, is said to be the world's oldest trade route. The modern road is a pleasure to drive; traffic is light and signage is in both Arabic and English.

The highway is also a journey through Jordanian history. From the heights of Mount Nebo, the road plunges 1,200 metres into the nature reserve hidden deep in the Wadi Mujib gorge, before curling up again to the crusader castle at Karak. Ibex, a type of wild goat, and mountain gazelle can be seen in the Dana Nature Reserve.

Petra, the Nabatean capital hewn from the pink sandstone hills, needs no introduction. After reaching the Red Sea at Aqaba, transfer to the Desert Highway to return to Amman.

 

USA: Route 66

Known as America's Main Street, Route 66 (www.historic66.com) from Chicago to Los Angeles is regarded as a microcosm of American culture linked by the automobile. The original 1920s route was used by Midwesterners migrating to California in search of fame and fortune. Route 66 still passes through many small towns that are home to Art Deco trading posts, filling stations, motels and diners that would not be out of place on a 1940s film set.

The first half of the 3,800km drive down through Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma to Texas is across a vast pancake-flat landscape that heightens the sense of going on a big road trip. Two of the most atmospheric stretches of the original road are in New Mexico, from Lupton via Los Lunas to Moriaty, and in Arizona from Williams to Topock before it crosses the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles.