Wednesday, February 12, 2014

15 Most Spectacular Road Trips in the World (Part 2)

Life is about the journey, not the destination.  This is especially true when you’re on a road trip.  Although getting to the destination may seem like the main point of our travel, often the most rewarding and memorable part of the trip ends up being the journey and the experiences I had along the way. 

Through my travels, I often find myself on a road with a breathtaking view, on strips of pavement that weaves through gorgeous landscapes and a coastline with inspiring images reflecting in my rear-view mirror.  These roads are so awe-inspiring that instead of simply being a part of the journey, they became destinations unto themselves. 

From the dramatic California coast to history-lined thoroughfares of New England, from the lush countryside of the majestic Andes to the picturesque route of southern France with the heart-stopping view of the Cote d’Azur, there are countless scenic drives in the world … and here are some of the best scenic drives and road trips I’ve taken.

15 Most Spectacular Road Trips in the World (Part 1)

8. Back Roads of Provence, France
Provence is an old-fashioned love affair that’s vivid in every tourist’s mind.  It embodies everything that is quintessentially “French”. The idyllic sun-drenched landscapes filled with scented lavenders, olive groves and chestnut trees; the locals leisurely sipping express at quaint outdoor cafes; the festive markets in town square selling all sorts of local delicacies and gastronomic art de vivre.  It's a place that takes you to different place and time.

So, it’s no wonder that my husband and I fell in love with Provence on our first road trip to Southern France, and we kept going back for many more years.

Recommended stops along the way:
Aix-en Provence is perhaps one of the most idyllic towns in Provence, and everywhere you turn, it feels as if you’ve just stepped into an impressionistic painting.  Cours Mirabeau is a street made for strolling, and Atelier de Cézanne (the last workshop of Cézanne) is definitely a must see.  Also, I highly recommend the drive out to Mont Sainte Victoire, as the landscape, which is exactly as Cézanne had painted it, is absolutely stunning.

If someone were to ask me for my favorite town in Provence, I would have to go with Arles.  Although the town has changed quite a bit since the first time we were there, Arles still has, and always will have a special place in my heart.
Avignon is stunningly beautiful yet relaxed at the same. It embodies a wonderful mixture of chic, elegance and perfectly preserved medieval splendour. Be sure to check out: the world's largest Gothic palace, the 14th-century Palais des Papes and Place de l’Horloge.

After being surrounded by English speaking tourists, I longed to be around the locals and to speak French.  That’s when my husband and I head over to Eyguieres, a quiet little village about 30 minutes east of Arles.  The drive is gorgeous, and we love sitting in one of the cafes and just soaking up the provincial atmosphere.
Gorde is a picturesque little village that seems too beautiful to be real, and judging from the busloads of tourists, I assume that the rest of the world knows it too.  Nevertheless, for the first time visitor to the region, Gorde is a must see, as the majestic sight of Gordes's ancient stone houses rising in tiers above the Imergue Valley is an image that you should not miss.
Les Baux de Provence truly is an anomaly.  Aside from being one of the most picturesque villages in Provence, in its lonely position high on a windswept plateau overlooking the southern Alpilles, Les Baux seems to be part of the mysterious, shadowy rock formations themselves.  Nevertheless, don’t let its regal façade fool you, as the warmth and hospitality of the locals will draw you in.
By the time we'd arrived in Marseille at the end of our road trip, we'd seen so many beautiful places that we didn't appreciate all that the city had to offer. Throughout the trip, we visited mostly smaller cities and towns, and being in the second largest city in France seemed overwhelming and crowded. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the food and like the lively atmosphere in the evening.

To me, Orange will always be the best kept secret in Provence. It is without a doubt one of the most charming little towns in the region, and my husband and I have such fond memories of visiting Orange on our first road trip and staying in Hotel St. Florent, which has become one of our favorites in France.

There is no mistaking Roussillon. This little picturesque village perched on top of the hill is orange-red … literally, the entire village. The distinctive color is due to the ochre mine below the village. It creates a fascinating 'out of this world' experience like a miniature version of Bryce Canyon National Park, in the US.  The color of the rocks in the mines mirrors the colors of the houses in Roussillon village itself, which makes it uniquely different than other villages in the region. If at all possible you should try to visit Roussillon at dusk to see the glowing colors of the house at their most stunning.
Even though tourists have long since discovered St-Rémy-de-Provence, it hasn't eroded the charms of this delightful market town at the foot of the Alpilles mountain range.

The medieval streets of the Vieille Ville (Old Town) jumble together to form a maze filled with upscale boutiques and pretty shops stocking Provençal products, and plane trees shade the cafes and restaurants along the wide boulevard that circles the old town, which gives it the quintessentially provincial feel and atmosphere.

9. Cote d’Azur, France 

So much of my initial impression of the French Riviera was set by my favorite author, F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I’ve always imagined la Côte d'Azur in its full glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age, a sophisticated place where high society retreated to and where the beautiful and the damned vacationed.

However, what makes the French Riviera intriguing isn’t the illusion of glitz and glam, but the provincial charm behind this facade: the beautiful outdoor market in Nice, the wonderful little cafes and restaurants in Cannes and Saint Tropez, the unforgettable drive and the view of the coastline, and the quaint little villages along the way.

It truly is a lyrical landscape filled with spectacular cliffs overlooking the bright-blue sea … hence, appropriately called la Côte d'Azur (the blue coast), and its beauty far exceeds anything that anyone, even my favorite author, can write about.

Recommended stops along the way:

10. Alsace Lorraine, France
It has been my life’s mission to see and discover as much of France as time and finances would allow. I wanted to explore this country filled with world-class art and architecture, unmatched food and delicious wine that has inspired many to gasp in satisfied contentment, and to see the breathtaking landscapes. Even before my first road trip to Southern France had ended, I was already making a list of other regions and cities to see.

I quickly found out that traveling in France is like taking a bite out of a scrumptious mille-feuill, a French pastry made up of alternating layers of puff pastry and pastry cream. It literally translates ‘a thousand leaves’, and it’s layers and layers of tasty goodness that fills your mouth with such pleasure that once you’ve tasted it, you will never go back to eating an ordinary pie.

My first stop, Alsace Lorraine. Though often spoken of as if they were one, Alsace and Lorraine, neighboring regions in France’s northeastern corner, are linked by little more than a border through the Massif des Vosges (Vosges Mountains). Lorraine, a land of prairies and forests popularly associated with quiche, has little of the picturesque quaintness of Alsace. However, it is home to two particularly handsome cities, both former capitals. Nancy, one of France’s most refined and attractive urban centers, is famed for its Art Nouveau architecture, while Metz, 54km to the north, is known for its Germanic architecture and the stunning stained glass of its marvelous cathedral.

Alsace is one of the most picturesque regions of France. Filled little villages and town that are straight out of fairytales, gorgeous landscapes with imposing medieval castles, and picturesque vineyards and wineries that produces world-class wine, it is an ideal travel destination for anyone looking for a taste of France’s joie de vivre.

Recommended stops along the way:
  • (Chateau de)Haut Koenigsbourg
  • Colmar: Hotel Beausejour, Grand Hotel Bristol, Hostellerie Le Marechal, Hotel Saint Martin
  • Ronchamp & Le Corbusier’s chapel
  • Strasbourg: Hotel Gutenberg, the wonderful outdoor markets & antique book market on Saturdays, Christmas market, l’Orangerie, Flames 
  • Verdun
  • The Vosges (La Route des Crêtes) – The Vosges are one of the oldest mountain ranges in France, and once formed one of the country's boundaries with Germany. Richly forested with tall hardwood trees and firs, they skirt the western edge of the Rhine and resemble Germany's Black Forest.  At any point along the way, you can stop and strike out on some of the well-marked hiking trails.
11. Great Alpine Road, France 
Like so many wonderful things in life, my husband and I discovered the Great Alpine Road (Route des Grandes Alps) by pure chance.  Situated in the far eastern region of France near the German and Swiss border, it provided the fastest route back to Frankfurt from Provence.  Little did we know, during the drive we would see some of the most dramatic and beautiful scenery in Europe.

From the Mediterranean to the Rhine, the Great Alpine Road stretch along the southeastern flank of France, and the region is also noted for its stunning beauty, including many alpine lakes, the largest being Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), Lac d'Annecy and Lac de Bourget.  As you make your way through the serpentine roads, you’re privy to snowcapped peaks, verdant valleys, glimmering lakes and picture-perfect towns hidden in the midst of these majestic mountains and lakes.

Recommended stops along the way:

  • Annecy is one of my favorite towns in the regions as well as in France. Situated about a 1½ hours outside of Geneva, Annecy and the lake that surrounds it, Lac d'Annecy is as picturesque as they come.
  • Chamonix-Mont Blanc
  • Grenoble is the commercial, intellectual, and tourist center of the Alps.  It's a major stop for travelers, including those driving between the Riviera and Geneva.
  • Evian-les-Bains 
  • Covering about 140 sq miles (362 sq km), crescent-shaped Lac Léman is the largest, and in my opinion, the loveliest lake in Western Europe.    
  • Megeve is a picturesque village with its turreted houses around a 17th-century church, the scent of wood smoke that permeates through the entire town, and the sounds of hooves clopping on cobblestones is straight out of a fairytale.  My favorites in Megeve: Hotel les Aravis, Hotel Arboisie, Le Torrent, Sur les Pres, le Yang Tse  
  • Thonon-les-Bains – a modest little town with a charm of its own and friendly locals
12. Italian Riviera & the Cinque Terre, Italy

Situated along 18km of serrated cliffs on the Italian Riviera is the Cinque Terre.  Deemed as one of Italy’s treasures, it is one of Italy's most scenic byways with a landscape of towering bluffs, pastel-hued villages terraced into hillsides, precipitous corniche roads, luxuriant gardens, and expansive vistas over turquoise waters and green-swathed mountains.

The Cinque Terre, which translates to Five Lands, is composed of five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, and over centuries, people have carefully built terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea, and unlike other popular tourist destinations, there has been little to no development in this area. Hence, the Cinque Terre has maintained its charm and it's as if time has stood still for a century.
about an hour North of Cinque Terre is Portofino, a picture perfect town best known as the set of "The Talented Mr. Ripley".  The drive along the Italian Riviera is absolutely breathtaking, and the ambiance of the region will take you back to a different place and time.

13. Los Picos de Europa, Spain  

Home to some of the most gorgeous landscapes in Europe, los Picos de Europa (the Peaks of Europe) are the most famous and legend-riddled mountains in Spain. Rising more than 2,590m (8,500 ft.), they are not high by alpine standards, but their proximity to the sea makes their height especially awesome.

The best way to see this region is by car, and it was an amazing experience to drive through the majestic Picos de Europa, discovering secluded beaches and hidden treasures such as Pena Tu and Monastery de Covadonga, which are rarely visited by foreign tourists.

14. Hai Van Pass, Vietnam

Jeremy Clarkson, host of the British car program, "Top Gear," once called Vietnam's Hai Van Pass "a deserted ribbon of perfection -- one of the best coast roads in the world." Indeed, the stretch of Highway 1 from Da Nang to Hue is about 60 miles long, but this 13-mile pass slithers its way through the lush, coastal mountains of central Vietnam. Beginning in Da Nang, you'll drive northeast past the 3,845-foot peak of Ai Van Son and an old French fort that is pockmarked with bullet holes. And because most commuters opt for the Hai Van Tunnel bypass that opened in 2005, you are likely to be one of the only cars on this scenic road. You can pull over at the summit of the pass and snap some pictures of the verdant coastline and the azure South China Sea from more than 1,600 feet above sea level (but you might bump elbows with some other tourists and vendors here). From the road, it's easy to see why the Hai Van Pass is also called the Sea Cloud Pass: it serves as the dividing line for Vietnam's northern and southern climates. In the winter, you'll notice an extreme difference between the cold mists in Hue and the dryer warmth in Da Nang. (US News Travel)
15. Magnificent Malaysia
Without a doubt, some of the most significant and profound travel experiences I’ve had were in Asia, and the diversity of the landscapes in Southeast Asia is absolutely awe-inspiring.

From bustling cities like Bangkok, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur to tiny fishing villages, sublime coastlines to serenely breathtaking rural hamlets, from the jungles of Malaysian Borneo to the deluxe resorts in Damai, from temples of Angkor in Cambodia to the modernity of Saigon, Vietnam, Southeast Asia offers a glimpse of the extraordinary, an explosion of colors, sounds, smells, textures, and life that will send you home with a wider vision of the human experience.

And no country embodies this wonderful diversity in landscape, culture and people of Southeast Asia like Malaysia, and it has everything that one can hope for in vacation destination, a great mixture of cultures, history, people and some of the most delicious food I've had in SE Asia!

Being a major hub in SE Asia, naturally, our trip started out in Kuala Lumpur. KL, as I like to call it, is a wonderfully cosmopolitan city, not as big or crowded as Hong Kong or Shanghai, but big enough to provide all the conveniences.
From there, we rented a car, and although driving on the left side of the road (as in the UK) took some getting used to, overall, the highways and road conditions in Malaysia was absolutely superb, dare I say, better than the highways in California, and with a good map, we had no trouble navigating through the country and exploring some of the best hidden treasures of Asia.

Recommended stops along the way:

15 Most Spectacular Road Trips in the World (Part 1)


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