Wednesday, February 12, 2014

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

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.

1. California's Pacific Coast Highway

The road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles has become somewhat of an annual tradition in our family, especially during the holidays.  My husband and I started the roadtrip shortly after moving to California, as we wanted to explore and discover every corner of the beautiful state we’d heard and read so much about.  Also, with a toddler, we decided traveling in the comfort of our own vehicle would be a better way to go.

The drive along the Pacific coastline was spectacular, living up our expectations and National Geographic Magazine’s declaration as being one of the world's greatest “drives of a lifetime”.  It was without a doubt one of the most unforgettable sights we’d seen in North America, filled with towering cliffs, gorgeous secluded beaches, and spectacular nature with every twist and turn revealing the most breathtaking scenery.
Some of the highlights along this route (Hwy 1 & 101) include: Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, the Monterey Peninsula (including Carmel-by-the-Sea and 17-Mile Drive), the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, Morro Bay and Pismo Beach, and Santa Barbara.

Although slightly off the beaten path, the 21 missions along El Camino Real (the Royal Road) provide great stops along the way.  Most of the missions are located on or near Highway 101 (indicated by the bronze mission bells along the road) and are situated in the midst of the most beautiful scenery and countryside, and as they are an important part of Californian and American history, it is a pilgrimage that’s definitely worth making for anyone visiting or traveling in California.
Also, from Santa Barbara, I recommend doing a day trip to the vineyards in Santa Ynez and Ojai Valley.  Basked in the beauty of the Santa Ynez Valley, Foxen Canyon Road is not as well-known as Napa and Sonoma, but the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.  The surrounding area offers a great selection of restaurants and wineries, and my favorite thing to do is to stroll through the charming little town of Los Olivos, sampling wines and checking out the galleries/shops along the way. There are plenty of world class wines to choose from, and I recommend trying some of the smaller wineries on Grand Avenue.

2. Kauai, Hawaii

From the sapphire seas to its rainbow arches, the Island of Kauai is blessed with scenic places of breathtaking beauty.  If there’s paradise on earth, this would be it, as it is without a doubt one of the most sublimely serene and beautiful place I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to.

Kauai offers everything a traveler could want or need for an ultimate vacation experience: breathtaking beaches, lush forest, majestic cliffs and emerald valleys, and as if the breathtaking scenery wasn't enough, surrounding you always is the majestic Pacific Ocean, by turns coral blue, crystalline green or shimmering golden with the light of the setting sun.

Although the island is only 562 sq. miles in diameter, it offers a great diversity in landscapes.  Whether you’re looking for the stunning green mountains of the iconic Napali Coast towering over Kauai’s North Shore or stunning panoramic view of Waimea Canyon, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Kauai offers plenty to explore and discover.

I’ve read in a travel guide that there are nearly 70 beaches on the island of Kauai.  Surprisingly, each of them offered different atmosphere and scenery as well as advantages and highlights, and driving is one of the best ways to see the island.  It only takes a little over an hour to get around the island, and no matter where you end up, there are countless places to stop and take in the view
or if you’re lucky, spot a beautiful rainbow.

3. Old West Road Trip, New Mexico

I’ll never forget my first trip to New Mexico. Believe or not, we were about to go on a skiing vacation, and when my father told me that we were going to New Mexico, my first thought was, “We’re going to ski in the desert?!?” Little did I know, Taos, New Mexico turned out to be one of the loveliest places to ski.

Ever since, I’ve been mesmerized by New Mexico, its history, culture and its beauty, as being in New Mexico is like traveling to another world, another place and time. Whether it’s being pampered at Ten Thousand Waves Spa perched up on the mountain in the midst of an idyllic setting, cycling through the lovely streets and art galleries in Santa Fe, or exploring and learning about the awe-inspiring architecture and history of the Pueblos in Taos, there’s isn’t a shortage of wonderful things to do and enjoy.

Also, New Mexico is one of the few places where the Old West remains free from kitschiness and detritus of modern-day tourism.  The landscape has changed little since settlers, miners, and railroad workers passed through on the Santa Fe Trail, and a 400-mile driving route looping east from Taos makes a classic American road trip. Here, empty desert highways stretch to the horizon, views sprawl across the plains and Rockies, and ghost towns serve as poetic reminders of the country’s not so distant frontier past.
There are many idyllic routes between and near Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque.  The 56-mile route from Santa Fe to Taos, (the High Road) delivers one photo-op after another: ancient Indian pueblos, deserts, forests, wildflower meadows, and artists’ colonies in 17th-century adobe towns. The High Road climbs from the Sangre de Cristos to the Rocky Mountains, with canyon views over Truchas Peak at 13,102 feet.

The Turquoise Trail (Hwy 14), linking Albuquerque and Santa Fe provides a perfect day trip.  Named for the rich turquoise deposits found throughout the area, the byway carves through wild rock outcroppings, breathtaking view as well as quirky historical mining towns such as Cerrillos and Madrid.  

Lastly, a short drive from Albuquerque to Bernalillo (Hwy 550/4 on Kuaua Road, 2 miles west of I-25 Exit 242) leads to Jemez Historical Site, one of the most significant prehistoric and historic sites in the Southwest.  It includes the stone ruins of a 500 year old Indian village and the San José de los Jemez church.  A 1,400-foot interpretive trail winds through the impressive site ruins, and the heritage center contains exhibitions that tell the story of the site through the words of the Jemez people, which is not only an important lesson in the history of the Native Americans but a reminder that America is a place of ancient civilization and culture.

4. Deserts of Arizona

Landing at the airport in Phoenix, I felt as if I’d just landed on Mars.  Landscapes filled with red rocks and saguaro cacti, the deserts of Arizona are nothing short of Sci-Fi movie maker’s dream come true.

Arizona is full of beautiful scenery.  Whether you drive near the Grand Canyon or past Painted Desert that looks like artists’ brushstrokes, its byways provides a splendid view of the stunning red rocks which seem alive like a timeless spirit that captivates and inspires everyone.  Driving along the Arizona Strip gives a visceral feel for how this part of the West is a great series of vast plateaus ending in heart-stopping drop-offs. On the north side of the road are the stark, nearly vertical Vermilion Cliffs; on the south, the flat land ends with a plunge straight to the Colorado River.  And as if the stunning landscapes were not enough, it is also the unique ghost towns, restaurants and local oddities that await you on your journey. 

Its scenic byway, from Phoenix to Monument Valley, passes through some of the most stunning and unusual natural and man-made sites.  

  • Antelope Canyon
  • Grand Canyon
  • Horse Shoe Bend 
  • The Montezuma Castle National Monument
  • Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona
  • Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
  • Quirky Towns (and lovely B&B’s/Hotels): Jerome, Williams (Red Garter B&B), Flagstaff, Winslow (La Posada Inn)
5. Foliage Routes, New England
The foliage routes in New England are spectacular! They offer one of nature's finest spectacles: the changing color of the leaves on its maple, beech, birch, oak, gum, willow, and other trees. Vibrant reds, brilliant yellows and muted tans and browns cover the branches, and countryside panoramas become blazing sweeps of color. And some of the most beautiful display of fall foliage can be seen in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Fittingly enough, Norman Rockwell spent the last 25 years of his life there, and the landscape can easily be one of his paintings.

During the foliage season, there are outdoor festivals and markets selling a wonderful selection of produce, and there are many apple orchards where you can "pick-your-own" apples as well. There are quite a few charming and rustic B&B's and antique stores in the smaller towns. Our favorite is Race Brooke Lodge in Sheffield.

Also, Upstate New York (Westport, Elizabethtown and Lake Placid) is an ideal drive for seeing the autumn foliage, usually 1st or 2nd week of October, and be sure to check out the outdoor auctions and harvest festivals.

6. Atlantic Coastal Byways

A drive along the Atlantic coast serves up miles of stunning scenery and beaches, charming historical towns and, best of all, lobster and clam shacks.  However, you’ll need over a month to check out the entire area.

The drive along Cape Cod is absolutely lovely, and almost every town we'd visited offered its own charm and was interesting in its own way.  You can visit and experience a historically significant town like Plymouth, where pilgrims from the Mayflower landed in 1620, and stay in a B&B Whitfield House, a historical building which is on the National Register of Historic Places; or a vibrant eclectic artist community like Provincetown that offers a plethora of music festivals and art galleries.

Massachusetts Hwy 6 takes you along Cape Cod’s network of sand dunes, beaches, marshes, tidal ponds, and quaint fishing towns.  There are quiet villages along the bay side and beautifully desolate dunelands of the outer Cape's national seashore.

If you want to know where Mr. Gatsby lived, you’ll have to go to Newport, Rhode Island. This beautiful little town became a summer resort and a sailing center for the wealthy at the end of 19th Century. Wealthy industrialists, railroad tycoons, coal magnates, financiers, and robber barons built their summer cottages, which were more like mansions. These mansions, many of them designated National Historic Sites, still exist including the Rosecliff and Marble House mansions, which were used for the movie, "The Great Gatsby".

The 10-mile coastal route along Ocean Drive packs in historic mansions and spectacular views over Narragansett Bay.  You can see some of the largest collections of pre-1800 architecture in the country and on Bellevue Avenue where all the mansions are located.  There’s also a nice selection of restaurants and shops along the waterfront, and there are quite a few charming B&B’s as well, our favorite being La Forge Cottage located in a lovely neighborhood close to the waterfront.

Also, Hwy 1/95 from Boston to Portland, Maine along the rugged Atlantic coast is a picturesque route that immerses you in the culture and history of America’s East Coast.  Between historic cities, landmark lighthouses, quintessential lobster shacks, and antique emporiums, you can easily spend a week in the mid-coast alone.

7. Majestic Andes, Ecuador
Cuenca is located in the midst of the most breathtaking landscapes in Ecuador, surrounded by the majestic Andes Mountain, stunning turquoise lagoons, and lush national parks and cloud forests that will take your breath away.  Although this beautiful city offers travelers plenty to see and enjoy, taking a day trip outside of Cuenca is a must, as you will get to see and immerse yourself in the area's natural wonders and have a greater sense of the local culture and people.
Recommended stops along the way:
  • Cajas National Park – Cuenca is surrounded by beautiful landscapes and nature, and Cajas National Park is one of the most magnificent sites.  This hiker's paradise, also Ecuador’s natural heritage, is located about 30 minute west of the city, is filled with golden-brown grasslands reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands and over 200 clear cold mountain lakes.  Although the water is too cold for swimming, their clear still surface gives them an enchanting mirror-like character, especially when they reflect the colors of the deep blue mountain sky. 
  • El Chorro de Giron – About an hour drive South from Cuenca through the picturesque countryside of Tarqui and Yunguilla Valley is El Chorro de Giron, a massive waterfall reminiscent of Yosmite’s Bridalveil Fall.  About half way to the fall, be sure to stop at the Portete Monument, commemorating the triumph of Ecuador over Peru in the Battle of Tarqui. Four obelisks that rise from the top of the monument is the highest point in the area at 8,900 feet, you will get a spectacular view of the valley, especially around sunset. 
  • Ingapirca – About an hour drive north from Cuenca is the sight of the Inca empire’s only remaining sun temple.  Located on a hill at 3,200 meters elevation with panoramic views over the surrounding countryside is Ingapirca, which means “Inca stone wall,” Ecuador’s best set of pre-Columbian ruins.  By all mean, this isn’t Machu Picchu in Peru.  However, the drive and the view of the countryside surrounding the ruins is idyllic, and as it is an important history and heritage of the local people, it’s definitely worth the trip.   
  • Laguna de Busa – From El Chorro de Giron, you can drive further on to Laguna de Busa. The panoramic view of the lake is breathtaking. 
  • The Valley of Gualaceo & 4 Villages – Gualaceo, Chordeleg, Sigsig, and San Bartolome

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


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