By Victor Block
Some drivers follow routes along the highest roads in the world. Others steer their cars through much lower settings that hug ocean coastlines at sea level. Then there are journeys that take people through some of Mother Nature's most magnificent handiwork. Vacationers seeking to explore their destination by driving enjoy a staggering choice of options. These routes offer an idea of the variety.
The hair-raising drive in northern India that goes literally to the top of the world through the Khardung Pass reaches an altitude of 18,379 feet, where the air is thin and the views are breathtaking. This twisting, turning route once was traversed by people riding on horses or camels. Today it's so popular that at times only vehicles heading in one direction are allowed to proceed, while those going the other way wait their turn.
Equally as beautiful in a very different way is the Great Ocean Road in Australia. It lives up, or rather down, to its name as it skirts that country's southeastern coastline. Travelers pass lush rainforests, steep cliffs and inviting beaches. Driving on the two-lane road has been named a "Top Tourism Experience" in that country.
Any discussion of outstanding driving trips must include some known for the scenery through which they lead. Highways with that claim to fame are in New Zealand, Hawaii and Iceland. As it runs from Queenstown to Dunedin, the Southern Scenic Route in New Zealand's South Island passes through myriad landscapes. They range from glacier-carved lakes and rushing waterfalls to dramatic limestone outcrops and a fossilized forest. The road also passes sea-level settings that are home to penguins, seals, sea lions and other wildlife.
Hawaii is also known for scenery-rich roads. One of the most popular is the "Hawaii Belt," comprised of three connected state routes around the perimeter of Hawaii Island. Along the way travelers have opportunities to view both active and hardened lava flows, lush jungles, soaring mountains and deep valleys.
A shorter ring road, which makes up in rugged beauty what it lacks in length, is Route 1, which encircles Iceland. It passes through mountainous terrain and skirts tiny fishing villages, stunning fjords and a glacial lagoon. One highlight is a magnificent 197-foot waterfall with the tongue-twisting name of Seljalandsfoss.
Travelers who prefer extended trips might consider Argentina's Ruta 40 (Route 40), which is one of the longest stretches of highway anywhere. It spans more than 3,000 miles and rises from sea level to a height of 16,000 feet. The route leads past pristine lakes and through 27 passes below the snow-capped peaks of the Andes mountain range.
A very different setting greets those who follow the Alaska Highway, which is almost 1,400 miles from end to end. Beginning in Canada, the route passes through the Rocky Mountains, descends to follow a river and offers glimpses of ghost towns reminiscent of prospectors who came to the area seeking gold in the late 19th century. Another attraction is the opportunity to spot black bears, moose, bison and Dall sheep from the road.
Those who seek shorter scenic drives also are in luck. The route that hugs the steep hills of the Amalfi Coast in Italy is only 30 miles long but is famous for passing through and above some of the most magnificent scenery anywhere. As it snakes along steep cliffs that rise out of the Mediterranean Sea, the narrow thoroughfare provides views of pastel-painted villages clinging to the hillsides and others nestled in deep valleys. The beauty of the scene has inspired artists and writers over the ages.
A shorter drive is the five-mile stretch of County Road 64 in Norway, known as the Atlantic Road. It crosses several small islands that are connected by causeways and roller-coaster bridges that twist, turn, rise and dip. Along with views of the open sea punctuated by tiny islands, the road presents a challenge when storm-driven waves crash over the bridges.
For the beauty of soaring mountains rather than seascapes there are the European Alps. The Route des Grandes Alpes (Road of the Big Alps) runs from Lake Geneva, Switzerland, to a seaside town near Nice, France. It traverses 17 of the highest mountain passes in Europe, so the road is open only between June and October, when the snow that blankets it has melted.
Some trips are memorable for attractions through which the route runs rather than the drive itself. History buffs enjoy the Via de la Plata (Silver Route) in Spain, which follows an ancient Roman road and offers access to villas, walls and other artifacts remaining from the second century B.C.
A sense of history also resides in castles that date back to medieval times. The Castle Trail leads visitors to 19 of more than 300 of those historic structures located in one region of Scotland. Balmoral Castle was built in 1390 and has been a residence of members of Britain's royal family since 1852. Castle Fraser, constructed over 60 years beginning in 1575, is one of the grandest fortresses in Scotland.
Whatever your interest — history, magnificent scenery or many other passions - it's likely there are driving trips to satisfy your curiosity and spirit of adventure.
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.