5 exhilarating road trips to restore your faith in adventure
When I first began writing about cars, going on a road trip meant high adventure off the beaten track, going it alone, triumph over adversity, unexpected new friendships – and a world of discovery. Today, with the rise of convenient self-drive packages that take care of car hire, route planning, even your stop-offs, meals and photo opportunities along the route, the magic has faded a little.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can still enjoy the romance of being able to stick a pin in a dog-eared road atlas, throwing caution to the wind and a suitcase into the boot and simply to hit the road
For this kind of DIY, spontaneous road trip; all you need is a little imagination, some planning and a spirit of adventure. Within days – even on a budget – the thrill of the open road can be yours. But where to start? For many, Britain – boasting dramatic destinations such as wild Snowdonia, the craggy Peak District, the rolling Yorkshire Dales, rugged Cornwall and the towering Scottish Highlands – is the perfect launch pad. Its predictable driving conditions, spectacular variety of scenery and accommodation for all budgets further strengthen its suitability as a place to cut your road-trip teeth.
For the more adventurous – or those seduced by sunnier climes – France is the next rung up the DIY road trip ladder. Take a ferry or zip through the Channel Tunnel and within an hour or so some of Europe’s finest, often car-free, roads are at your disposal. From Calais, the entire continent is on your doorstep.
Here we showcase the world’s most exhilarating road trips, starting in Britain, moving on to France, Austria, and then some more challenging long-haul options to put you firmly back in the road-trip driving seat.
1. Snowdonia, Wales
Summary: A remote, 70-mile drive taking in mountains, pretty villages, coastline, moors and waterfalls.
How to do it: Tackle it in stages, breaking the trip with overnight stops along the way, allowing time to meander off-route. Start at surreal, pretty Portmeirion, a fantasy village dating from 1925, with plenty of its own accommodation. Head through charming Porthmadog and Tremadog, then Rhyd.
Join the A487 by the Oakeley Arms and left on to the A496 to Ffestiniog. The landscape becomes increasingly rugged and isolated as you climb from the village, but softens towards Betws-y-coed.
Park alongside the winding A4086 to admire towering 3,560ft Snowdon in the distance, from next to the waters of Llynnau Mymbyr and from the Llanberis Pass; the views are heart-stopping. Pause to climb Snowdon itself, on foot or by tourist train, before a 20-minute drive whisks you to muscle-bound Caernarfon Castle standing defiantly at the mouth of the river Seiont.
2. Hardknott Pass, Lake District
Summary: The signs at the entry to this challenging, high-rise road between Eskdale to the west and Wrynose Pass to the east say it all: “Extreme Caution. Narrow route. Severe bends.”
How to do it: This section is the icing on the cake on a zigzagging, DIY road trip that should also take in the “honeypot” areas of the Lake District, such as Windermere, Coniston Water and pretty villages such as Keswick and Grasmere.
For the main event, start at Little Langdale and warm up your motoring skills on twisting Wrynose Pass – you know you’ve reached even tougher Hardknott Pass when you see those signs – and then tackle the network of hairpin bends.
Stop frequently to catch your breath – and soak up the views. Eventually you reach the final, daunting descent, a test of driver, machine and brakes. When you reach the end, turn round and do it all again, the other way. Just for fun.
3. North Coast Drive, Northern Ireland
Summary: Starting at Belfast, 130 miles of craggy coast with the Giant’s Causeway.
How to do it: Heading north from Belfast, the M2/A2 kisses the coast and the Causeway Coast Route, past Carrickfergus Castle and Glenarm, where the landscape becomes increasingly wild. After isolated Garron Point turn left, climbing steeply into remote Glenariff Forest Park.
Drive on past mighty Tievebulliagh mountain, through the pretty towns of Cushendall and Cushendun, following signs to isolated Torr Head. Ballycastle harbour is followed by romantic, ruined Dunluce Castle… a mere curtain-raiser for mind-blowing Giant’s Causeway.
4. North Coast 500, Scotland
Summary: Touted as Scotland’s answer to Route 66, this atmospheric, circular tour is actually much more varied than its US cousin, uniting some of the Highlands’ most remote roads. Start at Inverness, venture up the craggy west coast then back via the rugged north and east coasts. Marvel at mountain, loch, castle and coast all the way.
How to do it: After Inverness you’re soon speeding past Loch Luichart with towering mountains all around, giving you a taste of the drama – and joyously twisting roads – to come. Enjoy untamed, windswept views of the Highlands between Ullapool and Durness, before Orkney raises its head from the choppy North Sea, and deserted roads carry you on to John O’Groats.
Navigating the single-track roads of the east coast, encounter the mysterious Grey Cairns of Camster – among Scotland’s oldest stone monuments – before tumbling back along the A99 past pretty Ackergill and back to Inverness.
Drive or fly to Inverness to find accommodation en route, breaking the 500 miles into day-sized chunks.
5. Snaefell Mountain Road, Isle of Man
Summary: The Isle of Man TT is the best-known motorcycle racing circuit in the world – and the best section of all is the fast, narrow A18 Mountain Road between Ramsey and Douglas, full of twists and turns to catch the unwary.
How to do it: Best tackled in the same direction that the racers do it, from the Ramsey Hairpin, marking the start of the ascent that takes you – in a series of snaking bends flanked by hedges – up to the TT viewing point known as Gooseneck, on a 90-degree right-hander. Things speed up from here as you encounter the straight, lofty Mountain Mile.
Then it’s a series of deft right-handers into the Bungalow, followed by evocatively named sections such as Hailwood’s Rise and Windy Corner before you plunge back down to earth at Douglas.