California’s Big Sur and Australia’s Great Ocean Road may get all the headlines when it comes to coastal driving but they’re not the only places where you can lose yourself in spectacular scenery, glowing sunsets and glistening surf.
The following routes are equally impressive and also offer quirky cultural experiences, great food and the irresistible charm of the road less travelled.
Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland
For a taste of Ireland’s wild and rugged hills, glorious beaches, ancient heritage sites and world-renowned surf, try the 2500km Wild Atlantic Way (wildatlanticway.com). This scenic route along the west coast takes in a hugely diverse range of attractions, from the towering cliffs at Slieve League to the unique karst scenery of The Burren and the epic landscapes of the Ring of Kerry. There are countless mesmerising beaches and plenty of surf schools all along the coast but for big wave action Mullaghmore Head and the legendary Aileen’s waves, which swell off the Cliffs of Moher, are the ones to catch.
Alternatively, take a hot and slippery dip in Enniscrone‘s traditional seaweed baths, visit the Stone Age Céide Fields, or take a boat trip to Skellig Michael, a 6th-century monastic site on a jagged sea crag. Westport, Galway, Doolin and Dingle are all famed for their traditional pubs where you can nurse a pint and enjoy an impromptu session of live traditional music, or you could just gorge on traditionally smoked salmon, farmhouse cheeses and fresh oysters along the way.
Gaspésie Tour, Québec, Canada
Rich colonial history, quaint fishing villages, superb scenery and some of the world’s finest lobster make Québec’s weather-beaten Gaspé Peninsula an excellent option for a road trip. The 1026km Gaspésie Tour (quebecmaritime.ca/en/road-trips-and-getaways/the-gaspesie-tour) runs right around the peninsula and – with the exception of July and August – is near deserted. Bucolic villages and grand towns such asRivière-du-Loup are reminiscent of old France but the peninsula’s character is far more complex, with traces of Basque and Portuguese settlers as well as English, Scottish and Irish fugitives, all of whom came here for the rich fishing.
There are whale watching tours and kayaking trips available all along the coast while caribou, moose and black bears roam the wildlife reserves of the forested interior. Colourful lighthouses line the route and Canada’s tallest can be found in Forillon National Park, a spectacular place with craggy sea cliffs and a striking coastline. Nearby is one of Canada’s best-known landmarks, the Rocher Percé (Pierced Rock), a massive chunk of limestone which points the way to raucous Île Bonaventure, one of the largest bird sanctuaries in the world. Take a boat trip, listen to some rollicking Acadian music, trawl the cliffs for fossils at Parc de Miguasha or just dine on a deck overlooking the sea.
Norway’s fjords and islands
An epic trip through some of Scandinavia’s most dramatic landscapes, the 1039km route from the tip of the Lofoten Islands to the Arctic Ocean reveals the majesty of Norway’s far north. Life here is dictated by the mountains and the sea, the extreme fluctuations in temperature and light, and a landscape so rugged it demands respect. Start your journey in Å among the razor-edged peaks of the magnificent Lofoten Islands, a magical place where mountains rise directly from the sea and deep fjords cleave the land. Sculptural wooden drying racks and artists’ galleries line colourful fishing villages while the lonely hills and deserted beaches beg to be explored.
Heading north, the route winds its way around mountains, fjords and windswept beaches revealing big sky views and a landscape virtually untouched by humans. Two worlds collide in Alta where you’ll find a titanium-clad cathedral as well as Stone Age carvings incised into the cliffs. As you continue north the scenery becomes increasingly wild and barren – reindeer meander along the road, the forest thins and waterfalls tumble down cliffs en route to Nordkapp where, looking out over the Barents Sea, you’ll be closer to the North Pole than to Oslo.
Pan-American Highway, southern Peru
Avoid the panpipes and ponchos of Peru’s tourist hotspots and drive through the coastal desert between Lima and Tacna instead. This 1330km section of the Pan-American Highway is squeezed between Andean peaks and Pacific rollers and takes in Inca history, wildlife reserves and world-renowned wineries along the way. It’s a route that feels like an epic road trip without any hazards – assuming you fuel up wherever you can and avoid driving after dark.
Start off in Lima for your fill of colonial architecture, museums and contemporary art before heading to Lunahuaná for river rafting and wine tasting. Take a side trip to the Illas Ballestas, a writhing morass of sea lions, pelicans, penguins and boobies, or visit the mysterious Nazca Lines and Tambo Colorado, an early Inca site. You could go sandboarding at Huacachina or just chill in tiny Chala, the most alluring of the little fishing villages that dot the coast. A short detour toArequipa offers fine food and grand baroque-mestizo buildings or head straight to lush Moquegua, an attractive colonial town famous for its wine production. From here it’s just a short hike to tax-free Tacna on the Chilean border.
Adriatic Coast, Croatia
Famed for its pebbly beaches, clear waters, myriad islands and historic cities, Croatia’s long coastline is an idyllic place to drive. Olive plantations and farmers’ roadside stalls flank the road, mountains plunge into the sea and stunning views are revealed with every hairpin bend. It’s 746km from the cobbled alleys and hidden piazzas of charming Rovinj to Dubrovnik, Croatia’s star attraction. Although Istria in the north is well developed, its historic towns feature well-preserved Roman ruins such as the amphitheatre in Pula. Kvarner Gulf’s coastal hills are dotted with traditional fishing villages and grand towns such as Opatija with its belle époque villas.
Heading south the scenery gets increasingly dramatic and medieval towns such as Zadar and Šibenik cling to the shore. Hop on a ferry to one of the islands for easy-going charm and sandy beaches or head inland for hiking and biking with panoramic views. You can wander the historic streets of buzzing Split and explore the incredible Diocletian’s Palace, visit the towering gorge at Omiš, or sample fine wines and succulent oysters on the gloriously laid-back Pelješac Peninsula. Finally, roll up to Dubrovnik, a breathtakingly beautiful city that makes the perfect end to the journey.