World's greatest drives: take the long way home

John Borthwick finds some of the world's most spectacular scenery sitting by the side of the road.

Adventure Before Dementia, jokes a bumper sticker sometimes seen on Australian campervans. At the wheel will probably be "grey nomads" spending their retirement - and their children's inheritance - doing "the Big Lap", a leisurely circuit of the country. The scene is repeated on almost every continent and not just by retirees. The highway is a grand canvas, a drive-in screen for our own epics, especially on these five great excursions.

(Photos: The world's greatest driving routes)

Hana Highway

Maui island, Hawaii

Driving the Hana Highway is like playing snakes and ladders on wheels. Down the beaches, up the ridges and shimmy along the escarpment. This tenacious trail clings to the north coast of Maui for 80 dramatic kilometres, crossing 56 one-lane bridges and twisting through 617 bends.

You start at Kahului and soon hit the sugar-and-big-surf town of Pa'ia. Being narrow, the Hana is, of necessity, a polite highway. One must constantly slow from a crawl to a halt, giving way with a wave to oncoming cars at narrow bridges. Waterfalls bloom beside the road, as do fruit stalls. The canopy that overhangs the highway seems more like a fruit salad than a jungle, its trees laden with mango, breadfruit, banana and ginger. Doves and mongooses flit and peck beneath them. Little wonder the area is known as Heavenly Hana.

This glorious road, carved out of the volcanic cliffs in the late 19th century, allows you brief glimpses of little villages like Wailua - red rooftops, church steeples, palm trees - before the forest closes in again. Eventually you reach the ranching village of Hana, surrounded by black-sand beaches and overseen by gothic, volcanic plugs. With no condos or high-rises, Hana is still easily recognisable as the lush place where Hawaiian nobles once came for healing and rest. Follow suit.

gohawaii.com/maui

Great Ocean Road

Victoria

The Great Ocean Road loops and swoops along the south coast of Victoria like some grand symphony. It starts at Torquay, south-west of Melbourne, and can end wherever you like.

The road was hewn from the cliffs and forests by returned soldiers between 1919 and 1932 and, fittingly, is a memorial to the Diggers who died in World War I.

Torquay is "surf city" thanks to the classic point waves of nearby Bells Beach, not to mention its surfwear manufacturers and Surf World museum. At Anglesea you find an odd golf course where kangaroos lounge on the greens like indolent caddies, although there is no record of anyone scoring a pouch-in-one.

Further on, the former whaling port of Apollo Bay is a good place to overnight. Then the Jurassic grandeur of the Otway Ranges enfolds you in a leafy tunnel of mountain ash, eucalypt and ferns. The next 130 kilometres to Port Fairy is known as the "Shipwreck Coast", thanks to some 80 major shipping disasters that have occurred there.

"If you're still standing, it's not blowing hard enough," they say about giant, 25-million-year-old limestone pillars called the Twelve Apostles, the road's most famous icons.

However, the route isn't all primal elements in battle. It soon slides gently through pastures and farmlands and into old sea-and-sealers towns like Warrnambool and Port Fairy. Here, over a drink, you might decide where the Great Ocean Road ends - 56 kilometres away at Portland? Or much further? If you're that kind of wanderer, it's that kind of road.

greatoceanrd.org.au

Big Sur

California

If the Great Ocean Road is a symphony, Central California's Big Sur might be a sonnet, such are its literary connections and its power to inspire. One great scribe who lived here, the novelist Henry Miller, described Big Sur as "the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look".

This section of coastal Highway One, running about 150 kilometres south of Carmel, may be almost a mythic trail but it is also a serpentine, cliff-hugging road that demands your total, down-to-earth attention.

Big Sur has no firm boundaries, although the highway between Carmel and San Simeon's Hearst Castle is the iconic stretch.

You know you're in it when you're snaking along a flank of the Santa Lucia Mountains with Pacific Ocean beaches far below, a burst-pillow fog rolling in and long-legged bridges spanning the coves before you.

The road climbs from near sea level to 300 metres then spirals down again.

Be sure to stop at the wayside lookouts in order to marvel at the jaw-dropping view without driving straight into it.

Between Carmel and San Simeon are two tiny towns, Lucia to the north and Gorda to the south. The name Big Sur, by the way, originated with the colonial Spanish calling the region "el pais grande del sur" (the big country of the south), which Anglos later bilingualised, bowdlerised and downsized to Big Sur.

bigsurcalifornia.org

Christchurch to Queenstown

South Island, New Zealand

One of the great unsung arias of world road travel is the 600-kilometre route that winds through the centre of New Zealand's South Island. Heading north from Queenstown - that paradise for adrenaline fiends - it insinuates itself amid the craggy, snow-capped vertebrae of the island's spine, the Southern Alps.

Through whistle-stop towns and hamlets with evocative names like Arrowtown, Cromwell, Omarama and Twizel, the Central Otago route is overshadowed by marzipan ranges and turquoise lakes.

The stunning blueness (attributed to a high mica content) of lakes like Pukaki and Tekapo is accentuated by them sitting amid a dish of diamond peaks and baize-green meadows.

So much natural grandeur needs a human counterpoint. New Zealand is always good for both, so look for the little white chapel beside Lake Tekapo and then, further north, at the farmer's fence that has been festooned with hundreds of abandoned shoes, boots and sandals. Why? Well, why not?

Take the drive slowly, allowing eight hours at least and enjoy this alpine alley's highlights, including Aoraki-Mount Cook, Australasia's highest peak (3754 metres) and the lush pastures of South Canterbury.

Despite a name that's fusty with Empire and earnestness, your destination, Christchurch, is a fun city - ride its antique trams and lounge by its little brook with Shakespearean pretensions, the Avon River.

centralotagonz.com

Pan American Highway

Lima, Peru to Santiago, Chile

This one is the truly epic performance, the road trip movie par excellence. The Pan American Highway, stretching from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego, might be 48,000 kilometres long but this section of 3000 kilometres is sufficient to test your endurance.

Slicing through sere coastal deserts and interspersed with river-mouth valley oases and fishing villages, the Carretera Panamericana runs parallel to and often in sight of the Pacific Ocean. The water is deep blue and deeply cold thanks to the Humboldt Current.

Four hundred kilometres south of Lima you skirt the extraordinary Nazca Lines with its huge and mysterious depictions of hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys and other forms scrawled across the desert floor.

You roll on across an empty, pastel landscape towards the Chilean border at Arica, there to confront the even longer-distance silence of the Atacama Desert.

The grandeur of the coastal ranges and seascape is broken by just one city, Antofagasta on the Tropic of Capricorn, before the lights of Santiago come into view, much later.

The last reel of a magical journey.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pan-American-Highway

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