Highways to heaven: world's greatest drives

From a grand-prix circuit to the Arctic wilderness, we hug the corners on the world's most memorable day drives.

High road in Tibet

Driving 270 kilometres across the sky-high Tibetan Plateau from Lhasa to Gyantse is a lesson in altitude. First, the road takes you out of the Tibetan capital - past Chinese-built housing developments, along six-lane highways - and into a different Tibet, one with mud-brick farmhouses, horse-drawn carts, "good luck" ladders painted on rock faces and prayer flags fluttering on hillsides.

Then, after hugging the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which becomes the Brahmaputra in India, the climb begins: 20 kilometres of lazy loops leading up to Kampa Pass, 4978 metres above sea level. There you can have your photo taken, for a few yuan, astride an elaborately decorated yak, or beside a Tibetan mastiff wearing a yak-hair collar, overlooking the brilliantly turquoise Yamdrok-tso (one of Tibet's four sacred lakes), with the mountains of Bhutan in the background.

The descent to the lake is just as spectacular, like a gentle rollercoaster punctuated by stone villages, picnicking Tibetans and fields of yellow mustard flowers. Beyond the dusty outback town of Nangartse, a popular lunch spot, steep-sided gorges lead up to Karo-la Pass (5020 metres), where stalls selling crystals, Buddhas and framed photos of Chairman Mao try to distract you from the massive glacier creeping down a 7191-metre mountain almost to the edge of the road.

The landscape levels out after that - with nomads' tents and herds of yak dotting open grasslands - and though the monastery town of Gyantse is a worthy destination, seven scenic hours on the road are hard to beat.

As the Buddha himself once put it: "It's better to travel well than to arrive."

See helenwongstours.com.

- Louise Southerden


White-knuckle ride on the Amalfi Coast

Traversing Italy's Amalfi Coast might not be considered a "day drive" but it certainly takes that long with the constant pulling over to catch one's breath - figuratively and literally.

The striking beauty of the 50-kilometre cliff-hugging road has the power to cause passenger tears, near-death experiences and marriage breakups (of the road-trip variety). Well, it did for me.

Driving from Salerno to Sorrento, it starts swimmingly well with pretty vistas and ceramics at the first town of Vietri sul Mare. Five kilometres further, a crumbling watchtower welcomes us to the ancient fishing village of Cetara.

We happily abandon the car and get lost in a maze of steep stairs and alleys and get our feet wet at a shoreline stacked with little, coloured fishing boats.

But after the villages of Maiori and Minori, we've stopped high-fiving. If the roads aren't already narrow enough for motorists, shopkeepers spill their wares on to the road, stealing precious bitumen.

Heading inland up a steep, narrow, winding road to Ravello for the best views of the coast, our car almost topples down a ravine of lemon groves, urged on by a bus with only centimetres to pass. My wife wants to be rescued. Sniff, sniff. I want to be rescued.

For the spirited, there is the sparkle of the Mediterranean at the bottom of plunging cliffs with tiny beaches that cry out for you to stop, tiers of coloured houses perched on hills and the romantic towns of Amalfi and Positano to explore. Italy's most stunning coastline is one of the world best drives. Just add a little faith to the fuel mix.

See amalfitouristoffice.it.

- Rob Dunlop

Wild times at Yellowstone, US

It's a traffic jam, Wyoming-style - but instead of shouting abuse, drivers lean out car windows with glee, cameras snapping wildly. Oblivious to the kerfuffle, the protagonists - a herd of bison with heads the size of Honda hatchbacks - meander blithely between stationary vehicles, kings of the road in brute strength and by law.

It's encounters like this that make the drive from Jackson Hole to Yellowstone National Park such a memorable experience. In fact, the more stops forced by wayward bison, moose, elk, deer and bear, the better.

We begin our trip before dawn, heading north on the I-89. Photo opportunities appear thick and fast: a coyote crossing the road, magnificent in his nervous defiance; a herd of elk, shyly peeking from the trees; and nature's dance of seven veils as the sun pierces the mist, striking the craggy peaks of the Grand Tetons.

Named by French fur trappers with overactive imaginations, the Grand Tetons ("large teats") is one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world, perfect in symmetry and offering countless reflections on still waters. A diversion to Jenny Lake, outside the town of Moose, maximises the oohs and aahs before we hit the southern gateway of Yellowstone National Park, a pine-clad, geothermal cauldron of incredible diversity.

The lower loop road of the US's oldest national park provides optimum sightseeing opportunities - Old Faithful, ejaculating joyously every 90 minutes; acidic blue boiling pools surrounded by sulphurous carvings; and thundering waterfalls, rainbows illuminating the spray.

The round trip should take the best part of a day, depending on traffic hazards; or maximise the magic by stopping overnight in one of the historic lodges in the heart of the national park.

See yellowstonecountry.org; wyomingtourism.org.

- Julie Miller

France to Switzerland with a few twists

Pack your snowboard, the Sound of Music soundtrack, a bag of brie and hit the road for an alpine journey from Chamonix to Verbier. This 58-kilometre northerly road trip boasts the "triple whammy" factor. Not only does the D1506 join two world-class ski resorts, it has an avalanche of history and classic alpine scenery at every turn.

And there are many turns, the road snaking its way though the heart of the Alps, striking the Swiss town of Martigny before slithering up to Verbier.

Busting out of Chamonix, the road passes the hamlets of Argentiere and Vallorcine, flirting with the Swiss border before taking the plunge at Le Chatelard-Frontiere.

At tiny Trient, take a break on the Relais Mont Blanc terrace. At this point you're in the epicentre of the Alps, where rocky mountains fold in upon themselves like granite tissues.

The Trient glacier drips towards the valley floor and orchestras of cow bells provide a symphonic element to this movie-scene setting.

Immediately after Trient, the route zigzags towards the 1500-metre Col de la Forclaz, a track forged by smugglers and war refugees fleeing France. These paths are now used by trekkers and the eagle-eyed will spy yellow arrows directing Camino pilgrims to Santiago in Spain, 1700 kilometres away.

Vertiginous switchbacks lead 17 kilometres down to the 2000-year-old town of Martigny, before pushing back up to the snowy paradise of Verbier. As one adventure ends, another one begins.

- Flip Byrnes

Arctic Scandinavia on ice

You don't have to be a cross-country skier to explore the snow-covered wilderness of Arctic Scandinavia but you will need winter tyres to steer clear of the reindeer.

At the beginning of May in Swedish Lapland the daylight hours are long and the landscape is dressed in snow.

The town of Kiruna, famous for its Ice Hotel, has a modest airport and ample supply of rental cars. The route north-west along E10 eventually reaches the fiords of Norway, climbing gradually through valleys and mountain ranges en route. For more than 50 kilometres, the highway bends along the frozen shores of Lake Torne, a massive body of water that sits in silence through the winter.

Small huts dot the lake's edge, ready to be dragged out into the open where the locals can drill holes in the ice and go fishing.

Abisko National Park claims a small strip of the lakefront and the Abisko Mountain Station provides shelter for excursions deeper into the wilderness. In winter this is the most reliable place in Europe to view the northern lights.

A lunch stop at Abisko provides a stunning view from the restaurant, or short walks along snow trails.

The ski-resort village of Riksgransen is one more opportunity for food and fuel before leaving Sweden.

Once you cross into Norway the road descends to sea level with views of rugged fiords framed by snow-capped mountains. All this without even leaving the driver's seat.

See visitscandinavia.com.au; www.abisko.nu.

- Ewen Bell

Slow climb to Darjeeling

The Eastern Himalayas rise in a parade of towering blue-green peaks from the city of Siliguri, the last stop on India's steamy Bengal plains before you ascend to the cooler climes of Darjeeling.

In 1835 the British established a hill station at Darjeeling, 2128 metres above sea level, so wilting Europeans could escape Calcutta's sweltering summers.

But getting there wasn't easy: it took an army of men more than four years of hacking through virgin forests to build the road from Siliguri, which was completed in 1842.

At Bagdogra Airport, near Siliguri, we hire a local taxi ($25 one-way) for the 80-kilometre journey. The potholed road twists through dense jungle, climbs unbelievably steep gradients, passes a picturesque procession of tea gardens and winds through villages where houses are suspended on the almost-vertical mountains above and below the road.

Along the sides of the road are the 610-millimetre-wide narrow-gauge tracks of the World Heritage-listed "Toy Train", built in 1879, which staggers up the steep mountains on its nine-hour journey to Darjeeling.

After an hour on the road we stop at Selim Hill Tea Estate, one of 87 tea plantations in the region, where the temperature has already dropped a refreshing 10 degrees.

Back on the road, which is congested with trucks, jeeps, cows, goats and people, our driver navigates according to what seems a strict local code, tooting at corners and backing up when the road is too narrow for two cars to pass - which is frequently.

We drive at a snail's pace across the debris left by several landslides - gangs of women clear what debris they can, hauling huge rocks from the road.

While it's nerve-racking at times, the drive to Darjeeling is a singular experience. In a few scenic hours you are transported from an India of chaotic cities, dusty villages and rice paddies to a captivating land where the locals - Nepalese, Tibetans, Lepchas and Bhutanese - live on the top of the world.

- Sandy Guy

Fairytale Germany

If you like the sound of picture-book Bavarian towns surrounded by medieval walls and guard towers, take a spin along Germany's Romantic Road.

The Romantische Strasse, as it's called in German, meanders for 350 kilometres between the towns of Wurzburg and Fssen. Along the way it takes in a string of ancient towns and cities - separated by vineyards, forests and river valleys - before ending in the Alps.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a fairytale town with lashings of atmosphere and it's worth spending a few nights here. As well as one of the best Christmas markets in Germany, it has narrow cobbled streets, half-timbered buildings and even a medieval torture museum.

Further south is enchanting Dinkelsbuhl. Stroll through the narrow streets with their colourful houses and wander beside the old city walls guarded by 18 watchtowers.

Another highlight of this former medieval trading route lies even further south - the spectacular Schloss Neuschwanstein.

This striking 19th-century Bavarian palace perched on top of a forested hill inspired the romantic castle in Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty - a fairytale end to a romantic drive.

- Marc Llewellyn

Monaco daydream

It's the final lap and Jenson Button is looming ominously in your rear-view mirror.

You change down to second and scream around the hairpin. Up through the gears and around the tricky right-hander.

The chequered flag is in sight. Button tries to pass, you hold him off, you cross the line, the crowd goes wild.

Commentators around the world scream into their microphones: "It's the upset of the season. An unknown Aussie driving a Citroen C3 rental car has won the Monaco Grand Prix. They'll be talking about this drive for years to come."

Tackling a genuine formula-one circuit is every driver's dream. And where better to live out this fantasy than on the streets of Monaco, a tiny principality at the foot of France that comes alive every May for its annual fixture on the motorsport calendar.

The hairdryer-like whine of your 80kW Citroen might not match the mechanical scream of a formula-one car but you can still get a taste of what it must be like to roar through the famous Monaco tunnel at 270km/h.

Along the 3.3-kilometre street circuit you'll see many of Monaco's most famous sights: the rows of outrageously decadent boats in its sparkling harbour, the Charles Garnier-designed Monte Carlo Casino and streets peppered with Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis.

Bear in mind that several formula-one drivers live here so if you see an Aston Martin with the number plate JB1 looming ominously in your rear-view mirror, it's probably best to let him pass.

See visitmonaco.com.

- Rob McFarland

Photos: World's greatest drives