It's a given: the greatest drives have always been around the Alps of Europe, where, consequently, the best-handling cars are developed and tested. But the Alps need not be the only venue.
A personal favorite was a 250-kilometer trip from Imperia by the Ligurian Coast, up the Strada Statale 28 (SS28) and down into Turin, savoring half of the route of the famous San Remo Rallye through cliff-hugging hamlets and mountain springs that irrigate much of the produce for the Slow Food Movement. Ironically, I suspect that trip was more fun because I was dicing with a briskly driven Ford Orion in my underpowered 1990 1100cc Fiat Tipo. That was only part of the week-long journey that took me through the fog-bound Autostrade in Emilia-Romagna, uphill against the rush of flood waters around Firenze, and a wonderful but short drive from Bergamo to Venezia, then doubling back into the Val d'AOsta to continue into Switzerland. There, I switched to an Opel Omega and went up through every Swiss mountain road as demanding as the Furka Pass.
But as political correctness overtakes Europe, any kind of fun will soon be just a pleasant memory. Much of SS28 today has been Euro-homogenized—curves made flatter, inclines made gentler—to make it safer and, unfortunately, less fun. Even a German's constitutional right to drive as fast as one wants to on the de-restricted sections of the Autobahn will no longer be sacrosanct as homogeneity directives of the Big Bro European Union creep through all its 27 nations.
Britain has that magical spell where even pottering around the Cotswolds in a rusty Alfasud in '84 and in a Citroen Bx in '87 was fun enough. Poetry was in the scenery at the Lake District onward to the Yorkshire Dales and into frozen Aberdeen in Scotland in an '88 Ford Sierra, then to Canterbury in a Ford Scorpio.
Across the Channel, Normandy has that picturesque quality that made Gothic cathedral hopping in a Renault R5 fun in '89. Back in Italy, it was tossing between Assisi in Umbria to Portofino in the Amalfi Coast in a '92 Renault Clio.
Even in this 21st century, there is more to Spain than naranjas and tapas y vino. Its landscapes look imported by the Moors from the Maghreb, with coastal forests and mountains with spectacular views of the Med, as one continues on an adventure from one medieval hamlet to another. Enjoying Europe doesn't always mean passing through the playgrounds of the plutocrats like the environs of Maranello, the Ascari race circuit, or Monte Carlo.
There are other places for fun drives. Many have done the Interstates of the United States, anywhere in between Las Vegas and San Diego, the levees of Mississippi, the Berkshires, the Tennessee mountains and the Rockies, and even the Thelma and Louise cruise—top down under a starlit, Montana evening sky. Sure 65 mph on thousands of miles of federal concrete ribbons suck, but in the land of the free, there is more freedom to have fun on private property.
What the mountain highways in the Andes do not have in decent paving, they make up with danger and excitement lurking with every change of weather or marauding bandits.
In the Middle East and Gulf States, rushing the dunes in localized Nissan Patrols is quite an experience, but there are other ways to enjoy the Gulf.
And there's the land of smiles, usually breezed through from the window of a tourist coach. There's more to Thailand than tom yang gum soup, glass noodles, jasmine rice, massages, and shopping. There is always the Royal option.
So, what makes for a great drive? It's the satisfaction of all the senses. It need not be a constant high, but a series of compensating peaks when tactile, visceral, visual, aural, and taste climaxes take their turns, as these five road trips reveal.
The scenic route to Adelaide
Route: Barossa Valley to Adelaide, Australia
Distance: 167 km
Highlights Barossa Valley is one of Australia's most famous wine-producing regions. Located in the south, it is bordered by tall trees with a vista of hills shorn by grazing livestock.
Detour through the valley's back roads and be prepared to negotiate a mix of paved and unpaved roads snaking through vineyard estates, long flat straights, and mountain roads.
Be also prepared to ford shallow creek beds as bridges in the back roads are few and far between.
On the approach to Adelaide, you'll see a lot of buildings still in the colonial architectural style, punctuated by newer and more modern structures like the convention center and the Festival theatre by the river Torrens.
At journey's end
Adelaide once hosted the Australian Grand Prix both in 1985 and 1995. Hand prints of the drivers in concrete still mark the path of the street circuit today, a la Hollywood Walk of Fame. While much of the motorsport has moved on to other regions, it's still possible to re-drive the good ‘ol days today.
Best enjoyed in Range Rover Evoque
What better way to zoom across wine country than in a stylish Range Rover. The smallest and most exciting Range Rover yet, the Evoque blends urban —style with off-road ability. Terrain response combined with high clearance makes it suitable for the occasional off-road jaunt, while wide tires and MagneRide suspension keep it glued to the asphalt. Plush interiors make it hard to leave the vehicle.
It's got: a bold urban look paired with off-road ability.
It's not a gas guzzler either, with a two-liter turbo producing 240 hp.
Winter posing in Andaluz
Route: Marbella to Sotogrande, Spain
Distance: 60.7 km
The Modena Spyder or 911 Cabrio are not so exotic here, and come in the same dark gray metallic color as the 30 coupes prowling the mountains of Andalusia and coasts around Malaga.
New vehicles are often debuted here, with the climate and the road conditions offering more latitude to appreciate a car's abilities than the wet and/ or freezing conditions in more Northern climates.
Get a car that can manage tight parking spaces in Marbella, and still cut through the twisty road from the olive farm of Molinos de las Pilas to Cartama.
Enjoy high speeds on Spain's lightly trafficked autopistas, highways reserved for cars travelling at least 60 kmh. Proceed with caution on the twisting narrower mountain A-roads and N-dual carriageways—with occasional tractors merging in at 40 kmh, or even coming to a full stop to let the odd shepherd cross the road with his flock of sheep.
West of Ronda in Malaga, speed through endless twisting and deserted roads, sewing together the peaks of the Sierra Bermeja, without missing the view of the sun glinting off the Mediterranean Sea at 1,100 meters below.
A journey's end
With great food and really kind people—and of course the sheer pleasure of being able to drive to the extreme—why not make this place home? Now what was the Spanish line that the Austrian-descent governor of California used to say in his movies?
Best enjoyed in Ferrari California Handling Speciale
Seemingly born for locales like Andaluz, the California is the prancing horse's seminal convertible offering. It's equipped with a mechanically folding hard top that stows in the trunk. A front-mounted V8 will propel it to loo kmh in just four seconds. The Handling Speciale package throws in Magnetorheological dampers, which quicken the response to driver inputs.
It’s got: everything you loved about a Ferrari minus the roof.
It's not: a slouch either, with a top speed of 310 kmh.
Rally in Waldi
Route: Muscat to Wadi Dayqah, Oman
Distance: 117 in km
Wadis are like dry river beds hemmed by steep cliffs. Snaking throughout Oman's landscape of shifting tectonic rock, the cliff-edged wadis can channel the wind at extreme knots.
The dams upstream open up the sluice gates whenever the skies decide to over-soak the mountains upstream. This leads to floods rushing down the convoluted path of the wadi at subsonic speed.
We had to take care on some curves as pebbles spray sideways on fast cornering.
Most paved highways here are like the EU's. Even these rocky paths—in the middle of nowhere—were properly sign-posted and some even had cop-operated traffic lights.
4WD in low range was a necessity at a few testing rock climbs and to process through the wade-able portion of the stream. SUVs can slip and slide through the red earth and loose gravel sections.
On the way back, enjoy the vista at a height of 862 meters of a white-washed city and a motorway cutting through it.
At journey's end
I felt and looked like Sebastian Loeb keeping the time fault points low on one of those World Rally Championship stages. Never could such a bumpy ride be so full of fun.
Best enjoyed in Porsche Cayenne Turbo S
At home both on and off-road, the Porsche Cayenne will serve as excellent transport from the hotel all the way through the wadis. It ably adjusts to any road condition, with adaptive air suspension that lowers the vehicle to the ground at high speeds. On rough roads, it can be raised to avoid boulders and rocks. Off-road essentials like fully locking differentials and a very low gear can be accessed by the press of a button. Luxurious fittings inside make sure no feathers are ruffled in the process.
It's got: all the abilities of a sports car and truck rolled into one.
It's not: shy about getting dirty, or even wading a few feet in water.
The last Autobahn rush
Distance: 680 km
Blanket speed limits haven't come to Germany yet, so better savor it while it lasts.
You'll pass the typical truck-infested feeder roads before you join the rush of traffic on the Autobahn A9. Here you'll see the great North German plain, flattened by Baltic winds and peppered with gazillions of wind-generating farms.
The Autobahn A9's speed-limited sections were meant, ostensibly, to save the forest or assist insects' mating season.
Look out for the "Bride" diagonal slash disc signifying total freedom from speed restrictions.
Be on the lookout for high-visibility polizei radar vans on restricted sections and surveillance-by-proximity video cameras looking for drivers who tailgate on the 130km/h zones.
On the way to Dresden, I diverted through forest roads glowing orange in the autumn sun to reach the picturesque moat side of Moritzburg castle, once a hunting lodge of Saxon royalty.
At journey's end
The weather favored pedal to the metal on the de-restricted zones. Soon, it's not going to be easy or legal to do this anymore in a PC-homogenized Europe.
Best Enjoyed in Audi R8 Vio
No car is better built for the Autobahn than the R8. Its mid-mounted 5.2-liter Vio can propel the vehicle from o-ioo km/h in just 3.9 seconds, while its all-wheel drive system keeps constant traction, even in adverse conditions. Despite its sporty inclination, the R8 is both luxury and sport in one vehicle. The optional Bang & Olufsen in-car entertainment system will drown out any unpleasantries. Though if desired, just a press of a button will transform the ride from lofty to firm and focused.
It's got: potent power, traction, and a luxurious ride all rolled into one.
It's not: a compromise of comfort in favor of performance anymore.
His majesty's parks and drives
Route: Pattaya to Muang Boran, Thailand
Distance: 324 km
The route covered dual carriageway and winding uphill roads through the cool 2,165 km2 Khao Yai National Park in Thailand. The rest, through the King's nature sanctuary, was on roads like Route 331 where the verdant scenery of Kabin Buri buzzed by.
With Bangkok being a flood-prone river delta, the King's solution was to build a grid-like network of elevated freeways, just like in Los Angeles.
The roads, like Korea's and Japan's, are smooth with wide radius curves and ergo, not so challenging. This is all the more significant as the Thai's common personal transport are pick-up trucks.
The luxury golf resorts are a subtle reminder that being a monarchy, the Kingdom has to look after its nobility (the Generals) during peace time. Instead of jousting, the typical ASEAN General has taken to golf.
The Ancient City of Muang Boran is a pastiche microcosm of Thailand. Here, accurate life-sized facsimiles of royal palaces, shrines, assembly halls, markets, and fishing villages from all over the kingdom and from past dynasties are recreated using the preserved crafts indigenous to the region.
At journey's end
This delectable, though abbreviated, self-drive itinerary is enough to learn about Thailand's rich history. The country's growing car market has given birth to excellent out-of-town destinations and the pursuit of leisure as a break from a hectic weekday.
Best enjoyed in BMW M5
Whether chauffer- or self-driven, the new M5 is sure to indulge with its much tamer styling and plush interiors. The move from a Vio to a V8 has done little to emasculate it. In fact it is much more potent now, as with just a press of the Sport button, it shifts to super car performance, blazing past any Ferraris and Porsches that didn't bother to give it a second look.
It’s got: a new stealthier style and the luxury to match.
It's not: bad as a limo, but is even better when driven.
Photos courtesy of Inigo S. Roces, David Celdran, Ferrari, BMW, Land Rover, Oman Ministry of Tourism, Porsche, Audi, and the Thai Tourism Board
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 6 2012.