Whether it’s a winding mountain road at 5,325 metres’ elevation in India or a highway 86 metres below sea level in the blistering heat of California’s Mojave Desert, wanderlust can take travellers along some pretty spectacular routes. Here are eight of the great:
Milford Sound, New Zealand: The fairytale-like landscape of narrow, 15-kilometre-long Milford Sound makes it New Zealand’s most scenic fiord. Getting there by itself is an experience. The route leads through the Fiordland National Park and along one of the country’s most spectacular roads. Starting from Te Anau, the Milford Road—officially the SH 94—winds for 120 kilometres through alpine mountains. A highlight along the way is Mirror Lake, perfectly reflecting the tall peaks all around.
Manali-Leh Highway, India: This highway through the Himalayas is literally breathtaking. Starting from the holiday town of Manali, the road winds through the mountains for nearly 500 kilometres, crossing four lofty passes along the way, including the Lachulung (5,059 metres) and Tanglang La (5,325). The highway links Himachal Pradesh, where the people are Hindu, with the Indian Buddhist region of Ladakh.
Col de la Bonette, France: It may not be as high as the Himalayan passes, but this road in the French Alps is spectacular all the same. The Col de la Bonette, at 2,802 metres, holds the record as being the highest-elevation asphalt-paved road. Between Jausier and Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée the route takes in two passes—the Col des Restefond (2,608 metres) and the Col de la Bonette.
Garden Route, South Africa: The landscape along the southern tip of Africa is so beautiful that the first European explorers and settlers compared it to the biblical Garden of Eden. That’s how the Garden Route got its name. National highway 2 runs 770 kilometres from Capetown to Port Elizabeth. The rich variety and quick changes of scenery are breathtaking. Here, rugged, steep cliffs along the coast. There, a semi-desert region with white sandy beaches populated by penguins. Further along, vineyards and small colonial-era towns alternate with dense virgin forests, home to hordes of monkeys and rainbow-coloured hummingbirds.
Pacific Highway 101, USA: Highway 101 runs along the Pacific coast, connecting Los Angeles with Olympia, Washington nearly 2,500 kilometres to the north. Along the way to San Francisco, there is the 100-kilometre-long stretch known as Big Sur, considered to be one of the world’s most scenic coastal roads. As if designed by landscape architects, it’s a setting of isolated bays, steep cliffs with craggy pines and boulders, and beaches that are a dream for surfers from around the world. For decades the region has been a magnet for hippies and beatniks, and artists and writers.
Karakorum Highway, Pakistan and China: This road of mountain passes is one of superlatives, connecting Pakistan’s capital Islamabad with Kashgar, one of the ancient o asis towns along the old Silk Road in western China. The 1,284-kilometre road leads over the world’s second-highest mountain range and past such spectacular peaks as the Nanga Parbat (8,126 metres) and Mustagh Ata and Rakaposhi (over 7,000 metres). The highest point, and border crossing, is Khunjerab Pass (4,693 metres). On the way down, the highway passes through the western portion of the Taklamakan, the planet’s second-largest sand desert.
Death Valley, USA: For those who like it hot, Death Valley in California’s Mojave Desert is the place to be. This past summer the thermometer hit 54 degrees celsius, still 3 degrees shy of the all-time record set in 1913. As high as the temperature readings are, the altitude readings are the lowest in North America, at 86 metres below sea level. The statistics alone aren’t the reason for this road’s fascination, but rather the contrasts: here, the hot, austere desert, and there, at the end of it, the glitter of Las Vegas with its water fountains, air-conditioned gambling casinos, hotels, restaurants and noisy entertainment palaces.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia: There is no set route through Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt desert, so hiring a guide is a must. Those who don’t want to drive can book a safari in the small town of Uyuni and for the next several days witness an unreal landscape. The endless white expanse of sand is punctuated only now and then by small rocky islands, topped by tall cactuses. Although it is 3,653 metres up, the Uyuni is blistering hot by day - only to drop below freezing at night. One can get warm in one of the geothermal springs near the shores of the salt lakes, where the waters are sometimes a shimmering green, then a deep red. And you may not believe your eyes when gigantic flocks of pink flamingos strut through the water.