My best vacations require a long scenic drive, whether my own car or a rental car (manual preferred), with lots of random side stops along the undetermined route to explore deeper and get a more authentic experience of the town, state, or country. It’s important to try the local roads over the highways, because you’ll just miss all the architecture, local shops, food and people. The trick is not to have a set itinerary, be flexible with your time and what activities you want to do, this will open up plenty of options when you discover them on the road, with no time restrictions.
What makes a great drive? I am always looking for well paved roads that have a lot of twists and bends with elevation changes, either along the coast line, a cliff, or a mountain side. Being able to scale a mountain and look down 3,000 feet is awe inspiring, while driving along a cliff knowing if you don’t pay attention, you could easily be at the bottom of the cliff in a mangled wreckage, will keep your heart at a high pace. The speed of the drive is relative to the contours of the landscape. It’s more fun to take a slower car and pushing it to the limit, than having to take a fast sports car and idling around a bend. If you really want to experience full control, either drive your own manual car or rent a manual car outside the States.
I will try my best to describe my top favorite drives around the world in order starting from the best. I will be available for hire as an international driver if anyone is interested!
Switzerland – Italy
Switzerland is a beautiful quaint country surrounded by mountain ranges including the Swiss Alps in the south. I rented a Ford Ka from Zurich Airport and my destination was Zermatt, a ski resort on the south end of Switzerland embedded in the Swiss Alps, and also where you can see the famous Matterhorn. Unprepared, I had no offline maps of the roads, all I had was a cached map of the major highways on my iPhone with GPS signal. What should’ve been a 3 hour drive on highways, I ended up on local roads for 8 hours before finally arriving at my destination. I couldn’t have been happier, I was able to cruise incredibly windy roads, awe at the massive mountain ranges in the distance, explore closed roads, cross dozens of tunnels, ask locals for directions, and ride car trains through a mountain.
During my stay, I noticed on the map how close Lake Como, Italy was from Zermatt. I had seen it on a Travel Channel show and never thought I’d had a chance to visit such a prestigious sounding location. It was close enough that I took another car train through the tunnel and ended up in Italy, went through a small customs booth, and was on my way to Lake Como for lunch! The highway signs were easy enough to read, and once in town, having GPS on a cached map of the town made it much easier to get in and out. While it’s beautiful to drive along the lake, it was a little unnerving for the locals to drive at such fast speeds for roads that barely fit two cars. Another reason why it’s best to rent a small compact in Europe.
The long, diverse scenery and landscape, perfectly paved roads, and crisp winter air makes this my best drive ever. See route here
Pacific Coast Highway
I had two weddings in the same week, one in San Francisco, the other in Los Angeles. I decided to rent a car and try the famous PCH along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, hence the name. Many tour guides suggest spending at least 3 days on the road to really enjoy all the sights, I decided to just take one day. I started out with a 5-hour energy drink and left San Francisco at 1pm. Driving south is the preferred way since you’ll be one lane closer to the edge, which also means a better view. It’s an extremely sunny drive, as the sun is over the ocean with nothing to block it from your car with the exception of an occasional tree. The endless curves and elevation changes along the cliff make this the most exciting drive in terms of danger factor. This is not for the faint of heart. The only thing between you and the cliff is sometimes a guard rail, and sometimes just a little pile of dirt wall. You will also have to make sure you are prepared for just one or two stops at most for bathroom or gas, since there is literally nothing there but the road. The drive is stunning and exciting, mostly views of cliffside and ocean which is the complete opposite of the steep mountain ranges of Switzerland. It took me about 9 hours to reach Hollywood, including a few stops for pictures along the road and lunch at Big Sur. See route here
This was my first major drive outside of the country and my first international car rental, which means manual only. I had only tried driving manual twice before, but spent a lot of time behind my Logitech G25 wheel and driving simulators. I rented a Nissan pickup truck for photography purposes, it was very easy to drive and I was out of the airport in no time. People say it only takes a day to really learn stick, well, driving in a foreign country with intense traffic will really teach you how to drive! Half way through my trip I was already multi-tasking with taking video while driving. Drivers on islands are aggressive but expected, I can easily adapt. I had unintentionally booked a hotel 6 hours away from the airport, but it would be worth it because it was hidden in the middle of nowhere with beautiful panoramic view from the balcony. I followed my Garmin GPS with only a low resolution main highway to guide me. I got lost so many times in the local towns, but it all became part of the experience. Speeding down long stretches of highways between towns, I had to be cautious of the speed bumps they put in place at the beginning of every town to make sure cars slow down. These are not your ordinary speed bumps, if you sped through it, your car would be totalled! There were plenty of road signs riddled with bullet holes, and traffic offiers wielding shotguns. Having a car allows for the best exploration opportunities. I found local lakes to photograph in, local beaches, and even local eateries at the beach where you can get chicken and rice. I would take that over a fancy resort restaurant any day. I will always remember this drive as a long, difficult, but immensely rewarding drive. See route here
I’ve been to Puerto Rico a handful of times, I’ve become familiar with San Juan and I needed to explore other locations. Two great drives in Puerto Rico are to Cayey and El Yunque National Forest. Cayeye is known for their lechon, so just driving through town you will stop by many lechoneras where you pull up, have a seat, and order some roasted pork, rice and yuca. Anywhere you drive in Puerto Rico will have lots of curved roads and elevation changes, but driving through El Yunque is a great experience in itself. It’s practically a drive-thu rain forest, with stops along the way for hiking opportunities and water falls. The roads are perfectly paved and there are plenty of steering action here. One of the most rewarding things to do after a long drive is pulling up to a food stand or shack and just order up what the locals are eating, quick and cheap, and you can be on your way or park and walk around. Driving in Puerto Rico is easy because it’s part of the U.S., so all traffic signs and laws are the same. See route here
Nürburgring – Autobahn
The infamous Ring is every car enthusiast’s dream track to set foot and rubber on. It’s a 13 mile track with major elevation changes and long stretches at top speeds which end in first and second gear turns. I made sure I practiced as much as possible in Gran Turismo 5 to memorize landmarks and get a feel of what gear to be in. The track is considered a public road, so any vehicle that pays the toll may enter, anything from motorcycles to exotic super cars to tour buses. I paid 29 Euros per lap with my rental Opel Meriva, a slow 5-speed hatch and pushed it as hard as possible for 4 laps and called it a day, then had a nice lunch right outside the track. I know I could’ve gone all day on the Ring but I will save that for next time when I rent a better car.
I have to admit with a slow car, driving on the Autobahn was very tedious and boring for 5 hours from Munich to Nurburg. The Germans drive very well and always follow correct lane change procedures. I did enjoy more twisty roads in Nurburg from my hotel to the track, with early morning fog and sun shining through the trees. See route here
The actual drive from LA to Palm Springs isn’t very eventful, just highways until you get closer to the desert, then you are treated with a landscape full of wind turbines on the mountains. As you drive further into Palm Springs and towards the mountains, you will start to climb up to about 2,000 feet and you’ll really get a nice view of the desert. You can also drive through their park with a few twisty roads to reach some hiking grounds. This would be the first time I’ve ever driven a convertible with a Volvo C90. I was hooked after that and had to get myself a convertible. See route here
Skyline Drive is a famous road for motorcylists in Virginia, carving a road through the Shenandoah National Park. The scenery is pretty, with a lot of hiking trails with waterfalls and places to eat. While it’s a pretty and relaxing drive, the speed limit of 35mph does limit the fun of pushing your car a little towards the edge. It’s an extremely leisurely and easy drive for anyone, but I would only want to drive here once. I did end up at Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company restaurant and it was one of the best meals ever. See the route here
One local drive that was a ton of fun was through Harriman park in upstate New York. The very tight twists and turns and hills through the park made for a very exciting chase between me and an E46 M3. There is only one lane per side of traffic, and the road passes by a few scenic lakes, although the roads aren’t the best paved. See route here