JOY RIDES

7 Great Coastal Drives

From cliff-hugging towns to dramatic waterfalls, some of the world's most breathtaking landscapes are best seen from the road.

By Mark Sullivan, Monday, Sep 21, 2009, 3:45 PM

The short-but-impressive Atlanterhavsveien route in Norway's western fjords opened in 1989—and is a marvel of creative engineering
The short-but-impressive Atlanterhavsveien route in Norway's western fjords opened in 1989—and is a marvel of creative engineering (Courtesy Seansie/Flickr)

Easter Island's South Coast
Round trip from Hanga Roa
About 25 miles

Peeling off from the main road that bisects Easter Island is an easy-to-overlook spur to the south. The island's south coastal road skirts the Pacific Ocean, taking you past the best of the moai, mysterious stone heads that stand up to 40 feet tall and still baffle anthropologists. There are more than a dozen notable archaeological sites along the route, but the most impressive is Ahu Tongariki: Ponder the perfect line of 15 massive heads standing like sentinels guarding the coast. Just off the road is Rano Raraku, a quarry where some of the unfinished moai appear to be resting, their expressionless faces staring at the sky, waiting to be set upright. Photos 1 of 3

Hawaii's Hana Highway
Kahului to Hana
52 miles

Maui's spectacular coastal route isn't for the squeamish—the narrow, zigzagging road has more than 600 curves, many of them turn-on-a-dime switchbacks, and most of the 54 bridges along the route are single lane. Your reward is the scenery: rain forests packed with breadfruit trees and colorful plumeria and torch ginger flowers, and waterfalls tumbling down steep hillsides. Pull over at the Wailua Overlook to catch views of the Pacific and a village church made entirely of coral. When you arrive in the unassuming town of Hana, swim at Hana Beach Park, snorkel at Wai'anapanapa State Park, or leap from nearby Wailua Falls, a 200-foot waterfall from which, it's rumored, local men used to jump to prove their manhood. Photos 1 of 3

Iceland's Ring Road
Reykjavík to Vík
80 miles

Iceland's Ring Road—the island-circling, 830-mile Highway 1—offers plenty of glorious photo ops of a landscape literally formed by fire and ice. For an abbreviated version of the drive, hit the wild southern coast: From the capital city of Reykjavík, head southeast on Highway 1 toward Dyrhólaey. There, jagged blades of basalt rise from the ocean, providing nesting space for puffins, razorbills, and other seabirds. The road turns away from the coast at Vík, but if you have a sturdy vehicle, it's worth continuing on another 80 miles to Skaftafell National Park for a glimpse of Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull. Photos 1 of 2

Northern Ireland's Causeway Coastal Route
Carrickfergus to Portrush
68 miles

Often considered the most scenic stretch of road in the British Isles, the Causeway Coastal Route (also called the Antrim Coast Road) meanders almost the entire length of Northern Ireland's coast. Along the way, you'll see rolling green hills dotted with sheep, cottages enclosed by short stone walls, and Norman castles in varying stages of decay. One of the best preserved is Carrickfergus Castle, a medieval structure that was used continually until 1928. Be sure to stop en route at Carrick-a-Rede, a vertigo-inducing 66-foot-long rope bridge that connects the mainland to the rocky Carrick Island. And don't miss the cluster of hexagonal stones that make up the Giant's Causeway—a perfectly orderly but naturally occurring rock formation that appeared on the album cover of Led Zeppelin's "House of the Holy." Photos 1 of 3

Norway's Atlantic Road
Averøy to Vevang
5 miles

The short-but-impressive Atlanterhavsveien route in Norway's western fjords opened in 1989—and is a marvel of creative engineering. Called Norway's "Construction of the Century," the route includes eight bridges that hopscotch from one island to the next, sometimes curving midway through a span in ways that make them seem to defy gravity. Many people visit in autumn, when storms that lash the coast add a touch of drama. If the weather is clear, drive the longest bridge, the 853-foot Storseisundet, and stop to take pictures—you might spot seals and, occasionally, minke whales close to shore. Another place to pull over is Kvernes Stave Church, a wooden house of worship dating from the 14th century. Post-and-beam Christian churches like Kvernes were once ubiquitous in this region; only 28 survive in Norway today. Photos 1 of 2

Spain's Costa del Garraf
Barcelona to Sitges
25 miles

Those heading south of Barcelona in a hurry take the main highway, which winds around—and sometimes tunnels through—the dry, craggy landscape. But the slower C-31 offers the better views. The narrow road clings to the rocky cliffsides, offering up a new spectacle around every curve. Along the way are seaside villages like Castelldefels, named for its medieval castle, and Garraf, famous for its 19th-century Güell Cellar, attributed to Antoni Gaudí and resembling a storybook version of a palace. These are all just a warm-up for Sitges, an elegant Mediterranean resort town with narrow, cobbled streets that wander past stone structures dating back to the Middle Ages. The 17th-century Church of Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla watches over the long strand of beaches. Photo 1 of 1

Sweden's Western Coast Route
Gothenburg to Strömstad
105 miles

More than 8,000 islands are sprinkled along Sweden's rugged western coast route. The drive takes you past orderly fishing villages where you can sample mackerel, herring, smoked eel, and the region's other delicacies. A few of the larger towns, like Skärhamn, on the island of Tjörn, are connected to the mainland by bridge. Skärhamn's rust-red cottages contrast with the contemporary Nordic Watercolor Museum, whose boxy shape seems to hover above the town's picturesque harbor. For access to other towns, such as Marstrand, ditch the car and take a three-minute ferry ride. The town's low-slung houses are clustered around Carlstens Fortress, a brooding, 17th-century castle. Photos 1 of 2

THE CLASSICS
Don't think we forgot! These world-famous drives deserve a category all their own.

Australia's Great Ocean Road
Torquay to Warrnambool
151 miles

About 60 miles from Melbourne, this drive along the Southern Ocean is most famous for the Twelve Apostles, huge pillars of limestone rising from the surf. Photos 1 of 2

California's Pacific Coast Highway
San Francisco to Los Angeles
454 miles

California's Highway 1 passes through some of the country's most beautiful (and most expensive) beachfront real estate. It's hard to pick a favorite part of the drive, but the dramatic scenery around Big Sur is unforgettable. Photo 1 of 1

Italy's Amalfi Coast
Salerno to Positano
27 miles

This route threads through towns clinging to seaside cliffs, old-fashioned fishing villages, and vineyards that climb steep hillsides. Photo 1 of 1

TAKE THE SCENIC ROUTE