Fill'er Up, Mate: Australian Road Trips
What you'll find in this story: Australia travel, Australia culture, Australia attractions, Australia itineraries, Australia lodging, Australian dining
Our intrepid reporter takes us into the red centre, down the great ocean road, and to the remote southwest corner.
1. Into the Red Centre
If Australia were folded in half like a book, the Stuart Highway would be its spine, forging through emptiness for 2,000 miles. Driving half of it is plenty, so I've flown to the dead center: the desert town of Alice Springs. North of "the Alice" there's barely a stoplight for 1,000 miles--about the distance from Dallas to Chicago--until the asphalt meets Darwin, on the Timor Sea.
Like Germany's autobahn, the Stuart has no speed limit; unlike the autobahn, it's virtually barren. Every 45 minutes or so, a roadhouse appears mirage-like on the horizon, offering gas, beer, motel-style lodging, and a little "Where ya from, mate?" Aside from that, the land presents itself the way God made it. Hour by hour, sandy red earth gives way to spindly trees, brown escarpments, termite mounds as tall as kindergartners, and not much else. No cell phone coverage, no radio stations. There's nowhere else on earth to be so isolated while on good roads in your average rental car.
A drive on the Stuart Highway evolves slowly, with developments marked by the odometer. Kilometer 36 north of Alice Springs: cross the Tropic of Capricorn. At 54: spot two wedge-tailed eagles feeding on kangaroo roadkill. At 83, 443, 906, and 1,222: nearly hit a kangaroo myself. At 142: tank up beside a "road train," Australia's superlong tractor trailers that pull three or four long trailers. At 202: Ti Tree, "the most central pub in Oz." No one blinks when truckers drain their beers and get right back in their cabs.
Periodically, I pull over and cut the engine, just to feel the nothingness. I consider walking deep into the scrub but never make it more than 20 feet without worrying about snakebites--and being picked clean by wedge-tailed eagles.
The pleasure of a Stuart drive is partly in stumbling across artifacts from man's attempts to make use of the bush. Beside the gas station in Barrow Creek (kilometer 294), a wooden telegraph repeater station from the early 1870s stands abandoned but perfectly preserved by the dry desert air. There's another in the expanse north of Tennant Creek (541). Barely rusted bits of telegraph wire and antique bottles still litter the grounds of both. The eerie ruins at Gorrie Airfield (1,103) once housed 6,500 personnel in World War II. Today, there are ghostly scraps of gray bitumen leading to an old fighter runway that's over a mile long.
The walls inside most of the bush pubs along the highway are stapled over with bras, underwear, foreign currency, and business cards--a few of mine included--left by visitors from around the world. Basic rooms cost about $35; given the volume of cold Victoria Bitter on tap, by bedtime most customers aren't in a state to quibble over thread counts. Just about every pit stop is run by someone who could pass as the main character in a novel. The proprietor of the roadhouse at Wycliffe Well (393) has lined the walls with newspaper reports of local UFO sightings. The owner of the Wauchope Hotel (411) abandoned a 35-year career as a firefighter in Adelaide. The night before I arrive, 40 guys from a remote cattle station drove two hours over a dirt track to have a birthday party there; it lasted until dawn. At the pub inside the Daly Waters Historic Hotel (986), road-trippers gather nightly to be entertained by 14-year-old singer Patrick Webster, who brazenly flirts with waitresses 10 years his senior, and by Frank the Chook Man, who does renditions of folk songs as live chickens roost on his hat.
Even the highway's banner sights seem like something a science-fiction writer might have cooked up. The two big ones are the rock that looks like Winston Churchill's head (652) and the Devil's Marbles, huge, rounded boulders jumbled together improbably in the desert (422).
The wildlife is similarly otherworldly. Some visitors think, at first, that the stirring in the cabbage tree palms and paperbarks above the turquoise Mataranka Thermal Springs (1,220) comes from a bird of some sort. In fact, it's the squabbling of hundreds of thousands of flying foxes, big as beagles and hanging upside down while flailing their leathery wings. The gassy creatures poop everywhere, but that doesn't stop people from jumping in the water beneath them (750 miles of desert scrub will make anyone desperate for a soak).
Around kilometer 1,575, the world comes sufficiently alive enough to drizzle. By the time the Stuart Highway terminates in Darwin (1,646), the humidity edges toward 100 percent, and I'm confronted with Internet cafés, traffic lights, and too many people for my Zenned-out brain to handle.
2. Great Ocean Road
In the convict days, ships from Europe shortened the five-month journey to Sydney by sailing along Australia's southern coast, threading between Tasmania and the mainland near Melbourne, a perilous route through the rocky Bass Strait. The irony is that many ships went for months without seeing anything but water, only to literally crash into Australia.
Just south of Melbourne, where I start my road trip, is enormous Port Philip Bay, which has 161 miles of coastline but a mouth that's only two miles wide. The channel roils with so much tidal water that seamen dubbed it the Rip. The area is notorious enough that when Australia's Prime Minister Harold Holt vanished while taking an ill-advised dip nearby in 1967, the government didn't launch so much as an inquiry.
A few years later, the parliament did feel inspired to take action of a different sort a few miles south, at Bell's Beach, designating it a national surfing reserve. From a bluff I watch surfers in wet suits doggedly bob and paddle the same waves that host the annual Rip Curl Pro competition. The Surfworld Australia museum is in the adjoining town of Torquay. In front of the building, teenagers slam the pavement on beat-up skateboards, aware that this is one property they won't be chased off of. Inside, there's a hall of fame, a meticulous history section, and a continuous film festival of classic documentaries.
The Great Ocean Road begins in Torquay and swerves along forested cliffs and swirling waters for 200-plus miles. I quickly learn that meals will be nothing fancy; the staple of the road's bakeshops is the meat pie (I like to dip them in tomato sauce like the locals do). Against my better judgment, at the Louttit Bay
Bakery I try the Mitey Cheese Scroll, a platter-size swirl of cheese and moist bread that leaves me yearning for greens. My favorite stops for grub are at the pubs, where entire families hang out together. In an Airey's Inlet pub, I order a gin and tonic (it comes premixed in a can) and spot a boy no older than seven. He's perched on a bar stool, eating cheese puffs and chatting with the bartender like one of the gang.
Cimarron, a B&B high above the town of Airey's Inlet, was designed and built in 1979 from native eucalyptus wood by Wade Chambers, an American-born professor. Scanning the thousands of books that line the walls, I tell Wade that I could get into the idea of moving, like he did, to this peaceful Aussie Malibu. Wade is an eager talker, and before we know it, it's past midnight. I switch on the TV--you can learn a lot about a place by what's showing late at night--and catch ads for livestock sales and lungworm poison. In the morning, wild parrots and white cockatoos peer into the windows.
As I pull out of Cimarron, three bemused kangaroos blink at me before hopping into the trees. Several miles past Apollo Bay, another tiny vacation town, there's an easy-to-miss signpost: mait's rest. A path leads to a rain forest gully, trickling with streams, layered with ferns as big as beach towels, and pierced by shafts of sunlight. Australia is 70 percent arid, and it's shocking to see how much vivid green the other 30 percent of the land is able to muster. After an hour, an elderly couple appears. "Never seen anything like it," the woman says, craning her neck. It's a sight that would be famous elsewhere.
Next stop is Otway Fly, one of the world's tallest treetop walkways, which opened in September 2003. Its steel catwalk system is 2,000 feet long, rising as high as 147 feet into a rain forest canopy of beech, blackwood, and ash. Seeing centuries-old forests from above, at bird's-eye level, is surprisingly compelling.
Back on the coast, the Twelve Apostles finally come into view, like great sailing ships returning from a voyage. Fat, beige limestone pillars in the slate-blue water, the Apostles are worthy of their postcard fame. Crowds gather for the sidelong photo op from a promontory at Port Campbell National Park.
A plump Australian blows cigarette smoke out his nose and says what we're all thinking: "They're so beautiful I could look at them all day."
Meanwhile, hornet-like helicopters incessantly chop through the air. They're less annoying the minute I actually get in one. A 10-minute ride costs $58, and seven minutes after laying down my credit card, I'm snapping photos of the rumpled sheet of ocean below.
The walking trails at Loch Ard Gorge, a mile or two on, explore the land above sea-worn tunnels, blowholes, and arches that have wrecked many a luckless ship. The gorge is named for its most infamous disaster--the Loch Ard went down in 1878 with 52 out of 54 passengers, even though it came to grief only about 20 feet from land. The air wheezes with sea mist as waves pummel the rocks and splash skyward. You can actually feel the earth tremble when the surges strike land.
3. The remote southwest corner
I'm as far away from home as I can get without swimming--on the opposite end of the planet, with New York City somewhere beneath the soles of my feet--yet few places on earth seem more American. Driving south out of Perth, a city of skyscrapers, suburb tracts, car dealerships, and gas station mini-marts, things rhyme far more with Houston or Miami than with the pseudo-British settlements of eastern Australia.
After a bland 100 miles or so, just below the town of Bunbury, the southwest tip of Australia juts into the Indian Ocean and the landscape bursts into a thousand shades of green. In the 50-odd miles between the northern and southern capes of the bulge is Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, a coastline of thundering waves, untouched beaches, and death-wish surfers who brave curls with names like the Gallows and the Guillotine.
In Yallingup, I check in at Caves House, amid gardens high above the moody sea. It's a creaking manor with a sweeping veranda, antique white-tiled bathrooms, and dark hallways lined with 1930s photographs of the staff dressed for tennis. I'm so enraptured by the time warp that in the morning I can't help gushing to the desk clerk. She nods sadly. "Glad you liked it," she says. "We got the word last week that we're all getting the boot." In a month, Caves House would be handed over to a company for conversion into a luxury resort.
I drive to the coast's far southern tip, near Augusta, where the Indian and the Southern Oceans meet and chew furiously at the shoreline. Humpback and southern right whales are known to frolic in the foamy waters beneath the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse. When I ask about the seas, the lighthouse's middle-aged, cardigan-wearing ticket attendant mistakes me for a surfer. "Redgate Beach is going off today," she reports. "Be careful. There's a nasty rip."
This remote corner of Australia is home to more than 60 wineries, which flourish thanks to sunny summers and surrounding waters that ward off frost and drought. It's called the Margaret River Wine Region, and the town of the same name is a laid-back artists' retreat of coffeehouses and galleries. Encouraged by raves from several people at a coffee shop in town, I lunch at VAT 107, which uses local organic ingredients for dishes like spicy quail, honeycomb ice cream, and grilled marron--a cobalt-blue freshwater crayfish that is native only to southwest Australia and can grow to more than a foot long.
I rent a cottage for the night at Burnside Bungalows and Organic Farm. It's run by Jamie and Lara McCall, who fled Perth for the wine country a few years ago with their three young sons. Guests stay in airy, hand-built cottages with kitchens, woodstoves, and views over the paddocks, and they're even welcome to help themselves to food from the harvests--olives, macadamias, avocados, apricots, and mulberries.
What really drew me to the region are the ancient, mammoth trees. The pale-bark karri trees are 150 feet tall, as big around as foldout couches. I cruise along on empty roads that undulate over hills, around pastures dotted with contented cows, and into miles of forests that feel as sacred as Gothic cathedrals. Now and then, brief bouts of rain appear, and the clean scent of wet soil pours through the open windows. It's car-commercial good.
The forest hides some cozy lumber hamlets--toy-town-like and tinged with the aroma of freshly cut timber, where chimneys smoke and carpenters deal in exotic woods such as jarrah. Many village names use the Aboriginal suffix -up, which means "place of," lending the vicinity an endearing, fairy-tale euphony: Nannup, Manjimup, Balingup. Then there's Pemberton, home of one of the area's most prized attractions: the enormous Gloucester Tree, which for years served as a lookout tower for firefighters. Anyone may climb to its platform, which is 190 feet up, but the means of ascent is a helix of slippery metal pegs spiraling perilously into the branches.
As evening sets in, I check into a two-room bungalow at Pump Hill Farm Cottages, stoke its potbellied stove, and uncork a bottle of Margaret River red. Out my back door, in total darkness, a cool rain rustles the leaves.
I may be far from where I live, but I'm utterly at home. The chatter of the forest is a little unsettling at first, but by the time the fire dies out, I'm fast asleep.
Driving the Alaska Highway
The hardest thing about traveling the Alaska Highway (better known as "the Alcan") is deciding what to gawk at. In the middle of the road are animals that look like a cross between a goat and a sheep designed by Walt Disney. The mountains all around are a stark, rocky brown, as if the glaciers pulled back just minutes ago. More surprising still is the color of the lake behind the sheep. It's a shade you could only get if you melted a clear-blue-sky day with a box of purple crayons. It's a color that couldn't possibly exist in nature, but there it is: Muncho Lake, British Columbia, right about the halfway point of the Alcan. This is why you come this way: simply to be amazed in the last great frontier. And all the while, in the center of the highway, a Rocky Mountain variety of wild sheep lick salt off the pavement. You and the Alcan Once you've done the Alcan, you have permanent bragging rights any time your friends start to talk about road trips. You can drive the Alaska Highway in under a week, but what fun is that? It's made for lingering, fishing in clear lakes, hiking on moose trails through spruce forests, or just spending quiet days watching the sun hit glaciers. The practicalities are simple, and the trip can be surprisingly cheap-made all the more affordable by the fact that two thirds of the road is actually in Canada, and exchange rates are very, very good. Right now, you can get nice hotel rooms for under US$50, fine meals for US$10. Except for the price of gas-which is significantly higher in Canada-the Canadian portion of the trip is a bargain. There are small, friendly towns and regular services along the way. Whether your taste runs to intimate hotels or remote, pristine campgrounds, you'll find the nights are as good as the days. The Alcan, then and now The Alcan was built over eight frenzied months, from March 9 to November 20, 1942, to protect the northwest flank of the continent from Japanese invasion. War fears meant the road had to be built, no matter what. During the peak of construction, more than 17,000 men were using over 7,000 cars, trucks, and dozers to build the road, putting up 133 bridges along the way. Conditions were a little less than ideal. An ad for workers placed in the New York Times read, "Temperatures will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice, and cold. Mosquitoes, flies, and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm." The highway has never shaken its early, rough reputation, but everything has changed for the better. Today, the entire length of the Alcan is paved, and highway speeds are not a problem. I've driven the road in everything from a subcompact car to a hugely overpowered motorcycle and have never had any trouble. As far as condition goes, the Alaska Highway is no different from any blue highway in the lower 48. And as far as scenery goes, there's nothing like it in the world. Roadside attractions The first stretch of the road is through low, rolling hills, covered in trees to the horizon, but the real northern scenery begins about 370 miles north of Dawson Creek, at Stone Mountain Provincial Park and the turquoise waters of Muncho Lake Provincial Park (Mile 454). The rivers run north here, crystal clear, their banks lined with berry bushes. Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park (Mile 496) was the most popular posting during highway construction because of the 127-degree Alpha pool. It's still churning out hot water, as is the 104-degree Beta pool. Thanks to the warm air, the ecosystem around the pools is an oasis, with more than 250 species of plants, 14 of them as far north as they grow. Look for orchids, ferns, and the carnivorous butterwort. The pools are free, but if you're hoping to stay at the nearby campground (CAD$12/US$8), stake out your spot early: This is still a highway must-stop. Leave British Columbia and enter the Yukon near Watson Lake (about Mile 630). The main reason to stop here is for the signpost forest: more than 60,000 signs-road signs, name signs, markers, and mottoes-from around the world. The first sign was put up in 1942 by a homesick G.I., and now the stop here is a tradition. The hotels in Watson Lake are pricey, so after a visit to the signpost forest and the multimedia aurora borealis presentation at the Northern Lights Centre (CAD$10/US$6.60), it's time to hit the road again. The Yukon River, the lifeblood of both Alaska and the Yukon, comes into view at Mile 895. During the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, hopeful miners would build rough boats-rafts, really-above Skagway, Alaska, and float north on the river, hoping to strike it rich. Miners would get as far as the rapids at Whitehorse (Mile 915) and then transfer to riverboats for the last stretch to Dawson City (not to be confused with Dawson Creek, where the Alcan begins). At the height of the gold rush, as many as 100,000 people-30,000 in one year alone-passed through Whitehorse on their way to the Yukon gold fields. Today, Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon Territory, and its main attraction is the dry-docked Klondike II, a restored stern-wheel riverboat that ran the river for more than 15 years. In its prime, it carried 300 tons of cargo and 75 passengers for the 36-hour run to the gold fields (tours CAD$4/US$2.65). Right outside of town, check out the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center (CAD$6/US$4), which shows what the Yukon was like during the Ice Age: scimitar cats (a saber-toothed tiger with attitude), short-faced bears (bigger than grizzlies), and a whole lot of cold. Entering Alaska Kluane/Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Park complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest protected wilderness area in the world. It's so big, it has mountains over 10,000 feet that nobody has even bothered to name. Take one of the free, self-guided hikes at the Kluane National Park Visitor Center, just east of the highway, and get off the road for a little while. Cross the Alaska border near Mile 1,200. Now's the time to fill up the gas tank, as prices take a dramatic drop on the Alaska side. The Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge (Mile 1,223) is Alaska's first attraction. It's three quarters of a million acres of protected wetlands and mountains, and a breeding ground for trumpeter swans. By the road, you'll see stunted-looking trees leaning at odd angles: These are black spruce trees, growing in permafrost-setting their roots into permanent ice. Tok (Mile 1,310) is Alaska's major crossroads: Stay straight for the final miles of the Alcan, or head south for Valdez, on the edge of Prince William Sound, or Anchorage, the state's largest city. Or just get off the road for the night and watch the nightly, free sled-dog demos at the Burnt Paw Motel (907/883-4121). There's a constant battle between Delta Junction (Mile 1,422), the next town up the line, and Fairbanks, with each claiming to be the official end of the Alaska Highway. Technically, Delta Junction is it: This is where the World War II construction crews stopped, but that's only because there was already a road from here to Fairbanks-the larger town was always the goal. In Delta Junction, you can look at the bison that range outside town, buy an official "I Drove the Alaska Highway" certificate for a buck from the Tourist Info Center (907/895-5069), or take a gander at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which is visible from the highway near town. Stretching more than 800 miles, from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay to the dock at Valdez, the pipeline carries more than two million barrels of oil a day. It's 48 inches in diameter, insulated with three-and-three-quarter inches of fiberglass. All that is jacketed in galvanized steel and, in some sections, refrigerated with a brine mixture to keep the line from melting through the permafrost. Fairbanks is the end of the line. Home to the University of Alaska, the town sits on the banks of the Nenana River, just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. As with any university town, the best things in life are cheap: Go to Creamer's Field for a free nature walk-over 100 bird species migrate through here-and to the University of Alaska campus to see the musk ox herd (there's a free viewing platform, or you can take the US$6 tour; call 907/474-7945 for times). Musk ox are a species as old as the woolly mammoth; their hair is eight times warmer than a sheep's, and it's soft enough to make cashmere feel like steel wool. Road nights Best-and cheapest-are the government-run campgrounds along the entire length of the highway. In these, you really never need to spend more than US$8 to US$12 (CAD$12 to CAD$18) per night for a place to stay. Although none have hookups for RVs, they're all clean, some have flush plumbing, and in B.C., you can buy bundles of firewood for only CAD$3.50 (US$2.30). The campgrounds are very scenic, and frequent: It's rare to go more than 30 miles or so without passing one. Campers in B.C. should try Prophet River Wayside Provincial Park (Mile 217), or camp by the green-blue waters of the Tetsa River Provincial Park (Mile 365)-good Arctic grayling fishing, in season. In Yukon, there's the perfectly quiet Squanga Lake campground (Mile 848), or Congdon Creek (Mile 1,070), just past Kluane Lake, where rangers give free interpretive talks in summer. Once across the Alaska border, some of the best campgrounds include Tok River State Recreation Site (Mile 1,309), Lakeview (Mile 1,249, inside the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge), or Delta State Recreation Site (Mile 267 on the Richardson Highway, a mile west of the Alcan), for views of the snow-covered peaks of the Alaska Range. There are also privately run campgrounds all along the highway. These are usually more developed-with hot-water showers and RV hookups-and more expensive. They're also fairly interchangeable: gravel lots, trees, a few outbuildings. Figure US$15 for a tent site, US$20 to US$25 for a fully serviced RV spot. Tent campers should really stick to the government-run places, though-there you'll get more quiet, more privacy, and more grass and trees. If camping out isn't your thing, you can find a nice hotel room for CAD$60 to CAD$105 (US$40 to US$70) in Canada, or US$75 to US$100 in Alaska. Prices do rise the further north you go. A few of my favorite stops include Liard Hotsprings Lodge (250/776-7349; doubles from CAD$75/US$49); the basic but clean Cozy Corner, in Haines Junction (867/634-2511; doubles from CAD$73/US$48); and Burwash Landing Resort (Mile 1,093, 867/841-4441; rooms from CAD$65/US$43). In Alaska, no trip seems complete without a stop at Tok's Golden Bear (907/883-2561; US$90); and in Fairbanks, there's nothing finer than a stay in the beautifully restored train cars at the Aurora Express (907/474-0949; from US$115). Road practicalities Canada has a 7 percent goods and services tax, which is refundable to visitors. But there are a couple of conditions: You need to spend more than CAD$50 per receipt, and the refund, although valid on most purchases-including hotel rooms-is not good on things such as gas and car rentals. Be sure to pick up a refund flyer at any local bank or Tourist Info Centre, and save your receipts for the border crossing. How to budget the trip depends largely on your time and inclination. A carload of people could easily travel for under US$50 a day-that's total. Keep it to one tank of gas a day, a nice campsite, and a couple of picnic meals, and you'll be enjoying the best bargain travel has to offer. If you're stretching the days out with more driving or looking for more luxurious accommodations, prices rise accordingly. Even on long days, when we ate only in restaurants before collapsing in hotels at night, we rarely spent much more than US$100 a day for two of us. The longest stretch of highway without services is about 100 miles, in northern B.C., and it's very well posted. Most towns have good mechanics, but it can sometimes take a few days to get parts, so make sure your vehicle is in top repair. Keep an eye on tires, fluids, and anything else that could ruin your trip. Many of the hotels, restaurants, and outfitters along the Alcan are seasonal, open only from mid-May through mid-September. If you're traveling outside the summer months, call ahead to make sure the businesses you're interested in are open. When driving, keep your headlights on at all times. It's the law in Yukon and much of B.C., and it's a good idea besides: It's almost impossible to see a dark car coming out of a background of dark trees. Almost anywhere along the road, you've got a good chance of seeing wildlife. Bald eagles-and 200 or so other bird species-are common, as are black bears. Grizzlies, although more scarce, come down to the road from time to time. Moose are everywhere, and there are sections of the highway where you can see Dall sheep, mountain goats, and more. When you stop anywhere on the highway to watch animals, pull all the way off the road. Never leave the car to get a better look. Bears will just run away, and moose might charge. My wife and I once had a moose come after us because she thought our motorcycle was a threat to her calf. Trust me on this one: Watching an enraged, nine-foot-tall animal run at you is not fun. Side trips and the round trip It's a day's drive from Fairbanks south to Anchorage. However, it's better to spend a couple of days, stopping at Denali National Park and Preserve, home to North America's highest mountain, Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet. If you want to camp in the park-most sites are US$6 to US$18-you'll need to make advance reservations (800/622-7275). The most coveted campsites are at Wonder Lake, 85 miles from the park entrance and only 25 miles from the base of Mount McKinley. From here, the mountain is so big, it's like camping next to a wall. There's a loop road that runs roughly from Watson Lake, Yukon, to just outside Tok, Alaska, heading north to the mining town of Dawson City. Once the focus of wanna-be miners from around the world, today the town's still got that gold-rush vibe, with a casino, cancan shows, regular readings of Robert Service's poetry, and a bunch of 100-year-old buildings falling down. A really fun place. The Alcan connects to the Inside Passage in two places via short roads to Skagway and Haines. Even if you've been glutted on spectacular scenery from the Alcan, the Haines Highway is an eye-opener: wide, gently curved, running between glaciers and mountain peaks before dropping down to the banks of the Chilkat River. From Haines or Skagway, you can get on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system to points south (see the April 2003 issue of Budget Travel). Or try British Columbia's other great highway, the Stewart-Cassiar. This goes further inland than the Alcan, starting near Prince Rupert, B.C., meeting the Alaska Highway outside Watson Lake in Yukon. The Cassiar is a little rougher than the Alcan and considerably more remote, with services in only a couple of places. Gas prices are much higher than they are on the Alcan. However, the Cassiar is shorter, quicker, and more dramatically scenic. The Cassiar offers more of the remote, wilderness experience-I've seen ten bears by the roadside before most people are up for breakfast-but it's a highway for people who are camping out. If you're looking for good hotels, stick to the Alcan. The Alaska Highway is a road straight into the heart of the last frontier, the greatest drive on the continent. Visitor info
Driving Mendocino County
What you'll find in this story: California travel, Mendocino culture, Mendocino County attractions, Mendocino County lodging, Boonville San Francisco travel As most people who live in San Francisco will tell you, there are an infinite number of things to love about the city. What they might not say is that one of the reasons they love it so has nothing to do with the city proper. It's the easy proximity to the stunning terrain to the north. Not Marin County--which is nice but no surprise--but Mendocino County, where in a matter of hours you can be zooming back and forth between the dramatic coastline and rolling inland hills. Day one: San Francisco to Boonville The first tunnel I come to after crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge, five minutes into Marin, is framed with a rainbow painting, nicely reflecting the region's laid-back, eco-friendly leanings. I breathe a little deeper, relaxing to the scent of wildflowers and sage that seeps in through the car windows. In Calistoga, famous for its mineral water and mud-bath spas, I pick up a friend, and we head west on Highway 128. In true Sunday fashion, the drive is glorious. It's sunny, the hills are deep green, and the curves in the road are just sharp enough to keep me engaged but still allow for satisfying speed. Our first stop is blink-and-you've-missed-it Jimtown. The Jimtown Store, with its vintage Ford ornamentally parked out front, is an endearing pit stop both for road-trippers like us and spandex-clad bicyclists hydrating with fresh lemonade on the benches out front. A tiny counter doubles as a gourmet deli and wine bar, and a tastefully eclectic array of objets de kitsch, craft, and nostalgia are scattered around for sale. Healdsburg, not far west, is far more developed--wineries with boutique-like storefronts, upscale clothing stores, and a tree-shaded town square that's often the site of alfresco art fairs. We have a lunch of fancy sandwiches and strawberry aguas frescas at the Oakville Grocery. Once home to apple orchards, the area is equally suited to grape growing, and the linear rows of vines appear with greater frequency the deeper we venture into Anderson Valley. It doesn't take long to reach Boonville, our first overnight stop. In fact, we arrive so soon that we haven't quite gotten our fill yet, so we forge ahead a few miles to Philo (population 400) for a bit of wine tasting. In contrast to the larger, corporate-owned Napa vint-ners, the wine business here is in the hands of families and individual owners, and we're pleasantly surprised when the proprietors don't charge us. We begin with reds at Brutocao Cellars, and then at Navarro Vineyards--highly recommended by a sommelier-wannabe friend--we expand to include whites. The pourer is approachable and knowledgeable, and the patio has a fantastic view of the flourishing vines. I'm so impressed that I buy three bottles. Outside the entrance to Hendy Woods State Park, we encounter a cluster of buildings called the Apple Farm. There's a stand selling ice-cold organic apple juice, three rustically chic cottages (they rent for a little more than we want to spend), and a cooking school headed by Don and Sally Schmitt, the former owners of the famous French Laundry restaurant in Yountville (which they sold to Thomas Keller in 1994). The Boonville Hotel, run by the Schmitts' son Johnny, is a tasteful update of an old roadhouse. The fresh touches in the room include geometric-print bedspreads, designer mint-green walls, and aromatic lavender in a vase on the side table. After a few glasses of wine in the flower garden, we're happy to discover that the hotel has a well-regarded restaurant on the ground floor. We're less happy that the three-course prix fixe and a glass of wine cost almost as much as the weekday rate for one of the rooms. But we enjoy our dinner just the same, and the quiet of the evening allows for a night of uninterrupted sleep. Day one Lodging Boonville Hotel14050 Hwy. 128, Boonville, 707/895-2210, boonvillehotel.com, from $100 Food Jimtown Store6706 Hwy. 128, Healdsburg, 707/433-1212, lunch $10 Oakville Grocery124 Matheson St., Healdsburg, 707/433-3200, lunch $15 Attractions Brutocao Cellars & Vineyards7000 Hwy. 128, Philo, 707/895-2152 Navarro Vineyards5601 Hwy. 128, Philo, 800/537-9463 The Apple Farm18501 Philo-Greenwood Rd., Philo, 707/895-2333, cottages from $200 Day two: Boonville to Mendocino The road toward the Mendocino coast winds through the lush forest of Navarro River Redwoods State Park, where the air develops a chill. As in San Francisco, the climate is generally cool but punctuated with rare crystal-clear days that are close to perfection. (I'd find it significantly more refreshing if I weren't wearing flip-flops.) Our first sight of the Pacific Coast is when it's blanketed in atmospheric fog. What we can see: steep, craggy cliffs, crashing waves, and Victorian buildings with shingles hung out offering respite from the bracing outdoors. Here, B&Bs have their own official highway markers--with a little icon of a house--to help travelers find their way. We drive past entrances to numerous state parks and beaches, misty views lending a bit of drama. Twenty minutes past the turnoff to Mendocino--we'll come back to that later--is Fort Bragg, a working-class coastal town with a remarkable array of musty shops selling 20th-century bric-a-brac. This is also the place to board the Skunk Train, a logging railroad turned into a tourist attraction. On the main drag, we stop at a hole-in-the-wall called Eggheads. Omelets, appropriately, are the highlight of the menu; less appropriately, the room is done in an elaborate Wizard of Oz theme. Still, I can't resist ordering the Wicked Witch Burger, which lives up to its name in spiciness. Having been sequestered in the car long enough, we switch to exploring on foot. Our first stop is Glass Beach, a former city dump, where broken bottles have been worn down by the sea into glistening, colorful, translucent pebbles. We hike a few short trails at MacKerricher State Park, three miles north of town, then return to Mendocino. Mendocino is a quaint mass of old Victorian-style buildings perched on a cliff. We arrive just as the sun is setting, and the early evening streets bustle with visitors of all ages and styles. At MacCallum House, a stately hotel, it's possible to people-watch in the bar/café while having a dinner of tasty appetizers. We're staying at the Sweetwater Inn & Spa. Rooms at the inn and the spa include use of a communal hot tub, which we learn is clothing optional. After spending an hour or two in this New Agey town, frankly, I'm not surprised. We upgrade to a private tub. By 10 p.m., the streets are deserted. I sleep like a baby--that is, until I'm awakened in the middle of the night by the exotic beat of bongo drums thumping in the distance. Day two Lodging Sweetwater Inn & Spa 44860 Main St., Mendocino, 800/882-7029, mendocinoinn.com, from $85, private tubs at the spa, $15.50 per hour per person Food Eggheads Restaurant326 N. Main St., Fort Bragg, 707/964-5005, lunch $10 MacCallum House Inn & Restaurant45020 Albion St., Mendocino, 800/609-0492, maccallumhouse.com, dinner $20 Attractions Navarro River Redwoods State ParkHwy. 128, two miles east of Hwy. 1, 707/937-5804 Skunk TrainFoot of Laurel St., Fort Bragg, 800/866-1690, skunktrain.com, tickets from $35, kids $20 Glass BeachElm St. at Old Haul Rd., Fort Bragg MacKerricher State ParkHwy. 1, north of Fort Bragg in Cleone, 707/964-9112 We grab sandwiches at the Little River Market (which, for some reason, is attached to the post office) and take them to one of the tables in the back, where there is a splendid ocean view. A couple of minutes south is Van Damme State Park's Pygmy Forest, a romantic name for a natural aberration. Here, cypress, pine, and other trees only grow to a stunted height, due to the mineral-challenged soil. It's a bizarre, understated spectacle. Trees that look like they should be towering above us are just my height. Next stop, Gualala--pronounced "wah-la-la," FYI--and the St. Orres hotel, where we're staying. It's difficult to miss, as the building looks like some kind of Russian Orthodox fantasy, all cedar and stained glass. Deer and wild turkeys peacefully graze on the hillside nearby. The main structure has eight rooms and a restaurant, but we're issued a spacious and secluded cabin a few hundred feet up the road. Tuckered out from canoeing, we stick close to home for dinner. The restaurant's menu, which we thumbed through in the cottage, suggests you can order hearty pastas and appetizers, but the actual experience is more formal--and pricey-- than we were bargaining for. So we make do by ordering an assortment of light appetizers--tiny morsels of baby abalone with seared scallops, a savory wild mushroom tart, garlic flan, and a salad. It's delicious and just about enough to tide us over for the night. Day three Lodging St. Orres36601 South Hwy. 1, Gualala, 707/884-3303, saintorres.com, rooms from $90, dinner $40 Food Little River Market7746 North Hwy. 1, Little River, 707/937-5133, lunch $6 Attractions Catch a Canoe & Bicycles, Too44850 Comptche-Ukiah Rd., Mendocino, 707/937-0273, canoe rental $20 per hour, two-hour minimum Van Damme State ParkPygmy Forest, three miles south of Mendocino, Hy. 1, 707/937-5804 Which is not to say we don't make a few more stops. The upscale Sea Ranch resort community has award-winning '60s modernist architecture by William Turnbull and others. The houses are clustered in private enclaves with no-trespassing signs, but there are public walks along the beach at the Sea Ranch Lodge. In Bodega Bay we veer inland, passing the locations for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and then the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Running Fence Historic Park, a tiny spot of green that commemorates the artists' 1976 art installation. (The 24.5-mile-long curtain of fabric wound its way from Cotati down to the sea.) As parks go, it's not much. But it drives home the point that this area is full of lovely surprises. Day four Sea Ranch Lodge60 Sea Walk Dr., 800/732-7262, searanchlodge.com Christo and Jeanne-Claude Running Fence Historic Park15000 Bodega Hwy., Bodega, 707/565-2041 Day oneSan Francisco to Boonville, 136 Miles Follow Hwy. 101 north across the Golden Gate Bridge. At Santa Rosa , take the Guerneville/River Rd. exit. Turn right on Mark West Springs Rd., left on Petrified Forest Rd., and left on Hwy. 128. Jimtown is 18 miles up. Just past Geyserville, 128 meets back up with Hwy. 101. They separate again just before Cloverdale; stick with 128 north. Boonville is 26 miles past that break.Day twoBoonville to Mendocino, 39 Miles Continue north on 128. Navarro River Redwoods State Park is two miles before the point where 128 meets Hwy. 1, at the coast. If you reach the water, you've gone too far. The town of Mendocino is 10 miles past the junction of Hwys. 128 and 1. To get to Fort Bragg, pass through Mendocino and keep driving north on Hwy. 1 for 10 miles. Backtrack on 1 to return to Mendocino for the night.Day threeMendocino to Gualala, 49 MilesVan Damme State Park is in the town of Little River, three miles south of Mendocino on Hwy. 1. Gualala is 46 miles farther south.Day fourGualala to San Francisco, 115 Miles Jump back on Hwy. 1 to leave Gualala. At Bodega Bay, Hwy. 1 leads past Hitchcock's The Birds site. Continuing south 68 miles past Bodega Bay, the road drops you right back onto the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco.
Road Trip: Northern California
The one-lane state-park road I was driving in northern California threads cautiously for a half-dozen miles through a towering forest of coast redwoods, the tallest trees - the tallest living things-on earth. Here and there, it edges so closely between the ancient giants, some of them more than 1,000 years old, that I feared scraping both sides of the car. These stately redwoods surely qualify as a natural wonder; they certainly awed me thoroughly. But would I and my car make it unscathed to the end of the road, nosing erratically as it does through the shadowy canyon formed by their massive trunks? I had my doubts. By any measure, this short woodland path through the redwoods is extraordinary. And yet it was only one of many bedazzling sights and experiences I enjoyed on an economical, 1,200-mile drive recently that took me north from San Francisco along California's rocky coastline to the Oregon border and back south again by way of winding roads through the soaring Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada. My surf-to-summit route, one of America's most spectacular drives, is a scenic treat from beginning to end. But don't figure a great trip like this is going to bust your budget. You can see it all for yourself for much less than you might expect. For example As a onetime Californian, I plotted the drive to show my wife Sandy five of my favorite places. For me, "favorite" usually means somewhere in the remote countryside. So we headed for a sprawling, semi-wilderness region of state-and-federal park and forest lands, where lodging and dining prices tend to be very affordable. Along the way, I found many low-priced rooms that boast lovely water or mountain views. Indeed, a couple can stay in a historic, pine-shaded lodge at Lake Tahoe, one of California's most popular High Sierra retreats, for as little as $44 a night midweek during peak summer season. You might catch a glimpse of the sparkling blue lake from your balcony. Just down the road a few minutes on the Nevada side of the lake, a gambling casino advertises nightly "All-U-Can-Eat" buffets for $6.99, featuring ribs on Monday and steak on Tuesday. We're both hikers, so we broke up the drive by taking exciting day hikes. At Point Reyes National Seashore, we walked through groves of fragrant eucalyptus to a wave-splashed cove where portly sea lions frolicked among the rocks. At Mount Shasta, a 14,162-foot-high, Fuji-like volcanic cone tipped with snow, we wandered through fields of multicolored wildflowers. A maze of cliff-side paths tempted us in the coastal village of Mendocino, a logging town turned artists' colony. None of these hikes added a penny to our budget. Several times, we stopped at roadside beaches to wade in the chilly Pacific surf or investigate the squirmy marine life of tidal pools; no charge for this either. Once we watched a small whale swim past just offshore, its blowhole spouting as it glided slowly north. A terrific show, and all for free. Often we picnicked beside a tumbling stream - lunch al fresco with a million-dollar view for the price of a hunk of cheese and crackers from a local market. Now and again, a no-fee swimming hole beckoned. Getting started The San Francisco Bay Area's three major airports - San Francisco International, Oakland, and San Jose - are all convenient to this drive and are all serviced by low-cost airlines; Oakland and San Jose offer both Southwest Airlines and America West flights, while San Francisco is serviced by Southwest as well as ATA, National Airlines, and Sun Country. An Internet check indicates that auto rentals in August, peak vacation time, are least costly at San Francisco. Dollar (800/800-4000) quoted a weekly rate of $116 in mid-August for an economy car with unlimited mileage. At San Jose, the airport's lowest rate was from Payless (800/729-5377), at $116 a week. At Oakland, the best I could find was $150, quoted by Dollar. Balancing airfares against car rental rates, San Jose may be the airport for budget travelers in summer. On the road, I suggest budget-priced lodgings at each of five overnight stops. In summer, advance reservations are advised, but if you go without, you will spot inexpensive motels and lodges dotting most of this route. Somewhat isolated, they should be open to price-dickering. Room rates below are for two people per night (except where noted) during the summer high season. I chose this route for its magnificent scenery. Few drives anywhere treat you to so much for so little. Point Reyes National Seashore You may want to keep a swimsuit handy as you drive up the coast, although Northern California's beaches invite exploring rather than swimming because of frigid water and treacherous currents. (Summertime can also be foggy; September and October tend to be the sunniest months.) A case in point is Point Reyes National Seashore at Olema, a sprawling, semi-wilderness park that encompasses forests of wind-sculpted pines, lofty precipices, hidden valleys of ferns and huckleberries, rolling grasslands, and yes, miles of empty, wave-swept beaches. I've sunned myself on these sands, only braving the surf up to my knees. There's no charge to enter the park. On my latest visit, we opted to hike the mostly easy Bear Valley Trail, an eight-mile (round-trip) path that meanders through eucalyptus woods and broad meadows to an arched rock beside the sea. Sea lions played, and cormorants dove for dinner. As a short alternative, the ominously named half-mile Earthquake Trail leads to where the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 began. Markers show where the land suddenly shifted 16 feet. The Point Reyes Lighthouse, clinging to a rocky cliff, is reputedly one of the windiest and foggiest places on the West Coast. Find out for yourself by descending the 300 steps to its exposed perch. On the left is Drakes Bay, named for Sir Francis Drake, the English adventurer who sailed into the bay aboard the Golden Hind in the summer of 1579. Presumably he carried a heavy jacket, which you should also keep handy on this drive. Details: From San Francisco, take State Route 1 across Golden Gate Bridge to Point Reyes, about 50 miles. En route, take in the giant redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument, made famous in a scene in Hitchcock's Vertigo. A few miles later, go for a dip at three-mile-long Stinson Beach, a local favorite. For bare-bones lodging, stay in the park at the 44-bed Point Reyes Hostel, overlooking a secluded valley (415/663-8811), for $16 per bed. Just outside the park in Inverness, the 35-room Golden Hinde Inn and Marina sits waterside on Tomales Bay (415/669-1389), running $90 per room weekdays/$139 weekends with breakfast. Just up the highway, the eight-room U.S. Hotel in Tomales (707/878-2742) lists a weekday rate of $99 per room but invites on-site bargaining. Better yet, try the 16-room Bodega Harbor Inn (707/875-3594) for $60 per room. It's 20 miles north in Bodega Bay, made famous in another Hitchcock flick, The Birds. Dine just outside the park in Point Reyes Station at the Station House Café (415/663-1515); a large lunch bowl of black-bean-and-turkey chili with grilled corn bread is $6.50. Information: Point Reyes (415/464-5100, nps.gov/pore). Mendocino Bound for Mendocino, Route 1 snakes alongside sheer cliffs, plunging back down to a series of public beaches - among them 16-mile-long Sonoma Coast State Beach. Twisting in tight curves that drop the speed limit to 15 mph in places, the two-lane road passes countless small, rock-filled coves, hurdles deep gulches, and tunnels through thick woodlands. Waves fling themselves in fury against the rocks, shooting geysers of spray into the air. It's a nonstop spectacular the entire 135 miles from Point Reyes. The reward at Mendocino is a picture book New England-looking village with the prettiest front yard in America. Seafarers from the East Coast settled here in the nineteenth century, building solid Cape Cod and gabled Victorian homes, now beautifully preserved. The "front yard" is Mendocino Headlands State Park, a grass-covered bluff wrapped around three sides of the town as a protective greenbelt. From Main Street, the park stretches across open meadows to rocky bluffs where we stood high above the crashing surf. Afterwards, we browsed the art galleries, where coastal-themed paintings were reasonably priced. Three out of four residents (pop. 1,000) are said to be working artists, drawn by the gorgeous setting and radiant light. Details: On the way to Mendocino, stop at Fort Ross State Historic Park, a rebuilt fort that is the site of a Russian hunting and trading outpost in 1812. Though Mendocino is far from ritzy, in-town lodgings are expensive. For budget prices, stay ten miles north in the logging and commercial fishing port of Fort Bragg, which delights with a rugged appeal of its own. Good choices are the 50-room Fort Bragg Motel (707/964-4787), $49 per room weekdays/$59 weekends; the 57-room Driftwood Motel (707/964-4061), $54 weekdays/$64 weekends; and the 28-room, pet-friendly Coast Motel (707/964-2852), $48 weekdays/$58 weekends/$10 for pets. Have breakfast or lunch in Fort Bragg at popular Egghead's (707/964-5005), decorated with Wizard of Oz memorabilia with huge omlettes with potatoes and toast starting at only $5.75. From Fort Bragg, take a ride on the vintage Skunk Train (800/777-5865, skunktrain.com), with a scenic half-day trip to the inland mountain redwoods costing $29. Information: Fort Bragg (800/726-2780, mendocinocoast.com). Redwood National Park Height, whether possessed by humans or trees, is imposing. Driving (and strolling) among the giant coast redwoods of Redwood National Park and three adjacent state parks, I was thoroughly awed. Many visitors liken a redwood grove-mighty trunks and overhanging branches forming a forest room-to the interior of a cathedral with its lofty arches and similarly muted light. Albeit a cathedral with a very leaky roof. In summer, morning fog often wraps a protective cloak around these giants, which thrive on the moisture. Trees can grow to 300 feet, as tall as a football field is long. The 215-mile drive from Mendocino to the park tunnels inland for awhile through several redwood groves before returning to the coast. Be sure to take the "Avenue of the Giants," a 30-mile alternate route north through Humboldt Redwoods State Park that is just a taste of the majestic redwoods ahead. At the park, headquartered at Orick, hike the easy milelong loop trail through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, dedicated to the former first lady. The needle-strewn, spongy-soft path winds through a garden of mosses and ferns flourishing under the redwoods. Afterwards, test your driving skills, as I did, among the redwoods on narrow Howland Hill Road in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Happily, I made it with no damage to me, the car, or the trees. Swimmers love the warm water of the Smith River flowing through the park. Details: From Mendocino or Fort Bragg, continue north on State Route 1 and U.S. 101. Outside Orick, Rolf's Park Café & Motel (707/ 488-3841) offers six rooms in a peaceful woodland setting at $47 each. In Crescent City, at the park's northern tip, the Gardenia Motel (707/464-2181) has 48 rooms for $45 each; or try the 65-room Bayview Inn (800/446-0583) for $59. For good eats, order the seafood platter ($8.95) for lunch at the Harbor View Grotto (707/464-3815). Information: Crescent City (707/464-3174, northerncalifornia.net). Mount Shasta Just shy of the Oregon border, our drive leaves the surf behind and heads for the summits, at the same time nosing south back toward San Francisco. In seemingly nonstop curves, the road - good, but lightly traveled - traces the path of the Trinity River, crossing the remote and rugged Klamath Mountains to Mount Shasta. Cool off in the river along the way as you anticipate your first view of one of the world's most majestic peaks. Only a few other mountains - Japan's Mount Fuji, Africa's Kilimanjaro - dominate their setting as mystical Mount Shasta does. A dormant volcano in the southern Cascade Range, it stands alone, unchallenged by any neighboring peak. Many locals swear the legendary mountain is regularly visited by UFOs. Park your car high on its shoulder at the tree line and hike the rocky path toward the summit a mile or two for a grand panorama. Drop back down to the base for a swim in little Lake Siskiyou ($1 per person). For $10 each, we savored a wood-burning sauna and a cold plunge into a mountain stream at nearby Stewart Mineral Springs (530/938-2222), a rustic, clothing-optional spa. In California, I do as the locals do. There are two-person tepees for $24 or campsites for $15 a day. Details: From Redwood, retrace your way south on U.S. 101 to Arcata. Take State Route 299 east to Weaverville, picking up Route 3 north. Approaching Callahan, turn east to Gazelle and take I-5 south to the cozy, New Age town of Mount Shasta. The distance is 255 miles. Stay at the 21-room Swiss Holiday Lodge (530/926-3446), $50 per room with continental breakfast, hot tub, and views; the 31-room A-1 Choice Inn (530/926-4811), $49 per room weekdays/$69 weekends; or the 20-room Shasta Lodge Motel (530/ 926-2815), $42. The Black Bear Diner (530/926-4669) boasts comfort foods of pot roast, meat loaf, and fried chicken all for $9.99 a plate. Information: Mount Shasta (800/397-1519, mtshastachamber.com). Lake Tahoe On this drive, every day brings stunning new sights to refresh the spirit, an incalculable benefit shared by budget and luxury travelers alike. I doubt anyone can gaze on Lake Tahoe - one of the largest, highest, deepest, loveliest (and coldest) mountain lakes in the country - without beaming in pure pleasure. The lake provides very diverse ways to spend your time here - as a 72-mile drive around it proves. No wonder it's remained popular with Californians for skiing on adjoining mountains in winter, and waterskiing and fishing in the summer. On Tahoe's more rustic North Shore, the road edges the lake beneath dense groves of massive Douglas fir trees. Public beaches tempt swimming (brrrrr!), or you can tube on the warmer Truckee River flowing out of the lake. Sandy and I stopped for an easy five-mile lakeside hike around Emerald Bay. On the South Shore, thick woods give way to glittery gambling palaces at Stateline in Nevada. Of my five favorites, which is best? I can't decide. But if you take this drive, you surely will agree with me that Lake Tahoe does just fine as the grand finale. Details: From Mount Shasta, follow State Route 89 to Lake Tahoe, about 275 miles. The road bisects Lassen Volcanic National Park ($10 per car); plan to take the gentle three-mile (round-trip) hike to Bumpass Hell to see bubbling mud spots and steaming fumaroles. From Tahoe, return to San Francisco via U.S. 50 and I-80, about 205 miles. Stay and dine on Tahoe's more scenic North Shore. First choice is historic 21-room Tamarack Lodge Motel (888/824-6323), where Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and other movie stars came to hunt, fish, and play cards; $44 per room weekdays, $54 weekends/multiday discounts. Other choices: 26-room Gold Crest Resort Motel (530/546-3301), $52 per room weekdays/$75 weekends; and 26-room Firelight Lodge (800/934-7222), $58 weekdays/$84 weekends. Dine on the buffet at nearby Crystal Bay Casino ($6.99) in Nevada or on huge Mexican platters ($8.95) at Blue Agave (530/583-8113), an 1868 log-cabin lodge reflecting Tahoe's past. Information: North Lake Tahoe (888/358-7461, tahoefun.org).
Into the Outer Banks
Living not far from the Outer Banks, my wife, Sandy, and I have visited there often--and each time, as we glided farther and farther into the Atlantic Ocean, I was stirred by the strange sensation that I was navigating a boat rather than a car. Maybe not so strange, actually, when windswept waves stretch for miles on either side. July and August are peak season for surf and sun. A family playground, the islands hawk all the expected beach amusements: parasailing, waterskiing, Jet Skiing, canoeing, kayaking, sailboarding, deep-sea fishing, and horseback riding. But any time of year is fulfilling. I've gone in midwinter to hike miles of empty beaches, watching the spindle-legged shorebirds probing the sand for lunch. Day one: Norfolk to Kill Devil Hills The drive from Norfolk, Va., passes through mostly flat coastal farm country, and in mid-summer roadside stands sell fresh corn and other produce. After the flatlands, the lofty sand dunes of the Outer Banks seem almost like mountains. At their widest, between Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, the Outer Banks expand to about a mile. This is where you find the most popular beaches--the ones that draw the summer throngs. In the heart of the bustle, little Kill Devil Hills, a family resort town, provides the beach time you crave plus a look at one of America's most historical spots. Check into the tidy 54-room Cavalier Motel, which nudges right up to the beach dunes. Soak up some sunshine at the pool or the beach, but save time for a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, just a few minutes away. On a sand-covered site at Kill Devil Hills a century ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the first manned heavier-than-air craft to leave the ground by its own power. The flight lasted all of 12 seconds, and the plane, with Orville at the helm, covered less distance than the length of a modern airliner. But air travel was born. Markers indicate the takeoff and landing spots--so close together that it seems the brothers might more easily have jumped. The visitors center displays a replica of their aircraft; atop Big Kill Devil Hill, an impressive granite monument pays tribute to their achievement. Rising to 90 feet, the hill is one of the highest spots in the Outer Banks--make the climb for a 360-degree view. Afterward, join the crowds at Pigman's Bar-B-Que, a no-frills joint. You can't go wrong with the messy pork ribs, which are served with coleslaw, baked beans, and plump hush puppies. Day two: Kill Devil Hills to Manteo Today's drive temporarily leaves the Atlantic shore for 13-mile-long Roanoke Island, behind the Outer Banks in Roanoke Sound. Start the morning by testing your courage. See that line of folks on the high dune in the distance? They're waiting for their Wright moment. Hang-gliding lessons are a major activity at Jockey's Ridge State Park. The fragile aircraft are launched from 80-foot-high sand dunes. Kitty Hawk Kites, the world's largest hang-gliding school, has a three-hour introductory course (including five solo flights). You can expect to cover up to 75 yards. Some gliders, maneuvered by confident, well-coordinated students, float gracefully back to earth. Others plummet with a seemingly painful thud into the not-so-yielding sand. Too scared? Stop by anyway to watch the often comical antics of the first-timers. You'll want to hike the dunes to the launch area for a close-up look. An exhibit in the park visitors center notes that the surface of the sand here can exceed the air temperature by 30 degrees. Take heed: Wear shoes. On to the waterside village of Manteo, where Sandy and I check into the Dare Haven Motel, about 10 minutes from the beach. We head first for the harbor on Shallowbag Bay. Sailboats drift over the sound, and just across an inlet rests the 69-foot Elizabeth II. The featured attraction at Roanoke Island Festival Park, this replica of a 16th-century sailboat represents the type of ship that carried English colonists to the New World during the reign of Elizabeth I. Onboard, costumed interpreters answer our questions, speaking with Old English accents. Questions, naturally, tend to be about the Roanoke mystery. In May 1587, three British ships carried 117 settlers to Roanoke. A week later, the colony's governor sailed back to England for supplies. The threat of the Spanish Armada delayed his return for three years. When the governor finally made it back in 1590, the colony had vanished. Historians can only speculate on what happened. There are re-creations of the first settlement site (talk to the "colonists") and an Algonquin village, and at the Roanoke Adventure Museum youngsters can don Elizabethan garb or learn about Blackbeard's visits to the Outer Banks. Nearby, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site marks the location of the ill-fated colony. The formal Elizabethan Gardens memorialize the colonists. Adjacent to the fort, the mystery is dramatized in an outdoor theatrical spectacle, The Lost Colony, with clashing swords and fireworks; it's presented nightly (except Sunday) in the summer (May 31-August 20). Kids might find it tedious, but I, a history major, was interested. Grab some dinner at Big Al's Soda Fountain and Grill, a '50s-era café with an all-American menu; fresh seafood dinners with fries and slaw cost about $14. Or ditch The Lost Colony and go howling with the wolves. It's one of the offbeat nature programs sponsored by the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, west of Manteo. Until the 18th century, red wolves roamed the area, but then they disappeared. Eight wolves were reintroduced onto the 152,000-acre refuge in the late 1980s; the population has since grown to more than 95 and has spread throughout the refuge and beyond. Children love to howl, and parents aren't shy about joining in. If everybody gets the sounds right, the wolves usually howl in reply. Two-hour "safaris" begin at 8 p.m. on summer Wednesdays. Day three: Manteo to Buxton This is the Outer Banks I like best, the quiet southern end. The islands narrow considerably here; at their skinniest, only a few hundred yards separate the rough Atlantic from calm Pamlico Sound. Much of the seashore is protected, either as Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge or Cape Hatteras National Seashore. You'll find miles of nearly desolate beaches, their wild beauty mostly untouched except by wind and sea. Towering dunes topped by wind-stunted trees frequently block sight of the ocean. But there are stairways at the many pullouts along the way. Keep your swim trunks handy. The 156-foot-high Bodie Island Lighthouse serves as a visitors center for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Exhibits illustrate the early seafaring dangers in the area. As many as 600 ships have wrecked on the shifting coastline since 1526, earning it the unhappy nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic. South of the lighthouse, the road hops from Bodie Island to Hatteras Island over an arched bridge and long causeway. At the end, stop at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Nearly 400 species of birds have been identified here, including odd migrants blown off course by fierce Atlantic storms. Learn also about the Oriental, a Civil War steamer that struck a sandbar and sunk. The ship's boiler is visible in the surf. At either visitors center, be sure to check out the ranger-led activities, which are free or minimally priced. Canoe on the sound, take a bird-watching walk, learn how to catch crabs, build a kite, or go snorkeling or fishing. South of Avon, a small day-use park called Canadian Hole draws windsurfing throngs, who flit like butterflies across the flat waters of Pamlico Sound. The steady winds and shallow water are said to be ideal for novices. At Cape Hatteras, test your leg muscles by climbing the 268 steps to the top of the still-operating Cape Hatteras Lighthouse--at 210 feet, it's the tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S. Built in 1870, it was threatened by erosion for many years--until 1999, when it was moved a half mile inland. Spend the night in the sound-side village of Buxton, a mile from the lighthouse, Dine across the highway at the Diamond Shoals Restaurant, named for a bank of shifting sand ridges hidden in the treacherous waters off Cape Hatteras. On the family-friendly menu, try the catch of the day, usually sea trout ($13.95). And then return next morning for one of the famous hearty breakfasts. Day four: Ocracoke and Back to Norfolk In the morning, we catch the free car ferry to Ocracoke Island. The road to the landing passes through one of the areas hit hardest by the hurricane, and you're still likely to see some damage. Waves briefly washed out the road between Frisco and Hatteras, creating a temporary inlet between the Atlantic and the sound. But the road has since been reopened. The ferry takes 40 minutes. On Ocracoke, Highway 12 continues for another 13 miles through the mostly untouched seascapes of Cape Hatteras National Seashore to the village of Ocracoke and the Ocracoke Lighthouse. (The highway is sometimes closed during bad weather, so check with the highway department.) En route, stop at the Pony Pasture, a 100-acre field nurturing a small herd of the island's unique ponies, possibly descendants of Spanish ponies that survived a shipwreck. Unlike other horses, Ocracoke ponies have one fewer rib--17 instead of 18. Then ferry back to Hatteras, Buxton, and the beach. After the history lessons, you've earned more playtime. Finding your way The closest major airport to the Outer Banks is in Norfolk, Va., about 70 miles to the north. Southwest Airlines provides service from most of the country. A car is essential; at summer's peak, expect to pay $130 to $140 for a week's rental of a compact with unlimited mileage. The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau (877/629-4386, outerbanks.org) distributes a 112-page travel guide. Call for a copy, or pick one up at the visitors bureau. It's a mile past the Currituck Sound Bridge (U.S. 158), in Kitty Hawk. 1. Norfolk to Kill Devil Hills From the Norfolk airport, take I-64 south to Virginia State Route 168 south. In Barco, N.C., pick up U.S. 158 south via Kitty Hawk to Kill Devil Hills. U.S. 158 is the speedier bypass to Kill Devil Hills, ending a few miles beyond the town. Along here you'll find many restaurants, service stations, and other tourist facilities. Paralleling it is Highway 12, the old beach road, which runs the length of the Outer Banks from Corolla in the north to the southern tip (via ferry) of Ocracoke Island. On Highway 12, the slow road, you're finally at the beach. 2. Kill Devil Hills to Manteo Continue south on U.S. 158 to U.S. 64/264 west across Roanoke Sound to Roanoke Island and Manteo. 3. Manteo to Buxton Double back to U.S. 158/Highway 12, continuing south on Highway 12 to Buxton. 4. Ocracoke and back to Norfolk From Buxton, follow Highway 12 to the end of the pavement and the dock for the Ocracoke ferry. The 30-car ferries operate year-round; in summer, they depart to and from Ocracoke every 30 to 60 minutes. On Ocracoke, pick up Highway 12 and follow it to its end in the village of Ocracoke. Then retrace your route back to the mainland and Norfolk.