Image: Cabot Trail
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A 185-mile loop on the island of Cape Breton, this rugged mountain/coastal highway affords jaw-dropping views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and earns consistently hyperbolic reviews from travelers.
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updated 4/9/2007 12:04:30 PM ET 2007-04-09T16:04:30

A good coastal drive should involve small doses of terror: hairpin turns hugging harrowing cliffs; icy breakers crashing on jagged rocks below; and a treacherously narrow road, like the highway on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, which John Steinbeck described as “carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side.” Speeding along the exhilarating edge between land and sea, there’s a certain thrill to losing oneself in the scale and enormity of nature.

And don’t overlook the importance of the right car.

“A small roadster is ideal for a coastal drive,” said Automobile Magazine senior editor Joe DeMatio. “You want to put the top down to maximize the view. And you don’t need a lot of power. When you’re on a really tight, twisty piece of road, carved out of a cliff, a 500-horsepower Mercedes SL would be nice, but it would be overkill.”

Then again, horsepower has its place. Australian Traveller Magazine editor Greg Barton settled into a brand-new Maserati Quattroporte for his tour of Tasmania’s Eastern Trundle, the same route that comprises Day Two of the annual Targa Tasmania auto rally. The souped-up sedan got a workout on what Barton said are “fast, long, sweeping straights” and “tight, winding mountain passes that will test any car.”

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Beyond a precision engine and agile chassis, there’s another factor that can make any coastal drive a classic: a good traveling companion. “A great convertible and a great passenger are the two essential ingredients for a great coastal drive, according to Mike Dushane, editor at CarAndDriver.com, who recommends bringing a friend along in a Porsche Boxster or the Mazda Miata. These fun roadsters have couple of important features, he said — open tops and room for luggage — that come in handy for longer littoral excursions like the drive along California’s Pacific Coast Highway, Dushane’s favorite.

The hundreds of miles of PCH traverse some of California’s most spectacular terrain, from storied surf spots in the south to the north’s more rugged coastal treasures, like Big Sur, whose raw, redwood-forest beauty lured writers like Jack Keroauc and Henry Miller.

The occasional straightaways on a highway like California’s Route 1 can allow the motorist to open up the throttle and combine beauty with speed. But, said American Road Magazine editor Becky Repp, “Allow enough time to truly enjoy the journey. Pack patience, and slow down.”

Indeed, the twists and turns of a classic coastal route often require a more cautious pace — and both eyes on the road.

On the spectacular route from South Africa’s Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope, for example, “For about 25 miles, you’re hugging close to rock cliffs plunging down to the ocean below,” said Joe DeMatio. And driving Maui’s tortuous Hana Highway, according to travel guidebook author and photojournalist Maxine Cass, can feel like “wrestling a beast of a roller coaster ride in slo-mo.” The reward, she said, is when you “come up for a steadying breath of Maui air and the scenery — drizzle, downpour or shine — is drop-dead gorgeous.”

Buckle up and read on to see some of the the most renowned meeting places of the highway and the heavenly. In addition to paying homage to several classic drives, we consulted a range of travel and driving experts to compile a list of 10 classic motorways that will let you combine the terror of the infinite with the comfort of antilock brakes.

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