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Incredible coastal drives

Image: Highway 12, Outer Banks of North Carolina
On the road along the pristine beaches of North Carolina's coast, enjoy the maritime landscape and historical sites like Kitty Hawk, of Wright Brothers fame, and Roanoke Island, site of England's first attempted colony in the New
/ Source: Forbes

"Coastal drives combine all the best features of scenic travel," says Jamie Jensen, author of "Road Trips USA". "Not only do these roads take you to the world's most beautiful places, exuding a sense that all is right with the world, but the driving tends to be easy and low-stress: To find your way, all you have to do is keep that big expanse of blue water off to one side or the other."

Jensen's navigation advice points to another benefit of waterside routes: They collapse the classic distinction between journey and destination, as the end-point is the ever-present view running parallel to the car.

Nevertheless, some destinations are better than others—at least for starting your seaside journey. To that end, we've compiled a list of coastal drives that are sure to delight and inspire, from the shimmering lagoons of South Africa's Plettenberg Bay to the lighthouses and sea caves of Lake Superior's shores.

We asked automotive and travel experts for their route recommendations, but also for their preferred mode of transport. Stephen Ashdown, editor of UK-based Convertible Car Magazine, says an open-top vehicle is ideal for coastal driving because it "involves the driver in their surroundings. Rather than being cocooned in an enclosed environment, the senses are treated to smells and sounds as well as the feeling of the sun and wind on your face. In the right place and with good weather it can be an unforgettable experience."

For Ashdown, the right place for coastal touring in the UK is away from the busy summer crowds on the more popular roads. "The best coastal drives are found in the north," he says, "particularly in Scotland where there are many miles of empty roads far from civilization and some of the most breathtaking views in the world. Among the many great drives, the Applecross Peninsular is one of the most enjoyable." The routes in this remote, rugged peninsula in the Scottish Highlands' wind through spectacular mountain terrain and views across the sea to the Isle of Skye. Its challenging single-track routes are marked "inadvisable for learner drivers."

While they may be ominous for less-seasoned drivers, tortuous byways are part of the allure for many coastal motorists. Kurt Fischer, president of Porsche Club of America's Redwood Region, based in Santa Rosa, says the Stewarts Point-Skaggs Creek road presents nearly 200 turns as it winds 35 miles through vineyards, valleys, mountains and streams toward the stunning coastline of Highway 1 near Bodega Bay. This is perfect terrain for the Porsche, Fisher says, "Any model will do, from the oldest 356 to the newest 997. The suspension, motor, transmission-the Porsche was designed for roads like these."

Martin Goldsmith, a member of the Porsche Club's Long Beach, California-based chapter, also recommends the northern stretches of Highway 1, but cautions that "one of the disadvantages of a sporty car is that you want to go fast—and then you miss the scenery." Still, he says, with a car like the Porsche, it's "exhilarating to drive briskly and feel very safe—in total control. It's almost like dancing; there's a rhythm to the whole thing."

Jamie Jensen speaks of a similar, symbiotic feeling. Twisting along a dramatic coastal route, he says, is "the closest you get in a car to the experience of surfing or sailing, where you really feel 'at one' with the land-and-seascape around you."

The right coastal drive can also offer an atmosphere solitude and reflection. Ashdown explains that a "cloudless sky with sunlight twinkling off the sea and roads [can] involve the driver in a pure indulgence—something which requires a driver's full attention, away from any distractions." A waterside tour, he adds, might also be suited for a "romantic journey taken alone but with a loved one at the final destination."

Stretching from Amnicon Falls State Park to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, this route fronts the spectacular shore of Lake Superior, whose charms include lighthouses and sea caves. The National Park Service explains: "Nature has carved delicate arches, vaulted chambers and honeycombed passageways into cliffs on the north shore of Devils Island, Swallow Point on Sand Island, and along the mainland near the Lakeshore's western boundary." Jensen recommends combining the Hwy-13 drive with a trip along US-61 north from Duluth, Minn.

Coastal drives are ideal for losing oneself in nature's grandeur, but they can include cultural pleasures as well. Jerry Walker, of the North Carolina-based Porsche Club of America, says that while Highway 12, in North Carolina's Outer Banks, is "like a drag strip, practically straight for 300 miles," it's worth stopping off at the area's many historical places of interest, from Kitty Hawk to the Cape Hatteras Light House. Visiting the island of Ocracoke, he adds, is "like stepping back to 100 years ago. The narrow lanes are lined with cottages, live oaks, and cedars—it's a nice place to decompress."

Jensen describes another route that combines the splendor of the open road with the pleasure of cultural amenities. He says he drove the loop around the Big Island of Hawaii about a month ago and is "still reeling from how amazing the place is: beautiful green forests rising out of deep blues waters, waterfalls cascading down black lava cliffs, with a truly majestic snow-capped mountain rising high above it all. Whales leap offshore; there are gecko lizards, brilliantly colored birds, tropical fish swimming along coral reefs—and mai-tai cocktails to be savored at sunset. Heaven."

For more recommendations of where to seek the divine while driving alongside oceans, lakes and rivers, see our slide show of 10 spectacular coastal drives.