The road clings to the side of the ragged coastline, twisting around sharp pinnacles of rock, bridging deep chasms, climbing to narrow turnouts high above the crashing surf.
Driving on the Big Sur Highway in California is a trip in its most evocative sense, but the description above could as easily fit the Amalfi Drive in Italy or the Cape of Good Hope Road in South Africa. Great ocean drives exist all over the world.
The common denominator: These roads offer an exceptional panorama.
Great Ocean Road
"I had seldom seen a more fearful section of coastline," said explorer Matthew Flinders when he first caught sight of Australia's Shipwreck Coast.
This jagged shore, its wave-worn orange cliffs rising straight out of the sea, forms the Great Ocean Road's most spectacular stretch. It is a coast of limestone cliffs, of bare islands of rock called sea stacks, of arches and blowholes and gorges; at least 25 ships came to grief here.
The Twelve Apostles, a series of sea stacks, is the most famous vista on the coast. Not far away is Loch Ard Gorge, named after one of the ships that sank off this coast. Only two of the 54 on board that ship survived; the story of their rescue and subsequent life here is part of the lore of the region. Trails here also lead to Thunder Cave and the Blowhole, a vertical passage through rocks that emits a geyser of water whenever a wave penetrates its entrance.
There's usually a wind coming off the Southern Ocean, as the Australians call this body of water, and because it runs unimpeded from Antarctica, it's usually chilly. Very late in the afternoon, you may see fairy penguins popping out of the surf to spend their night in their nests on shore.
This portion of the coast winds atop headlands between Cape Otway and Peterborough. At Cape Otway, the road swings inland, and at Maitland's Rest there's a rain forest where tree ferns have trunks as large as 2 feet in diameter and mountain ash trees are so large they reminded me of California's redwoods.
Between Cape Otway and Torquay, the road runs along a series of beaches where one can go shelling or sunbathing. Because of that, this stretch of coast has many hotels and tourist facilities.
Information: Australian Tourism Commission, 489 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017; (212) 687-6300.
Big Sur Highway
A few years back, the Miami Herald asked readers to name the most scenic drive in the United States. California's Big Sur Highway won easily.
This is a two-lane road that winds and dips along the 80 miles of coast between Carmel and San Simeon. At a few points it runs close to the beach, but most of the time it soars far above the Pacific swells, curling around steep headlands and running at the edge of steep drop-offs. In some places, the road courses as high as 800 feet above the sea. Some motorists will only drive the Big Sur going north, which puts them on the inside of the road, away from the scary edge.
The vistas here are wonderful, of headland after headland dipping toward the sea, the never-ending surf below, the anticipation of breathtaking views around every bend.
I have two favorite spots: At Big Sur, I spiraled down off the road into Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, set among huge redwood trees with a creek running through it. And where the road traverses the Bixby Bridge, there's a beautiful concrete arch 260 feet above the creek below. At a turnoff just before the bridge heading south there's a great view of the bridge and the rugged coast beyond.
Information: Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, (408) 667-2100, or California Office of Tourism, (800) TO-CAL-IF or (916) 322-2881.
Amalfi Drive runs along the southern side of a peninsula south of Naples, Italy. The roadway is narrow and courses sometimes hundreds of feet above the sea. In many places rock has been blasted away to accommodate the road, and the turns are tight. Then, too, Italian drivers blithely pass cars on blind curves with only a horn-honk as a warning.
The views, however, are magnificent. Not simply the way the mountains come to the sea, but how houses, hotels and whole villages perch on precipitous hillsides and cliffs. The sea here is the Tyrrhenian, part of the Mediterranean, whose hills nurture pines, olive trees and vineyards.
One of the prettiest villages on the drive is Positano. Most of its "roads" are narrow pedestrian walkways that switch back and forth as they ascend the slopes. A jumble of pastel buildings cascade down the cove, one atop the other, but achingly beautiful.
Another attractive town is Amalfi itself, and 1,200 feet above it is Ravello, where Boccaccio was inspired to write one of his Decameron stories and Richard Wagner composed some of his works.
Not on the drive but on the north side of the Amalfi peninsula is Sorrento, and off the coast lies the Isle of Capri, long beloved by tourists. Nearby, too, is Mount Vesuvius, and at its base, the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Information: Italian Government Travel Office, 630 Fifth Ave., Room 1565, New York, N.Y. 10111; (212) 245-4822.
Cape of Good Hope Road
Beware of the monkeys!
That could well be the best advice given motorists in South Africa on the beautiful stretch of road from Cape Town to the tip of the Cape Point peninsula -- the Cape of Good Hope.
Coursing well above the shore in many places, this road offers stunning views of sandy, crescent beaches, rocky headlands and thundering surf.
The wildlife I saw the most were monkeys. I knew enough to try to keep them away from my car -- a favorite monkey tidbit, it seems, are rubber windshield wipers. But the creatures are persistent: One of them clung to my car's antenna as I drove off, and nothing I did could dislodge him.
At the end of the road, a trail leads to an overlook above the spit of land that is the Cape of Good Hope. It's windy here, and you can imagine what a difficult passage early sailors must have experienced when rounding the cape.
Information: South Africa Tourist Board, (800) 822-5368.
For 50 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, the low-level Seward Highway runs alongside the Turnagain Arm, a branch of the Cook Inlet.
Waterfalls spray from rocky crevices in the walls of the fjord-like inlet. Snowcapped mountains are reflected in its waters, bald eagles and marsh hawks circle overhead and in summertime wildflowers color the marshy areas along the shore. At the end of the inlet is Portage Glacier, where a park boat takes visitors close to the face of the glacier.
Tides as high as 38 feet roar down the inlet, producing tidal bores as high as 6 feet. When low tide approaches, the receding waters leave swirling patterns in the mud. At high tide, the water fills the basin, creating a giant mirror to reflect the trees, mountains and sky. A good place to watch the action is Bird Point.
Old mining communities lie close to the highway. Also close to the highway is Mount Alyeska, Alaska's premier ski resort, and the Crow Creek Gold Mine.
Information: Alaska Division of Tourism, P.O. Box 110801, Juneau, Alaska 99811-0801; (907) 465-2010.
Not many visitors come to Namibia's coast. Those who do are struck with its hundreds of miles of pristine beaches, its great sand dunes and wildlife you won't see on any other coast.
Swakopmund, a German-flavored town, is the closest thing to a resort on this dry, sometimes chilly coast. Nearby Walvis Bay is a center for commercial fishing in the rich South Atlantic waters. The road that connects the two is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, it is made entirely of salt evaporated from the sea. Second, when it peters out below Walvis Bay, you simply keep on driving on the beach sand. (Four-wheel drive is required.)
Almost anywhere from the road, you'll see sea lions basking on the beach. At the south end of the road at Sandwich Bay, below Walvis Bay, sand dunes up to 1,000 feet high slope down to the sea. Climb them if you want, but be warned: Hiking up a fifth of a mile in soft sand is not easy.
In Swakopmund, the road passes by a golf course where almost every shot is a sand shot. The fairways and rough are sand; the greens have the only grass on the course. On the inland side of the road lies the Namib Desert, the oldest in the world and home to some unusual plants.
Two other coastal roads in Namibia have unusual features, but they cannot be reached from Swakopmund. On the northern coast, known as the Skeleton Coast because of the many ships that were wrecked there, lions and elephants often come onto the sand and into the waters, creating what has to be one of the most unusual beach sights anywhere. And at the south end, guarded and not accessible to tourists, the coast is strewn with diamonds, washed down by ancient alluvial streams. The DeBeers diamond cartel owns and mines the beaches there.
Swakopmund, like the rest of Namibia, once was a part of Southwest Africa, a German colony until the end of World War I, when it became a mandate of South Africa.
Information: Embassy of Namibia, (202) 986-0540, or Namibia Mission to the United Nations, (212) 685-2003.
Pub Date: 12/29/96