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Road to Cape Town, South Africa

Top 5 road trips outside the US

Road to Cape Town, South Africa

From the sage-bush deserts of Route 66 to the wave-whittled coastlines of the Pacific Coast Highway, you can enjoy some of the best road trips in the world without even having to leave the country. But, if you’ve already had your fair share of long-stretching highways and dusty Americana, you might consider taking the roads less traveled elsewhere across the globe.

Here, we share the top five road trips around the world — outside the US — as chosen by our specialists. Whether you’d prefer the cyan glacial lakes of New Zealand or the bubbling mud pools of Iceland, these self-drive trips offer are a feast for your eyes from your car window, as well as opportunities to immerse yourself in the local cultures en route.

The Great Ocean Road, Australia

Towering butterscotch-hued sentinels, wild azure waters that froth onto sandy shores, fern-filled rainforests teeming with wildlife… The Great Ocean Road’s ever-changing landscapes are what make it one of the best road trips in the world.

The nature here differs from the stereotypical sights of Australia. Traveling along the winding roads of Shipwreck Coast, you’ll look down from imposing clifftops to see sparkling seas, wave-carved rock formations, and the occasional wrecked ship from centuries past. Or, you could venture inland to the Otway Ranges, where verdant gullies and temperate rainforests brimming with kangaroos, koalas, and even the odd platypus.

The main draw here is the Twelve Apostles, seven colossal sea stacks that jut out of sheer yellow sands, which sit beside the thrashing waves of the Southern Ocean. A short drive from there also takes you to Loch Ard Gorge, where you can rest at a pearlescent inlet flanked by similarly soaring limestone cliffs.

The route is an excellent way to see day-to-day Australian life beyond the big cities. About halfway along, you might stop at the town of Apollo Bay, where you can survey the seas from Mariner’s Lookout or eat fresh-from-the-water oysters at coastal cafes and restaurants.

As you start your route, you could check out Torquay with its locally renowned chocolaterie. And, as your journey finishes, stay for the night in the fishing village of Port Fairy.

How long should I spend on this route? Officially, the Great Ocean Road travels between Torquay and Allansford in southeast Victoria. Many choose to journey there from Melbourne and complete it within a few days, but it can easily fit into a longer road trip from Adelaide to Melbourne, or vice versa.

Get me there: A voyage down the Great Ocean Road is included in this classic trip through southeast Australia.

Great Ocean Road, Australia
Great Ocean Road, Australia

Christchurch to Queenstown, New Zealand

With its glacier-fed valleys, crystal-clear lakes, lush rolling farmlands, and simmering geothermic zones, New Zealand is routinely named one of the best countries for road trips. This route from Christchurch to Queenstown highlights the top sights of the South Island.

Starting in Christchurch, you’ll have time to explore New Zealand’s second-largest city and the pasturelands that surround it before hitting the road. This British-influenced metropolis is home to a thriving botanical garden and a number of Anglican churches.

From there, you’ll head to Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. Nestled amid the Southern Alps, these slow-flowing rivers of ice pour down the mountainsides to form a constantly changing landscape. Explore the deep-blue ice tunnels of the glaciers on a guided trek, or if you’re feeling adventurous, take to the skies on a heli-hiking tour, which will also lead you around the slopes of Aoraki/Mount Cook.

After leaving the glaciers, driving the Haast Pass is the most scenic route to Queenstown. Winding through the pass, you’ll see the Tasman Sea to your right and the snow-capped peaks of the Alps to your left, as well as alpine valleys, beech forests, and historic goldrush towns along the way. Consider a stop at Lake Matheson, where you might catch a reflection of the gargantuan Aoraki/Mount Cook in its mirrorlike waters.

Another popular stop along the pass is Lake Wanaka. Framed by soaring peaks and (in summer) alpine meadows, it’s an ideal spot for outdoor enthusiasts — you can go hiking, mountain biking, and take boat trips and scenic flights in the area.

The final stop is then Queenstown, another excellent spot for nature lovers with a variety of hiking and biking trails through the Remarkables mountain range.

How long should I spend on this route? To get the most of this route from Christchurch to Queenstown, we recommend taking at least a week.

Get me there: This adventure across New Zealand includes a road trip between Christchurch and Queenstown with time at the glaciers.

Wanaka, Wanaka
Road to Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

The Ring Road, Iceland

A road trip around Iceland’s Ring Road gives you up-close encounters with the pluming geysers, steaming fumaroles, and ultramarine ice caps that earn the country its nickname: the land of fire and ice.

With all that to look forward to, we wouldn’t blame you for wanting to head for the roads as soon as possible. But, if you have time, spend a few days in Reykjavík to start your journey. Setting the scene for your immersion into Icelandic culture, this brightly colored city is rife with museums, street art, and unconventional architecture both new and old.

Once your stomach’s filled with pylsur (Icelandic hot dogs), you’ll head for the valleys., The first stop along the way is Þingvellir National Park — home to a large section of the Atlantic Ocean ridge. This giant gash in the earth was formed by the separation of two tectonic plates — and we can arrange for you to not only explore this rift valley by foot, but also on a snorkeling tour.

From Þingvellir, the road winds its way east, past knolly lava fields, towering basalt columns, and the imposing falls of Skógafoss. Over here, you might stop at the massive ice caps of Vatnajökull National Park and explore glaciers by foot or 4x4, or dip inside ice caves on a guided trek.

It’s then time to head north to the more barren, volcanic landscapes of the island. At Lake Mývatn, you might visit gloopy mud pools, walk (from a safe distance) past the plumes of geysers, or even take a dip in simmering thermal pools.

There’s a lot you can do to connect with wildlife up here, too. At Húsavík, you could take a small-group boat tour to observe humpback whales. And at Varmahlíð, you might ride sturdy Icelandic horses and learn about their unique tölt gait.

Your route ends in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, an Iceland in miniature. Here, you’ll pass by mossy lava fields, long-stretching fjords, sandy black beaches, and around the imposing Snæfellsjökull ice cap.

How long should I spend on this route? We recommend at least 13 days.

Get me there: Find inspiration from our self-drive trip idea following the Iceland Ring Road.

Behind Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss, Iceland

The Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland

Crawling up the western coastline of Ireland, past bucolic villages and precipitous peaks, the Wild Atlantic Way provides a memorable journey through the helter-skelter sceneries of the Irish countryside.

This 2600 km (1600 mile) route runs from Cork in the Republic of Ireland all the way up to Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland. If you’ve got a few weeks on your hands, you can meander slowly up the road, visiting cities like colorful Galway or literary Limerick, and detouring to prominent spots like the Cliffs of Moher.

If you’ve only got a short amount of time, we recommend sticking to the wilds in the north of the Emerald Isle. Dive straight into nature by starting at Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only fjord, where we can arrange for you to join a ghillie for salmon fishing or hike the historic Famine Trail.

Next, you’ll move onto Sligo, the hometown and occasional muse of poet WB Yeats. A mystical place dotted with ancient grave sites, the town and surrounding county are entrenched in Celtic mythology.

You can learn more about this history at the Knocknarea Cairn archeological site. Or, take advantage of the numerous outdoor activities available here, perhaps joining a sea kayaking trip, trying paddleboarding, or exploring on horseback.

Remaining in the Republic of Ireland, you’ll then pass into County Donegal. Ireland’s most northerly and rugged point, it’s known for its heather-clad mountains and long, sweeping beaches, as well as its ancient monuments, some of which predate the introduction of Christianity.

Stops along the way here include the Glenveagh Castle in the alpine Glenveagh National Park. Or, you might be interested in the Doagh Famine Village or the soaring Slieve League Cliffs, where you can take boat trip to spot nearby dolphins, whales, and seals.

The route ends as you cross over into Northern Ireland, where for more history you might like to walk the cobbled streets of Derry/Londonderry or visit the medieval castle in Enniskillen.

How long should I spend on this route? If you choose to just visit the northern section of the Wild Atlantic Way, from Killary Harbour to Enniskillen, the trip should take around ten days.

Get me there: You’ll find yourself traveling on sections of the Wild Atlantic Way on this trip along the coast of Ireland.

County Donegal
Country Donegal, Ireland

The Garden Route, South Africa

Thanks to its nature reserves rich with wildlife, clapboard-clad coastal towns, turquoise lagoons, silky golden beaches, and vine-woven valleys couched between mountains, the Garden Route more than earns its title as one of the best road trips in the world.

Begin your journey before the eclectic route even starts, on the Western Cape. Encompassing Cape Town, the vineyards of the Cape Winelands, and Hermanus (South Africa’s whale-watching capital), there’s plenty of activities here to kick-start a road trip.

You might give your legs a stretch by climbing Table Mountain, visit the promontory at Cape of Good Hope, or take a wine-tasting tour via tram.

More wine and wildlife can be enjoyed iyan the vast farmlands of Swellendam, which places you in easy reach of both the sand dunes of De Hoop Nature Reserve and the Route 62 highway.

Though technically not part of the Garden Route, this inland road zigzags through the speckled greens and browns of the Cape Fold Mountains to Oudtshoorn, a semi-arid desert known for its ostrich farms, meerkats, and the nearby Cango Caves with their complex network of stalagmites and stalactites.

Then it’s time to hit the road itself. Predominantly a coastal road, along the Garden Route you’ll spot sandy coves, dense gallery forests, and lagoons sparkling like jewels just off the shore.

A popular spot on the coastline is the upscale town of Knysna, known as much for its boutique stores, gabled galleries, and independent cafes as it is for its serene lagoon. There are options here for you to cruise out onto the lagoon, or you might like to follow trails through the twisting milkwood forests leading out from it.

For more of South Africa’s pristine white-sand beaches, as well as opportunities to look for southern right whales, dolphins, and seals on a boat trip led by naturalist guides, finish your time on the road at Plettenberg Bay.

But the trip doesn’t have to end there. For further wildlife encounters, canopy and walking trails, and the opportunity to try your hand at river tubing, you could head out to Tsitsikamma Forest. Then, carry on to the seaside city of Gqeberha/Port Elizabeth to either fly home or head off on safari.

How long should I spend on this route? As it’s only 300 km (190 miles) long, you can choose to spend as little as a day exploring the Garden Route. However, for more time to see the sights both along the route and in the Western Cape, we recommend taking around ten days.

Get me there: On this self-drive route of the highlights of South Africa, you’ll cover part of the Garden Route before spotting the Big Five on safari.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch
Vineyards of Stellenbosch in the Cape Winelands, South Africa