LOOK at this picture. Now imagine it’s you on the bike riding mile after mile through scenery you’ve only known before in road movies. Having trouble? Well, read on and hopefully you’ll get a clearer picture of what it’s like to travel on the planet’s most breathtaking routes. Routes that have one thing in common; they’re experiences as much as mere roads. If there is a motorcycle heaven, each one will take you there. We’ve even included contact details for each trip in case you feel so inspired you just have to go there for real...
Utah and the Four Corners, USA
Four Corners is the only place in the USA where four states come together – Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. And luckily all four are paradise on two wheels. This whole area is high – over 5000ft – and winter weather can be severe. The best time to travel is May to September, but high summer can be oppressively hot.
Utah is weird. Whatever the geologists say, the whole damn state is made of marzipan and raspberry ripple. The scenery is a kids’ birthday bun-fight on a colossal scale. Everywhere you look, Knickerbocker Glories rear out of the desert like Willy-Wonka Manhattans. Half-eaten birthday cakes decorate one horizon, monolithic vanilla slices the other. There are meringue minarets and pepperoni pinnacles, cleft by Kit-Kat canyons hewn by Cadbury’s quarrymen from the underlying Toffee Crisp. There are colours Dulux have never heard of, and could only have sold to Andy Warhol if they had. You get indigestion of the retina just looking at it all.
Utah and its neighbours are also packed with scratchers’ dream roads, but since you’ll spend most of your time slack-jawed at the scenery, anything from a Blade to a Glide is fine. The high point is the surreal collection of national parks in southern Utah and northern Arizona.
Take Moab, sandwiched between Arches and Canyonlands Parks on Route 191. Arches – featured in current car TV ads – is soaring orange spires and... well... arches, with a gleaming backdrop of the snow-capped La Sal Mountains. If Monument Valley weren’t already called Monument Valley, Arches would be. Mother Nature on ecstasy. Unreal.
Head north out of Moab, hang a left where it says " Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point " . The empty road snakes up a spectacular but uncelebrated red-rock canyon – 10 a penny round here – whirling up switchbacks to the plateau. Then it’s pretty dull for a few miles until suddenly the road stops and the world simply disappears at Dead Horse Point. Gone. In its place, space – a void as big as the Alps. Half-a-mile below the Colorado River roars noiselessly.
From Green River Outlook, 20 minutes away, the view over a vast desert moonscape extends all the way to the movie-maker’s favourite, Monument Valley, over 100 miles as the crow flies.
So let’s go there. It’ll only take a very long day. North on 191, west on Interstate 70, then south through the wilderness to Hanksville on 24. Either route offers scintillating roads through orgasmic scenery. Right goes to Capitol Reef, but left is my all-time favourite: Route 95 frolics from nowhere to nowhere else though 100 miles of an awesome nothingness of orange canyons and the sensational Hite Crossing over the Colorado River. Then right on 261, down the Moqui Dugway, and into Mexican Hat. Cold beer. Navajoburgers (made by the Indians, not of them). And the towering buttes of Monument Valley just up Route 163.
It’s endless. 150 miles to the west are the improbable massed spires of Bryce, with Zion Park’s immense battlements a couple of hours beyond. There’s even a real Big Rock Candy Mountain. Beyond that is Las Vegas, Death Valley and the Californian Sierra Nevada. And I haven’t even mentioned a large hole in Arizona known as the Grand Canyon.
This is many bikers’ dream trip. It’s not one road, but many, an almost infinite array of east-west routes straddling the US of A anywhere between the Gulf of Mexico and the Canadian border. Which one is best depends on what experiences you hope for en-route: New Orleans, the Mardi Gras and all the jazz, Chicago’s windy, bluesey city, or something in between. Forget Route 66 – it was obliterated by Interstate 40 after 1985. Only a few isolated chunks still exist.
East to West is best, because the roads and scenery get more sensational the further you go – the other way is anti-climactic. Besides, that’s the way a man’s gotta go. Try to take in the Appalachian mountains in the east (especially Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway) and as much of the Rockies and western deserts as time permits. But be prepared to be hot and bored in between.
And try not to finish in that sprawling, smoggy dump called Los Angeles. Aim for beautiful San Francisco instead. And, if you do, take in Route 120 through Yosemite and be prepared to be impressed.
As the crow flies, Atlantic to Pacific is around 2000 miles, but expect to cover at least 3000. With speed limits of 55mph on most roads (although some freeways allow 65 or even 75mph), even 300 miles per day means long hours in the saddle.
How to do it:
The U.S. is awash with bike rental outfits. Best UK contact (for USA and elsewhere) is H-C Travel, who specialise exclusively in motorcycle holidays. They’re on: 01256-770775. Fax: 01256-771773. For Four Corners we also recommend Doug Lees’ Wild West Adventure Vacations, based in Silver City, New Mexico: 001-505-538-8806. Or: www.zianet.com/wildwest
Baja Peninsula, Mexico
best known in motorcycle circles as California’s dirt-biking annexe, Baja is another world from the USA. Once a wild haven for bandits and thieves, its one main road was completed only in late 1973. Highway 1 winds for over 1000 miles from Tijuana on the U.S. frontier to a southern tip by Cabo San Lucas, just beyond the Tropic of Cancer. Biking has few better experiences than winding along with it.
As well as striking across broad, baking deserts, Highway 1 plays tag with two coasts. To the west is the broad Pacific, to the east the uncanny blue of the Sea of Cortez. Even the desert itself is different, sometimes arid and bare, at other times cloaked in a forest of towering organ-pipe cacti, like battalions of green-uniformed conquistadors marching down to the sea. Strangest of all is the cirio, comically spindly, like an anorexic Triffid.
Occasionally the desert stops and up pops an idyllic grove of date palms around a lake. One such is San Ignacio, a pastel village huddled around a shady square and its imposing mission church, built by Dominican monks over 200 years ago.
Other jewels are the coastal village of Mulege (the best fish tacos on earth), Santa Rosalia and the curious prefabricated steel church of Santa Barbara, designed by Eiffel for the 1898 Paris World Fair. And Loreto, lounging on a broad blue bay between the shark-tooth ridges of the Isla de Carmen and the craggy wall of the Sierra de la Giganta. Established in 1697, the town was Baja’s capital until flattened by a hurricane in 1829.
There’s a beautiful symmetry about desert ecologies. In Baja, almost every cactus sports a resident vulture, ghoulishly waiting for the next squeal of brakes, dull thump and flurry of fur or feathers – vulture-speak for " dinner time " . But Highway 1 isn’t the safest of restaurants, and being up to your skinny neck in entrails isn’t the best of vantage points, so coyotes skulk about in the roadside scrub hoping for dead vultures. And around all this roam small bands of Mexicans, looking to strip the carcasses of cars that didn’t quite make it. Sometimes they get there before the engine is cold. In Baja, everything is recycled.
After 1000 miles of desert, Cabo San Lucas comes as a shock. By day, Cabo offers scuba diving, sailing, big game fishing and a million other things to do. By night, Senor Corona and Senorita Marguerita soon take care of the culture shock.
How to do it:
Although bike hire in the U.S. is easy, many outfits prohibit travel into Mexico. EagleRider (www.eaglerider.com) offer guided Harley tours through Baja. Contact
H-C Travel for further info on this and rental bikes on: 01256-770775.
South Island: New Zealand
South Island is the size of England and Wales, and about half a dozen people live there. The scenery is awesome, the roads superb and there’s almost no-one but you to enjoy them.
Starting from Christchurch, head south on the coast road to Temulka before heading inland to Mount Cook, then south via Omarama to the Lindis Pass, Cromwell and the Kawarau Gorge. Next stop is New Zealand’s " adrenalin capital " , Queenstown.
From Queenstown, head north again, to the Haast Pass and Tasman Sea, following the coast to Greymouth. Then inland up the Buller Gorge and over to Nelson, Picton and Blenheim, before following the east coast back to Christchurch. It’ll take a week – the best biking week of your life.
South Island is where they tested prototype scenery before sending it elsewhere. As you crest the Burke Pass – bingo! Smack between the eyes is the whole of creation, framed in a gilded basin of snow grass and a sky of crystal clarity: almost the entire Southern Alps, range upon snow-capped range, with the towering massif of Mount Cook centre stage.
And these aren’t just any Swiss Alps – they pre-date ski resorts, tourists and bureaucrats. A day’s ride from here can take you to Norway (fjords), Brazil (rain forest), via British Columbia, Wyoming and anywhere else your imagination can handle. New Zealand space-time is very strange stuff (and the wine’s pretty good, too).
And you want unspoiled and remote? In 1948, near the road to Milford’s sensational fjords, someone spotted a Takahe, one of Kiwi-land’s native birds. Not very remarkable, you might think, except that the Takahe had been declared extinct 60 years earlier. Or crest a rise and marvel as Lake Hawea’s white-capped waters spread as far as you can see between walls of rugged mountains, with precisely one building to mar the 40-mile vista.
Twenty miles later, Lake Wanaka goes one better – no buildings at all. Around it, the road clings to the precipices of the eastern shore, the bike clings to the road, you cling to the bike...
On to the Haast Pass and down to the weird grandeur of South Island’s West Coast – rain forest and glaciers, breaker-battered beaches, and not a soul for miles.
Then there’s Arthur’s Pass, which in the space of 40 miles mutates from a boisterous, Jack-the-lad of a road into barking-mad bitumen on a world turned sideways. And still half a lap to go.
How to do it:
At least four operators offer bike rental and all-inclusive tours in South Island, including Motorcycling Downunder, my hosts in 1992. All can be contacted via H-C Travel: 01256-770775.
Great Ocean Road, Australia
As war memorials go, this one is sublime. Built to commemorate Australian victims in World War I, the GOR frolics with the sea from Anglesea near Melbourne for 140 miles towards Adelaide. The eastern section is a torrent of cliffs and bends. Then, from Apollo Bay, it’s rain forest, ’roos and wombats before a shimmy along sandstone sea cliffs renowned for their vivid sunset vistas.
For the flattest, driest continent, Oz has a host of other great roads. Most of the best are in the Great Divide range, inland from the east coast and stretching practically from Melbourne to Cape York. The New England Highway, and almost any of the routes leaving it for the coast, are superb. The inland deserts don’t offer much by way of scratching, but there’s a magical timelessness about the Aussie wilderness that even the American Southwest cannot match. One of the most special is a sunset trip from Ayers Rock to the Olga monoliths.
How to do it:
You can hire bikes locally, or contact H-C Travel 01256-770775.
The five great passes of Ladakh, Asia
By and large the Third World is not a place for sports bikes – the roads are just too rough. Big trailies or even old nails are better. I rode an Indian-built Enfield, but whatever you’re on, there’s probably less technology in the whole of Ladakh than on the bike. In other words, this is not R1 country.
The five great passes strike north from the foothills at Shimla (200 miles north of Delhi) right across the giant Himalayan mountain chain. Geographically, Ladakh is part of Tibet – the high plateau which extends deep into central Asia. Culturally, too, it’s Tibetan – more so than the " real " Tibet since China rearranged its way of life. Until 1974, the region was closed to outsiders. But not anymore.
From Shimla, a day’s ride winds up to Manali, an improbable resort where apres-ski rubs shoulders with yaks and donkeys. Just beyond is the first pass, Rohtang La, which teeters under 1000-foot precipices and cascading waterfalls to the summit at 13,051ft. At the top are two tea-huts, Buddhist prayer flags by the tattered thousand, and a view to see and die.
Next is Baralacha-La, more of the same but higher. The trouble with the air up here is that there is no air in it –sapping your energy and making the bike’s engine feel sluggish. Yet, at 16,046ft, this is still half-a-mile below your ultimate goal.
Each pass is higher and drier than the last and separated by at least a day’s ride. This is very, very big country. Lachalung-La begins with the Gata Loops, 21 vertigo-inducing hairpins that would leave you dizzy even without the altitude.
Taglang-La soars to 17,582ft above sea level. At the top is a windswept stone hut, a view across all Creation, and a sign – " Unbelievable, is not it? " – of doubtful syntax but indisputable truth. To the north, the whole of Ladakh lies before you, the half-seen spires of the Karakoram beyond. A torrent of hairpins leads down to a rocky valley, and Gya, the first permanent settlement for days.
Another day along the Indus Valley brings you to Leh, the capital of Ladakh situated in a desert valley three miles up in the sky. Beyond Leh is the military road over Khardung-La (special permission required from the authorities). The distance to the top of the highest driveable pass on the planet is 26 miles – 25 across, and one straight up.
At first, the 18,500ft summit is an anti-climax. Around you in the high, thin air are the tattered remnants of prayer flags, a rusty tin hut (the Ibex Restaurant and B&B), and possibly the highest outside privy on earth. It’s not unlike a council tip.
Then the clouds part for a moment, revealing a tantalising view to the north, over the Nubra Valley to the Karakoram. There is the Mustagh Tower, and somewhere beyond lies K2. Indescribable. Get out a cigarette, light it with difficulty, and wheeze. The phrase " breathtaking " has never seemed so appropriate.
How to do it:
Two groups offer this and other Himalayan tours. Himalayan Roadrunners were my hosts in 1995. UK agent is Ed Shuttleworth (0171-627-2030) or www.ridehigh.com. H-C Travel handle bookings for Himalayan Motorcycle Tours (01256-770775).
Zagori, northern Greece
If you think of Greece as all white stucco and scarlet geraniums, the north western mountains couldn’t be more startling. Snow-bound in winter, they retain summit snows well into early summer, rising to 8638ft at Konitsa. This is The Other Greece, the one where few people go. The locals call it " Zagori " : behind the mountains.
Mountains are wonderful things. They soar up in inspirational spires. They bend roads into exhilarating corkscrews and deliver giddy views. They keep idle travellers out. And, in Greece in summer, they’re almost never wet and – thanks to EC handouts – the surfaces are usually superb.
Pick almost any road a random and you can be guaranteed a memorable ride. If pressed, I’d nominate the thrash over the E87 Katra Pass (the name means " curse " , but only a tortured rear tyre could think so) between Meteora and Metsovo. 58km in 35 effervescent minutes, more bends than you could count, and familiar sound effects at the end – the tick-tock of cooling engines, the chatter of near-misses relived, and the glug of cooling beers by the sturdy stone porch of the Hotel Galaxias as the sky turns pink over Mount Peristri.
After Meteora, only a road like that could have got you excited. This implausible collection of a thousand stone pinnacles is as near to a tourist magnet as the region possesses, but unmissable all the same. Rising out of the Thessalian plain above the town of Kalambaka, this is Monument Valley with knobs on – or rather crosses as 21 monasteries cling to its giddy ledges. Its name comes from the same word as " meteor " , meaning suspended in the air. If the entire wondrous place hovered on a cushion of butterfly breath, it couldn’t be more surreal.
From Metsova, head north and west, into Zagori proper. This is one of the wildest corners of Greece, with the fewest roads, the remotest villages, where one modern motorcycle is an event, a group practically a festival. Circling Mount Gamila (meaning camel) are enchanted valleys dotted with villages with equally enchanting names. Iliochori is the " village of the sun " . In the shaded square of Vrisochori, drink the waters from which the " village of the fountains " takes its name.
And then to Papigo, 14 dizzy hairpins above the crystal ribbon of what is reputed to be the cleanest river in Europe, the Vodomatis.
How to do it:
It’s a long haul, but worth it. Ferries from Bari and Brindisi offer a short-cut around the former Yugoslavia. See your local travel agent for details.
Norway is awash with capes, but only two of them really count. The southernmost tip is at Lindesnes, not much farther north than Aberdeen. Way, way to the north, Nordkapp’s grey cliffs tower 1000ft above the Arctic Ocean. Two-thirds of the route between them lies in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
The road begins in lush countryside, heading via Oslo to the Snohetta Mountains and the Arctic Circle. From Trondheim, Highway E6 plays tag with the sea, alternately sweeping along fjord-ridden coastlines, carving through tunnels and diving over mountain passes. The further north you travel, the emptier it becomes and yet the roads somehow get better with every mile. Nordkapp itself lies on the island of Mageroya, reached by ferry from Honningsvag. Yet even Mageroya boasts one of the most sensational roads on earth, a scratchers’ ribbon of Tarmac that traverses the wilderness.
Eventually, you’re there. This is where the explorer Chancellor vainly sought the North-West passage 450 years ago, and where 2000 perished when the German battleship Scharnhorst went down on Boxing Day 1943. Sometimes, it’s colder than a penguin’s pudendum and all you can see is fog. But if you’re lucky, you won’t regret it.
How to do it:
DFDS, Fjord Line and Color Line run ferries from the UK direct to Norway. See your travel agent for details.
Route Napoleon and the Alps, Europe
It’s called the Route Napoleon because the little Corsican used it on one of his hooligan European tours. Now it’s Tarmac, and great Tarmac at that, and you don’t get sent to St Helena for abusing it.
It’s true that there are better roads in the Alps, but very few let you enjoy yourself so much whilst charging headlong for the sun. The route N85 begins in Grenoble, from where it’s 200 miles of paradise to Cannes and the French Riviera. Along the way, hang a right from Castellane to the Gorge de Verdon – Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon. To the east of N85 are many of the finest passes the Alps has to offer. The Briancon and Barcelonette area alone offers the Col de la Bonette, Col du Galibier, Col d’Izoard, Col de la Cayolle, all rising to 8000ft and above. You’ll lose a few bhp in the thin air, but you will have the time of your life.
How to do it:
Bike, passport, credit card and toothbrush are all it takes.