Bold drivers reap panoramic rewards Visions: Each road is different, but all are among the world's sensational seaside journeys.

December 29, 1996|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

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

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.

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