Eight Perfect Autumn Drives
From Scandinavia to New England… where to go, where to stay and what to wear.
The cool air of autumn is as pleasing to a well-tuned engine as it is to the rest of us. It soughs through the grille balancing out the revs, the way fresh rain cools off a long-distance runner. The roads are empty. No more screaming families veering between lanes to reach another ice cream stand. Hotels are between seasons and begging for visitors. You can stop at a country restaurant for lunch and know that you will be served, not ordered away by a beleaguered maitre d’. You might get caught behind a slow-moving tractor doing the last of the harvest work, but otherwise you can open up the throttle and see if those three-digit mph numbers on your dash actually mean anything. From the mountains of the American West to the fjords of Norway and the mysterious woods of central France, nature pauses after the highs of summer and girds itself for the depth of winter by offering up the show of changing leaves. Autumn is when these drives show at their best.
The San Juan Skyway, Colorado, US
Scott Warren/ Robert Harding Picture Library
Start in Santa Fe, New Mexico and head north towards Colorado. The Skyway loops some 230 miles through the San Juan mountains, through old mining towns turned ski towns, Durango, Dolores, Silverton and Telluride. This is Butch Cassidy country – he robbed his first bank in Telluride. The road clings to the rims of canyons and the edges of mountains, hurtling you through aspens changing from green to red and gold. Settle your jangled nerves in the back-room bar at Telluride’s New Sheridan Hotel, where Mr Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf is said to have played a regular poker game. It’s a dark place of huge steaks and strong drink, a respite after long days in the saddle and blinding mountain sun.
WHAT TO WEAR
Mad River Valley, Vermont, US
© Corey Hendrickson
This is New England boiled down to its rosy-cheeked, Yankee quintessence. The roads are lined with farm stands selling apples by the peck and cider by the gallon. The white, clapboard homes and churches set off the abundance of turning leaves. Your chances of driving fast will be stymied by Volvos and Subarus going at a National Public Radio pace. But at least this will give you the chance to wonder if you haven’t dropped into a Mr John Irving novel. Stop at Warren’s lavishly eclectic Pitcher Inn for reassurance that beneath the prim conformity of the surface, the madness of the Mad River Valley is for real.
WHAT TO WEAR
Route 86 Adirondacks, New York, US
James P Blair/ Getty Images
When the robber barons of New York’s late 19th-century gilded age wished to recreate, they came to the Adirondack mountains, a five-hour drive north of New York City. They built vast camps, elaborate boy-scout fantasies for the families and friends. Today the region is less fashionable, but its landscape no less thrilling. You could meander through the High Peaks of the Adirondacks for weeks, but Route 86 takes you through 30 miles of the best of it, past Saranac Lake and Lake Placid and along the Ausable River, one of the best trout streams in America. To feel like a robber baron yourself, spend a night at The Point on Saranac Lake, once a Rockefeller camp, now a hotel.
WHAT TO WEAR
Route 500, the Black Forest, Germany
Nothing less than a Mercedes S Class will do for roaring through Germany’s mystical Black Forest along the Schwarzwald Hochstrasse. It begins with a stretch of elevated roadway, with the forest sweeping away on either side as if you are riding through the canopy. The road is straight and open, inviting you to test your horsepower against all the other German lead foots. Then you plunge back into the forest, zigzagging down sharp bends, lined with race barriers towards Baden-Baden. Here, prosperous burghers with red faces and fur coats shuffle off to imbibe and bathe in the healthful waters. This is old-fashioned European luxury, sure of itself and as reassuring as the silence in your Benz as you hurtle past 150mph.
WHAT TO WEAR
Oslo to Bergen, Norway
Peter Adams/ JAI/ Corbis
Start with a night at the new Thief hotel in Oslo, next door to Mr Renzo Piano’s Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art. Depending on time you can take the direct route heading west for a two-day drive through Norway’s big country to the port town of Bergen. You’ll go through mountain passes, blasting Grieg on the Blaupunkt. If you have more time, head north towards Trondheim and then loop back south via the Atlantic Road which arcs across an archipelago. You half expect trolls to be lurking under the Storseisundbrua Bridge. The Norwegians are so awash in cash from fish and oil, they have invested in the most lavish rest stops anywhere in the world. Stop to stretch your legs, and you won’t be dodging flying burger wrappers and snarling truck drivers. You’ll be walking on a bridge cantilevered out over a fjord, or into a glass and concrete box burrowed into the landscape, the last word in Scandinavian architecture. At Hereiane, you find a modern building made of local stone surrounded by lurid green concrete looking out over the Hardanger fjord, whose smooth sides rise up near vertically into the mountains. A short diversion north brings you to Vedahaugane with extraordinary mountain views and an artwork called "DEN", by the American artist Mark Dion, accessed by a stone tunnel dug into a hill.
WHAT TO WEAR
The Susten Pass, Uri, Switzerland
Drivers differ on the greatest hairpin drive in Europe. Some say it’s the Stelvio Pass leading up out of Lombardy into the Alps. The more outré insist it’s the Transfăgărășan Highway which connects Transylvania to Wallachia over 55 miles of sharp bends through the southern Carpathian mountains of Romania. But if you’re looking for a beautifully engineered mountain road, there is nothing to beat Switzerland’s Susten Pass. Add autumn to this Alpine blacktop and you have the closest driving gets to a night at La Scala. The Susten Pass links Innertkirchen with Wassen with 26 bridges and tunnels, curving switchbacks and clear runs past glacial lakes. Strong, silent Mr William Tell is supposed to have been born in the Uri canton of Switzerland in the 13th century. When you pull into its mountain towns, you’ll wonder if anything has changed since.
WHAT TO WEAR
Sheffield to Manchester through the Peak District, UK
David Hughes/ Robert Harding
There is a jaw-jutting magnificence to the Peak District. It does not beg to be loved, like some of these drives. It is as hard and defiant as the people who live along it. But if you’ve seen Messrs Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip, you’ll know that there are subtler pleasures lurking in the north of England for those on four wheels. The Peak District still screams of Mr Darcy striding coldly across the hills. But loop south from Sheffield before heading north to Manchester and you will find everything from low-ceilinged pubs such as The Devonshire Arms in Beeley to the Michelin-starred Fischer’s in Baslow. If you have time to detour south, Chatsworth, the home of the Duke of Devonshire, makes over-touristed Versailles look like a royal slum.
WHAT TO WEAR
The Sologne, France
There is tourist France, real France and then the Middle Earth of Frenchness that is the Sologne. Drive a couple of hours south of Paris and you are quickly lost in a skein of country roads and stone villages swaddled in mist. Hunters prowl these woods and roast their prey on open fires. Chic Parisian families in Wellington boots and Barbour jackets fill the low-ceilinged restaurants. Sir Mick Jagger retreats to his home here to recharge. You can drive straight through or let yourself get lost in the ancient woods. The Grand Hotel du Lion d’Or in Romorantin-Lanthenay may not be the most decorated hotel in France, but it could be the Frenchest, with fresh flowers on every table and hare terrine and girolles plucked from the forest, fricasseed and deposited on your plate. Best driven in an old Citroën with wheezing hydraulics and upholstery reeking of filterless cigarettes.