America: Head out on the highway

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There are few better ways to see the cinematic expanses of America than taking a classic road trip. Chris Leadbeater maps out the best fly-drive options

What's the attraction?

The US is a place custom-built for the travel institution that is the road trip – 3.8 million square miles where everything from icy peaks, wave-lashed shores, sun-kissed beaches, neon-lit cities and sand-blown deserts are likely to loom large in your fly-splattered windscreen.

All of this is easily explored, whether you take the simple option – exit the airport, grab a hire car and go – or pick the planned concept of a road-trip package, where your itinerary and hotels are arranged in advance. The holidays below cling to this latter idea, though in truth, journey options in this geological pick-and-mix of a country are endless. All prices listed are per person based on two sharing, including room-only accommodation (unless otherwise stated) and car hire.



Go west, with a difference

The Pacific seaboard is the poster boy of American road trips. The 348 miles that run to San Francisco from Los Angeles are its star image. But there are other expanses of a shore that stretches for 2,000 miles between Seattle and San Diego that are just as glorious – not least the quieter highways of Oregon and Washington State, where redwood trees crowd the camber.

America As You Like It (020-8742 8299; www.americaasyoulikeit.com) offers a 12-night "Best of Oregon and Washington" road trip that trawls both states, taking in Seattle, Portland and the fiery crag that is Mount St Helens. Prices from £1,130 including return United Airlines flights to Portland from Heathrow via San Francisco.



Deep thinking

Beyond California, the Deep South is the US's other fly-drive great. And while the roads of Tennessee and Louisiana are firmly on the beaten track, there is much to recommend a region that helped shape America in terms of politics, civil rights and music. Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012; www.bon-voyage.co.uk) offers a trip called the "Best of the Old South and New South" – 15 rolling days that take in Georgia (Atlanta), Tennessee (the Smoky Mountains, Nashville, Memphis), Mississippi (the pioneer city of Natchez), Louisiana (New Orleans), the Gulf Coast and Alabama (Montgomery and Birmingham). From £1,995 including return Delta Airlines flights from Heathrow or Manchester to Atlanta.



Orange counties

Celebrated as the best corner of the planet in which to watch autumn dip into its paintbox, the wooded flanks of New England make for road-trip heaven when September and October are turning to gold. This, of course, is a big region – six states and 72,000 square miles – but it's not impossible to get a taste of it all in one journey. Timeless Travel (0844 809 4299; www.timelesstravel.co.uk) has a tailor-made 20-night "Classic New England" package that can chalk off the rugged charm of Maine, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the rural colour of Vermont and the burnished beauty of Massachusetts. For autumn departures in September and October the trip costs from £1,699, including return Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow to Boston.



Rocks and hard places

Cowboys and canyons, rattlesnakes and red rocks, deserts and dust – the American West puts a cinematic sheen into a road trip. But while the Grand Canyon will always issue a siren call, part of the joy of this arid zone is that it can pull you away from the tourist throng.

Complete North America (0115 961 0590; www.completenorthamerica.com) offers a 15-day "Rockies, Canyonlands and New Mexico" fly-drive that ploughs an anti-clockwise furrow in and out of Denver, through Colorado, the rock formations of Utah and the parched expanses of New Mexico. From £1,899 per person, including return BA flights from Heathrow to Denver.



The Bigger Apple

New York, as endless songs have long told us, is more than a city. It is also a state, and a sizeable one too, with 330 miles separating New York City at its southern limit from the Canadian border at its top edge. In between, you'll find a hazy mix of forests, river valleys and mountains. All of it can be seen via the "New York to Niagara Falls" road trip run by The Vacations Group (01582 469777; www.vacationsgroup.co.uk). This 12-day jaunt takes you to the Big Apple itself, then up the Hudson Valley into the Catskills range, and on to Niagara. Breakfast is included throughout, except for the first two nights in New York. From £1,295, including flights from Heathrow to New York, returning from Buffalo via New York.



Route 66 and all that

There is no rule that says a road trip must balance on four wheels. And for those in thrall to the echoes of Easy Rider, the high-speed fantasy run by Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; www.virginholidays.co.uk) will have definite appeal. The 14-night "Route 66 Guided Motorcycle Tour" roars down a road that has lost none of its folklore status since being delisted from the US Highway System in 1985: 2,448 miles from Chicago to LA, slicing through Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The next departure is on 8 September and costs from £2,565, including Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow to Chicago, returning from Los Angeles, and bike hire.



What Google will tell you...

This year marks the 200th birthday of the US Interstate network. Construction on the "National Road" – which linked Cumberland in Maryland with Wheeling in what is now West Virginia – began on 8 May 1811. Absorbed into US40 in 1926, this line of Tarmac was a key step in America's expansion west.

"The National Road was the beginning of what became the world's largest and most sophisticated highway system," said Victor Mendez of the Federal Highway Agency ( www.fhwa.dot.gov) at a ceremony to mark the anniversary. "Our modern system preserves the legacy of that original interstate."



What Google won't tell you... until now

Every one of the 50 US states has roads that deserve your tyre tracks. "Particularly worth looking out for are routes that have been officially designated 'All-American Roads'," says Kate Burgess-Craddy, chair of the Visit USA Association UK.

"These include the Overseas Highway section of US1, which stretches from Miami down to Key West in Florida – and features the wonderfully panoramic Seven Mile Bridge. 'Scenic Byways' are another important designation, one example being the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina, which is nicknamed 'America's favourite drive'."

Who said that?

"My first ride was a dynamite truck with a red flag, about 30 miles into great green Illinois, the truck driver pointing out the place where Route 6, which we were on, intersects Route 66, before they both shoot west for incredible distances."

– Jack Kerouac, On The Road



"But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country."

– Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas



"America lives in the heart of every man everywhere who wishes to find a region where he will be free to work out his destiny as he chooses."

– Woodrow Wilson, US President 1913-1921

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