Best for Harley heaven: California
Saturday 06 February 2010
There comes a time in life, normally when hair starts thinning and waistbands begin to stretch, when a man's thoughts turn towards a motorbike. Specifically, they turn towards a Harley Davidson, those roaring kings of the open road upon which we can deludedly dream of being transported back to free-spirited days of our youth.
As a lifestyle choice, owning a Harley requires epic commitment (you need money, facial hair and tattoos, just for starters), but on holiday, you can hire one – and turn yourself into Marlon Brando in The Wild One for a few brief moments. And naturally, the only place to do this is in the USA, where the stately machines are still built.
So it came to pass that, a few months before my wedding, I set off with my future best man on a week-long trip north from Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway, the famous road that begins in San Diego and continues up the West Coast and across the Canadian border. Our steeds for this adventure were a pair of "Road Kings", perhaps the quintessential Harley, rented from a firm called Eagle Rider, which hires out "Hogs" for about $100 a day. And our attire? Leather jackets, of course, with jeans, cowboy boots and skull-covered bandanas.
The PCH, as the route is universally known, takes you first through Malibu, the seaside ghetto of billionaires and film stars, to Santa Barbara. After that, you head inland through the Santa Ynez mountains before hitting open coastline, punctuated by small towns where it is impossible to resist the temptation of upsetting the locals by revving your engine too noisily.
Halfway between LA and San Francisco, we stopped at Hearst Castle, the magnificently vulgar hilltop mansion near San Simeon built by William Randolph Hearst, the early-20th-century media mogul, plutocrat and real-life Citizen Kane. The castle still houses much of the vast collection of antiques that Hearst acquired from stately homes across Europe, and the scale of its ostentation has to be seen to be believed. After gawping at priceless artefacts on a guided tour, you'll see zebras from Hearst's private zoo strolling the grounds of this private Xanadu.
Further on, we hit Big Sur, a winding stretch of coast whose breathtaking clifftop road provides the backdrop to thousands of car adverts. At the right time of year, between roughly January and April, crowds of elephant seals litter the beaches here, fighting, mating and growing smelly in the sunshine. Big Sur was made famous by literary residents such as Hunter S Thompson and Henry Miller, but it has remained stubbornly unspoiled. On our third day, we stopped at a small road-side restaurant, and agreed this was the sort of place you could stay for weeks.
But a road trip is a road trip – so on we rode. Through Monterey (the home of bad cheese) and Santa Cruz (the home of surfing); through San Francisco, where the PCH takes you across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Point Reyes National Seashore, perhaps the most beautiful piece of seaside in the entire trip.
Our drive north didn't end until – on day five – we hit a police road-block a couple of hundred miles north of San Francisco. A forest fire had broken out, closing the road. So we turned around, and headed inland to Sonoma, the cheaper, less pretentious valley next to Napa, where we spent a couple of days touring vineyards, eating fine food, and falling asleep in the afternoon sunshine.
We returned home sunburned, saddle-sore, and sporting a week's worth of stubble. We'd covered 2,000 miles of tarmac, explored one of the western hemisphere's finest stretches of coastline, and gleefully bought into an all-American cliché that will endure as long as men have leather, denim and big, noisy motorbikes, covered in chrome.
# Drive through Namibia's deserts and along the Skeleton Coast, stopping at some of Africa's best wildlife parks. Try sandboarding in the dunes and visit tribal communities. Two weeks self-drive in an equipped Land Rover with Safari Drive (safaridrive.com), £1,095 per person.
# Australia's answer to California's Pacific Coast Highway: the Great Ocean Road stretches 243km over clifftops and beaches, across rivers and through lush rainforests with stupendous views of the Southern Ocean. Highlights include sunset over the 12 Apostles, rocks that tower biblical distances above the surf. greatoceanrd.org.au
# At 2,436m, the Furka Pass, as seen in James Bond's Goldfinger, is not for the faint-hearted. Drive up over the Swiss Alps along a narrow road that twists and turns around sheer drops and through endless hairpin bends. You'll find plenty of spots to get out and soothe your nerves with breathtaking mountain vistas. See myswitzerland.com
# Ireland's Old Military Road, constructed for defence purposes in the 19th century, takes you through some of the country's most stunning scenery. Pass stream-threaded bogs and peat fields, following the spine of the Wicklow Mountains into the "garden of Ireland" and the hilltop village of Glenadalough. discoverireland.com/gb
# Drive the best parts of the French and Italian Riviera along the SP1 coastal road between Monaco and Genoa. Azure waters and terracotta-roofed villages are glimpsed between hair-raising tunnels through the cliffs. And don't forget to look inland to see the Alps. Ideally done in a classic car: hire from classic-touring.co.uk
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