Long before recorded history began, man has been an explorer. Intrepid early explorers found the way, and traders soon followed in their footsteps. Wealthy towns and cities sprang up along the most important trade and pilgrimage routes, many of which became world-famous. Other routes became famous not because of commerce, but simply because of their sheer beauty.
Today, many of the world’s most legendary routes are lined with well-appointed hideaway hotels and inns, making them much more pleasant to travel than when the first explorers and traders blazed the trails. We’ve assembled 10 particularly notable routes that still have the power to stir the heart, even decades or centuries since people first traveled their lengths.
Although the Brenner Pass had been in use for eons, it was the Romans who first built a road here in the 2nd century. It remains a vital pass through the Alps to this day, and the only rail link through these towering mountains which doesn’t require a major tunnel. The scenery of this trade route is some of Europe’s most dramatic, with seemingly endless snow-capped mountains interspersed with high, alpine meadows and tidy villages. Start in lakeside Zurich, driving along the shore to tiny Liechtenstein, continuing on to Austria’s Tyrolean Alps. Andrew Harper calls the Tyrol “a picture-book region of outstanding beauty… a paradise for anyone who enjoys the great outdoors.” After a few days’ visit, turn south at Innsbruck, crossing the Brenner Pass into Italy and the Dolomites, an astonishing range of jagged limestone peaks. The independent Austrian/Italian hybrid culture here is fascinating. Complete your journey in what was once the world’s greatest trading power, Venice.
One of the world’s most glamorous routes traces the indentations of the Italian coast from Sorrento east, past Positano and Amalfi, to the magical town of Ravello. Resort hotels here occupy palatial villas or purpose-built structures carved into the cliffs above the Mediterranean. Passing by terraced lemon groves and colorful villages clinging to precipitous slopes above the sea, this drive won’t disappoint even the most jaded traveler, but caution is in order: Italians take the frequent sharp curves at nerve-wracking speed. The Amalfi Coast makes an ideal base for day trips to Pompeii and the island of Capri.
"The nicest part of the road is when you leave Castiglione and go up toward Ravello. The view of the sea and sky is simply unbeatable." – Mariella Avino, managing director at Palazzo Avino.
There was a time when those of means would embark on a Grand Tour of Europe in order to learn about the glories of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance (as well as mingle with high society on the continent). One of the best parts of the Grand Tour passed through the gracious lakeside towns of Switzerland, where classic palace hotels were built for the wealthy travelers. Start with a stay in one of the Harper partnering grande dame hotels of Geneva, and visit a winery or two en route to Lausanne. From there, the fashionable alpine resort town of Gstaad is just two hours away. Return to mountain-backdropped lakes with a stop in gracious Lugano in Ticino, Switzerland’s southernmost and most Italian canton. The palaces and formal gardens of Lake Como and Maggiore are just across the border. Stop here, flying home from Milan, or continue your Grand Tour with stops in Venice, Florence and Rome. The itinerary of the Grand Tour, whichever piece you choose to take, is as exciting and enriching as it ever was.
“The most stunning and memorable part is the few hundred meters immediately after passing the border from Switzerland to Italy coming from Lugano, where you are high in the mountains and have a breathtaking bird’s eye view over Lake Como. For just a few seconds you feel like you are flying over this natural spectacle, and the sight includes the lovely medieval town of Como, with the cathedral dome appearing high above the city roofs, the mountain of Brunate with its steep funicular, and the waters of the lake dotted with tiny villages perched on the cliffs. This is an unexpected vision spaced out between the tunnels that will blow you away. And you can do nothing but dream about your next visit to the lake!” – Valentina De Santis, CEO/owner of Grand Hotel Tremezzo.
The trade in Baltic amber dates back at least three millennia, and probably more. Eventually, a formal trade route was established, bringing this prized jewel from northern Europe down to the Mediterranean and beyond. The first half of the route, where amber was produced, is the most fascinating today. Start in imperial St. Petersburg, Russia, taking time to visit the painstakingly reconstructed Amber Room in startlingly opulent Catherine’s Palace. Head southwest through the underrated Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Tallinn’s magnificently atmospheric old town, Riga, is noted for its remarkable art-nouveau and medieval architecture, and Vilnius has its own old town classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. As you travel between these cities, take time to enjoy the extraordinarily picturesque countryside, dotted with old-growth pines and charming villages. Poland, too, continues to be a major amber center. Home to a rich and innovative cultural scene, vibrant Warsaw has thoroughly shaken off its communist gloom. And just to the south, undamaged in World War II, Krakow ranks as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. The historic Cloth Hall in the picturesque market square is an ideal place to pick up one last piece of amber.
One of the most iconic roads in the United States is Route 66 which is, alas, no longer possible to drive in its entirety from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. After the development of the interstate highway system, much of Route 66 was bypassed, and some sections disappeared altogether. An especially scenic stretch of Route 66 starts just south of Las Vegas, an ideal jumping-off point for this itinerary. Head east through dramatic desert scenery to the grandeur of Sedona. After a few days of hiking and indulging in a spa treatment or two, continue east to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Mr. Harper’s newly recommended inn has its own lavender farm set just around the corner from a world-class winery in an Andalusian-style hacienda. Finish your drive along Route 66 in Santa Fe, taking in the panoply of art galleries and restaurants housed in atmospheric adobe buildings.
“There are rolling piñon-covered hills, canyons and rivers throughout the journey and it is absolutely delightful. A favorite stop is the La Risa Café in Ribera, New Mexico which is located just off I25 on NM State Road 3. Ribera is a traditional northern New Mexico village along the Pecos River and next to Villanueva State Park. The café is located in a 100-year-old adobe and serves some of the finest local New Mexican food around.” – Brian Graves of The Inn of Five Graces.
The California coastline is sensationally scenic, particularly along the justifiably famous Pacific Coast Highway. State Route 1 runs approximately from San Francisco to Los Angeles, threading its way along sea cliffs, beaches and coves. An ideal stopping point south of San Francisco is the Monterey/Big Sur area, rich with sybaritic spa resorts and top golf courses such as Pebble Beach. Continuing farther south, it’s worthwhile to make a brief detour inland to the idyllic wine region of Paso Robles. Spend a night or two in wine country before continuing south to Santa Barbara, a seaside town infused with Mediterranean flair. Enjoy the historic shopping district downtown and the palm-fringed beach before flying home, or keep going south to Los Angeles for a stay in a glamorous resort in Beverly Hills or Bel Air.
“One of the most breathtaking moments on the drive…is the point near Summerland where you see the sparkling, blue Pacific Ocean to the left and lush agriculture on the right. You know Santa Barbara is approaching when you feel the crisp ocean air and you start noticing more and more of those stunning Eucalyptus trees.” – Ali V Kasikci, Belmond’s regional managing director for North America, Mexico, Caribbean & Brazil (formerly Orient-Express).
Africa isn’t only about safaris. The coast between Cape Town and Plettenberg Bay has a mild climate with abundant sunshine and sweepingly beautiful landscapes covered by a carpet of low evergreen shrubland known as fynbos, which in turn shelters a huge variety of colorful and spectacular flowers. This so-called “floral kingdom” is internationally regarded as a unique hot spot of biodiversity. The most popular stretch of the Garden Route extends for about 125 miles, from Heidelberg to Tsitsikamma. A succession of majestic sandy bays, swept by ocean waves, is punctuated by rugged headlands. The road is excellent, and it is quite possible to drive its entire length in a few hours. Most visitors, however, opt to pause in one of the coastal towns, such as George, Knysna or Plettenberg Bay. These are tranquil, picturesque places with numerous excellent restaurants. This drive makes for a delightfully civilized contrast to wild African safari country.
Although not a trained archaeologist, Hiram Bingham is credited with the rediscovery of Machu Picchu, that captivatingly enigmatic ruined city perched on a mountain ridge high above Peru’s Sacred Valley. The capital city of Lima serves as the gateway of this itinerary, and it’s worth staying at least a day or two to enjoy the colonial center and the excellent museums. Fly from there to Cusco, the imperial city of the Incas. Said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere, Cusco possesses a charming mixture of Incan and Spanish colonial cultures. A Belmond train—named the Hiram Bingham, of course—runs from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Overnight at the ruins, enjoying the drama of the dawn before the crowds arrive. Finish with some time in the tranquil and fascinating Sacred Valley, home to spectacular lesser-known citadels, fortresses and temples at Ollantaytambo and Pisac.
“The train goes along the ancient path of the Incas, following the Urubamba River down into the Sacred Valley. Most people don’t realize that, that Machu Picchu is actually more than 3,000 feet lower than Cusco and you go down to it. But the best part is coming back in the evening: after trekking the ruins, the moment of going back up to Cusco on the train with Peruvian musicians, dining and sharing your experience with the others—it’s a very cool thing.” – Cindy Holloway, director of leisure sales for North America, Belmond (formerly Orient-Express)
An abolitionist and explorer, David Livingstone was one of southern Africa’s most famous adventurers, crisscrossing the continent in the mid- to late 19th century. Many of the routes he traversed make for difficult travel even today, but one of his earliest journeys is an excellent basis for an itinerary. Fly into Johannesburg, South Africa, and spend a night or two. Meet up with Dr. Livingstone in the Kalahari, where he was first posted as a missionary. Go on safari here and in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, which Mr. Harper calls “one of the finest wildlife destinations in Africa.” Dr. Livingstone passed through here on more than one expedition, setting off on the Zambezi River from Linyanti. Finish your journey at the nearby Victoria Falls, which Dr. Livingstone is credited with first bringing to European attention. In a letter to Queen Victoria about the falls, he wrote, “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight,” and he called them “the most wonderful sight [he] had witnessed in Africa.”
The indignities of modern air travel have made a mockery of the axiom, “Getting there is half the fun,” but aboard the original Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train, half seems like quite an underestimate. The opulent train reclaims the elegance of travel, with meticulously restored accommodations, lounges and dining cars. The current train is best known for its one-night itineraries between Paris and Venice, but it’s also possible to complete the original route between Paris and Istanbul, an unforgettable five-night journey including Budapest and Bucharest. (The Istanbul-Bucharest-Budapest-Venice itinerary is similarly momentous.) The history of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express carriages, the exquisite food and the impeccable service combine to make these journeys unique in Europe. The original Orient-Express route also could be completed with the continent’s excellent contemporary train network, though obviously not in the same style. An ideal itinerary would start in Paris, making stops for two or three nights each in Strasbourg, Baden-Baden, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest and Istanbul.
“The most magical thing to me is walking into the Venice railway station. It gives you chills, seeing the beautiful navy-blue carriages and the stewards in their uniforms and knowing that you’re going to be on that train. It’s fantastic. And when the train pulls out, of course, you travel through some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe.” – Cindy Holloway, director of leisure sales for North America, Belmond (formerly Orient-Express).
Provided by the Andrew Harper Travel Office