Happy Trails: Six of the best road trip holiday destinations

20 December 2021 By Sara Ventiera
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Sara Ventiera is a contributing writer and former stewardess who covers food, travel, and other topics. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, Food & Wine, NPR, Eating Well, and BBC Travel.

Looking to hit the road on your next vacation? Consider these six destinations for your downtime...

COVID-19 changed just about every aspect of life. From haircuts (or lack thereof) to seeing friends and family to visiting doctors, the pandemic upended the way we handle daily life. And that certainly includes travel. With fears of spreading the virus around cramped cabins, many travelers avoided airports and planes like the plague — opting to get away by car instead.

While the world has been increasingly getting back to normal — with planes, unfortunately, moving back to full capacity — there’s still plenty of reason to take a road trip. From dining at Michelin-starred restaurants and standing over pintxos bars in Spain to surfing some of the best beaches in Baja and hiking a world heritage site outside of Sydney, Dockwalk has rounded up some of the best road trips that start off in popular yachting destinations.

From Barcelona

Eating, Drinking, and More Eating in the Basque Country, Spain

San Sebastian
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One of my last international trips before the world shut down started in Madrid included a drive up to eat, drink, see art, and eat some more in Spain’s Basque Country, which really is best explored by car.

From Barcelona, it’s about a six-hour drive to San Sebastian, a town regularly cited by chefs as the best dining destination on the planet. When asked by the South China Morning Post what his favorite foodie city is, Wolfgang Puck told reporters, “San Sebastian in Spain has some of my favorite restaurants: Martin Berasategui, Asador Etxebarri, Arzak, and many of the tapas places in downtown.”

Visitors can pick and choose from three Michelin-starred restaurants like Arzak and Martin Berasategui or check out one of the best wine collections in the world up at Rekondo, which overlooks the city from the base of Mount Igueldo.

Throughout the Old Town — in my opinion, the best place to stay — travelers and locals pile into pintxo bars to snack and drink. Make sure to arrive at Bar Sport right as it opens for lunch to stand at the bar for its legendary tomatoes, padrón peppers, and bone-in ribeye, which sell out every day. Head to Bar Nestor for what many consider to be the best foie a la plancha in a town already known for the dish. Try the hongos (mushrooms) at Borda Berri, and just ask servers and locals what to eat where, then wander around the charming streets.

In between meals, walk over the La Perla Centro Talaso-Sport to digest and relax in thermal pools overlooking the beach.

From San Sebastian, head toward Bilbao to see the world-famous Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum. On the way, stop in the small fishing village of Getaria for fresh fish simply prepared in the Basque way at Restaurant Elkano.

Then go in whichever direction you please.

From Antibes

Ancient History, Wine, and Seafood in the Languedoc, France

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Take a break from the one-percenters of the Côte d’Azur by heading west to the ruggedly gorgeous, less-traveled coast of the Languedoc.

From Antibes, it’s about a four-hour drive to Narbonne, an important Roman seaport, that’s home to winemaker Gerard Bertrant’s Château L’Hospitalet, the splurge-worthy resort where I stayed on my trip to the region. The secluded property is a good base for visiting the city’s awe-inspiring aqueducts and coliseums or the quiet sandy beaches and rosy salt marsh Le Salin de Gruissan, where visitors can spot flamingos while filling up on shellfish and oysters at bordering seafood shack La Cambuse du Saunier.

Two other historical sites in the region that are definitely worth visiting — and require a set of wheels — are Tautavel, home of the oldest human remains in Europe, and Carcassonne, a medieval hilltop town.

Tautavel is a small village about an hour’s drive south of Narbonne. Its Museum of Prehistory walks visitors through the nearby Caune de l’Arago site, where the 450,000-year-old Tautavel Man was discovered. But the quaint town is worth a trip even without a walk through the museum for its lovely vineyards, dramatic cliffs, and the interesting wine list at Restaurant el Silex in town.

From there, it’s about an hour and 40 minutes through the country to reach the medieval hilltop town, Carcassonne. There, visitors wander around La Cité, a 10th-century citadel with ramparts, drawbridge, and witch-hat turrets. More than eight centuries ago, Catholic Church defectors established themselves in this corner of southwest France to hide from persecution.

Today, inside those castle walls, gourmands wine and dine at Michelin-starred La Barbacane and look out at limestone hills and the often snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees in the distance. And folks who want to spend the night inside the actual castle can sleep in Hotel de la Cite, another splurge-worthy place inside the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Sydney, Australia

Hiking and Relaxing in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales

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Just a quick drive from Sydney’s sun-soaked harbor, the 1.03 million hectares of sandstone plateau, escarpments, and gorges covered in temperate eucalypt forest of the Blue Mountains are an easy — and spectacular — driving destination, says Cristian Bonetto, a Melbourne-based travel writer and Lonely Planet contributor:

“The Blue Mountains are an ideal road trip for numerous reasons. Firstly, they’re easy to get to, a straightforward 90-minute drive west of the inner-city on the M4 motorway. Then there’s the fact they’re a World Heritage-listed site, with breathtaking plateaus, invigorating bush walks, and boho-spirited villages that make for a perfect long weekend. Some people just never leave.”

Bonetto suggests heading to Katoomba, the main tourist town in the region that’s known for its artsy vibe, art deco architecture, and iconic Three Sisters, a sandstone formation with three peaks that are sacred to the Gundungurra people. Visitors can sneak a peek of the siblings from the Echo Point viewing platform or hike a trail to the first sister.

In town, most travelers spend their time eating and drinking at places like craft beer and pizza destination Station Bar & Woodfired Pizza and Elephant Bean Café or listening to live music at Hotel Blue.

From Fort Lauderdale

Mermaids, Manatees, and Kitsch on the Gulf Coast of Florida

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Florida
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When freelance Stewardess Whitney Fair and a couple of friends decided to take a road trip from Fort Lauderdale, they decided to bypass the Florida Keys for a taste of old-school Florida.

Leaving from Fort Lauderdale on a Friday, they drove about four hours up to St. Petersburg for the Salvador Dalí Museum. The waterfront museum designed by architect Yann Weymouth highlights the artist’s rational and fantastical works in an almost equally impressive atmosphere. “That’s an artist I definitely like,” says Fair. “It was really cool seeing his works throughout the whole museum.”

The group camped out nearby before heading up to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to watch the iconic mermaid show. “I had been hearing about it for so long,” says Fair, who now performs as a mermaid herself at Wreck Bar in Fort Lauderdale. “We wanted to check it out — it’s just an interesting show and part of Florida history.” Although the park is best known for performing underwater nymphs, it is also home to plenty of wildlife and the deepest freshwater cave system in the country.

From there, the group drove another 45 minutes north to get in the water with creatures that once were considered mermaids by sailors back in the day: manatees. During the winter, Crystal River is home to the world’s largest population of endangered manatees. Several tour operators in the area offer visitors the chance to get up close and personal with the gentle creatures on guided snorkel tours. Unfortunately, Fair had to skip out on the interaction while her friends swam with the mammals. “On road trips, I like snacks and I stockpiled Peeps and York Peppermint Patties,” she says. “I was so sick that day because I poisoned myself.”

On their way back to South Florida, the group planned a stop in Gibsonton, aka “Carny Town.” The former fishing and lumber town became a hub for carnival performers in the 1930s and 1940s, and to this day, locals continue to carry on the sideshow-esque legacy of their forebears. “We checked out a bar that’s dedicated to all the circus performers that lived in town,” says Fair. “It’s quite an interesting vibe. It’s changed but you still do see some remnants about what it was back in the day.”

Fair doesn’t remember where they stopped to paddleboard, but that was another activity they did during their unconventional Old Florida trip. “We wanted to do something off-the-beaten path,” she says. “We just wanted to see real, weird, kitschy Florida.”

From San Diego

Surfing and Wine Tasting in Baja California, Mexico

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Combining epic waves and beautiful vineyards, Ensenada and its surrounding vineyard towns and beaches are located just an hour’s drive south of San Diego or about three hours from Los Angeles. Tara Moore, a veteran stew who now works as an estate manager in Beverly Hills, highly suggests the region for those who want to surf great waves, eat fantastic food, and drink lovely local wines in the midst of rugged natural beauty.

Moore and her friends rented a house just steps from the sand in Las Gaviotas, a gated community with private beaches and a “secluded, almost empty, perfect wave.”

While visiting, she makes sure to dine at Colectivo Surf Tasting Room to sip on local beer and snack on sushi and sashimi tacos made from fresh-caught fish.

Another popular surf spot in the area a bit farther north is K38, which gets a ton of visitors from San Diego. It’s a bit closer to touristy Rosarito, home of Tacos El Yaqui y Mariscos. The outdoor restaurant is a favorite among Southern California chefs visiting the area for its taco perron, a giant flour tortilla fully loaded with cheese, beans, lots of meat, salsa, and guacamole.

On her most recent trip, Moore decided to tack on a day to visit cosmopolitan Valle de Guadalupe, the most acclaimed wine region in Mexico. About an hour’s drive from Las Gaviotas (one and a half from Rosarito), Moore first stopped at hilltop restaurant and bar Cuatro Cuatros for a tomahawk steak, glass of wine, and killer panorama of the ocean and nearby cliffs. “Do yourself a favor and use the bathroom at the top of the restaurant for the best view of Baja,” she adds.

After lunch, Moore dropped down into the Valle to taste at local wineries and vineyards. Her favorite is Vinos Lechuza. “They’re really unique blends that make you feel like you’re tasting all of the varieties for the first time and it’s a really cute setting,” she says.

She chose to splurge on accommodation at Bruma, a design-forward, eco-friendly resort with another great winemaking program and a Michelin-level restaurant run by a young husband-and-wife team who spent time working in renowned kitchens like Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York.

From Vancouver

Mountain and Snow Adventures in Squamish and Whistler, Canada

Squamish, Vancouver
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During a quick couple of days off from her stewardess position on M/Y Blue Moon, Moore and a handful of the crew opted for adventuring rather than wandering around Vancouver. They rented a car for an action-packed two-day trip to Squamish, then Whistler. They woke up early and drove about an hour away for a half-day of paddling down Class 2 and up rapids on the Squamish River. “It was super fun,” says Moore. “They had a lot of rain and snowpack that year.”

She was also able to jump off a cliff into the glacier-fed body of water at the end of the trip. After drying off, they headed over to the foothills for an afternoon trail ride via horseback. There were some novices amongst the group, but everyone managed to steer their steeds through the steep and rocky, forested mountain paths.

While Moore suggests heading straight up to Whistler from Squamish, which is about 45 minutes north, her crew decided to break up the destinations into two separate trips.

For their next road trip in the area, a bunch of the crew woke up early again in Vancouver to snowboard Whistler’s infamous slopes — in the month of June. “If you’re game, there can still be a run here or there that’s open,” says Moore, who admits that the summer they were there, the only run open was an expert slope with a T-bar chairlift. “There are just so many activities in Whistler that are fun. We also did a snowcat up to the top of a mountain and had food fondue at a little ski hut.”

This article originally ran in the August 2021 issue of Dockwalk.


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