This one is for serious roadies—a long haul that’s best attempted with two drivers and a week on hand, for there are such epic places to see on the way and back. If you are feeling exceptionally energetic, start very early to reach Bikaner (460km/10hrs/NH8, RJ SH37 and 41, and NH11; skip Narnaul and opt for the longer route via Sikar for better roads). Ideally though, on both the up and down journeys, detour to some of Shekhawati’s (about 200km/4hrs to/from Bikaner via NH11) splendid havelis at Mandawa and Nawalgarh (Jhunjhunu and Ramgarh too, if you have the time), rewarding yourself with a heritage stay or two. Bikaner to Jaisalmer (330km/7-8hrs/NH15) is another hard day’s drive. Khichan, the village that welcomes over 20,000 Demoiselle cranes from August to March, and Pokhran (a fort amidst rocks, sand and five salt ranges) are along the way.
Start your drive with breathtakingly gorgeous Gulf of Mannar vistas at the Indian Land’s End in Dhanushkodi (note that the 20km Rameshwaram-Dhanushkodi stretch needs a 4XD because the hauntingly atmospheric road, or what’s left of it after the 1964 cyclone, is sanded over for most part). Exit by the Pamban road bridge, which makes for another fantastic photo op, coasting over good tar till Tuticorin (200km/4hrs/NH49 and ECR), after which getting to Kanyakumari (130km/3hrs/ NH7A and NH7) will rattle every bone you have got. Thereafter, you’re in for some serious visual treat. There are palm-treed stretches that turn exquisitely painterly around sunrise and sunset. On your way back, if you decide to take the more comfortable Tirunelveli route en route to Madurai, hundreds of slender white windmills will keep you company.
Leh to Khardung La (40km/75min) over the highest motorable pass in the world is on every driving itinerary to Ladakh, naturally. Onward then to Diskit (77km/3hrs/Khardung La Road) for the startling landscapes of the Nubra Valley. Here, commonly held wisdom demands tourists explore Hunder’s sand dunes on Bactrian camels (12km/30min), but we suggest the road much less travelled to the Balti village of Turtuk (95km/8hrs from Diskit on some of the most inhospitable wind and road conditions anywhere on the planet!). Home to one of India’s most unique Himalayan cultures, Turtuk opened to domestic visitors only in 2010—the Karakoram range looms close by and Siachen is just round the corner (but ILPs are no longer mandated for Indian travellers since May 2014). A glacial stream cuts through the stunningly scenic village, whose orchards produce the best apricots of the region.
PANGI VALLEY OVER THE SACH PASS
The Dalhousie-Khajjiar-Chamba (77km/3hrs) route affords easy familiarity and well-established settlements for travellers to the region but the Himachali SH37 afterward is narrower and wilder with Bairagarh (53km from Chamba/3hrs) the best available overnight halt before you attempt an early morning ascent for better views and less traffic at the Sach Pass (29km/about an hour). The road is dangerously rudimentary and allows only one-way traffic over dust-kicking rubble (be prepared for treacherous reverses), but your mind would also be on the breathtakingly enormous glacial formations alongside. Keep driving to Kilar (38km/1.5hrs from the Sach Pass), still over terrible roads and fantastic alpine scenery, which defines the astonishingly picturesque Pangi valley, gateway to remote Lahaul. Next up are Udaipur (73km/3-4hrs from Killar) and Tandi (44km/2hrs), from where you can turn back, and head to Manali (113km/3.5hrs).
MUMBAI-RATNAGIRI COASTAL DRIVE
Forget the Mumbai-Pune Expressway and take the sea-loving Maharashtra SH104 from the maximum city to minimally urbanised Alibaug (95km/2.5hrs). This can well turn out to be a perfectly beachy break if you have the time. Head out on another short hop to Shrivardhan (112km/3hrs/SH99), making time to enjoy the splendid beach of Murud and the majestic sea fort of Janjira (it’s the only fort to have successfully resisted the Marathas, the Dutch and the British)along the way. The unspoilt beach at the temple town of Harihareshwar is just a leap away from Shrivardhan. It doesn’t exactly hug the ocean, but the culture is coastal all the way to Ratnagiri (225km from Shrivardhan/5hrs/some state highways and then the NH66). Be sure to account for plentiful extra hours to sample gourmet Malvan seafood washed down with kokum sherbet and hapoos from wayside vendors, even more frequently as you approach sylvan Ratnagiri.