Driving a tough, reliable, versatile four-wheel-drive vehicle provides arguably the ultimate form of freedom on holiday. It helps your soul soar, getting off the beaten track in a literal, as well as metaphorical sense, leaving behind the crowds of people who now surround most of us for most of our time and having wide open spaces all to yourself. Unrestrained by airline schedules or train timetables, with a hardy 4x4 as your means of getting around, you're at liberty to go where you want, when you want, stopping to look at what intrigues you and putting your foot down through areas that hold less appeal.
But whether you plan to get behind the wheel yourself, driving the family from one wild Scottish coast to another or across one of America’s magnificent national parks, or you plan on having someone else taking care of driving duties as you bounce across Morocco, say, one thing is key. If you’re going to be travelling independently in an unfamiliar, lightly populated region it’s only sensible to book via a specialist travel company. The advice and input from staff who really know the area may literally save your life – as well as money, in the case of the new company disrupting the existing super-expensive model of African safari trips.
If you fancy an ambitious drive that includes a substantial desert crossing, having a practice run under controlled circumstances, as offered by Marina Bruce in Abu Dhabi, makes sense, letting you tackle at least some of the challenges you'll face, but with help at hand. If you've never driven far from your comfort zone, a practice day-trip in a 4x4 while at a resort in Zanzibar, say, with assistance at every stage, gives you a taste of the freedom that a 4x4 and the open road offers.
And if you consider yourself a pretty cool driver, well able to tackle crossing rivers in Iceland or New Zealand’s miles of empty mountain roads, you might want to take on what one might call the ultimate driving challenge, currently on offer at an English country hotel. Blindfold driving. Yes, you read that right.
1. Drive across remotest Iceland
Set up in 2015 by three adventurous friends – an expedition leader with 80 trips under his belt, a British journalist living in South Africa, and an explorer who led the first east-to-west traverse of Antarctica – Nomadic Road specialises in 4x4 trips to some of the remoter regions of the world. Most involve driving off-road in rugged terrain, and participants are limited to a dozen or so. The company offers expeditions rather than holidays, and Nomadic's emphasis is on the kind of intense, demanding journeys into nature that they love, but with the indulgence of a comfortable hotel to check into at the end of each day. Its next trip this winter, to Iceland, will be a week-long journey in a convoy of top-of-the-range Toyota Hilux AT38s, covering around 1,200 kilometres, driving through wild volcanic landscapes, through rivers and across one of the world's largest glaciers, and checking in to a remote hotel or lodge each night for a warming session in the sauna and a debrief over dinner.
February 17-23; the seven-night trip costs from $5,050 per person for (Dh18,546); nomadicroad.com
2. Discover Scotland’s wild coasts
As a civilised but scenically dramatic destination for a family holiday spent outdoors exploring mountains and lakes by day and sinking into deep-pile comfort each evening, Scotland takes some beating. Admittedly, it’s bitingly cold in winter. Better that than the irritating midges of summer, though. Warmly wrapped up, you get to breathe the purest air and have immense, empty landscapes to yourself, and once back in the various historic houses that are your holiday homes, you can relish the joys of roaring log fires, deep baths and beds warmed by hot-water bottles. Driving a 4x4 off-road through the hilly, heathery Torridon Estate is only one of a range of possible outdoor activities with the five-night “Scotland’s East and West Coasts” trip offered by Dream Escape. These span hill-walking with a guide, sea kayaking, spotting otters and seals, mountain biking on coastal paths, canoeing through the Aigas Gorge to feed osprey as the sun rises – and being piped aboard a boat on Loch Ness before setting off in hopes of seeing the famous Loch Ness monster. (Spoiler alert: you won’t. Although, you never know).
Five nights costs from £21,705 (Dh102,183) for a family of four, including staying in a Georgian mansion overlooking Loch Ness; dreamescape.co.uk.
3. Take on the National Parks of the US
America’s national parks provide some of the most glorious scenery in the world and an exhilarating range of opportunities to drive yourself into the wide wild blue yonder. The wide wild white yonder, actually, if you go when there’s snow on the ground. In Utah, an itinerary from adventure specialists Pelorus could start in Las Vegas, from where you head to Zion National Park to go canyoning through eye-boggling rock formations and careering across the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. From there it’s on to the Vermilion Cliffs to drive through the famous red rocks, and then on to kayak on Lake Powell. Next stop is the Grand Canyon to explore the south rim before continuing on to the New Age town of Sedona. The last day could see another opportunity for kayaking on the Verde River in the morning and lolling in one of the best spas in the country in the afternoon.
Ten days including use of a Land Rover Defender, hotel accommodation and local guides costs from £7,000 (Dh25,707) per person; pelorusx.com.
4. Explore the mountains, plains and lakes of Latin America
Latin America’s wide open roads, soaringly dramatic and diverse landscapes and agreeably well-priced estancias mean it’s easy, when planning a trip, to get carried away, forget that the distances are vast, and discover only once there that you’ve devised a punishing itinerary that leaves no time to look around. Tour specialist Audley recommends Chile, above all other Latin American countries, for the fact that it’s safe, as well as for its scenery. Given two weeks, the company suggests you fly into Santiago, go on to Temuco to collect your vehicle, then to lakeside Pucon for views of the snow-capped Villarrica volcano, and from there across the northern Lake District, stopping in Villarrica National Park to walk among waterfalls and enjoy a canopy excursion in the Huilo Huilo Reserve. After taking the car-ferry across Lake Pirihueico and crossing the Argentinian border you get to explore San Martin de los Andes, the famous route of the seven lakes to Villa La Angostura before crossing back into Chile for Puerto Varas via Puyehue National Park and the icy peaks and jade lakes of the southern Lake District.
Two weeks as above costs from £4,495 (Dh16,507) per person, including a top-of-the-range 4x4, accommodation and domestic flights; audleytravel.com.
5. Journey across southern New Zealand
Waterfalls, lakes, walking trails to follow when you want to stretch your legs, and wildlife to view along the way. Well-maintained roads and a high level of safety. Cool modern hotels where you wake up to an immense view of the ocean-lapped hills you are going to tackle that day after a large breakfast and with a picnic lunch to speed you on your way. Along with Australia, New Zealand has become one of the most popular destinations for a self-drive 4x4 adventure. In New Zealand, exploring the most southerly region lets you discover a landscape like no other. Book through Discover the World and explore The Catlins coast, and dip into the rock pools and unspoilt beaches of Monkey Island. You also get a GPS sat-nav pre-programmed with the itinerary.
Four nights with rental of a 4x4, catamaran and Stewart Island air transfers cost from £1,227 (Dh4,506); discover-the-world.com.
6. Build your own safari route through Africa
Building your own African safari has just become a lot cheaper and easier, thanks to the arrival of a disruptor. Launched in August 2018, Timbuktu Travel’s Routes programme focuses on the most popular safari areas and with a brilliantly clear website and transparent pricing for each element of a safari, from where you will spend each night – in a rustic camp or super-luxurious lodge or for nothing in your own tent – to whether or not you take any internal flights or book a game guide. It lets you put together your own itinerary, economising here or treating yourself there. And it’s all very straightforward. The routes it has found most popular are in South Africa’s Western Cape, best from October to April; “the ultimate expedition” in Chad, best from October to May; exploring the source of the Nile, best between December and March; from the Kenyan bush to the beach, best in January to February, and Tanzania’s and Uganda’s bush trips, best from December to February. Reading the staff bios, most of whom grew up in Africa, adds to the feeling that you’re in safe hands.
Do you want to spend zero a night, in your own tent, Dh700, or Dh7,000 a night? Timbuktu Travel makes it easy to see your options; timbuktutravel.com
7. Go nomad in Wahiba sands and the Rub Al Khali in Oman and the UAE
For utter peace and tranquillity, along with thousands of miles of empty desert and dunes, head to Oman’s Wahiba sands or the great tracts of the Rub Al Khali – Empty Quarter. Well attuned to the needs of office-bound workers who crave a soul-rinse, but can’t get away for much more than a long weekend, dedicated adventure company Nomad Tours runs desert adventures from its office in Muscat. Rooftop tents in Oman’s capital, at OMR20 (Dh191) for two, provide the first night’s bargain accommodation for those who want to plunge out of their everyday world from the start (and in the cooler months of November to March you don’t need air conditioning).
From there, a three-night desert adventure with a 4x4 drive and tent provided starts with a night in Wadi Bani Khalid, then two nights wild camping in the Rub Al Khali – vehicle, tent and provisions are all provided, along with a willing hand to build the camp fire each night. If you're a new desert driver, it makes sense to embark on your first trip in the company of other drivers. Not the 100 or more who form a convoy on some trips, but just a dozen or so on the "tag along guided self-drive adventures" run by self-styled desert diva, Marina Bruce, right on our doorstep here in Abu Dhabi. Bruce has spent the past eight years organising trips into the desert for people using their own 4x4s, focusing on teaching novices the techniques of desert driving in family-friendly jaunts of just a night or two.
Depending on conditions on the day, you'll typically drive between about 50km and 120km a day, keeping to the speed of the slowest driver. Bruce carries a winch, snatch straps and shovels to dig out anyone who gets stuck, and as this is very much for beginners you can be confident that high-side sloping and cross-cresting won't be on the menu. Forthcoming 'Camels and Culture' trips are scheduled for December 14-15 and December 21-23.
A three-night Wahiba Sands crossing from Muscat costs from OMR525 (Dh5,014) room only for two travelling together; OMR615 (Dh5,874) for four; nomadtours.com; overnight 4x4 trips for novice drivers cost from Dh1,150; thedesertdiva.com.
8. A one-day mini safari in Zanzibar
If you’ve never handled a 4x4 off-road before, getting behind the wheel while on holiday is a good place and time to start – especially if you have family with you. Sign up to this little adventure in Zanzibar, where a fleet of attentive staff are on hand at each stage of a prescribed journey, ready and willing to help out, and you can face the prospect of getting stuck on the water-crossing bit – where you drive straight off Zanzibar into the ocean to reach Uzi, one of its little offshore islands, for a picnic under the palms – without even bothering to contemplate the prospect of getting stranded. The cool new Zuri Zanzibar hotel, on the north-west coast, 50km from Stone Town and the airport, has 55 palm-leaf and wood-built villas that sit on a tideless white-sand beach, making its safety of special appeal to families. The property co-ordinates the mini Jeep safaris; guests are ferried in the morning to Mwinyi Mkuu Palace to pick up the vehicle, and collected at the end of a day spent taking in the Bi Khole ruins in Bungi and Uzi as well as some cone-negotiating in a quarry to build confidence for – well, crossing the Sahara, perhaps.
A Jeep safari for two costs US$348 (Dh1,278). Rooms at Zuri Zanzibar cost from Dh1,647 a night; zurizanzibar.com.
9. Cross Morocco’s Route du Sud in style
Patisserie by French macaron hero Pierre Herme in picnic baskets and French chef Thierry Alix in charge of the meals. A driver at the wheel of a 4x4 with air conditioning, leaving you to enjoy the view as you cross the desert dunes, scorched flatlands, and mountains of southern Morocco. An adobe house in a palm grove to check into one night, a tent among the dunes or a kasbah with a pool or stone-built house with open fires the next. And, along the way, massages, hammam sessions and various specially devised treats. This cosseted new expedition from luxury travel specialist Fleewinter from Agadir or Marrakesh to Dar Ahlam is hardly the typical 4x4 experience. It’s comfort, luxury and fun all the way. Mule or camel rides, cooking demonstrations and festive dinners under the stars set up by the trip butlers fill the spare hours and each of a maximum three vehicles is restricted to just two people plus the driver.
Six nights including all transfers, meals, drinks and activities costs from Dh22,500 per person and is available until May; fleewinter.com.
10. 4x4 driving blindfolded in the quaint English countryside
The prospect of driving blindfolded, negotiating around a large country estate with cones set up to add to the complications of tackling undulating parkland without being able to see a thing, aided only by the presumably panicked/laughter-choked advice of the other passengers in the vehicle, has a certain charm if you’re single and unattached and in the company of friends, cousins or brothers of similar description. If not, you might view it with trepidation. But the British company that runs these blind 4x4 adventures in co-operation with the English country house hotel Luton Hoo is certainly right in maintaining that blindfold driving is “an intense test of trust and teamwork” where the driver has to have complete faith in their companions and that, as such, it’s an exceptionally effective way of improving one’s communication skills. (If only to successfully communicate, “Please stop and let me out of here,” they might add.)
A half-day session costs from Dh4,650 for a 4x4 carrying four people; double rooms at Luton Hoo cost from Dh1,144; lutonhoo.co.uk