THE DRIVE

Four wheels beats two as Kevin Hackett tackles one of the famous Tour de France climbs in the Pyrenees in the comfort and style of the new Rapide S

OPEN TOP, OPEN ROAD

Jonathan Bell takes the new Vanquish Volante to explore the stunning scenery and eclectic lifestyle around Palm Springs, California

Photographs: Max Earey

You are now entering Tour de France territory

The Vanquish Volante causes a stir among the town's locals.

The light is what hits you first before the heat, before the landscape, before the space. As we head south from Palm Springs, the rising sun transforms the countryside around State Route 74, more evocatively known as the steep and twisty Pines to Palm Highway, the road that skirts the foothills of Mount San Jacinto before heading west back towards the coast. Pink light gilds the upper rim of the peaks as the sun ascends, before dripping down the slopes and soaking the whole desert in colour.

The Palm Highway, heading out of Palm Springs, was blasted out of rock in the 1930s to create what is now part of California State Route 74

ďAt this time of day, the roads are quiet. The only impediments are the strings of traffic lights that march into the distance before the desert takes over and road signs fall away. Like almost every road out of Palm Springs, the Palm Highway was carved from the mountain, blasted through fingers of rock when the right radius or gradient couldn't be reached. It's tight and twisting, the steep cliffs providing the ideal sounding board for the 12-cylinder symphony created by the Aston Martin Vanquish Volante. The road, the desert and this car are a matchless combination. Atmosphere and acoustics are experienced with perfect clarity thanks to the Volante's dropped top and an outside temperature that will eventually reach the high 80s-cool for Southern Californians, but ideal for almost everyone else.

This state is the backdrop to a pure driving experience, across an America that is imagined, recreated and mythologised everywhere from literature to cinema. The allure is not hard to understand. Although it has a population of over 300 million and more than 60 million cars, the United States is some 3.5 million square miles in size with nearly four million miles of road.

''The Temecula Olive Oil Company, a true labour of love set amidst carefully restored land, blends craft, technology, passion and hard work''

As a result, large swathes of this truly beautiful nation are open, empty and just begging to be driven across. And there's no finer driving companion than the Vanquish Volante. If the scenery is designed for Cinemascope, then the Volante is the leading player, its star quality feted throughout the world. This car is a consummate all-rounder, able to turn its hand to any role, be it a luxury grand tourer or the kind of goosebump-dispensing sports car that can slice its way through the twistiest, most demanding road with race-bred dynamism.

While the Vanquish is Aston Martin's acclaimed flagship Grand Tourer, there's an undoubted added driving experience behind the wheel of the convertible. As in the Coupe, Aston Martin's 6.0-litre V12 delivers 573 PS to the rear wheels, catapulting the Vanquish Volante to 62mph in just 4.3 seconds. They will be short seconds, but very loud ones, as the car emits one of the most brutish noises ever committed to asphalt, a deep-throated, stentorian bark that sounds as if it's strapped in the seat beside you.

Borrego Springs, an artistic enclave to the west of the Salton Sea.

The highway broadens to include a passing lane, easing the dispatch of a couple of crawling, fume-belching 18-wheelers. The finely machined aluminium paddles click down through the Vanquish's Touchtronic 2 six-speed gearbox, and as the camber shifts we drop down, dig the nose in, find the line and feed the power through the corner, arcing away further up the hill. The Vanquish tracks straight and true through the apex, the suspension filtering the road surface to maintain its poise.

This is a stunning car, more than a match for the landscape that surrounds us. The curvaceous bodywork was honed and refined in Aston Martin's design studio, before being crafted in carbon fibre. It's the first time that an open Aston Martin has been shaped from this ultra-light and ultra-strong material, which is now such a central spoke of the company's design, finishing and manufacturing operations. Carbon fibre has other advantages; its strength and flexibility reduces the number of body panels, allowing the Vanquish's form to flow seamlessly from front to rear, flaring provocatively over the wheels, up over the tonneau cover and dipping down into the unique integrated rear spoiler.

The Vanquish Volante and the open road are made 
for each other.

The Vanquish Volante and the open road are made for each other.

Aston Martin combines its acclaimed VH architecture with carbon fibre, achieving the extremely rigid structure required by the Volante and keeping the car svelte but also stiff for dynamic excellence. Weight is contained within the wheelbase, helping stability while also achieving 51:49 weight distribution. The car telegraphs its intentions back through the wheel with unerring accuracy, the chassis, engine, suspension and gearbox never failing to communicate the vital relationship between driver, car and road.

''Palm Springs' bohemian spirit still thrives both in the strong artistic community and its reputation as a place to let your hair down''

Our first destination is a small ranch that epitomises the changing ways in which this landscape has been worked over the centuries. The Temecula Olive Oil Company is based in Aguanga, just over 50 twisting miles from Palm Springs. Located on a former cattle ranch, left abandoned for decades, Temecula is a small-scale operation that blends craft, technology, passion and hard work. Set up by Catherine Pepe, Nancy Curry and her husband Thom, Temecula is a true labour of love set amidst carefully restored land. Over the course of two years, the company planted 1,000 olive trees and 2,000 grape vines, re-shaping the scoured earth, removing ramshackle structures and creating a business that now ships worldwide.

Our first destination is a small ranch that epitomises the changing ways in which this landscape has been worked over the centuries. The Temecula Olive Oil Company is based in Aguanga, just over 50 twisting miles from Palm Springs. Located on a former cattle ranch, left abandoned for decades, Temecula is a small-scale operation that blends craft, technology, passion and hard work. Set up by Catherine Pepe, Nancy Curry and her husband Thom, Temecula is a true labour of love set amidst carefully restored land. Over the course of two years, the company planted 1,000 olive trees and 2,000 grape vines, re-shaping the scoured earth, removing ramshackle structures and creating a business that now ships worldwide.

As Thom Curry explains, Southern California is one of the best places in the world to grow olives, even though he admits that "the best treatment for olive trees is ignorance", such is their hardy persistence. Despite their comparative youth, there are over 30 different varieties planted here, all healthy trees offering up a carpet of green and black fruits come harvest time. Temecula's big decision is when to take the olives from the tree. Green (early) or black (late) olives each offer distinct advantages and disadvantages. Pick early and the yields are smaller but the taste is more peppery and distinct. Black olives give up to twice as much oil, as well as imparting a soft, buttery flavour. Five hundred pounds of olives make eight to 10 gallons early in the season, or double that a few months later.

Left: the classic frontier feel of California desert towns is apparent on the main street of Julian. Right: enjoying a relaxed lunch at the Temecula Olive Oil Company in Aguanga

The harvested olives are crushed and ground for around half an hour, the pits crackling against the vast stainless steel drum of Temecula's bespoke equipment to become a thick, rich smelling paste. This is then squeezed onto stacked mats of fine stainless steel mesh and pressed, the oil dripping out along with potassium-rich water that's used to water the groves. The press is even managing to extract an organic anti-inflammatory as a by-product of the crushing process. This is an impressive performance from what Thom describes, half-jokingly, as "basically fruit juice", building on Southern California's famously accommodating culture, open to new ideas, new flavours and new approaches. Temecula's approach blends sound business sense with an engineer's understanding of process and function, as well as the all-important ingredient-finely honed taste.

From Aguanga, charged with pepper-infused olive oil, we head off down Temecula's dirt tracks before getting back onto the main road and go east. From here we climb steadily until we hit a plateau, eventually joining the Montezuma Valley Road that plunges down the hill into Borrego Springs. It's another fantastic sweep of tarmac, with the shimmer of the shallow Salton Sea on the far horizon providing the backdrop to a series of tight twists and turns.

As the road name implies, the history of this region goes back before the motor car. For millennia, Native Americans have lived here, and their reservations and territories still shape the modern era. It was not until the late 18th century that outsiders arrived, with the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza undertaking a perilous trail through the land as he rode north from Mexico to San Francisco, establishing outposts and missions along the way. The area is still indebted to these pioneering journeys, with roads and features named alternatively for optimism (Rainbow, Paradise, Hope) and for hardship (Burnt Valley, Coyote Drive, etc).

Left: eclectic furniture and stylish courtyards are among the many attractions of the Korakia Pensione in Palm Springs. Right: stylish luxury trailers provide fine overnight accommodation

It wasn't until the railroad boom of the following century that the seeds of Palm Springs were sown. Parcels of development land in the Coachella Valley were sold off alongside the advancing tracks, creating the impetus to leave the well-established coast and head inland. It didn't take long for the emerging city to become a place of legend, a desert playground for nascent Hollywood elite. The first stars headed east in the early Twenties, taking up court in the bars and restaurants, buying their own plots and building desert retreats amidst this raw natural beauty, lured by a new wave of hotels, golf clubs and vacation homes. Just over a hundred miles from the many executives, studios, agents and distractions of Los Angeles, the modest resort proved a haven for film stars seeking to escape the grip of the studio system, if only for a brief weekend.

The city's bohemian spirit still thrives, both in the strong artistic community and Palm Springs' reputation as a place to let your hair down. For residents-and visitors-the mix of tennis, golf, parties, night clubs and general hedonism is the epitome of carefree, spirited SoCal.

Palm Springs was also one of the cradles of architectural experimentation, from the Moroccan fantasy of the Korakia Pensione, once the home of painter Gordon Coutts and now a discretely elegant hotel-and Aston Martin's Palm Springs base-to the modernist villas that are scattered throughout the city. The mix of desert climate, far-reaching views and open-minded clients ensured that Palm Springs finally made good the modernist promise of space, light, health and efficiency. It was a dream first nurtured in Europe in the early decades of the century, then taken west via the intellectual and cultural diaspora of the Second World War.

Palm Springs' most famous house, the Kaufmann Desert House of 1946, established a template that is still slavishly followed, its living space opened up into the landscape, the desert enhanced to film-set levels of realism thanks to creative planting, shimmering swimming pools and floor-to-ceiling panes of glass. The style will never die, cut and pasted into hundreds of small-scale tract homes lining the valley floor, while the big players still cling to their hillside plots around the edge of the city limits and build long, lean paeans to this seductive ideal.

Palm Springs still has a mid-century modern fetish, with tours and hotels catering to the style's many fans. But it's also a town of historic tennis clubs, armed response signs, gigantic steak houses, uplit palm trees, fire pits and elderly power walkers, with big peaked caps and the essential bottle of water, as well as countless cyclists pushing through the midday heat. And above it all, the memory of Hollywood glamour still lingers; these are the streets walked by Sinatra, Elvis, Dean Martin and more.

Despite this, Palm Springs is still orbited by the familiar detritus of roadside America-a place where the prosaic is imbued with a romantic sensibility by space, location and intention. Even a humble road sign can assume some measure of totemic significance in these arid surroundings, just as a rusty truck, an A-framed church, a small artist's studio, a diner, a garage sign on a pole or a half-abandoned 1950s car can make an instant connection.

''The Vanquish Volante is everything a sporting grand tourer should be, its ride offering a dreamy glide. The car transforms every journey''

After stopping off at the town of Julian for some sublime homemade apple pie at Mom's, we head for Borrego Springs. Whether it's the Borrego Valley Inn (with its "clothing optional" private patios) or the ersatz Western Style of the Palm Canyon resort, or even Ricardo Breceda's giant rusted animal sculptures that are scattered across the desert floor to the east, the town has a more frontier-like feel. It's here that we change accommodation, switching exotic Moorish for a very different aspect of modernism. The Airstream caravan is a true icon of American industrial design, its instantly recognisable silver carapace setting up endless desert photo opportunities. Airstream's 23ft travel trailer is our home for the night, provided by Airstream2GO. This is a beautifully crafted environment where lines, surfaces, materials and function come together to form a compact slice of luxury living. It helps, of course, to have a desert vista just outside the window, a place so remote that at night the moon casts bright shadows and it's said the coyotes can be heard howling in the nearby canyons.

Following breakfast on our compact private terrace, a final leg will take us back to where it all started, a chance to reflect on the Vanquish Volante and savour a last look at Palm Springs. The Vanquish Volante is everything a sporting grand tourer should be, and then some. First and foremost, there is power. Drop the roof-a process that takes only 14 seconds-and engage the steering wheel-mounted "Sport" button, and the difference is far more audible than ever before. But there's also the legendary refinement, a cabin of cosseting luxury with peerless interior quality, enhanced to your exacting specifications, should you so desire, by the Q by Aston Martin personalisation design service. Admittedly, the car's sophisticated Adaptive Damping System doesn't have to work too hard on the smooth American asphalt, and the resulting ride offers us a dreamy glide through the suburban sprawlscape that begins at the city limits.

The view from within the Vanquish Volante is irresistibly rosy tinted. The mush of big box retail, small-scale diners, motels, hotels, auto shops, car lots, sideshows, water parks, drive-thrus, mega churches, fast food joints, banks, gun shops and hardware stores and so much more, should be the epitome of banality. Yet when viewed at a gentle 30mph cruise, top down, sun up, temperature cut close to perfection and 12 mighty cylinders ticking over with the gentlest of rasps, the sights of the American suburban experience somehow become hugely evocative. This car transforms every journey.

It's fitting that we should end our journey on a sun-drenched terrace at a Palm Springs modern residence that takes Kaufmann's building blocks and adds a hefty contemporary art collection, Just a few metres away, the random scrub of desert vegetation meets the trim cacti and other hardy succulents that dot the property line. With a glass in hand, watching the sun slowly descend behind Mount San Jacinto, this is the perfect place to reflect on Palm Springs, on power, elegance and beauty. The Vanquish Volante has them all-mix with open skies and open roads and the combination is all but irresistible.