With the pound no longer going so far in various holiday destinations around the world, maybe you are looking at opportunities to enjoy a road trip adventure closer to home. Or, maybe you are reading this outside the UK and are tempted by the opportunity to explore here while the exchange rate is favourable.
Either way, the North Coast 500 is an obvious option. It takes a 516-mile scenic trip round the north of Scotland, through some of the country’s most amazing scenery and with plenty of opportunity to see the sights and sample Highland hospitality.The Bealach na Ba pass on the road to Applecross. © K McEwen
The route starts out from Inverness Castle before heading to the west coast village of Applecross, then north through Torridon and Ullapool to the North Coast and John o’Groats before returning to Inverness.
Wth so much to see and do, it would be a shame to take too rigid a view of the itinerary. Maybe you would prefer to do the route anti-clockwise? That way you leave the spectacular scenery of the West Highlands to the last leg of the trip. Equally, if you have the time, you should, absolutely, build on those side trips that will simply enhance your North Coast 500 experience.
Talking of side trips. If you haven’t visited the Highlands before, you may want to take a trip down the Loch Ness before you set out on the North Coast 500. We can’t guarantee you’ll see Nessie, but a visit to Castle Urquhart is well worthwhile and also an excellent viewpoint for the loch.
Assuming you are doing the route in clockwise direction, you will start by heading to Muir of Ord on the A862, before joining the A835 to Garve, then turning onto the A832 to Achnasheen. At Achnasheen you join the A890 to Lochcarron. One of the many moods of Loch Maree. © K McEwen
This road is a classic introduction to the different styles of road you will encounter on the NC500. Some sections of this road have been upgraded and are straight and wide open (I remember being passed at a quite remarkable speed on this section by a Great Wall – the Chinese-built pick-up, not a pile of stones). Then, sometimes with little warning, the road narrows down to single track with limited visibility. So you need to adapt your driving to suit.
The code for single-track Highland roads is that you should always acknowledge people pulling into a passing place, with a raised hand or a cheery wave. It’s the only thing that keeps the system from degrading into an unseemly, ill-tempered road rage! Also remember to allow faster vehicles to overtake you by pulling into a passing place.
As you get close to the head of Loch Carron, you have the opportunity to decide whether to add an extra day or two to your trip to take a side trip to Skye. If you do want to take that option, take the A890 along the south of Loch Carron, through the avalanche tunnel. If you are sticking to the NC500 route you continue on to the village of Lochcarron on the A896.
In a few miles you will turn onto one of the most spectacular roads in the area – the Bealach na Ba, or Pass of the Cattle. It’s quite a challenging road with some hills and hairpin bends, so probably best left to drivers with a bit of experience.
I do remember taking my wife over the Bealach na Ba, on her first Highland tour. It had been an incredibly dry summer, but the first rain clouds had chosen that day to move in. On the summit we could see nothing beyond 50 yards. Determined not to let the low cloud get us down I pretended to point out the spectacular view out over Raasay to Skye, the Cuillins and the islands of Eigg and Rum. To the far north west, I indicated where we should see the Outer Hebrides.
Descending on the other side of the pass, the Applecross Inn had a blackboard with a chalk message reading “Water Shortage: Trying to cope but may have to close at any time”. Ironically, the first drips of rain were causing the chalk to run.
Time your route so that you get to the Applecross Inn
at lunchtime and – assuming there is no water shortage – enjoy one of the most scenic bar meals as you look out at the Inner Sound and Raasay.
From Applecross the route heads north following the coast round to Loch Shieldaig. The village of Shieldaig itself is centred on a line of picturesque whitewashed cottages on the sea front, looking out at the tree covered Shieldaig Island.
Built in the 1960s the A896 along the sound side of Loch Torridon takes you past some spectacular viewpoints and the upmarket Torridon Hotel
then on to Kinlochewe.
At Kinlochewe you join the A832, heading up the west side of Loch Maree, with the distinctive peak of Slioch across the loch. I have always loved Loch Maree, the fourth largest freshwater loch in Scotland. The moods of the loch change dramatically depending on the light and the weather. Loch Maree has more than 60 islands, including one with a ruined chapel and a graveyard.
If you thought the only Victoria Falls were in Africa, prepare for a surprise. Just before the road peels away from the side of Loch Maree to head over to Gairloch, the other Victoria Falls are on the left. They may be a lot smaller than their African namesake, but are still worth the short walk to see the main falls and the small rapids immediately upstream.
Gairloch is a popular Highland holiday area and a good place to visit shops, or stop for a coffee. We chose the quirky, but homely Mountain Coffee Company.
A short distance north is Poolewe. Here, the National Trust for Scotland Inverewe Gardens
offer an inspiring and peaceful break from driving. Described as sub-tropical gardens, warmed by the Gulf Stream, you will find it an attractive oasis in the rugged Highland landscape.
Continuing on the A832 you will pass Gruinard Bay with its attractive beach. Gruinard Island is certified safe now, but it was contaminated with anthrax as part of a wartime germ warfare experiment. Just before you join the A835, heading to Ullapool, it is worth stopping at the parking area for the Corrieshalloch Gorge
. A short walk takes you down to the gorge with a bridge from which you can view the deep gorge and waterfall below.
Ullapool is one of the largest towns in this part of the Highlands, with its quaint harbour and small grid of streets. This is a good place to pick up supplies and refuel the car, the passengers, or both.
Heading north again, you pass the road to Achiltibuie on the left. A quick detour a few miles along this road should reward you with a view of the spectacular Star Pollaidh. Back on the A835, you join the A837 at Ledmore and continue north to Loch Assynt.
Here you will pass Calda House at Loch Assynt, built in 1726 to provide greater comfort than the nearby Ardvreck Castle. Just ten years later this grand house was torched to prevent it being used by the Sutherlands after a feud with the McKenzies. The ruins of Ardvreck Castle are close by, reached across a spit of land beside the main road.
Continue on the A837 towards the fishing port of Lochinver. The NC500 route actually turns onto the B869 before you enter Lochinver. But, particularly if you are looking for sustenance, it is worth heading into the town. Pie lovers will definitely want to stop at Lochinver Larder
, on the right as you enter the town. The pies are simply superb and feature a bewildering choice of savoury and sweet fillings. Kylesku Bridge. © K McEwen
Head back to join the B869, which will take you on a scenic coastal route, joining the A984 just south of Kylesku. The Kylesku bridge with its graceful concrete curve replaced the ferry in 1982 and, since then, it has featured in many films and commercials. It has even been closed on occasion to allow cars to drive on the right, to simulate exotic overseas locations.
Continue north to Laxford Bridge through spectacular scenery with mountains and small lochans covered with water lilies. At Laxford Bridge itself you take the A838 to Rhiconich. The last time we did this route we stayed at the Rhiconich Hotel
It was in the midst of a DIY renovation when we visited, so, while some areas looked a little tired, our en-suite bedroom, looking out over Loch Inchard, was newly refurbished and very comfortable. Dinner was tasty and welcome as the sun went down over the loch, although I suspect the sauce with the meat came from a catering pack, rather than from the talent of an in-house chef. That might be a good reason to opt for a freshly-cooked steak.
We’d also recommend afternoon tea and/or dinner at the Old School, in the village of Inshegra, just a short distance along the B801 Kinlochbervie road from Rhiconich.
Also recommended, particularly if the weather is half decent, is a visit to the outstandingly beautiful Oldshoremore Beach. Or, if you are feeling more energetic head a few miles further west and take the four-mile walk to Sandwood Bay. For both, continue along the B801, to Kinlochbervie. Turn right, just before you enter the harbour area of Kinlochbervie. Oldshoremore Beach, one of many glorious beaches. © K McEwen
Back on the NC500, you resume the drive north to Durness on the A838. Stop on the way to appreciate the beauty of Kyle of Durness, which is at its best as the sun starts to go down. In Durness, visit the Balnakeil Craft Village. Although it doesn’t look that attractive (it is converted from an old military compound) there are fascinating art studios and the Cocoa Mountain Chocolatier for those with sweet tooths.
You might be surprised, but beside the Community Centre in Durness you will find a memorial garden for John Lennon.
The Beatle had a strong connection to the Highland village as many of his boyhood holidays were spent in Durness. He visited, most recently, in 1969 with Yoko Ono, when he managed to crash his Austin Maxi (apparently he was a notoriously bad driver). The pair had to have stitches for facial injuries in Golspie’s Lawson Memorial Hospital. Kyle of Durness. © K McEwen
For the more adventurous there is the option to take a trip to Cape Wrath, the remote north-west tip of the British mainland (but not the most northerly point as we will discover later). It does, however, need a bit of organisation to get to Cape Wrath as the whole area around it is a military firing range. You will need to cross the Kyle of Durness at the Cape Wrath Ferry
just south of Durness at Keoldale. Once across the ferry you can take a minibus tour to Cape Wrath
Back on the NC500, you are now heading east along the top of Scotland on the A838. It is well worth stopping at Smoo Cave
just east of Durness. A path takes you down to the cave itself. Access to the cave is free , but there are chargeable tours and boat trips for those who want.
From here the NC500 continues along the A838 through small coastal villages and round scenic Loch Eriboll, before cutting across country to Kyle of Tongue where a causeway takes you across to the small town of Tongue, where you take the A836, heading north. The next sizeable town is Bettyhill with its beautiful, unspoiled beaches.
Continuing east on the A836 you pass through more attractive villages and beautiful coastal scenery before you see the distinctive 42-metre dome that enclosed the first of Dounreay’s
nuclear reactors. The nuclear reactors are currently being decommissioned, but there is an exhibition and visitor area.
Continuing along the A836, you come to Bridge of Forss and the Forss Hotel, then Scrabster where the ferries leave for Orkney. Immediately after the road down to Scrabster harbour you are in Thurso, one of the two bigger towns in Caithness. Once through the town and across the River Thurso, ignore the main road to Inverness and stay on the A836 as it turns left towards Castletown.
It’s a common mistake to think of John o’Groats as the most northerly point on the British mainland. In reality that honour goes to Dunnet head. It’s not part of the official NC500 route, but, when you are in the area, it would seem a shame not to visit as it is only a short drive out the B855. At Dunnet Head itself you will find a lighthouse and great views across the Pentland Firth to Orkney. Smoo Cave. © K McEwen
On the land around you are various World War II buildings and bunkers, reflecting the strategic importance of Dunnet Head in protecting the Pentland Firth route to and from the North Sea and Scapa Flow on Orkney.
Returning to the A836, you next come to the village of Mey. The Castle of Mey
was the Queen Mother’s beloved Highland escape and it is open to the public at certain times, giving a charming insight into the life of one Britain’s favourite Royals. Lovely touches include the signature sky blue raincoat by the front door and the eclectic mix of furniture and fittings – look out for the stag’s head that the staff gave Her Majesty.
Continuing east on the A836 you will come to the junction with the A99 in John o’Groats. It’s certainly worth the few hundred yards to head left to the harbour and the tea shops and craft shops on the sea front. There is, of course, the obligatory sign showing the direction and distance to Lands End and various other key locations. Great for that souvenir selfie!
When you are ready for the final leg of NC500 head south on the A99 to Wick. Just before Wick Airport you will see Ackergill Tower
, now operating as an upmarket hotel. For those who fancy a walk and whiff of bracing sea air, there’s a great walk along the coast that takes you to ruined Castle Sinclair Gurnigoe.
Wick offers all the facilities you would expect of a sizeable town along with some curiosities, including the Guinness Book of Records world’s shortest street, Ebenezer Place, which is just 2.06 metres in length. It’s on the left immediately after you cross the bridge over the Wick River in the centre of Wick.
One thing you may have been surprised about, so far, on the NC500 is the lack of whisky distilleries. Well, Wick offers Old Pulteney distillery
, overlooking the harbour.
Head south from Wick on the A99, joining the A9 at Latheronwheel.
As you approach Dunbeath you will see spectacular Dunbeath Castle
perched on the cliff edge. Out to sea, on a clear day, you will see the Beatrice oil platforms and wind turbines. Further on, just before Golspie, is Dunrobin Castle
which is open to the public during the summer months.
Heading back to Inverness you cross the Dornoch Firth on a combined causeway and bridge. On the other side, close to the town of Tain is the famous Glenmorangie Distillery
. Following the A9, you then come to the Cromarty Firth. Here you will get some indication as to the current state of the North Sea oil and gas industry. When times are slack, drilling rigs are “stacked” in the firth waiting for work.
The final leg of the NC500 takes you across the bridge to the Black Isle, which, ironically, is most assuredly not an island.
For wildlife enthusiasts, you might want to consider a short side trip on the A832 and head to Chanonry Point. There, at the right times of year, you can watch dolphins in the narrow waters between Chanonry Point and Fort George, on the other side of the Moray Firth.
From the Black Isle, the finish line is almost in sight. You just need to cross the Kessock Bridge and negotiate the city roads, back to Inverness Castle.
- During the midge season, from late spring through to autumn, these tiny insects can be a nuisance. They may be pretty harmless but they can drive some people demented. If you are susceptible, get kitted out with a good midge repellant, take long-sleeved shirts and long trousers for when you need protection and maybe even consider a midge hat with a veil. You can be warned of the worst times and locations by checking the midge forecast.