North Coast 500 Scotland
NC500 Scotland is our answer to Route 66 in America: fast becoming one of the most popular tours in the world. I was keen to find someone who knew a lot about it to come and share a first hand experience with you and after a bit of searching I found Anne Ward. Her extensive knowledge of the route became apparent to me whilst reading her reviews and advice on TripAdvisor, so I knew she was the woman for us! Settle down with a cuppa and enjoy this post, I have already planned my road trip in August!
I just about punched the air in delight when I saw that the North Highland Initiative were promoting this road trip around Scotland’s far north and west. Delighted because it must be one of the world’s – not just the UK’s – most stunning drives. We’ve driven round it for years on family holidays and hillwalking exploits – and now it is up there with Route 66 and Big Sur. And about time! In fact my husband and I stood at a viewpoint on Big Sur, California less than 18 months ago, loved it but both said at almost exactly the same time – it just doesn’t compare with the North West Highlands, does it?
And I know I’m not just being biased. Part of the route has already been voted one of the world’s Top 10 drives. The famous Bealach na Ba – or Pass of the Cattle – is the highest road in Britain, a six mile climb to over 2,000 feet snaking up a mountain headwall before depositing you at one of Scotland’s grandest viewpoints. As you look across the Sound of Raasay to the Black Cuillin of Skye and the ethereal peaks of Rum and Eigg, the only word for it is sublime.
But whatever you do as you plan this trip – don’t rush it. I’ve heard talk of ‘doing it’ in 3 days which technically of course you could. But why would you? These are landscapes which need to be savoured, the touring equivalent of experiencing the finest Single Malts – a driving tour for the connoisseur. And the brilliant thing is – it all looks and feels so different.
Torridon and the coastal route from Applecross transports you into some of the most beautiful and stunning coastal scenery you will see on the planet. It’s a paradise for walkers of all abilities whether it’s scaling the majestic peaks of Beinn Alligin, the Jewel Mountain, or strolling along the easy coastal path to Inveralligin for one of the finest walks you’ll do anywhere. Look out for some great wildlife too – this is otter central and sea eagles nest close by. Pine martens come down for their evening ‘bread and jam’ at countless holiday cottages. Red deer raise their antlered heads regally and survey you before returning to graze again – they are such a beautiful symbol of Scotland.
The beaches of the North West are the most beautiful on the mainland, vast and unspoiled. Balnakiel and Sandwood Bay (often voted the UK’s finest beach), Oldshoremore and the Kyle of Tongue. Sandwood is a good 8 mile return walk but the rest are just off the road. Smaller but exquisite is Achmelvich beach, reached via a superb winding single track road where every turn brings new vistas. The sea lochs and inlets here are the loveliest I’ve ever seen.
Assynt is true Lord of the Rings country. Tolkein’s Middle Earth was reputedly inspired by its unique Inselberg or ‘island’ mountains ; Suilven , Canisp and Quinag are solitary giants standing sentinel above some of the world’s oldest rock – Lewisian Gneiss. Quite simply, the landscape looks prehistoric. Once past Bettyhill, the landscape changes again and takes on a flatter, east coast look. Yet some superb cliff scenery awaits. Don’t miss the drive out to Dunnet Head – the true most northerly point on the UK mainland – with Orkney now sitting out on the wild seas which lash this coast. The Castle of Mey is well worth a visit – the Queen Mother’s beautiful home and now used regularly by Prince Charles. It’s walled gardens, in summer, are simply breathtaking.
There isn’t much to John O’Groat’s but the outlook is a fine one and a short drive (or walk) along from here is another unmissable sight – the Stacks of Duncansby. It’s a 15 minute walk across moorland to some of the finest cliff scenery we have. The Stacks themselves are the nesting ground for thousands of seabirds – the noise (and smell!) is incredible. Watch as marauding Great Skuas – our scariest birds – patrol overhead, looking for their next meal. If one ever passes at eye level, and they do occasionally, they will send a chill through you. A pod of Killer Whales is often seen quite close offshore, hunting the big Atlantic grey seals whose heads bob above the huge surf, checking you out. Last summer, a pod with two youngsters frolicked in John O’Groat’s harbour for several hours. On one of the day trips to Orkney – another possibility in this area – the pod were hunting huge Atlantic Grey seals just 15 minutes off the coast near Stroma island. If you don’t fancy the walk to the Stacks, boat trips will take you instead, a magnificent trip on a decent weather day.
Do you dare go down the 330 Whaligoe Steps, handcrafted by fishermen of old, taking you down a spectacular cliff face to a tiny grassy harbour above the crashing sea? Don’t miss this, one of many “Geos’ or vertical cliff sided inlets which are a feature of the North East Coast. Above, all is green fields and sheep grazing; below, overlooked by dark cliffs, are the fishing harbours where the herring were gutted and which rang with the voices of the hardy fisher folk who once populated this coast. Voices now long gone but their legacy in beautifully constructed stone harbours still remain, a haunting memory of a hard and not so distant past. Inland there are Chambered Cairns, another reminder of even earlier times.
Dunrobin Castle is a wow – another don’t miss. In a spectacular seaside setting, its white fairy-tale towers and magnificent manicured gardens are just sublime.Inside, it is truly grand. The nearby Museum , crammed with the Duke’s wild game trophies will provoke a range of emotions. Being greeted by a towering giraffe’s head mounted on the entrance floor is certainly quite a sight. But there are also a wonderful collection of Pictish Stones, exquisitely carved and a cornucopia of interesting objects from around the world. There is a free falconry display twice a day which is worth getting your timings right to witness.
Worth the 20 minute detour before you reach Inverness is Chanonry Point, the best land-based dolphin watching in the UK. Quite a large school are often seen hunting and breaching just metres off shore, on a rising tide – check the Inverness Tide Tables online to maximise your chances. A couple of hours before high tide is often best.
It’s not all scenery and sights of course. As someone who loves a good homemade cake or a splurge on a top notch meal – the North Coast route delivers in spades. I love the 5 star Torridon Hotel, which offers Michelin quality dinners.Or just splurge on tea and scones and sit in its glorious atmosphere, drinking in the mountain views. Or try the wonderful Applecross Inn. It does excellent seafood and also some of the most unusual and delicious homemade ice cream I’ve ever tasted. Venison and cranberry pies don’t come any better than those made at The Lochinver Larder. And over the mountain road to Kylesku Hotel, the atmospheric Inn there serves superb fresh langoustines and great homemade puddings like Apple Crumble. Sitting in their garden overlooking Loch Glencoul on a sunny day, with nice food on its way – well, life doesn’t get any better than that!
“Born and brought up in Glasgow, I worked in the city until I retired a few years ago after a long career in the sport and leisure industry. Mum to two adult sons, we had many happy family holidays up in the far North West, the Hebrides and Arran. My husband and I spend quite a bit of time each month travelling throughout Scotland as well as abroad, visiting old favourites and new. I always take far too many photographs – I’ve been told its like an obsession and it drives the family mad at times! I really love the outdoors and watching wildlife
and enjoy a good hike whether its up a mountain or along a beautiful coastal track or beach.” Visit Annes personal Blog here for more of her adventures!
WOW, well that has certainly made us want to get out of the office! This is a route that will show you the best of Scotland, untouched and totally wild! We will shortly be following this post with properties which we have that are on the NC500 route. You may want to do this over a longer period of time, staying in a couple of different places and exploring from a base, in which case you will be happy to know about us! If you have traveled this route before let us know and tell us of your favourite sights and places to go.
The C&C Team