Before you get to Scotland, you might want to consult the excellent North Coast 500 app. It provides handy sections on’ towns and villages’, ‘beaches and bays’, ‘wild and free’ (don’t get too carried away by that one), and ‘magnificent viewpoints’. The app also highlights specific tours, or cultural excursions, and you can even listen to some specially selected music podcasts should you wish to be put into a Celtic mood. You can also very handily download maps, should you find yourself off-line at some stage. Alas, I found the map-scrolling rather cumbersome, so I had a trawl through their highlights, and then went ‘analog’ and marked all the things I wanted to check out on a physical map, which gave me a much better sense of all the different geographical locations and how they link up.
Is it Iceland? The Norwegian tundra? A film set for Lord of the Rings? Britain is surprisingly long, and it is a good 600 miles (or an overnight train) from London to Inverness, the start and endpoint of the North Coast 500. The scenery is truly stunning, awesome even and in sharp contrast to anything that you might encounter in other parts of Britain. One therefore wonders why it has taken the Scottish government until 2015 to link up and promote the highlights of this vast area; the isolated top of the British mainland, where sparsely populated communities struggle to make a living from farming and fishing, and where extra income generated from tourism is much appreciated.
I arranged this trip using Booking.com and stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott at Inverness Airport, Edindoune in Strathcarron, the Walled Garden BnB in Braemore, the Pentland Hotel in Thurso, as well as the Crown Court Hotel in Inverness. I can recommend staying in all of these places. I also stayed in a BnB in Lybster, and the less I mention, the better.
Hostelworld has listings all along the North Coast 500, including Inverness, Loch Ness, Gailoch, Ullapool and Thurso; an excellent way to save on accommodation costs.
It is perfectly feasible to do particular sections of the NC 500 from one centrally located base. This is rather handy if you do not want to pack up your stuff every morning. Vrbo lists over 70 holiday homes in the Highlands outside of Inverness. In Inverness itself, listings total over 150.
It very quickly becomes apparent that sun, clouds, and rain are the star attractions. Mark Twain once stated that if you do not like the weather in New England, then just wait 5 minutes. This certainly rings true for the northern half of Scotland, with the time scale used by the American author being on the rather conservative side. On this trip, I once got out of my car in glorious sunshine and walked the 100 yards or so to a lighthouse that I wanted to check out. By the time I got there, I was soaked, took some miserable photos, and returned to the car park, where bright sunshine greeted me once more. But the temperamental weather is manna for those seeking glorious vistas. Clouds are rushing over the mountain tops, the ever-changing light is leaving glorious reflections on barren hills, and crisp and clean air allows for far-reaching views into the distance (unless of course it rains, or you find yourself surrounded by mist: cue the Mark Twain dictum).
Eilean Donan Castle
Your overall mileage will almost certainly go way beyond the officially stated 500 (or 516 to be precise). Admittedly, when starting out in Inverness, I thought it would be criminal to skip nearby Loch Ness, so I diverged from the NC 500 and drove the A82 to Drumnadrochit, and the A87 to Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast, before joining the NC-500 once more at Strathcarron. On occasion you might want to check out a beach, a loch (the Gaelic word for lake or sea inlet), or venture inland away from the coast. My trip came in at 800 miles, and even without the Loch Ness detour it would have been at least 700.
The North Coast 500 app suggests a very sensible, minimum time frame of 5 days. But it all depends on how many attractions you would like to take in. I travelled in a week when Scotland had just eased Corona restrictions, but museums, most cafes and restaurants, and indeed the various whiskey distilleries, which tour operators are so fond of flocking to, were all still shut. Hence, my focus was on hiking and checking out the numerous, glorious vistas. I did the loop in five stages, although the two final legs along the east coast from Thurso to Inverness could have easily been done in just one go, as they are just not as spectacular as their western counterparts. But if you keep it short and sharp, keep in mind, that the occasional rain shower might just slow you down a little.
I did the tour in the first days of April 2021. To my surprise, there were quite a few fellow travellers, in particular in well-equipped and self-sufficient motor homes. But traffic was still very light. This is certainly not the case during the height of the tourist season in July and August. In particular on the north-western and northern stretches of the loop, the road is often just single-filed with frequent passing bays. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the odd traffic jam in the summer. But during those months, daylight will come to your rescue. Summer days are very long up here, and you could easily check out some highlights until ten at night, or rise early before the crowds get going, after having consumed their morning meal in one of the numerous bed & breakfast establishments.
Which leads me to accommodation. The North Coast 500 app has many suggestions, most of them of the guest house and B&B variety. I relied on Booking.com which to my pleasant surprise had just about enough options for my 5 nights during this Corona-induced, and partially shut off-season. You could also base yourself in Inverness and tackle the area through a series of one-day excursions, which means you do not have to pack up every day and move on to the next accommodation. But of course, for many, this is precisely the attraction of a looping road trip. Here are the links to Vrbo, Booking.com and Hostelworld. Between those three, all your accommodation needs should be met for every location and budget.
Leg 1: Inverness to Stratchcarron: 180 miles, 8 hoursA82: Inverness – Drumnadrochit – Fort AugustusA887: Glen Affric Mountain, Loch DuichA87 Eilean Donan Castle, Kyle of LochalshCoastal backroad and A890: StrathcarronMountain road: Applecross and back to Strathcarron
I left Inverness amidst thick clouds and frequent rain showers coming in from the North Sea. Off to Loch Ness and a detour from the NC-500 before I have even started the loop. No one around on a rainy Tuesday morning in April amidst a gloomy scenery. Museums still closed but tourist infrastructure very much apparent. A lot of references to the monster, from campgrounds to gift shops. Across the Glen Affric mountain range with peaks rising over 1,000 m. Clouds are starting to lift, revealing spectacular highland scenery high up at the top end of Loch Clouanie. Beautiful descent along Loch Duich and to Kyle of Lochalsh. Drove over the new(ish) bridge linking the Isle of Skye with the mainland. No tolls anymore (what was that all about?), and further along Loch Carron to Strachcarron, my first overnight stop.
Mountain Pass to Applecross
The NC-500 app tells me that this could be the driving highlight of the entire loop: The mountain pass over to Applecross. The app is not wrong: 21 miles, mostly single-tracked, sharp and very steep hairpins, a lunar-like landscape of heather, rocks and not much else, particular at the top of the range at 700 m: spectacular. Applecross lies peacefully on the banks of an inner sound and a river mouth, with the Isle of Raasay and the Isle of Rona in the distance; some farms, houses, and trees (!). Took an afternoon stroll along well-marked low altitude trails as wind was just too fierce up on the ridge. Truly wonderful scenery and just about warm enough to don the winter jacket.
Clear sunshine first thing this morning: Hooray, though some showers in the afternoon but fine weather once more with rainbows and snow-capped mountain tops. The weather is a tourist attraction in itself. You could be standing atop a presumably gorgeous bay, blanketed in thick mist and don’t see a thing. But then, an hour later and some miles up the road, the wind has blown the clouds away, sun rays are dancing around, turning even the most mundane hillside into a natural spectacle.
Dragged my ageing bones 700 m up to the top of Beinn Eighe. Magical 360 degree views after quite a steep Alpine-like climb. Cooked lunch on the shore of Loch Maree then onto the fishing village of Gairloch with a small range of shops and some tourist establishments (though all closed). Magical location on a sandy bay with the mountains of Wester Ross in the background. Drove to the end of the peninsula to Redpoint with fabulous, but very windswept sandy beach.
Onwards to Gruinard Bay and the magnificent scenery just keeps on coming. Lots of building plots for sale for city folk in Inverness and Aberdeen I guess, in need of a semi-isolated retreat. Newish architecture can easily be spotted by the size of the windows: small means old, big means new; quite appealing in places, but nothing that screams ostentatious prosperity. Locals and other visitors very chatty and friendly. Seems as if everyone is just relieved that lockdown has come to an end.
It feels different up here, rugged, and down-to-earth and in marked contrast to the pretentiousness that on occasion one encounters in the place that I now call home. Elections to the Scottish parliament are just around the corner. All you see are the yellow placards of the SNP. The other parties seemed to have stopped trying. Massive downpour on my way to overnight stop in Braemore, so I continued on to nearby Ullapool. Guess what? The sun came out. Quite a charming and surprisingly lively regional centre and port with fishing boats in the harbour and the ferry to Stornoway docking quayside. Stocked up on food and petrol at a massive Tesco: Working class folk and some outdoorsy types offering hiking and sea-kayaking trips. Very few visitors, mostly of the sporty variety, doing what I do: touring the area. Back to Braemore to a superbly comfortable B&B (called Walled Garden). This was a fantastic day.
Another lovely sunny morning, made even better by a breakfast chat with my host. No Corona here apparently, and no wonder given that social distancing does not seem to be a problem with so few souls around. Soon after Ullapool, the landscape started to change, with rocks replacing heather as the dominant feature; gloomy yet atmospheric and even stunning once the sun made one of her merrily frequent appearances. I am inching forward at snails' pace because of the bountiful photo opportunities. The area reminds me of the Bohuslan coast in western Sweden. Quite a few holiday homes in this remote part, yet Inverness is a mere one-hour drive away.
Drove to Lochinver; a small fishing village down a very narrow single track and to idyllic Achmelvich Beach, then Stoer Lighthouse and very scenic Drumbeg Bay with magnificent views all around. It was getting late: those single tracks don’t allow for much speed, so I picked up the tempo once I was back on the A838: yet more movie landscapes until I got to Durness with views of the Cape Wrath peninsula to the west (only accessible by foot ferry and taxi). More spectacular places to see nearby, chiefly Balnakeil Beach, Smoo Cave and Ceannabeine Beach. I had hit the top of mainland Britain and the narrow road meandered up and down cliffs, hills, and bays. Last stop before Thurso at yet another lighthouse at Strathy Point. To get there, I had to walk across a farm: clothes drying in the wind, old cars and farming vehicles rusting away in the yard, fishing cages, tractor, sheep, whatever it takes to eke out a living.
Brisk walk around Thurso which just about deserves to be referred to as a town. No one around once more, so I checked into a wonderfully creaky, spooky hotel that was surprisingly almost booked up. Fishing, the army, a power plant: it’s a no frills, down to earth life up here. Location scouts take note though: a perfect destination for your next Scandi Noir. By eight o’clock mainland Britain’s most northerly town wasn’t offering much to a road-weary traveller except Wi-fi and Champions League football.
Leg 4: Thurso to Lybster: 90 miles, 5 hoursA836: Thurso- Dunnet- John O’GroatsA99: Wick-Lybster
My first stop of the day was Dunnet Head, another lighthouse with views down steep cliffs hosting nesting sea birds with the Orkney islands on the horizon. That was nice. Unlike John O’ Groats which is merely a tacky and unsightly collection of cafes and souvenir shops all boarded up because of Covid. Britain really could have picked a more picturesque spot for its final destination. The Stacks of Duncansby for instance, a couple of miles away. I walked along a spectacular cliff edge with these monolithic pillars sticking out from the sea. Now that’s a fitting spot for a tourist attraction.
Onto Wick: another had working, no frills town. Houses, shops, street furniture all have a utilitarian feel to it. I did come across an art gallery (Corona-closed of course) and an ambitious restaurant outfit called ‘Au bord de la mer’ where some local must have married a French chef and dragged her/him up here. Another big Tesco at one end of the town, which seems to sell everything (hence the paucity of shops) and where people greet each other by their first names, and a Lidl with a small shopping centre at the other end of town. Functional indeed.
Another light house on my way south: Noss Head, this time with the fine ruin of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, the historical seat of the Sinclair clan perched on the edge of a cliff and presumably well worth a visit (if it’s open, that is).
And then the day somehow already came to an end. I was done by lunchtime and in retrospect could have easily rolled Day 4 and 5 into one. The rain started to beat down again as I drove south to check out my first destination of tomorrow: Helmsdale in prettier, hillier, and greener surroundings than I had experienced in the morning. So I prepared a sandwich, watched the rain come down even more, took a nap in the car and drove back up north for my overnight stay in Lybster. This turned out to be my most expensive accommodation of the entire trip. A bed and breakfast in someone’s house with farm junk, tools, and spare parts around the yard. The view out of my window was of a mobile home, where a member of the family had retreated to as his house had burnt to the ground recently. There’s a strong sense of isolation around here. One of the family’s older relatives told me that not long ago, people worked in either farming or fishing. Now what all the younger ones want to do is leave. With all the rain and wind driving in from the North Sea, the place felt desolate, and even the landscape for once looked rather uninspiring. It stopped raining at last just before sunset, so I drove to the cute harbour, set up my camping cooker and opened some tins that I had brought along. Luckily, Champions League was still on in the evening.
Leg 5: Lybster to Inverness: 110 miles, 5 hoursA99/A9: Dingwall - Inverness
I was glad to get going again and drove south along the A9 straight down the the Highland’s only major city: Inverness. The scenery mercifully changed for the better: hills, trees (at last) and fields once I had driven past Helmsdale. Onto Brora but no beach cows, although they were featured on the NC-500 app. Not much else either, apart from a picturesque golf course; Golspie with the massive Castle Dunrobin, home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland and very much looking like a French chateau; very impressive but also rather odd at this breezy latitude. But the highlight of the day was the wonderful and sweeping beach at Dornoch. The sun was out (just about) and local folk took their kids and dogs out for a walk.
Onto Inverness with crowds of shoppers queuing outside Primark and many people keen to eat (and drink) al fresco, as this was the only legally permitted option. It was the first weekend (and a bank holiday weekend at that) after the easing of lockdown restrictions and Inverness was going crazy. Everyone seems to be out and about, and the young and beautiful, and other restless types were yelling, screaming, shouting, and letting out a year of frustration. One very lightly dressed female in her early twenties threw up in a projectile fashion at the next table in the car park of my hotel which the proprietor had converted into an outdoor eating space. Hats off; not only was it ten degrees outside, but it was also only four in the afternoon. But I am sure this was a wholly uncharacteristic encounter, and I had a thoroughly pleasant stroll around town, along the river and up to the castle (closed; this time for renovation) before retreating early to my room, ready for next day’s long drive back south: a pleasant end to what has been a magnificent trip that far exceeded my expectations. And I thought once more of that climb towards Applecross. That was indeed the driving highlight.