Where can you find one of the world’s great driving roads, discover deserted beaches, ancient castles, spectacular scenery, sample freshly caught seafood and spot the wildest of wildlife? The answer is almost on our own doorsteps, with the North Coast 500 route. It’s easy to forget we have some of the most impressive landscapes, food and heritage in the world, when so few of us ever explore what lies beyond Inverness. It’s as if we’ve decided to cram in 80% of the mountains and lochs into a fifth of the country, but it makes for a brilliant trip. The route offers plenty to entertain and astound the whole family, provided you remember to fill up your petrol tank whenever the opportunity presents itself.
The North Coast 500 route starts in Inverness before crossing through to the Applecross Peninsula on the West Coast, then meanders up the sides of sea lochs, across the top of Caithness to John O’Groats before returning via the quiet coastal towns and villages of the East Coast. A casual glance at Google Maps would lead you to believe that nothing but wilderness lies north of Inverness, and sometimes it does feel like a parallel universe version of Scotland, where you have the entire country to yourselves. The rise of internet shopping must be a joy for anyone who has to travel for seven hours before they reach a city.
Some amazing twists and turns, climbs and scenic stretches make the route a delight for drivers and even more fascinating for passengers. Almost every corner brings a magnificent view. Even the occasional encounter with a grouse with a death wish merely serves as an opportunity to take in the scenery as it randomly wanders the roadway. If you’re lucky, you may spot a huge eagle overhead, or see foxes, ospreys, otters, badgers and any number of tiny scurrying things you’re not entirely sure about. Possibly voles.
It’s a route that offers something for everyone. You can rough it, wild camping along the way or stay at official campsites, or take advantage of some truly luxurious accommodation like the 5* Torridon, or the Albannach in Lochinver, which holds the only Michelin Star in the North Highlands. The Torridon stocks over 200 whiskies in their bar, so if you pop in there or visit some of the distilleries on the route, a designated driver is essential.
Golfers can book ahead and play at Royal Dornoch, Durness or Reay, the most northerly golf course on the UK mainland, while there are also a host of activity options including boat cruises, river rafting, kayaking and canyoning.
If tradition and heritage is more your thing, stop at Dunrobin Castle in Golspie, the castle and gardens at Mey, the Highland Museum of Childhood in Strathpeffer, the broch at Carn Liath in Sutherland or the amazing cairns at Camster on a wild moor in Sutherland. Don’t miss the amazing ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe in Caithness. You’ll also find plenty of little antique shops worth fossicking about in Brora, Helmsdale and Ullapool.
On the way, you can explore caves, discover cafés, gift shops and galleries, stroll the sands at Coldbackie, Camas a’ Chairig or – for something really special, divert from the A838 by taking the B801 through Kinlochewe, pick up a picnic and take a four mile hike round the coast till you read Sandwood Bay. The broad stretch of sand is considered the finest beach in the UK, but its remoteness means it is rarely visited.
500 miles may not seem much, but it’ll allow you to experience some amazing sights and to discover why our country is so special. northcoast500.com