Global flavours

We hit the road to drive Scot­land’s epic North Coast 500 route.

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It was in a small har­bour­side of­fice in the once ma­jor fish­ing town of Wick that Scot­land’s an­swer to the USA’s in­fa­mous Route 66 was born. The North Coast 500, of­ten known as the sex­ier-sound­ing NC500, is a 500-mile (830-kilo­me­tre) route around Scot­land’s top end. Be­gin­ning in In­ver­ness, the road shoots up the east coast to John O’Groats, trav­els across the top to Dur­ness, and snakes back down the west coast be­fore re­turn­ing to the start.

Af­ford­ing truly breath­tak­ing scenery, there’s a lot more to this pop­u­lar driv­ing (and cy­cling) track than vast lochs and heather­specked hills. From cas­tles to dis­til­leries (whisky, of course, but also gin), for­est walks to sea kayak­ing, the NC500 is one to add to the bucket list. And with Qan­tas now fly­ing di­rectly from Perth to London, it just be­came a lot eas­ier to get there; a short on­ward flight from London to In­ver­ness and you can pick up a car and be on the road by mid-morn­ing.

There are plenty of ways to tackle the route named one of the best coastal roads in the world, and this is how we did it.

A short drive from bustling In­ver­ness will bring you to Muir of Ord. It’s def­i­nitely worth pulling up at Bad Girl Bak­ery (Forbes Build­ings, 7, Great N Rd, Muir of Ord) for a blondie or caramel brownie while you sip on a cup of Scot­tish tea in china you can choose from the counter. Sweet crav­ings sat­is­fied, head to Glen

Ord Dis­tillery (Muir of Ord, Ross-shire), which has been dis­till­ing since the 1800s. Here, you can be­gin to learn about Scot­land’s finest ex­port: whisky. The tast­ing at the end is a jour­ney through the range, and even des­ig­nated driv­ers are looked af­ter: you can take away your tast­ings in plas­tic con­tain­ers for when driv­ing is done for the day.

As you head north, hay-bale-dot­ted fields and wide-open spa­ces of­fer a taste of the land­scape to come. The small sea­side town of Dornoch is a good place to stop af­ter day one, and

Dornoch Cas­tle (Cas­tle St, Dornoch, Suther­land) of­fers com­fort­able rooms in a ho­tel steeped with his­tory. Parts of the build­ing date back to the 1500s, mak­ing it an ideal place to get into the spirit of your jour­ney through this an­cient land. Newer ad­di­tions such as the gar­den din­ing room and award-win­ning whisky bar mean you can get com­fort­able af­ter a day of trav­el­ling, or head down the road to The Ea­gle Ho­tel (Cas­tle St) for Scot­tish beers and tra­di­tional pub fare.

Col­lect sup­plies for day two from Dornoch Gen­eral Store (12 Cas­tle St, Dornoch), where there’s a good se­lec­tion of cheeses, meats and more, all lo­cally sourced wher­ever pos­si­ble. A short drive from Dornoch is Skelbo For­est, which is a beau­ti­ful way to stretch the legs ahead of a sec­ond day on the road. Lush green­ery, his­toric stone struc­tures erected dur­ing the Iron Age and sculp­tures by lo­cal artists make up the gen­tle hike.

The next stop brings you to one of the first pre­served stately homes you’ll en­counter en route. Dun­robin Cas­tle (Gol­spie) is now main­tained as a museum, and its rooms are filled with stag heads and art­works. It’s also a pleas­ant wan­der through the im­pec­ca­bly man­i­cured gar­dens, where you can watch a fal­conry demon­stra­tion, if you wish, and fin­ish at the tea rooms. Wide, wind­ing roads, rolling hills and coastal views mean count­less photo op­por­tu­ni­ties as th

fish­ing in­dus­try, and a trip with

Caith­ness Sea­coast not only takes you out on the har­bour to ex­plore cave sys­tems, spot seal­ife and en­joy the beauty of the coast­line from the wa­ter, but your guide will give you the rich his­tory of this for­ward-think­ing town (long known for oil drilling, a large re­new­able en­ergy sta­tion is now the town’s fo­cus). For a pit­stop, visit Mack­ays Ho­tel ( Union St, Wick, Caith­ness) for a lo­cally dis­tilled gin matched with its ideal tonic (there’s a menu), and get a snap on Ebenezer Place out­side – at 2.06 me­tres long, it’s listed in the Guin­ness Book of Records as the short­est street in the world.

The late af­ter­noon drive past Ack­ergill, Reiss, Nyb­ster and Tofts takes you through coun­try­side be­gin­ning to feel more re­mote, and there are stretches of road with­out a res­i­dence in sight. Pulling into John O’Groats, while houses dot the land­scape, the still­ness feels like you have reached the end of the earth.

Nat­u­ral Re­treats (A99, John O’Groats, Wick) of­fers lux­ury ac­com­mo­da­tion right on the wa­ter, and tak­ing a stroll at sun­set to watch seals splash­ing in the har­bour is picture-per­fect.



A fan­tas­tic first stop on our third day is the Cas­tle of Mey (Thurso, Caith­ness), which was bought by Queen El­iz­a­beth the Queen Mother in the ‘50s, sav­ing it from aban­don­ment. Walled gar­dens, an an­i­mal cen­tre and an in­for­ma­tive, quirky tour that gives a rare in­sight into the late Queen Mother’s hu­mor­ous per­son­al­ity make this well worth a visit. You’ll see Aberdeen An­gus cat­tle graz­ing in nearby pas­tures, a pedigree breed of beef that is still reared and nur­tured on this land.

A short trek up the road is one of Scot­land’s gin dis­til­leries, of which there has been a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in re­cent years, and

Dun­net Bay Dis­tillery (Dun­net, KW14) is a real gem. Gain­ing much of its pop­u­lar­ity through so­cial me­dia, Dun­net Bay pro­duce sea­sonal blends in arty stone bot­tles, sourc­ing many of the botan­i­cals from their own gar­den or the nearby sur­rounds. This is thanks to the botanist work­ing on site – you’ll find ju­niper, thyme, pineap­ple sage, ‘drunken’ rhubarb planted with ju­niper berries, and a green­house with hops over­tak­ing the cen­tral plant­ing (ex­plain­ing the ‘will be kicked out if it doesn’t be­have’ note) right out­side the dis­tillery doors.

Head on­wards to Thurso – the first place with a busy main strip for a few days – for lunch post gin-fix. Le Bistro (2 Traill St) is a great cosy op­tion on the high street and, ac­cord­ing to the lo­cals, has the best Cullen skink (a thick soup made with onions, had­dock and potato) in town.

This af­ter­noon, the wild spirit of Scot­land truly re­veals it­self as the ter­rain be­comes more moun­tain­ous, the ever-chang­ing weather bat­ter­ing the hills one minute and glit­ter­ing it with rain­bows the next. Wild sheep dot the road­side, and deer can be seen if you keep an eye out.

Pulling into the se­ri­ously re­mote Crag­gan Ho­tel (Skin­net, Talmine), one of the only ho­tels for miles around, beach to one side and end­less sky to the other, you’ll be for­given for quiet con­tem­pla­tion. The homely Crag­gan serves food all day and is a pop­u­lar spot for those mak­ing the drive (or, in­creas­ingly, cy­cle). Scal­lops are hand-dived and lan­goustines caught at lo­cal Loch Eri­boll, from where they are brought to the kitchen’s back door in a bucket and go straight onto the menu. Sim­plic­ity at its best.


A few kilo­me­tres out of tiny Talmine you’ll come across the vast Loch Eri­boll of Crag­gan fame, and from here much of the route be­comes sin­gle track. Thank­fully, ev­ery­one is driv­ing at a snail’s pace to take in the un­be­liev­able views, but it’s wise to be cau­tious as there are plenty of blind spots. Take a short stop at Smoo Cave

(Dur­ness) to see one of the route’s more ac­ces­si­ble cave sys­tems. Next, make a pit stop at what looks like a car park but is ac­tu­ally home to the self-dubbed ‘best’ hot choco­late (it’s pretty damn good) at Co­coa Moun­tain (8 Bal­nakeil, Dur­ness). It doesn’t look like much, but it’s great respite from the blus­tery day on which we ar­rived, with an on-site choco­latier and that fa­mous mug­ful.

Set the sat nav di­rectly for Kylesku Ho­tel (Kylesku Bridge, Suther­land) and in­dulge in a seafood plat­ter for lunch. Ev­ery sec­ond day, the fish­er­man pulls up to the restau­rant-side jetty and de­liv­ers the catch di­rect to the kitchen. The haul varies, but ex­pect heav­enly sweet crab, meaty lan­goustines and the finest scal­lops on the shell, plus a steam­ing pot of mus­sels for good mea­sure.

De­scend­ing the west coast to Lochin­ver, the wild coast­line is quite the con­trast to the mead­owy east coast; the vari­a­tion in land­scape is one of the finest as­pects of this trip.

Pull up for the day at In­ver Lodge Ho­tel (Lochin­ver, Suther­land), which of­fers stately ac­com­mo­da­tion with plush rooms and guest lounges, and a restau­rant, Chez Roux, over­seen by Al­bert Roux OBE of London’s famed two-Miche­lin-star Le Gavroche, now owned by his son, Michel Roux Jr. Un­wind with an ex­pertly mixed mar­tini by the fire­place, then take a seat for din­ner, where it’s hard to go past the sig­na­ture cheese souf­flé. Mains boast fine lo­cally sourced meat and fish, and the fa­mous lemon tart is a won­der­ful cit­rusy fi­nale.

Af­ter a tra­di­tional Scot­tish break­fast (hag­gis in­cluded, of course) over­look­ing Lochin­ver from the In­ver Lodge din­ing room, swing by Lochin­ver Larder (Main Street, Lochin­ver) to pick up pork pies and the like, and con­tinue the trail.

For the ad­ven­tur­ous, head straight for Nor­west Sea Kayak­ing (East Achen­in­ver, Achiltibuie, Ul­lapool) and get on the wa­ter for a few hours of pad­dling. Your guide will take you out and, once your co­or­di­na­tion catches up and you’re away, teach you about the


seal­ife, bird life and sur­round­ing Sum­mer Isles. When your arms are tir­ing (and you may or may not be en­ter­ing into con­flict with your pad­dling buddy if you’re in a two-man kayak), you’ll pull up to an empty beach and help find bracken and dried grass to build a small fire to brew hot choco­late – Gaelic hot choco­late for the brave, the dash of whisky sure to help you power that kayak back to shore – and toast marsh­mal­lows.

The nar­row track will take you to tonight’s ho­tel, the once-again re­mote Poolewe Ho­tel (Main Street, Poolewe), where com­fort­ing pub food and friendly staff will ease you into the evening.

On a Tues­day, wan­der through Poolewe Mar­ket (14 St Mael­rubha’s Cl, Poolewe) to pick up crafts, art­works and pro­duce. De­pend­ing on the time of year, there are a few ways to fin­ish the jour­ney back to In­ver­ness. If the weather is on your side, wind­ing your way to Bealach na Bà is highly rec­om­mended and con­sid­ered one of the most as­tound­ing ar­eas of the whole trip. Tight hair­pin bends that traverse the steep­est as­cent of any road climb in the UK, it’s quite the ex­pe­ri­ence, and with your heart in your mouth is the only way to aptly end this jaw-drop­ping trip.

For more in­for­ma­tion and sug­gested itin­er­ar­ies, head to north­ and vis­itbri­ Qan­tas now flies di­rect from Perth to London. Book at qan­

Glen Ord Dis­tillery. BE­LOW: the long and wind­ing road out­side Sheb­ster.

MAIN IM­AGE: a lonely farm near Dornoch. CLOCK­WISE (from above): Cullen skink; Dun­net Bay Dis­tillers’ stone-bot­tled gin; Wick har­bour; (in­set) stay alert for deer sight­ings; Sum­mer Isles stream; you’ll see plenty of sheep on your trip.

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