We hit the road to drive Scotland’s epic North Coast 500 route.
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.
“THE WILD SPIRIT OF SCOTLAND TRULY REVEALS ITSELF AS THE TERRAIN BECOMES MORE MOUNTAINOUS.”
DAY 3: JOHN O’GROATS TO TALMINE
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.
DAY 4: TALMINE TO LOCHINVER
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
“AFTER A TRADITIONAL SCOTTISH BREAKFAST, SWING BY LOCHINVER LARDER TO PICK UP PORK PIES AND THE LIKE.”
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 northcoast500.com and visitbritain.com. Qantas now flies direct from Perth to London. Book at qantas.com.au
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.