I WOULD DRIVE 500 MILES...

In­vented just three years ago, the North Coast 500 has be­come an overnight phe­nom­e­non, with hordes of visi­tors flock­ing to our shores to drive around Scot­land’s an­swer to Amer­ica’s Route 66. Ed­i­tor Richard Bath went to see what all the fuss is about

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

A long awaited chance to drive the North Coast 500 has Richard Bath wax­ing lyri­cal on the great High­land road trip

We met Dave With­ers, the man who for me came to en­cap­su­late what the North Coast 500 is all about, af­ter we stopped at Loch Eri­boll three days into our odyssey. As we gazed out over the wa­ter to the vast ex­panse of bar­ren hill­side be­yond, the peace was shat­tered by an almighty roar. Dave had ar­rived, growl­ing to a halt just be­hind us be­fore dis­gorg­ing him­self from the car Starsky and Hutch would have driven if blue had been their colour.

‘Bloody mar­vel­lous, isn’t it!’ he chor­tled, ges­tur­ing to the wilder­ness all around us. ‘I’ve driven all the way up from Coven­try for this – 700 miles in a car that only does twelve miles to the gal­lon. I don’t think I’ve passed a sin­gle petrol sta­tion with­out stop­ping, but it’s all been worth it. It’s breath­tak­ing.’

Patently in­tox­i­cated by his sur­round­ings, the af­fa­ble petrol-head en­gaged me in an­i­mated con­ver­sa­tion and quizzed me about my car, a bor­rowed BMW 7 series that, cost­ing over £100,000 was so strato­spher­i­cally above my pay

‘I’ve driven from Coven­try for this but it’s worth it – it’s breath­tak­ing’

grade that work­ing out how to drive the thing was the limit of my ca­pa­bil­i­ties. I tried to work out how much this Rolls Royce en­gi­neer had so far spent on his bus­man’s hol­i­day, and came up with the fig­ure north of £300, a hefty sum given that he was only half­way round. ‘Aye, but worth ev­ery penny,’ said the Mid­lan­der. ‘I just wish I’d known this was here be­fore.’ Rarely can the lure of the North Coast 500 have been more suc­cinctly summed up. As with Dave’s pris­tine 1970 Chevro­let Chev­elle (‘it’s only the 5.4 litre ver­sion, there aren’t enough petrol sta­tions to make it all the way round in the 6.5 litre one’), the road by Loch Eri­boll was a thing of rare beauty. Un­like Dave’s Chevvy, how­ever, it has taken cen­turies to be­come an overnight suc­cess.

The phe­nom­e­non that is the North Coast 500 has been one of the most stag­ger­ing mar­ket­ing suc­cesses since the Yanks per­suaded us to adopt pet rocks back in the 1970s. It is all the more re­mark­able given that the 516-mile route, which starts at In­ver­ness and, apart from the sixty miles from east to west be­tween In­ver­ness

‘Much of the route con­sists of sin­gle-track roads which haven’t been up­graded since the war. The Boer War, that is’

and Strath­car­ron, takes tourists around the coast in ei­ther a clock­wise or anti-clock­wise man­ner, is as old as the hills.

Much of the route, es­pe­cially on the West Coast, con­sists of sin­gle-track roads that haven’t been sig­nif­i­cantly up­graded since the war. The Boer War, that is. Yet in the three years since some bright spark came up with the con­cept of giv­ing the ex­ist­ing roads an iden­tity and mar­ket­ing it as ‘Scot­land’s an­swer to Route 66’, the num­bers of tourists have gone crazy.

Half of the lo­cals on the NC500 tell me with an air of ab­so­lute cer­tainty that there are now five times as many cars on the roads as there were three years ago, but in re­al­ity there is ac­tu­ally only 10% more traf­fic, a good deal of it per­for­mance or vin­tage cars as visi­tors do the route in style. One Caith­ness hote­lier told me she’d seen the same Porsche three times in the past month; she’s get­ting to like it so much she says she might get her­self one! There are also mo­tor­bikes, and as we shel­tered from a rain­storm in Glen­bervie we met a group of 20 bedrag­gled souls who were do­ing the NC500 on scoot­ers for char­ity.

FOOD, GLO­RI­OUS FOOD

The in­crease in visi­tors has been a bo­nanza for lo­cal busi­nesses, but for visi­tors it means that it’s now pru­dent to book as far ahead as pos­si­ble. That goes for food too: we thought we would waltz into a suc­ces­sion of top-end res­tau­rants on our ‘lux­ury tour’, only to be quickly dis­abused of that no­tion. Our first ex­pe­ri­ence of this was when we ar­rived at Ack­ergill Tower near Wick, a lovely 350-year-old tower house on the coast and I asked whether they could fit us in for din­ner that night only to be al­most laughed out of the place. The gen­eral man­ager, ge­nial South African Mar­cell Cil­liers, il­lus­trated how busy they were by ex­plain­ing that they had al­ready sold the ma­jor­ity of their rooms for Novem­ber – next year. At up to £400 a night for DB&B for two, it’s not as though Ack­ergill is a bud­get op­tion.

On the first night of our tour we stayed in the new­lyren­o­vated (and highly rec­om­mended) Swiss Cot­tage on the gor­geous Bal­nagown Es­tate by Tain. For food we could have driven to three fine din­ing res­tau­rants – the ex­cel­lent Oys­ter­catcher in Portma­homack, Rocpool Re­serve in In­ver­ness or Links House in Dornoch but we were so tired we made do with lo­cal pub grub. John O’Groats seems to be a par­tic­u­lar pinch point: we stayed in the self-cater­ing Nat­u­ral Re­treats on the shore, eas­ily the best op­tion in town, but wanted to ‘eat posh’ only to find that not only were we re­buffed by Ack­ergill, but also the ex­cel­lent Ulb­ster Inn and snooty Forss House Ho­tel.

While the in­flux of visi­tors around the NC500 means it’s sen­si­ble to plan ahead when it comes to food and

ac­com­mo­da­tion, when it comes to vis­i­tor at­trac­tions the ex­tra bums on seats means they can now stay open for more of the year. That was cer­tainly the case with the three main sites that you’ll def­i­nitely want to visit on the way round: Dun­robin Cas­tle, the Cas­tle of Mey and In­verewe Gar­den.

I ab­so­lutely love Dun­robin, the fairy­tale 189-roomed cas­tle perched on the cliffs above Gol­spie, but their num­bers have been off the scale and on the day we vis­ited a cruise ship had stopped in In­ver­gor­don, turn­ing the place into a mob scene. Our tour of the Cas­tle of Mey’s gar­dens and in­te­rior was one of the most de­light­fully un­ex­pected high­lights of the whole trip, which is per­haps why vis­i­tor num­bers are up by 28%, tip­ping the trust into the black for the first time. Fi­nally, make sure you stop at In­verewe Gar­den, for­merly owned by Os­good Macken­zie and now in the safe hands of the Na­tional Trust for Scot­land. It’s a true gem, even if you’re not a flora buff.

The in­crease in peo­ple and traf­fic has had an im­pact upon lo­cals, but like any change it tends to be ex­ag­ger­ated. In my ex­pe­ri­ence the lo­cal nick­name ‘Indy 500’ is a mis­nomer; there’s the odd boy racer, but on glo­ri­ous roads through won­der­ful wilder­ness, even I– a one-time speed freak who is more Driv­ing Miss Daisy these days – was tempted to put my foot down. Eas­ily the big­gest is­sue is bot­tle­necks on sin­gle-track roads caused by more mo­torhomes as peo­ple re­spond to sum­mer short­ages by bring­ing their own ac­com­mo­da­tion with them.

These homes-from-homes don’t fit into the theme of our

Smoo Cave in Dur­ness con­tains a wa­ter­fall which is ac­ces­si­ble by boat, but first there's a hearty walk down from the car park. Go­ing un­der­ground:

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