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
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: