Make tracks for 500 miles of rock and road
Scenic splendour, historic highlights and fantastic food – the North Coast 500 boasts it all, says Andrea Pearson
BRANDING is powerful. For years i t has been possible to drive a coastal route around the north Highlands, but i nvit - ing tourists to drive the A9, A99 and A832 hardly has the same appeal as “North Coast 500”. It sounds cool … enough perhaps to be Scotland’s answer to Route 66. And besides, NC500 is very hashtaggable.
The route was launched in May 2014 by North Highlands Initiative ( NHI), a charitable organisation aiming to boost tourism and bring money into the economy. It has been a masterstroke of marketing and has seen the route achieve international recognition.
Rough Guides now includes Scotland in its top three destinations for 2017, thanks to the NC500, which it named as the UK’s best road trip; The Times named it as one of the Top Five Coastal Touring Routes in the World while National Geographic Traveller rated it number two in its list of “101 Reasons to Travel Now’’.
Inverness is the official start and finish of the 516 miles. The route is circular only in name – it is more of a diamond, with the four corners at Inverness, John o’Groats, Durness and Applecross. But don’t be fooled into thinking far-flung Durness is the half way point … the west coast section is telephone-wire wiggly and takes considerably longer.
Which way round is best? Anticlockwise seems right. As soon as you reach Inverness you are hungry for coastline and the route to John O’Groats provides instant gratification.
But rather than facing the car forward and tearing to the finish it is best to treat the route as a wonderful string of touring bases. For starters, a short detour takes drivers to Cromarty on the Black Isle, where an overnight stay at the not-for-profit Cromarty Arts Trust … taking in an exhibition or a weekend workshop … will help prepare your inner photographer or painter for the journey ahead. The east coast is filled with history and stark reminders of the punishment the clearances brought. I nland crofters were forced to live on precipitous cliffs, and having to fish for a living. Nowhere is their grit more starkly illustrated than at the Whaligoe steps – 365 stone steps cut into the rock to allow the fisher- men’s wives collect the catch and then carry their heavy baskets seven miles to the markets at Wick. At John O’Groats, the short walk from Duncansby Lighthouse to the stacks is outstanding, enabling you to stand and gaze for miles along two coasts of the country – down the east towards Wick in one direction and along the exciting folds of the north coast in the other.
And why just gaze across the water at Orkney’s wonders? As Scotland celebrates its Year of History Heritage and Archeology, hop on the Northlink ferry from Scrabster near Thurso to Stromness in Orkney to visit the Ness of Brodgar – thought to be Europe’s most significant archeological find, dating back more than 5,000 years.
The Forss Hotel near Thurso is a wise stop for lunch or dinner – it has a two AA Rosette restaurant a fabulous country house feel. Or skip ahead to the Tongue Hotel, a former sporting lodge overlooking Ben Loyal and Ben Hope which won the Scottish Hotel awards’ Highland Small Country Hotel honour in 2016.
This is Highland living at its chocolate- box best, with hill climbing, angling, golfing or board games in the cosy lounge bar all on offer.
Along the journey it gets hard to decide whether to make your forays to the coast or inland to the hills: the peaks of Ben Hope; Ben Loyal; Suilven; Stac Polaidh An Teallach are all tantalizingly close to the route. But then again, Sandwood Bay must be Scotland’s most stunning beach and it would be a sin to miss it.
There is a sense that the time is right for the NC500. The rock stacks and hills may have lain almost unchanged for millennia but access has evolved. Cars are warmer and safer, navigation is easier, Wi-fi is widespread and accommodation, food, beer, draught- proofing, tents, boots, Goretex and just about everything you could need on the journey … are all better.
And let’s not forget the shuffle function on the in-car iPhone. And number one on the official NC500 playlist? The Proclaimers of course.
SCOT THE LOT: Scotland’s answer to America’s Route 66, the North Coast 500 officially begins in Inverness and takes in the three ‘corners’ of John o’ Groats, Durness and Applecross, left.