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

Sunday Herald - - 19.03.17 WEEK IN PERSPECTIVE -

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.

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