The North Coast 500 was introduced in 2014 to invigorate the tourism industry in the furthest reaches of mainland Scotland. Billed as ‘Scotland’s Route 66’, the 500 mile circular road trip from Inverness promises the best of Scotland: dramatic scenery, heritage and plenty of opportunity to explore the great outdoors.
Day 1: Inverness to Dornoch (45miles)
We opted to head off from Inverness in an anticlockwise direction on our four-day trip, taking in first the relatively sheltered undulating land of the east coast before ramping it up to the single track roads and isolated villages of the north and breathtaking panoramas of the west.
Our first stop was Dornoch, less than an hour north of Inverness, conveniently close for our late afternoon departure. If you fancy a bit of dolphin spotting, Chanonry Point on the Black Isle is reported to be one of the best locations in the UK at the rising tide, but sadly our timing was out.
Dornoch is a charming town famous for nearby Skibo Castle, exclusive retreat of the rich and famous. We’d treated ourselves to a ‘posh’ B&B for our first night and weren’t disappointed: At No.9 is a beautiful townhouse opposite the Cathedral, immaculately decorated with simple Scottish elegance. Our room on the top floor was as nice as any hotel room, and breakfast in the morning was easily the best of the trip. DM gulped at the bill, which was befitting of the ‘luxury B&B’ label but entirely justified by the attention to detail and quality of the whole experience.
We started walking to the pub in search of food but our heads were turned en route by Luigi’s Italian bistro, which turned out to be an excellent choice. After a nightcap in the Castle Hotel, boasting an extensive whisky selection and log fires, followed by a few-too-many more in the cosy snug at At No.9, we flopped into our crisp white super-kingsize sheets looking forward to the weekend’s adventures.
Day 2- Dornoch to Durness (157miles)
We planned to take in the longest drive on the first full day and make it all the way to Durness, as our research suggested there was less to see and do on this side of the country and the roads were quicker. The tide was out when we set off so we took a small detour out of Dornoch via Skelbo where the seals love to bask on sand banks in Loch Fleet.
Continuing up the A9 we passed the Sutherland monument, a locally infamous tribute to the loathed 18th century Duke responsible for the Highland Clearances. Dunrobin Castle is one of the most popular stops on this leg of the journey- formerly home to the aforementioned Duke amongst others it is built in the style of a Loire Chateau. We drove through the towns of Golspie, Brora (famous for its cashmere brand) and Helmsdale before taking a turn inland to visit the Gray Cairns of Camster. These reconstructed 5000 year-old burial pits sit amongst pine forests and open fields in what seems like the middle of nowhere, but they are worth a visit if you’re feeling brave enough to crawl inside on your hands and knees to see the chambers within.
Next stop was John O’ Groats, where we were amused by the fact that the famous signpost was ‘closed’; although it didn’t matter as there was another signpost about 50m away that visitors could freely take pictures of. Contrary to popular belief, John O’ Groats is not the most northerly point in mainland Britain- this honour falls to Dunnet Head 15 miles west, which has a small cliff car park and viewpoint.
The road from Dunnet Head to Durness winds along the north coast past Thurso- our lunch stop and the largest town in the region. Further along the coast Dounreay Nuclear Power Facility is a huge landmark and still one of the largest employers in the area as its decommissioning work is set to continue for at least another decade. Whilst the site is closed to visitors, there is an exhibition about the plant’s history at Caithness Horizons in Thurso.
West of Dounreay, the coast road takes you past some stunning sandy beaches, winding around sea lochs and inlets giving plenty photo opportunities. We drove with the Go Pro on the windscreen to capture the moments when, rounding a bend or cresting a blind summit, the vast landscape suddenly opens up before you revealing limitless blue sea and distant peaks.
We arrived in Durness in the late afternoon and checked into Aiden House, a modern and comfortable B&B on the edge of the dispersed village where we were welcomed warmly. The view from our upstairs room was everything you could ask for: rolling fields full of newborn lambs stretched between us and the rugged coastline. (Not so charming when they woke us up at sunrise the next morning with their baa-ing).
For dinner there were two modest options: the bar restaurant at Sango Sands campsite was within walking distance, whilst Smoo Cave Hotel offered a slightly more refined menu if one of us was prepared to drive a short distance. Not us! We opted for the cheap and cheerful local caravan park for pub grub and a few drinks with friends whom chance had thrown the same way.
Day 3: Durness to Lochinver (60 miles)
Without a set itinerary other than our hotel booking in Lochinver, we took tips from our friends in the pub who had been doing the road trip clockwise.
In Durness itself we wanted to check out Smoo Cave but had to wait until 1100 for ‘Caveman Colin’ to appear with his dinghy. There is a viewing point into the cavern from a freely accessible deck, but to fully appreciate the cave’s waterfall and deepest innards Colin’s £4 tour is the ticket. Another must as far as I was concerned was Cocoa Mountain in Balnakiel Craft Village just outside Durness, where we stopped for chocolatey treats before hitting the road.
Our first visit en route was Oldshoremore for its picturesque white sand beach. Further up the coast is the popular Sandwood Bay, where you can walk the 5km across moorland from the car park to experience the otherwise inaccessible secluded beaches but for us, Oldshoremore had it all, and we had it all to ourselves.
After a bracing beach walk our thoughts turned to food. I’d heard good things about the Kylesku Hotel so we called in for late lunch, which became one of the most memorable meals of the trip as we tucked into a delicious assortment of fresh seafood in the airy, relaxed bar area overlooking Loch Glendhu.
From Kylesku the main road runs inland to Loch Assynt before heading coastwards to Lochinver. The alternative B-road, which hugs the coast, is far more appealing to road-trippers: like much of the road south from Durness, it is a narrow single track with passing places, made more dramatic on this leg due to the steep gradients over which it snakes. The hair-raising drive was completely worth it for the phenomenal views: to one side, the coastline dotted with islands and inlets and to the other side, peaks, lochs and glens inland. We felt so remote that it seemed incongruous to pass a Tesco delivery van and see wheelie bins ready for collection. Is this wild and distant place really normal life for some?
Today was to be our culinary highlight as we’d treated ourselves to a night at The Albannach in Lochinver, an old country house with a Michelin starred restaurant. The appearance was grand yet homely, traditional but not stuffy, sufficiently shabby in places to be neither imposing nor conceited. From afternoon tea through to breakfast we were fed and watered with excellence, but the highlight was the five course set dinner conjured up by Lesley and Colin. Predictably, this night was the most expensive of the trip, but unlike in other regions of the UK, we knew we had paid for quality rather than location or label.
Day 4: Lochinver to Gairloch (86 miles)
If Day 3 was our ‘foodie’ day, Day 4 was set to be our ‘outdoorsy’ day with the first target Stac Pollaidh. We chose this 2000ft craggy ridge to ascend because there’s a fairly direct path to the summit and the whole thing can be circumnavigated in less than three hours. In fact it took us just over an hour and a half following the path from the car park at a brisk pace. The well-trodden route winds 4.5km up and around the peak with an optional light scramble to the summit, where the views are of course breathtaking.
Our final night stop was Gairloch, where we were hoping for an opportunity to give our new toy- an inflatable canoe- her maiden voyage off the beach at Big Sand. Unfortunately by the time we arrived the wind had picked up, the sky was darkening and the sea swell looked uninviting so instead we opted for kite flying on the beach- or rather, DM reverted to a 12 year old boy showing off his skills while I shivered on the shore. The neighbouring campsite had a tempting restaurant but we opted to head into Gairloch itself for supper. With many of the Tripadvisor favourites closed on a Sunday out of season, we settled for Myrtle Bank Hotel, which though lacking a little in ambience, certainly appeased our appetites with enormous portions of simple, tasty grub including more delicious seafood.
Day 5: Gairloch to Inverness (70 miles)
We had been so lucky with the weather, which finally gave in to showers and pelting hail during our drive home. Nonetheless, we were determined to give the canoe an outing having driven halfway around Scotland with her in the back of the car. Between showers we found a car park beside Loch Maree where we entertained walkers and picnickers by launching from the gravel beach for a quick paddle. Now she’s proven on the (calm) water stay tuned for future aquatic adventures in our trusty vessel! With that box ticked the only thing we failed to achieve on our trip was a bit of wild swimming in one of the many lochs or sea coves, but perhaps I’ll save that one for warmer climes.
Scotland really does have so much to offer beyond whisky, shortbread and the bright lights of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and I’d urge anyone with the opportunity to explore some of these far flung reaches where, at times, you can feel a million miles from anywhere and anyone. Until the Tesco van drives past.