I’VE never been on a road trip. Every other holiday has been going somewhere, a resort, a city or something that moves like a cruise ship. On a road trip, the “going somewhere” is the holiday.
You have to plan, because there will be off-official-route places you’ll want to visit.
You also have to book accommodation in advance as the NC500 (North Coast 500) is becoming very popular.
We decided to go clockwise and allow five days for the trip. After a day spent driving the A9 to Inverness, the first night was at the Hillview Park B&B in Muir of Ord, a short skip along the 500.
A pristinely clean establishment, it turned out to be a great choice. Dinner was a venison casserole in the Priory Hotel, a few miles down the road in Beauly.
The next day, we start the route in earnest.
There are a few things to be aware of. The roads are mostly single-track with passing places every few hundred yards. The driving is a challenge. There are blind summits, blind corners, sheep on the road, steep inclines and Z-bends aplenty.
Get your passenger to navigate. You have to set your sights on the next waypoint village and follow signposts.
And don’t mind the weather. This is Scotland, it will be changeable. But a storm rolling in from the Atlantic is just as memorable a sight as Caribbean-blue water and crystal-white sands. Embrace it, enjoy it.
And consider taking sandwiches and soup. There are great places to stop for lunch, but a picnic at Kylesku Bridge is something you’ll never forget. We’d settled on Gairloch as the night’s stop, but went “off-route” for a look at Portree on Skye before heading back to the mainland to take on one of the highlights of the 500 – the Applecross Road.
This is the UK’s steepest road, with sheer drops and not a lot in the way of safety barriers. The top is the Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) described on its own Wikipedia page as “notorious”.
Once in Applecross, you can choose to negotiate the rest of the peninsula by the northern coast road, which is a driving challenge in itself and truly beautiful.
Night two, in the Gairloch Inn, was again a good experience, it isn’t a new hotel, but comfortable and the venison (I was becoming addicted) was well-cooked. Day three, a drive up through Ullapool, Assynt and Durness to Melvich, reveals what I thought the bonniest vista of the whole trip, Bienn Aird da Loch over Loch Glencoul.
The Melvich Hotel, with its impressive wall-long map of the north coast in the dining room, is again tremendous. It specialises in pizza, so it would be rude not to partake.
Day four is a trip round the north east-corner and down to Dornoch.
Caithness isn’t as picture-postcard bonny as Sutherland or Ross and Cromarty, but has its charms.
The accommodation highlight of the trip is The Steading in Dornoch. The converted E-shaped barn is like a five-star hotel. From the superking-size beds, to the airy dining/sitting room, it is quite amazing.
The next day was a leisurely trip back to Inverness. But we made a terrible mistake when planning this trip. We didn’t allow enough time. We saw the Smoo Cave (carved by The Devil himself, you know) but didn’t have time for the magnificence of Castle Sinclair at Girnigoe or other sights.
You need two weeks, at least, to “properly” do the NC500 and you’ll clock up 1000 miles, not just 500.
Are you sure you can call yourself truly Scottish, if you haven’t visited this part of the country? You’re depriving yourself of your nation’s most glorious sights.
Info: northcoast500.com; accommodation: Hillview Park B&B, Muir of Ord (hillviewpark.co.uk); The Old Inn, Gairloch (theoldinn.net); Melvich Hotel (melvichhotel.co.uk); The Steading, Dornoch: (dornoch.co.uk)