The North Coast 500 is a pilgrimage any true petrolhead has to take at some point in their life, and here is my breakdown of the roads and attractions that I happened upon along the way.
A9, A86 and A82
Despite beginning with a vast dual carriageway, the ascent into the Highlands isn’t really about out-and-out driving and instead is more about taking in the lush, ominous scenery of the Pass of Killicrankie up the A9 until you reach the turn-off for Dalwhinnie.
Steering you West across the shores of Loch Laggan, the A86 is a gem missed by many that normally plough straight up the A9 carriageway all the way to Inverness. There may be few places to overtake, but on a quiet day, the road across to Spean Bridge is a true classic, with Ben Nevis and a couple of lochside beaches flitting past the windows.
The A82 then spears you North-East into The Great Glen. Make sure to savour the frighteningly steep glen at its entrance, as once you’re past a couple of boat locks at Loch Lochy and Loch Oich, the Scots Pine trees begin to form a thick barrier between the road and the rest of the scenery, concealing much of Loch Ness. The A82 is a quick, demanding A-road but unfortunately is often inundated with tourist traffic from the local Nessie attractions.
A stunning 13th Century castle protruding out into Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle is a fantastic insight into the history of the local area and allows for fantastic views of the loch instead of the tree-covered roadsides.
Loch Ness Visitor Centre
One of the highlights of the Loch Ness experience, this museum takes you down into the depths of the loch and investigates its greatest mystery. If you like your myth mixed in with a tonne of science, the visitor centre is the place to be. I suggest you go as early as possible as the quaint museum gets fairly rammed by lunchtime.
Loch Ness Inn
What it lacks in room numbers it makes up with using sheer quality in both room décor and food from the well-styled, traditional restaurant. The beds are colossal and the battered haddock is a must. Click here to book!
A887, A87, A890, A896
Starting off as a two-lane A-road following a great river coursing through the bottom of another sheer-sided glen, the scenery suddenly bursts open into the beautiful expanse of Loch Duich. The road then takes a sharp right and begins to suddenly steepen as the Applecross Pass looms into view. The famous Bealach Na Ba is probably the most treacherous stretch of road within the NC500 and should be given plenty respect. I’d advise using it as more of a photo opportunity than a driving road! Some of the hairpins are truly savage and need to be taken at full-lock and nothing more than 15mph, but it all combines to make the Applecross Pass a driving experience that should be undertaken by all petrolheads at some point!
Eilean Donan Castle
Although I only stopped for a picture, one of the most famous castles in Scotland is a must for any keen photographer. Even on the murkiest of days, the home of the MacRaes is a stunning sight as it looks over the sea lochs to Skye.
The best fish and chips in the Highlands, freshly caught from the bay. A warm atmosphere and a bustling pub makes for an extremely welcoming environment which looks out onto the stunning waters and a pebbled beach.
Tigh An Eilean, Shieldaig
Situated at the top of Loch Torridon, Shieldaig is a classic Highland fishing village that is dominated by the island a few hundred yards from the shore. The B&B is extremely warm and homely, with a fantastic front room that looks out onto the loch with comfy sofas and armchairs waiting for a game of chess or a quiet read. Dinner and one hell of a breakfast can be easily accessed through the hotel bistro that is connected directly to the B&B. The black pudding is particularly scrumptious!
The single-track roads of the NC500 can sometimes be a tad hectic and danger-filled, but the A896 is a true great that sticks out as a fully driveable single-tracker. With brilliantly long sight-lines and small straights that allow for a comfortable build-up of speed, this stretch of road is as intense as it gets from an emotive driving perspective. It almost resembles a small hillclimb or time trial route and it’s a genuine shame once you reach the double-laned A832 which seems to drain some of the fun from the dramatic road from Torridon.
Gairloch Glass Bottomed Boat and Mellon Udrigle Beach
Unfortunately, I was let down by the weather which was rather annoying as I was especially looking forwar to the wildlife boat tour. Maybe next year…
The Arch Inn, Ullapool
Placed conveniently at the tail end of Ullapool’s main street, The Arch Inn again follows the philosophy of ‘less is more’ with extremely luxurious rooms attached to the bar/restaurant that is very popular with the locals and the people flooding off the ferry. The service is top notch and the rooms are very much worth the visit.
A835, A837, B869, A894, A838
The greatest driving roads on the NC500, and possibly in the entire British Isles. Although much of this day’s driving starts with single-track roads which tighten as the scenery becomes bushier and trees are re-introduced, the A894 opens up across the Kylesku Bridge and is probably the fastest A-road in the country. Large cliffs line each side of the road, ramping up the sense of speed to eleven with huge long left and right-hand sweepers which squeeze every ounce of commitment from the driver to get the most out of the road. The A894 is the most rewarding slab of tarmac I’ve ever experienced.
Again the weather stopped me from stopping and exploring the spectacular ruins of Ardvreck which jut out into Loch Assynt. Although the castle is easy to miss as it is just off the A837, it is well worth the stop for an explore and a picture.
Assynt Highland Games
The highland games circuit over the summer is a must for anyone that wants to experience one of the most cultural events in Scotland. With Track and Field, Heavy Throws and Solo Piping competitions throughout the day, each games is a huge day out for the locals with entire villages turning out to support the athletes and competitors. If you want the most-Scottish of days out, a highland games is a must. Click here for more information on the available events for 2017.
Wild Orchid Guest House, Durness
Durness is about as remote a village as you will find in the British Isles, so thankfully the Wild Orchid is an extremely homely place to stay with particularly good breakfasts and showers, perfect for a decent wash after a tough highland games!
Twisting and turning its way across the Northern shelf of the Highlands, the A836 provides one of the most engaging single-track drives in the country with its abundance of sight-lines and frequency of convenient passing points. With a relatively small population of sheep along this extremely remote section of road, the route to Thurso is a less-tense affair than some of the Highlands can be and provides a smooth but enthralling northern limit to the route.
The weather situation will definitely dictate the amount of possible activity you can undertake in the spectacular caves. Unfortunately, heavy rainfall meant I couldn’t take the boat service to the inner chambers of the caves. With many myths and gruesome legends surrounding the cove that leads out to the Atlantic Ocean, Smoo Cave is definitely worth the walk. Just be sure to wear something waterproof!
I feel as if the atrocities of the Highland Clearances have petered out of the Nation’s psyche, and Strathnaver Museum really hammers home the seriousness of those events that only happened a couple of centuries ago. With eerie ruins of the old crofts nestled in the heather at the roadsides of the surrounding area, the small museum is an intricate and thought-provoking insight into the highlands during the troublesome Georgian period.
Castle of Mey
Once owned by the Queen Mother, this royal home is set within a beautiful array of woodland and manicured gardens, with official tours occurring throughout the day. The staff are unbelievably knowledgeable about the history of the castle and have plenty hilarious stories to tell about the many holidays that the Queen Mother took there.
Tracing along the Eastern extreme of Sutherland, this combination of A-roads breaks the trend of east-coast docility with some beautiful hairpins just before Golspie which give spectacular views over the Moray Firth and down to Inverness. Unfortunately, the fantastic NC500 route joins back up with the relatively languid A9, bringing with it average speed cameras.
Old Wick Castle
Fairytale castles don’t come much more picturesque than Dunrobin and it beggars belief that the palace-like dwelling is still owned by the Countess of Sutherland and is still used by the family on the odd occasion. The castle is furnished in stunning French décor and is coupled with spellbinding gardens that look out across the Moray Firth. Couple that with a world-class falconry show and Dunrobin is without doubt one of the highlights of the NC500 route.
Mermaid of the North
If you’re into your acts of novelty, Balintore provides one of the most striking images of the entire Scottish Highlands. Lying out on the rocks, basking in the sun is The Mermaid of the North, a striking statue that crowns the rocky beach and pays homage to the fishermen’s tales of yesteryear.
If you do one thing next summer, forget the Bahamas or Southern France. The Scottish Highlands is where it’s at!