Aiming North — Road Tripping the North Coast 500

With a space in the diary looming, we opted to do what most wouldn’t and aimed north to Scotland. We were going to take on the North Coast 500 in February.

The NC500 is a semi-recent addition to some of the more established road trips; 66, PCH, coastal Ireland and Norway etc — you get the gist. The terrain is rugged, the road mainly single track and the scenery stunning. And then Storm Dorris happened. More on that later

Day 1 — Manchester to Glasgow

Ok, first confession — we didn’t do the whole route. Much like the West Highland Way we tackled last year, time and logistics are sad realities. So we kicked off in Glasgow initially instead of Inverness but we would pick up the NC500 at Applecross.

Leaving Manchester at 10pm on a Sunday, getting up to Glasgow is a piece of. We crashed here and would use the head start to put us well on our way. The route from MCR is, as you would imagine, easy enough punctuated only by the compulsory Tebay stop. At this point though, the weather had started to change slightly with temperatures dropping, the wind increasing and rain beginning. A hint of what was to come.

Day 2 — Glasgow to Glen Coe

Although technically this is probably day 1, but whatever.

Leaving Glasgow and aiming for the Trossachs and the Lochs is always pretty special. Especially when you see your first distillery. Auchentoshan rises quietly to the left as you leave the city limits and then subtly passes you off into increasingly stunning territory.

Passing Loch Lomond you begin to climb slightly and we feel like the road trip is beginning. At this point things are starting to feel a little familiar from the West Highland Way of 2016. Passing the Drover’s Inn, the first place we stayed on the WHW, it would have been rude not to drop in. It’s not changed. And, as the sign reminds you, it’s been open since 1705. You feel every year of it.

If you’re on the WHW, this is likely one of your first stops. Brave the ghosts, the respite from the walk you’ve just done is totally worth it. And — if you’re aiming for the NC500, this is a perfect opportunity to stop and consider what you’re about to do, coupled with an introduction to the hospitality you’re about to experience.

Back on the road, it’s a long drive up to Glen Coe but we’d opted to indulge slightly and grabbed a tiny cabin at Riverbeds near Ballachulish. These ‘wee cabins’ were exactly that but were excellent in every possible way — especially when you get a private hot tub in the woods. This is special. Even as the rain came down.

Day 3 — Glen Coe to Applecross

All good things and all that. Kicking off day three was a mixed experience. Crossing the awesome road bridge that passes the Loch Leven hotel where we’d grabbed a decent dinner the night before (do that, just for the bracing blast of wind on the way back to the cabins!) introduced the feeling of the remoteness that you’re moving in to.

The concept of the ‘Highland Mile’ also begins to appear at this point and you become somewhat aware of the relatively short distances that take much longer than you’d imagine. That said, this is not a route for blasting through. It’s a route that lets you explore a stunning country.

Stopping at Steall Falls was the perfect way of combining an introductory hike with some stunning landscapes. The falls are set against a wall of stone, as you’d imagine, combined with the openness of the glens.

And if you fancy testing your balance, take the wire bridge over to the other side of the river for some closer-up views of the landscape.

At this point, the weather really started to turn…

Leaving the Fort William area, we pushed on, stopping briefly at Eilean Donon castle but got battered by wind and rain. Just enough time for a couple of photos…

We’d been briefed on a recent trip to Copenhagen, randomly, that the tiny town of Plockton — complete with palm trees — was the quintessential Scottish experience. The prettiest town in the country. Unfortunately the heavens had opened and the wind was ripping through the palm trees, but we could totally imagine how this must look in the sun…. Either way, a great distraction from the road. And at this point, we started to experience something that we’d get very used to on the trip. ‘Closed’ signs. At this time of year, you’ve got to time your stops well.

Applecross is a remote outcrop of a village on the coast accessed by the beautifully steep climb — improved by the incoming storm ‘Dorris’— of the Bealach na Bà pass. We were lashed with rain as we climbed the single track road across the mountains that cut off this part of the world.

The pass is awesome, with sweeping views and sheer drops. Even in the driving rain this was dramatic. You are reminded that this is something to be taken seriously at the base of the pass and, again, this is a section of the NC500 to be savoured rather than devoured. That said, in the wind/rain of Dorris, it was hard not to do anything else as visibility dropped.

Everyone should drive this route. Everyone.

Arriving at the Applecross Inn was both disappointing and warming. The disappointment that this section of the trip has been conquered marries with the relief of getting out of the weather. Unfortunately, on arrival, we were greeted with the news that the boiler was out of action. Ultimately this worked out in our favour as we were moved to ‘The Old Post Office’, a sea-front cottage with mind-blowing views.

The cottage was beginning to creak. We got changed and headed into the storm. Wind like I’ve rarely experienced. The Inn (and the cottage) literally face out to the water with zero protection from the elements. Fortunately, with an open fire, great food and booze present themselves and when you brave the outdoors again, it just doesn’t seem as mental. The sea rose, the wind got stronger, the creaks and rattles louder. It was superb.

Day 4 — Applecross to Inverkirkaig

As Wikipedia lets you know, ‘Inverkirkaig is extremely remote scattered crofting township, situated on the north eastern bay, of the sea loch Loch Kirkaig’, this place is small. And remote. We can’t argue with that.

This was our next stop. Leaving Applecross, the weather was clearing and this opened up a whole raft of views, including a reminder of just how close the sea is to this tiny place. I was actually feeling sorry for the car realising that it probably bore the brunt of a night of storm-force winds and rain. It seemed happy enough though so we pushed on and began the climb out of the bay and into the mountains again.

At this point, it’s getting very difficult to pick the best images to highlight the words. It literally could turn this post into a photo album.

The road winds upwards, presenting amazing views back over the water you are leaving behind and we got a reminder that this is shared environment very quickly.

At this stage of the NC500, the panoramas explode. You are treated to visual spectacles at every turn. From rain-lashed islands, silhouetted by the sun, to vast expanses of open glen, it has it all.

There are so many opportunities to pull off the route for some exploring. We took every opportunity to do this and ducked between torrential showers to do it.

Red Point beach was an amazing diversion, a tiny road leading nowhere other than a peninsula head and a car park. Ditching the car, it was a race against the weather to get to the beach and as we climbed the dunes, it was two people at the end of the world and the weather piling in. Again.

This constant change of weather added to the experience of these places, we saw pretty much all of them in all four seasons in the space of a couple of minutes. The following week, Instagram posts reveal that the sun was out, it was colder and there was more snow. But hey, what can you do? It’s Scotland in February. Anything could happen.

Leaving at just the right time, the next stop was the port of Ullapool and the largest place we’d been to in a while. Seeing a Tesco or some traffic lights for the first time was weird. This was always going to be a brief stop for provisions and fish and chips.

We managed to get a stop in for anther hail-lashed hike and a tourist-must, Ardvreck Castle.

Wrapping up a pretty intense day was the Airbnb stop of the Lazybed Cabin which was literally the best spot of the trip. The photos just don’t do it justice. This was a remote spot with everything you could want. Proper Highland life near Lochinver with its twisty roads, good restaurant options and the maddest petrol stop. Open to the elements and facing out to the water you had to head across the road to get it opened up.

Opting for two days here was absolutely the best idea we’d had. This allowed us to explore the area; the Falls of Kirkaig, Stoer Point (top tip, very boggy when wet!) and some ‘wee mad road’ driving. We also got our first snow which just added an extra dimension to the driving and to the scenery.

Day 6 — Inverkirkaig to Tongue

Leaving the Lazybed Cabin was tough. And slippy due to the night’s freeze. The route opens up and takes you north and east, bringing you to the top of the country. We opted to take in a quick (!) 10 mile hike, which extended out to about 13 miles as we walked around the cliffs at Sandwood Bay. For those 13 miles, we saw no-one. This is as remote as it gets and definitely worth those extra miles.

It now got a bit bonkers in terms of things to do. Having hiked the 13 miles, we found some speed and aimed for the Cocoa Mountain cafe in Balnakeil. And as you can see, totally worth it. Just go. Get the hot chocolate. Be happy. Simple.

From there, we hit Smoo Caves with some of the best comedy signs I’ve seen in a while, got stuck in a sheep herd and still managed to get the miles in that meant we made it to the Tongue Hotel in good time. Again, as the rain fell.

This was the first proper hotel we hit on the trip and as the only people staying there by the looks of it, had an amazing room with equally amazing service. This was yet another highlight of the trip and for those who have been on the road for a while by this point and a deserved indulgence. Great gin selection and impressive food. (Another) one of the places you are gutted to leave.

Day 7 — Tongue to Dornoch

I’m now beginning to realise just how much we crammed in to this trip and this post barely scratches the surface. Day seven saw us skirt the very tip of the country, stopping at Dunnet Head, John O’Groats, the Whaligoe Steps and a special mention for the cafe at Whaligoe. One that we thought would be closed and definitely something that is easily missed but giving it a go, we found it be open and met the gloriously enthusiastic Karen whose recipes blew our mind. The, almost-soup-like, lasagne was just…. just… yep.

As you move further east and ultimately south, things flatten out and the landscape changes. It loses that Highland feel briefly and you notice a significant change, more people, more cars. The open roads mean you can make good time and you’re treated to some spectacular coastal views with some decent hairpin switch-backs.

Pulling off the main road to get to Dornoch feels weird. It’s more built-up than most places we’d stayed in a long time but has the feel of a small (and very quiet!) town. February in Dornoch doesn’t appear to be ‘on’ season. We checked in (after confusingly wandering around for a while) at the Dornoch Castle hotel, the only real disappointment of the trip. This isn’t quite what you’d imagine. Dated rooms and a little grubby, it was a shame. However — the redeeming features are the staff and whisky selection. Combine those two things and it didn’t really matter. We had a great final meal and the bar staff hooked us up with some truly memorable drinks. Find somewhere else to stay but check out the bar. And the beach. Definitely the beach.

Day 8 — Dornoch to Glasgow

Now, technically, we’d probably say we ended the route at Dornoch, but the final day heading back to Glasgow was so epic, it’s remaining here. While the roads become more ‘main’ and busy, you still get some snow and decent country driving. However, as we neared Glasgow, the tail-end of Dorris was still lashing and we spent many, many miles driving through some huge water and floods. An epic way to finish the route. So…

Top tips

The North Coast 500 is a stunning route skirting the coast of Scotland providing views and memories of equally epic proportions. Do it. But remember this is something of a adventure rather than a race. We read this on a couple of other blogs before we left and it couldn’t be more true. Find some great places to stay — there are many. We loved the fact that we went off-season, it added to that feeling of remoteness.

The car. We literally couldn’t have asked for a better car, nor asked more from it. Through driving rain, floods, snow, beaches, single-track, some off-piste stuff and steep climbs our XC60 delivered and certainly delivered against its Cross Country promise. Having all-wheel drive definitely helped at some points, especially in February. So get out, try it. Just remember the Highland Salute.