DCSIMG

Northern exposure

It is my favourite slice of Scotland’s Highland landscape, my choice of to-die-for panoramas, of breathtaking vistas.

Yes, when the weather blows benign (especially in May and early June, through to the fag-end of douce September), and the sky decides to impersonate a Caribbean blue, there is nowhere to equal Wester Ross’s coastal paradise, its mountainscapes, its bays and sandy coves, its dotted islands, with views of Skye, the purple stacks of far-away Sutherland held distant by a heat haze.

Visitors rooted in speechless wonder, French or Dutch, sometimes Italian, as often as not find themselves besotted, believing they’ve died. Oh heavenly fate.

Most rarely venture past the Trossachs or Auld Reekie. Usually, visitors will set out from Inverness, glimpsing the hills around the Beauly Firth, a pure amethyst-blue, leading the eye towards Strathconon, and the lush and fertile river plain studded with trees.

Last year, I drove the wonderful loop called the Wester Ross Coastal Trail in a day, although it is best to stop overnight, at Gairloch, Poolewe or Aultbea. Heading through Contin, I stopped to be stirred at Rogie Falls, a silvery salmon-leap on the twisty A835, where the rush of the falls by the little suspension bridge, if you’re early, will be audible from the road and completely deserted.

It’s nature’s adrenalin pump. I returned to the car excited, the trail begun. Past Garve, a sign for the Wester Ross Coastal Trail took me on to the A832, an easy drive through rippling moorland, edged by the sheen of pristine Loch Luichart.

At Achnasheen, I began the ascent to the head of Glendocherty. Golden eagles, afloat on currents here, have one of Scotland’s most fabulous natural views at the tips of their talons. Park at the viewing point, where the filigree of road threads down the zig-zag of the river to Loch Maree, a distant watery Shangri La, studded with islands.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Queen Victoria made this same journey - she, too, was an addict - disembarking from the train at Achnasheen, and bumping and bouncing in her carriage down to the Loch Maree Hotel.

After Kinlochewe, wend through the edge of the Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve. I picnicked there by the water. Hardier visitors may contemplate the six to seven-hour trek up the flank of Beinn Eighe (consult the Visitor Centre guide just past Kinlochewe). Then I headed for Gairloch where, at the lovely little harbour, I stopped for a coffee outside the food store, wondering whether to catch the next cruise from the pier on the MV Starquest, a two-hour sail around the coast with spectacular views of coves and peaks, and a chance to spot dolphin, seal and porpoise.

Gairloch’s attractions include a fine golf course alongside a stretch of spectacular beach. You can fish or pony trek, or just lie on the edge of the dunes and ponder Skye on the westward horizon.

The tiny heritage museum, with its local exhibits - including a whisky still and smugglers cave - delayed my journey to Poolewe, and the Inverewe Gardens, a lure for dabblers and green-fingered experts from all round the world, with its Australian gum trees, Blue Nile lilies and magical groves of rhododendron.

Soon after, I headed past Aultbea and on to Laide, along the road known as Second Coast, absorbing the vista across the mountain peaks of Sutherland: Suilven, Cul Mor, the tip of Ben Stack, the restless sea.

There is a view of the Summer Isles (trips from Ullapool, to the north, are a regular feature), and of the flank of Scoraig peninsula, and Gruinard, anthrax island, which broods to the west. If you’re feeling up for it, you might find a local fisherman to ferry you across to where wartime tests were carried out on sheep. The island was cleaned a dozen years ago. I went there one day in 1989 when grass was beginning to return. Even now from the mainland the island looks eerie.

To cleanse the senses, stop off at Corrieshalloch Gorge just before the turn-off at Braemore Junction towards Inverness. The wonderful thunder rush, and the sight of the torrent drenching the glistening walls of the deep ravine, is unforgettable, as you sway on the spider’s-thread bridge above the rocks.

The sound will haunt your fading memory, as you make the eastward drive beneath Ben Wyvis to Strathpeffer, the spa town known for Victoriana. Go in June and catch its Victorian Week. I drove up the hillside over the town to the Neil Gunn Memorial, which stands above the valley of the Peffery.

The novelist lived here and walked these hills. Reading the quotes carved into granite, I gazed down to Dingwall and then turned westward, whence I’d come. It was the end of a perfect day.

For further details, contact the Tourist Information Office at Gairloch, tel: 01445-712130, or go to the Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board website: www.host.co.uk, or email: info@host.co.uk

 
 
 

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