DESCRIBED as ‘Scotland’s answer to Route 66’, the North Coast 500 stretches along Scotland’s northern coastline, taking in some of the most breathtaking views the country has to offer. Here is everything you need to about embarking on a trip along this magnificent route.
The 516 mile North Coast 500 was recently named the most spectacular drive in the UK, beating out routes like the South West Coastal Pass, a route across picturesque Cornwall and the A519 Kendal to Keswick in Cumbria.
The route itself begins at Inverness Castle before it heads north on the A862 through Dingwall and on to the Black Isle. From there, it skirts the coastlines of Sutherland and Caithness before coming down into Wester Ross and the Applecross peninsula before turning inland back towards Inverness.
Where to stay:
From castles and hotels, to yurts and bothies, the North Coast 500 offers some spectacular places to stay. We’ve picked out some of our favourites but if you’re looking for a more extensive list you can find it here.
The Black Isle - Black Isle Yurts: Used for over a millennia in central Asia, these snug and comfy little hide aways have been modernised for the Scottish climate and offer the perfect place to get some rest and take a break from all that driving.
Caithness - Ackergill Tower: Described as “a stunning 15th century Castle with 21st century luxuries”, Ackergill Tower is one of the more beautiful places to stay on our list, it is slightly more costly but definitely worth the money for this once in a lifetime trip.
Sutherland - Balnakeil Beach Bothy: The Balnakeil Beach Bothy is for those of you looking for something a little more romantic. Sleeping two, the bothy is situated close to a beach - meaning you can fall asleep listening to the waves - and the surrounding scenery is as beautiful as it is remote.
Wester Ross - The Brochs Of Coigach: Live the way Scotland’s people did a thousand years ago with these Iron Age roundhouses, which have been updated to modern standards to give a glimpse of what life was like in the past, all be it in much cosier surroundings. Each broch offers stunning views of the coast through huge panoramic windows.
Sutherland - Sleeperzzz: This one is a little different. Stay on a first class train in the scenic Scottish Highland village of Rogart, beside a working railway station. Each carriage has its own kitchen, dining room, showers and toilets.
READ MORE: 10 Scottish castles you can get married in
Where to eat and drink:
Whisky - A trip to northern Scotland wouldn’t be complete without a visit to at least one of the excellent distilleries situated close to the North Coast 500. Choose from the famous, like Glenmorangie, Old Pulteney and Dalmore, to slightly less well known like Clynelish, Glen Ord and Wolfburn. Don’t forget to also check out Dornoch Castle, which not only has one of Scotland’s best whisky bars but is also building its own distillery.
Gin - Not to be outdone by Scotland’s other spirit, the route also runs close to Dunnet Bay Distillery, home to Rock Rose Gin and Holy Grass Vodka, which is well worth visiting if you are a fan of great gin (and vodka).
Beer - Two of Scotland’s exciting new breed of breweries are also on the route, Black Isle Brewery and Cromarty Brewing, both are a must visit for any beer fan.
From fine dining to some of the best seafood in the world, you’ll be spoiled for choice on the North Coast 500.
Sutherland - Kylesku Hotel: In the remote region of Sutherland, on the shores of Loch Glendhu is situated a former coaching inn owned by Tanja Lister and Sonia Virechauviex. Winners of “Informal Dining, Restaurant of the year 2015″ the Kylesku’s restaurant and their local King Scallops and Loch Duart Salmon Tempura are a wonder to behold.
Wester Ross - The Old Inn Gairloch: The Old Inn is a traditional Highland coaching inn overlooking Gairloch harbour, which offers some of the freshest Scottish seafood accompanied by some excellent beer created in the Inn’s own microbrewery.
Caithness - Captain’s Galley: The Captain’s Galley, located in Scrabster is the most northerly seafood restaurant in the UK. Serving seafood sourced daily from Scrabster fish market, Jim Cowie and his wife Mary serve delightful dishes created using produce sourced (or foraged) within a 50 mile radius of Scrabster.
Sutherland - Chez Roux: A bit of a pilgrimage for UK foodies, the legendary Albert Roux’s tenure in the kitchens at Inver Lodge sees a menu that is described by Albert as “hearty country cooking using all the wonderful products from the sea, which is literally at the doorstep”. Book in advance.
Wester Ross - Torridon Restaurant: Another must visit for foodies, the Torridon offers the perfect setting for some fine dining. The 3 rosette restaurant offers daily changing 3, 4 or 7 courses menus prepared by chef David Barnett. Staff are also on hand to pair wines with each meal.
READ MORE: 8 of the best seafood hotels in scotland
If it’s possible for you to need more than the never-ending back roads, wide meandering country tracks and beautiful bends through some of Scotland’s finest coastal scenery then perhaps these other highlights might help.
The Northern Lights/star gazing - Let’s face it, other than Scandinavia (or Shetland) you’d be hard pushed to find a better place in Europe to watch the Northern Lights. Away from the light pollution of Scotland’s major cities, it’s much easier to lie back and soak in the majestic views of a clear night time sky and who knows, if you’re lucky, you may even get a guest appearance from the Aurora Borealis.
Wildlife - Scotland’s wildlife thrives on the northern coast and you’ll commonly see deer, grouse, hares and even the old golden eagle or two on your travels but the true treat comes in doing a bit of dolphin spotting in places like the Moray Firth.
Stunning castles and buildings - According to Visit Scotland, there are 48 inspiring structures to take in along the way including the idyllic Dunrobin and Urquhart Castles, find out more here.
Smoo cave - Located near the village of Durness, Smoo cave is a stunning limestone sea cave with an entrance - one of the largest to any sea cave in Britain with a height of 50ft - that will take your breath away, and on some of the wetter days there’s even a cascading waterfall.
Creag Ard Charters - For the scuba diving and angling fans among you, Creag Ard Charters offer a boat Charter Service for scuba diving, sea fishing and scenic day trips around Ullapool and The Summer Isles in Wester Ross. According to their website, they specialise in scuba diving trips to the many famous wrecks and underwater caves that are found around the isles.
Things to know before you go:
• Scotland is famous for its scenery, its castles and of course its transient weather, so before you head off on your journey, make sure you have a range of weather proof clothing packed even in the warmest days of summer, as you never know when the rain will appear. When it does, you’ll be prepared and you can also endure it with the knowledge that without it, Scotland wouldn’t be able to produce its national drink. Just remember the old adage - ‘Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky’.
• Make sure you’ve thoroughly planned your trip and have places to stay before you go, it may also be wise to pack a tent, in the case that your timings are off and you are unable to reach your intended accomodation in time.
• Follow the official North Coast 500 map, available from the Visit Scotland shops, your SatNav will take you the quickest route to each stop and you’ll end up missing out all the good bits! (Nicola Holland, blogger)
• The route is suitable for campervans and motorhomes, though organisers say the ‘Bealach Na Ba’ stretch is not suitable for larger motorhomes, caravans and inexperienced drivers due to its sharp bends and steep gradients so instead they advise taking the slip road up at the A896.
• Try to spend at least two days at each stop so you have time to explore the area. I raced from Lochinver to Durness and on to John O’Groats in three days so felt like I missed out on a lot of the ‘must sees’. Also make sure and take a photo of the place name before you start taking photos of the beaches, mountains and castles on your trip. Therefore when you get home you will know which is which. I wish I had followed this tip myself. (NH, blogger)
• It’s also possible to walk and cycle the route, though these trips will take more planning.
• Midges are a nusiance and are specially prevalent over the summer, it is advised you invest in Avon Skin So Soft or some other type of midge repellant.
What the travel bloggers say:
Neil Robertson, of travel blog Locomotion Scotland, is a big fan of the trip, he said: “The NC500 is the Scottish Highlands at their spectacular and diverse best. Beaches that’ll have you scratching your head in wonder, distant peaks that trigger a camera scramble and untouched landscapes of every majestic type imaginable. All of that, over and over again. Be prepared for rain (it will) and midge bites (they do) and you will have a trip not to forget.”
Nicola Holland blogger at FunkyEllas Travel adds: “I loved every minute of my North Coast 500 road trip. Driving through the huge variety of changing landscapes was what really took my breath away. I particularly loved the Lochinver area in the north west where we found the fantastic Achmelvich Beach, with turquoise blue water and pure white sand surrounded by Jurassic rock. The pie from Lochinver Larder afterwards was pretty good too, especially as it’s situated right by the water so we could watch the sun set.
Jim Hinckley, a travel writer and author of The Route 66 Encyclopedia, believes the North Coast 500 shares a great deal in common with the famous American route, he said: “The highway voted as Britain’s favourite on the north coast of Scotland has some real parallels with Route 66,” he said.
“There are tremendous views, but it’s also a living, breathing part of the country’s history – a throwback to how roads used to be.
“So many roads these days are almost generic. Drive the Scottish north coast or Route 66 and you move away from the generic world. They’ve got colour and a vibrancy, a real sense of excitement.”