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The basis to every good road trip is a great playlist. What we didn’t want to listen to as we embarked on Scotland’s North Coast 500 route, was a soundtrack of rain. To be fair, we should have been more prepared for the bad weather, given that the route – created in 2014 as part of Prince Charles’ North Highland Initiative to boost tourism – takes in the most northern parts of the Scottish coastline. But we soon realised that even the rain couldn’t dampen the beauty of secluded coves we found hiding between dramatic cliffs; the abandoned remains of castles and villages; the blanket of purple heather which envelopes the Highlands and is at its best in early autumn.
The scenic drive is one 500-mile loop, which starts and ends in Inverness and can be completed in either direction. We chose to travel clockwise (against the norm) in the hopes of finding quieter roads where we could really sit back and enjoy the drive. We began by winding west to Applecross and up to Durness, then straight across the northern coastline to John O’Groats before looping back down to Inverness again.
The first part of the journey is the most perilous because of the Bealach na Bà (Gaelic for the ‘Pass of the Cattle’) which leads from Inverness to Applecross, a small peninsula looking out over the Inner South strait towards the island of Raasay. This road twists through the mountains and has the greatest ascent of any UK road, rising to 2,054ft above sea level. Despite the constant dodging of oncoming traffic and the occasional deer, it’s a thrilling drive – though perhaps best avoided by vertigo sufferers.
In Applecross there’s little more than a restaurant and pub to entertain, though popular Applecross Inn is always busy and serves deliciously fresh seafood. The next morning, despite the pouring rain, we ventured out on a brusque walk to Coille Ghillie – a beautiful secluded township with a white-coral beach which is only accessible by foot or boat. It stopped raining long enough to enjoy the tiny cove, filled with waters so blue you could be in the Mediterranean.
Our next stop was the town of Ullapool, a 112-mile drive north. It’s the largest settlement for miles around (though it only has 1,500 inhabitants) and we were looking forward to a hearty meal. We were recommended the Arch Inn, which sits overlooking the port (from where you can take a ferry to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides) and it was here that we enjoyed my favourite meal of the trip – the freshest, pinkest Scottish salmon, topped with vibrant red-pesto mash and plenty of local vegetables.
That night’s campsite was set on its very own peninsula, just north of Ullapool at Ardmair Point, which offers views of the surrounding Highland ridges and the Atlantic laps on three sides. The next morning we decided to take advantage of the many walking routes in the area and set off for the Ullapool hill trail, which takes in miles of heather until you reach the stone summit. Here, you’re rewarded with panoramic views of Ullapool, Ardmair and Loch Broom.
Halfway through the road trip, the sun finally came out. The drive from Ullapool to Durness included was, without a doubt, the most exciting stretch thanks to sweeping bends and stomach-turning drops. Best of all, there wasn’t another car in sight and I was finally able to put my foot down… Along the route you’ll pass the ruins of Ardvreck Castle from the 15th century, which must have been incredibly dramatic in its position overlooking Loch Assynt. There’s also the opportunity to make a quick detour towards Lochinver to try the world-famous pies at Lochinver Larder.
Day four was the longest leg of the journey, straight across the northern coastline to John O’Groats. This part of Scotland has plenty of natural wonders which will draw your attention from the road, including Balnakeil Bay where we braved a dip; Smoo Cave which offers boat trips deep into its chambers; and Kyle of Tongue where you’ll find white sands and clear, shallow bays just asking to be splashed in.
After posing for an obligatory photo at John O’Groats and an overnight stay in Wick just 17 miles south, we set off on the final drive, past Dunrobin Castle – a stately house dating from the 1300s, with a luscious Victorian-inspired garden – and the ghostly ruins of Badbea village, a clifftop settlement built by families evicted from their land during the 18th and 19th century Highlands Clearances.
For me, the point of a road trip is endless freedom, wide-open roads and picturesque views as far as the eye can see. And this one certainly didn’t disappoint – just mind the weather.
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