With its epic highland scenery, foodie hotspots and chic and cosy boltholes, the North Coast 500 is a dream for road trippers. Give yourself at least four or five days to cover this ridiculously Instagrammable touring route, which loops 500 or so miles (805km) around the very top of Britain on everything from smooth dual carriageways to twisting, unpaved mountain passes.
Dubbed ‘Scotland’s answer to America’s Route 66’, it’s the perfect getaway after you’ve enjoyed the urban buzz of Edinburgh or Glasgow – both of which are about a three-hour drive (or train journey) from Inverness.
The NC500 officially begins and ends in Inverness, and is best experienced between April and October – when you’ll get the best weather and most daylight. The route can be travelled in a clockwise, or anti-clockwise, direction. But most travellers find themselves zipping first towards Scotland’s north-west coast – a stunningly beautiful region flush with craggy peaks, myth-drenched sea lochs (lakes) and white-sand beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean.
Adding to the drama are stretches like Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle), a steep, serpentine single-lane track that affords stirring panoramas of some of Scotland’s 790 offshore islands (including the fabled Isle of Skye). You mustn’t be too distracted by the window views, though. On the pass’ hairpin bends, you might encounter roaming sheep and shaggy highland cows, or the occasional cyclist and campervan.
Much of the time, you’ll feel as if you have the NC500 all to yourself, but despite its sparsely-populated remoteness, there are plenty of enticing pitstops offering top-notch food, drink and hospitality. Don’t miss Kishorn Seafood Bar, a wooden chalet-style eatery near Applecross that has earned national acclaim for its succulent shellfish platters (think: oysters, mussels, prawns, scallops, crab and squat lobster tails). You’ll also eat exceedingly well, on the likes of highland venison, lamb and beef, at The Torridon, a restored loch-side hunting lodge in the shadow of the Torridon Hills (where scenes for Highlander, the 1986 movie starring Sean Connery, were filmed). Boasting 18 dapper rooms, and a fire-blessed whisky and gin bar, the Torridon is also one of the finest places to bed down on the NC500 – a route peppered with boutique B&Bs, family-run guesthouses and castle accommodation.
A contender for the coolest-looking place to stay is The Inn at John O’Groats, a 19th century hotel that’s sporting a colourful Scandi-style makeover in mainland Britain’s most northerly hamlet. You can choose between its sleek apartments or self-catering lodges – and stretch your legs with a scenic coastal walk to nearby Duncansby Head (whose rocky outcrops are like a greener version of the Great Ocean Road’s Twelve Apostles).
While the eastern portion of the NC500 is flatter, more pastoral and less challenging to drive than the west, it has myriad diversions, such as award-winning whisky distilleries, seaside golf courses and quaint fishing villages founded by the Vikings. Also gracing this coast is Dunrobin Castle. The historic seat of the Sutherland clan, this French-inspired chateau enchants visitors with its fairy-tale spires and turrets and pulse-raising falconry displays.
By the time you return to Inverness, having completed the NC500, you’ll probably be thinking two things; one: this is a road trip I won’t forget, and, two, I’d absolutely love to drive round again.
Published visitbritain.com, 01 October 2019