Road Tripping Scotland's North Coast 500

21 April 2016

It has been touted as "Scotland's answer to America's Route 66", but the North Coast 500 (NC500) is a very different beast: a frequently jaw-dropping 830-kilometre loop that winds past dramatic coastline, majestic lochs and snow-dusted mountains.

This is a journey not to be rushed. With countless serpentine single-lane stretches, seductive side roads and enticing pit stops, it's worth at least five days of your time. It's also best done between April and October, when you'll generally get the best weather and most daylight.

A winding road near Loch Assynt in Scotland Embark on a memorable journey (Image: Visit Scotland)

Location: Scotland

Distance: 830 kilometres

Highlights

  • Epic scenery featured in scores of movies and TV shows such as the Torridon massif, the backdrop of Highlander.
  • The chance to 'bag' a munro (to scale a Scottish peak over 910 metres).
  • Imagination-stirring castles; both ruined and gloriously intact.
  • Scrumptious fish and seafood freshly caught from the highlands' seas, rivers and lochs
  • Being stopped in your tracks by shaggy highland cattle (or 'heilan coos', as the Scots call them)
  • Staying in restored hunting lodges with roaring fires, historic country estates and chic Nordic-style eco-cabins.
Shaggy highland cattle Keep your eyes peeled for native wildlife (Image: Steve McKenna)

Day 1 - Inverness To Torridon

Jet into Inverness (a 90-minute flight from London) and pick up a hire car. It's a 15-minute drive to the city centre and the route's official starting point: Inverness Castle.

Running over pre-existing roads, the NC500 can be done in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, but I recommend the former. Within a few hours, having driven via a slew of waterfall-sprinkled valleys, you'll catch your first, mesmerising glimpse of Scotland's stunning west coast and its myriad offshore islands.

Stretch your legs amid the conifers and rhododendrons of pretty Attadale Gardens, then feast on oysters, salmon or lobster at nearby Kishorn Seafood Bar, before tackling the notorious Bealach na Ba (which, in Scottish Gaelic, means the "Pass of the Cattle"). One of Britain's highest and steepest roads, it's all hairpin bends, astounding views and wandering sheep.

Get your breath back in the seaside village of Applecross, then drive another 40 kilometres to Torridon, which hugs a lovely loch of the same name and is a great spot to spend the night.

Bealach na Ba Bealach na Ba is an epic ascent (Image: Steve McKenna)

Day 2 - Torridon To Durness

After breakfast – say, poached haddock or kippers – go hiking in Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve, where you'll find crisp air, gentle pine-forested trails and lofty summits such as Ruadh Stac-Mhor.

Back behind the wheel, prepare yourself for some of the NC500's most mind-blowing coastal sections (Gruinard Bay is especially magnificent).

Stop at picturesque Corrieshalloch Gorge and tread its wobbly suspension bridge, then refuel the car and yourself with lunch in the harbour town of Ullapool. While away the afternoon passing more spellbinding coast and mountain scenery on your way to the snug little village of Durness.

Corrieshalloch Gorge in Scotland Don't miss seeing the impressive Corrieshalloch Gorge (Image: Steve McKenna)

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Day 3 - Durness To John O' Groats

Admire Durness' wild and wonderful beaches, and delve into the Smoo Cave, a natural marvel drenched in myths, legends and sea spray.

Drive east, coffee-breaking in one of the quirkily-named villages, such as Tongue or Bettyhill, before lunch in Thurso, Scotland's northern-most town. Don't miss Thurso's Caithness Horizons, a museum and gallery showcasing the wildlife, geography and topsy-turvy history of the northern highlands.

Close by is Castle Mey (the late Queen Mother's favourite summer retreat), Dunnet Head peninsula (the mostly northerly point on the British mainland) and John O' Groats, where tourists like to take selfies by the iconic village signpost and purchase eclectic souvenirs.

Smoo Cave and the village of Durness The dramatic entry to Smoo Cave (Image: Steve McKenna)

Day 4 - John O' Groats To Brora

Embark on a bracing cliff-top walk from Duncansby Head lighthouse, just outside John O' Groats (the surrounding landscapes are like a greener version of the Great Ocean Road).

Scotland's north-east coast is flatter, more pastoral and less dramatic than the west, but intriguing diversions abound, including neolithic burial chambers, old Viking settlements and whisky hotspots.

In Brora, tour Clynelish distillery and play a round at the town's links golf club. Designed by legendary Scottish golfer James Braid, it's one of 26 courses along the NC500.

Barrels of whisky at Clynelish distillery Barrels of whisky at Clynelish distillery (Image: Steve McKenna)

Day 5 - Brora To Inverness

Explore the gorgeous castle and gardens of Dunrobin, ancestral seat of the Sutherland clan (time your visit with the 11.30am falconry display). Pop to Dornoch, a handsome town with a sweeping and eminently strollable sandy beach.

Zip around the Black Isle before returning to Inverness airport. Actually a peninsula, it's dotted with quaint villages, idyllic forest walks (such as the Fairy Glen), microbreweries and delectable eateries serving fabulous local produce (the spring lamb and scallops at Eilean Dubh restaurant are super tasty).

Lamb, vegetables and potato You won't find it hard to satisfy your stomach as well (Image: Steve McKenna)

Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Scotland.


Steve McKenna

A regular contributor to some of Australia's leading newspapers and travel magazines, Steve McKenna has visited, written about and photographed more than 80 countries on six different continents. He fears he has an incurable case of wanderlust and is particularly fond of Europe, Asia and South America.