Get behind the wheel for spectacular scenery, friendly locals, delicious food, craft beer and whisky on Scotland’s answer to the Wild Atlantic Way
Stunning unspoilt beaches, wide-open green spaces, fresh fish from line to lips and friendly locals looking to share a story and a sing-song. The joys of Scotland’s north have been there for centuries.
The internet is awash with itineraries suggesting how travellers should navigate some or all of the North Coast 500, seen by some as Scotland’s version of the Wild Atlantic Way, and although you can zoom around the route (which is actually 830km) in a few days, this stunning area should be slowly appreciated.
Arguably the main strength of the “Scottish Route 66” is its hop-on, hop-off’ nature, meaning you can make as many pit stops as you wish – great for camper van enthusiasts – and take as long as you like.
The key is planning ahead, as you need to leave ample time to get your sightseeing fixes, plus many hotels, B&Bs, hostels and campsites book out in advance. Although there are alternative starting points, it makes sense to begin at Inverness Castle.
Generally considered to be the Gateway to the Highlands, the city can be reached by road via the M77, M80 and A9 following a comfortable two-hour Stena Superfast ferry from Belfast to Cairnryan.
Once you’ve arrived on the mouth of the Ness, seven days is ample time to take in the six regions of Inverness-shire, the Black Isle, Easter Ross, Sutherland, Caithness and Wester Ross.
Day 1: Inverness to Dornoch (70km)
A straight drive from Inverness to Dornoch will only take you about an hour. However, wildlife spotting along the way is a must, with ospreys, red deer, sea birds, seals and dolphins all in abundance.
You may also want to explore the Black Isle – which, contrary to its name is not an island. It is, however, famous for its rich farmland and increasingly popular food and drink scene, particularly its craft beer.
Chanonry Point is one of the best places to see Moray Firth dolphins, but it is worth booking a wildlife-watching boat tour in advance.
If you fancy an early slice of luxury on your trip, book in at the 15th-century Dornoch Castle Hotel, where expert guide Peter Logie is also on hand to take people off the beaten track.
Day 2: Dornoch to Wick (100km)
Of all the castles in Scotland, Dunrobin Castle looks most like the setting from a Disney movie.
At Dunrobin, you can tour the castle rooms, visit the beautiful formal French gardens and explore the museum.
For a tasty fish-and-chip supper (other deep-fried goodies are of course available), head to the Harbour Chip Shop in Wick Harbour, before settling down for the night in one of the award-winning Mackays Hotel’s 30 en-suite rooms.
Day 3: Wick to Tongue (or Durness) (92km)
John o’ Groats is often mistakenly referred to as the northernmost point in mainland Britain, but the tip of the mainland is actually the nearby Dunnet Head peninsula (almost 4km further north).
As well as stunning sea cliffs and coastal grassland, in Dunnet you will also find Mary Ann’s Cottage, a whitewashed home dating back to 1850 and preserved as a time-capsule of crofting life.
For lodgings, head to Mackay’s Rooms in Durness, a lovely boutique B&B offering cosy bedrooms, each with modern Highland chic decor. There is also a guest lounge with fireplace, and every stay comes with a wonderful cooked Scottish breakfast.
Day 4: Tongue to Lochinver (132km)
The North West Highlands Geopark is an area of special geological interest, with Lewisian Gneiss (Precambrian metamorphic rocks) thought to be 3,000 million years old. Here you can explore large caves, visit a craft village, stroll white sandy beaches, and marvel at some of the most dramatic scenery in the world.
If you are looking for an adrenaline rush, try out the Golden Eagle Zip Line – located just before Ceannabeinne Beach. Based in the important fishing port of Lochinver is Highland Stoneware, as well as pie shop Lochinver Larder, famous for its delicate pastry, made to a secret recipe.
For accommodation, head to the Inver Lodge Hotel, which has belonged to the same family for generations, and makes guests feels they are part of the clan.
nwhgeopark.com; facebook.com/goldeneagleziplines; highlandstoneware.com; lochinverlarder.com; inverlodge.com
Day 5: Lochinver to Ullapool (87km)
This south-heading stretch of road goes past some of the most popular and iconic hills and munros along the NC500, where hill walkers and hikers are in their element.
If you fancy a detour to the Outer Hebrides there are daily CalMac ferries to the Isle of Lewis (Stornoway) from Ullapool. As well as taking strolls along deserted beaches of pristine white sands and seeing the fishermen hard at work in Stornoway, you can also hear all about the world-famous handwoven Harris Tweed.
Clò-Mòr is a dedicated exhibition in Drinishader and shows Harris Tweed through the ages, with hands-on sections for kids and adults to play with. There is also a shop with plenty of special items.
Back on the mainland, there is often live music in Ullapool’s pubs and restaurants, including at seafood specialists Ceilidh Place, which also offers comfortable accommodation.
Day 6: Ullapool to Kinlochewe (88km)
More wonderful Wester Ross scenery can be found at the Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve near Braemore, best known for its suspension bridge. You can walk over the footbridge that stretches across the box canyon and Droma River.
The Torridon boutique resort hotel is a former shooting lodge built in 1887. The 58 acres of parkland is classified among the darkest locations on Earth and therefore one of the best places to experience the night sky. Local astronomer Stephen Mackintosh is on hand to guide stargazers.
Day 7: Kinlochewe to Inverness (82km)
Travellers should spend a full day exploring the gateway to the Highlands, Inverness. Nestled on the leafy banks of the River Ness lies the Ness Walk Hotel, a five-star retreat that has been lovingly restored.
The rooms are named after the trees on the grounds – Cedar, Laurel, Rowan and Wellingtonia – and the Torrish Restaurant offers a friendly dining experience looking out on to the river. Just north of Inverness is Glen Ord distillery, the only place in Europe where you can buy the Singleton of Glen Ord, a massive hit in Asia.
Covid restrictions between Ireland and the UK are changing all the time, so please see the government website at dfa.ie for the latest guidance.
For more information on Scotland’s North Coast 500, visit northcoast500.com.
For ferries from Belfast to Cairnryan, go to stenaline.co.uk
Alternatively, flights from Dublin to Edinburgh are available through Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) and car hire from Hertz (hertz.co.uk)