Spellbound by Scotland's answer to America's Route 66

Thursday 01 January 1970

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 516 miles (830km) around the very top of Britain via all manner of terrain, from smooth dual carriageways to twisting, unpaved mountain passes. 

Visit Scotland - The road to Kinlochewe

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-and-a-half-hour drive (or train journey) from Inverness. 

 

Heading to the west

Driving on the Bealach na Ba - The Road to Applecross Looking toward over toward Applecross Bay. Credit to VisitScotland / Kenny Lam

The NC500 officially begins and ends in Inverness (where car hire is available should you need it), 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-sandy beaches.

Adding to the drama are stretches like Bealach na Bà (Pass of the Cattle), a steep, single-lane track that affords stirring panoramas of some of Scotland's 790 offshore islands, including the fabled Isles of Skye, Harris and Lewis. You mustn't be too distracted by the window views, though. On the pass' many hairpin bends, you might encounter roaming sheep and shaggy highland cows, or the occasional cyclist and campervan. 

 

Spots to stay, eat and drink

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, chock-full of oysters, mussels, prawns, scallops, crab and squat lobster tails. You can also tuck into 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 individually-designed 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 the rocky outcrops of the nearby Duncansby Head.

 

Heading to the east

Scotland's Dunrobin Castle. Credit to VisitScotland

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 – including Glen Ord and Glenmorangie -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.

The former Viking settlement of Wick is littered with historical treasures, including the remnants of the Castle of Old Wick, while the entire stretch of coast is home to a wide range of wildlife. Look out for puffins and other seabirds around Sinclair Bay, or delve into the region’s past as a centre of global herring fishing at the Wick Heritage Centre.

Stop off at the picturesque fishing village of Helmsdale and immerse yourself in contemporary culture at the Timespan Heritage Centre, or wander along the sands at Golspie and explore the impressive Iron Age remains of Carn Liath Broch.

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....

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