Scotland's answer to America's Route 66, this new road trip is what journeys of a lifetime are made of. Recently launched, the North Coast 500 (NC500) touring route promises to reward those who travel it with a superlative Scottish experience: from towering mountains and mysterious lochs, to secret beaches and fairytale castles. Sound like just the adventure you've been searching for? Here's the lowdown so you can start planning your trip:
What is the North Coast 500 and where does it go?
North Coast 500 (NC500) is a 516-mile scenic route that starts and ends at Inverness Castle (make sure you pose for pictures, the views are incredible). You don't have to do it all of course, but why wouldn't you? The route brings together all the best bits of the North Highlands via wild coastal roads, historic towns such as Ullapool, and pretty seaside villages. You can even stop off at John O'Groats - famously Britain's (almost) northernmost tip.
The helpful folk at NC500 have put together themed itineraries to help you get the most out of your trip, such as Golfing, Luxury, and 5 Day Highlights. You can download the NC500 route map or pick up a copy from Visit Scotland Tourism Information Centres.
What can I see and do along the way?
Well, that depends on your interests. Whether you're looking for rare wildlife, adrenaline sports, amazing food and drink, or just the sort of view that makes you feel alive, you'll find it.
Take your time travelling through the Black Isle, for instance - not an isle at all, but a peninsula - and you'll be able to wonder at faerie glens, snack on woodland berries and sit in sunny bays spotting dolphins. Sounds magical, doesn't it? There's plenty more where that came fromâ€¦
In Wester Ross, you can drive alongside Bealach na Ba - a startlingly beautiful stretch of coast offering views (on a clear day) as far as the Outer Hebrides. Time it right and you can also party in the fields at Scotland's most rural music festival, Loopallu, held every September.
Then over on the rugged north east coast there's Caithness. Here you'll find a royal holiday home - the Castle of Mey, lively fishing ports and an abundant food and drink scene. Feast on modern Scottish dishes using local produce at restaurants like No.1 Bistro, which has the added quirk of being located on the shortest street in the world!
How long does it take to travel the entire route?
It's recommended to allow a minimum of 5-7 days to explore the NC500 route, but however long you go for youâ€™ll probably wish you had more time!
Can I walk or cycle instead of drive?
Absolutely. It will take a little longer of course, but intrepid explorers will relish the challenge. Here's an NC500 itinerary for cyclists.
What time of year should I go?
The weather in Scotland, as in the rest of Britain, is changeable, but May to September usually brings the warmest temperatures. If you visit during the summer though, bring some insect repellent to deter Scotland's notorious midges.
Are there places to stay along the route?
Most definitely. There are plenty of places waiting to welcome you with warm Scottish hospitality, from decadent castle hotels to family-run guest houses. Or camp out â€“ wild camping is allowed in Scotland.
It's best to book your accommodation in advance, especially if you're visiting during the summer. The beauty of the route means you'll be travelling off-the-beaten-track, sometimes to quiet villages where there's only a couple of sought-after B&Bs. Dreamy...
Find out more about www.northcoast500.com
Written by Hannah Stuart-Leach.