The North Coast 500 (herein known as NC500) is an amazingly scenic road trip around the far north of Scotland. As the name suggests the distance is approximately 500 miles (516 miles to be exact) officially beginning and ending in the highland capital of Inverness. On this trip you will see stunning coastal scenery, spectacular roads, craggy mountains, castles, whiskey distilleries and a wide array of endemic wildlife. We visited in June 2021 at the height of the foreign travel ban and just before the UK school holidays.
We would recommend, as we did, going anti clockwise as this means you see the more spectacular West coast towards the end of your trip. Our overnight stops from Manchester were as follows:
There are a few different ways of seeing the NC500. The cheapest option is to self drive, motorbike or even cycle then find a campsite or wild camp everywhere. Wild camping is a perfectly legal option that keeps your accommodation costs down to a minimum. If you choose this option you will be mainly cooking for yourselves meaning a little bit more planning ahead and stocking up at the limited number of supermarkets on the way. Another option is to hire a campervan and find a campsite or a secluded spot to park the van each night. Again this typically lends itself to self catering throughout. We chose the 3rd option of self driving and staying in hotels/B&Bs. Whereas this is perhaps slightly less ‘romantic’ we were pleased with our choice as despite it being the start of the summer the temperature still dipped to single figure celsius at night. In addition driving a clunky campervan on the narrow single track roads did not look like fun. Indeed some of the smaller roads such as the spectacular Bealach na Ba Road mountain pass are off limits for campervans and trucks. Whichever option you choose it is wise to plan ahead. Since the NC500 officially became a tourist route coupled with foreign travel being somewhat restricted the secret to this spectacular and thrilling driving route is out. Accommodation, wild camping spots and restaurants get booked up further in advance each year meaning your first choice of each may be limited
As Inverness is nearly 400 miles from Manchester we chose to break the journey in Edinburgh, staying with an old friend for the night. After spending the evening in cosmopolitain Portobello we set off the following morning across the new Forth Road Bridge before stopping for a quick photo stop at the iconic rail bridge. From here the most direct route is up the A9 to Inverness, however as we had all day and this holiday being all about the journey rather the destination we decided to take the scenic track, taking a detour through the Cairngorms. Here whilst on Britain’s highest navigable road, the Cairnwell Pass we passed several of Scotland best ski resorts at Glenshee and the Lecht, Braemar the home of the highlands games, whilst taking in fantastic views as we went. This was only the start and we weren’t anywhere near the NC500 yet! As we descended into the valley we passed green forests as well as the Queen’s residence of Balmoral, reaching Inverness around 5pm.
Inverness is the gateway town for the NC500 and you won’t need more than 1 night here. Being a decent size town it is a good place to stock up on food if you are camping or campervanning, there is also a good selection of restaurants. We stayed at the Ardconnell House B&B which at £105 per night was good value with a handy location just off the main street and a cheap overnight car park close by.
The drive out of Inverness signified the official start of the NC500. We drove all the way around Loch Ness, over the Caledonian canal before a quick stop at Urquhart Castle on the western side. Next we jetted up to the little town of Tain and the famous Glenmorangie Distillery for a lunchtime sampling session of this most famous of whiskeys. Our stop for the night was a small town called Dornoch. Most famous as hosting celebrity weddings (Madonna and Guy Ritchie got married in the chapel here) Dornoch also has whiskey distilleries, nature reserves and an amazing beach. It also has some fantastic restaurants, the best being Luigi’s where we spent our evening gourging on locally caught shellfish with pasta and gnocchi, to finish off I had a couple more of the local Scotch whiskeys. Hotel – Heartseed B&B. Lovely homely accommodation about 1 mile out of town with views across farmers fields, highly recommended.
After a fantastic Scottish breakfast complete with stottie cakes and black pudding we hit the road heading north with the intention of reaching Wick later that day. On the way we visited Loch Fleet Nature Reserve (where we saw Ospreys and grey seals.) Dunrobin Castle (rumoured to be the inspiration for Disney’s Magic Kingdom castle), The 5000 year old Grey Cairns of Camster (rubbish, just a pile of stones), the Whalingoe Steps viewpoint as well as many wind turbines, lighthouses and sheep farms.
Wick was once the busiest herring port in Europe in the mid 19th century but since the stagnation and eventual death of that industry due to over-fishing the town has fallen into a a steady decline. Now the town stands as a dreary outpost in this remote part of Scotland. The harbour stands as a testament of a life that once was while the pubs exemplify the the life that now is. That’s not say Wick is without its own claims to fame. The hotel we stayed at is on the world’s shortest street, Ebenezer Place at 2.06m. For us it was simply a handy place to stopover heading north and then west the next day.
Hotel – We stayed at Mackays Hotel in the centre of town. Dubbed by the Lonely Planet as the best hotel in Wick. We would however say this was our least favourite accommodation of the whole trip. Next to a busy road as you enter the centre of Wick the rooms were small and very warm. This would not normally be a problem but for the constant squawking of the seagulls meaning we had to have the windows closed.
We were still increasing Vanessa’s ‘travel height‘ every mile we drove North. A quick stop to see an old castle (are you seeing a theme here) before we reached the fabled John O’ Groats. Much like its distant neighbour Land’s End this spot has become commercialised with tacky tourist shops and kitsch photo opportunities. More disappointingly was the fact that we found out that John O’ Groats is not actually the most Northerly point of mainland UK, that honour belonging to the lesser visited Dunnet Head, 2.35 miles further north!
Once we had also visited the latter as well as the famous stacks and stinky puffins at Duncansby Head it was time to turn 90 degrees and head West along the North coast of Scotland. Thurso is reasonably large town not far from these sights affording the opportunity to top up on food and petrol. The coastline became more spectacular as we headed further West. The whole North coast is littered with secluded beaches, we stopped at one called Melvich Beach which we had to ourselves!
After 4 consecutive one-night stops it was nice to rest up for 2 nights in Bettyhill. It meant we could explore the area around without having to think about moving on to a new destination the same day. Bettyhill is a very small place but a good location to stop over before hitting the West Coast portion of the NC500. The town has 2 amazing beaches on its doorstep also, Farr Beach and Torrisdale Beach, both of which we saw people surfing at.
On our full day in this area we headed inland onto even quieter tracks. We found a quiet spot for a swim and a picnic at one of the many lochs in the area. We also explored a scenic driving route called the Strathnaver Trail. This drive guides visitors around a wide range of sites including the remains of Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age settlements, it also highlights the infamous Highland Clearances of the 18th century.
Hotel – Bettyhill Hotel. The views across Torrissale Bay from the best rooms and communal areas are stunning. It has an in-house restaurant and bar at the back, which is a good job as there are very few options other than here to eat in Bettyhill!
In Part 2 we take the drive from Bettyhill to Loch Lomond, taking in Handa Island, Loch Assynt, Lochinver, Applecross and Kylesku.