After the 2 nights in Bettyhill we were back behind the wheel and heading to the fabled west coast. From what we had been told from people coming the opposite way was this would be the highlight of the whole trip! An early start was called for as we had a lot of miles to cover and many things to see today. We had a quick stop at the Kyle Of Tongue, a shallow sea loch with nice views, a castle atop a hill overlooking and a cool bridge to get you across. Next was Smoo Cave sea cave in Durness, which was worth a 30 minutes mooch but missable if you are short on time. Nearby is the Cocoa Mountain chocolate shop which sells coffee, amazing hot chocolate and cakes, great for a mid morning elevenses.
Our main activity of today was to get to Handa Island, an internationally important nature reserve with over 200,000 sebirds to be found on its towering seacliffs. There are important numbers of razorbill, fulmar, kittiwake, great skua, guillemot (including the very rare black guillemot) and most importantly for Vanessa more than 250 pairs of puffin. To get there you need to get to the hamlet of Tarbet 3 miles off the A894 near Scourie. From here the ferry for the princely sum of £20 per person return will take you there and back, once there is enough people to fill the boat! Whereas bird life is not really my thing, it was a pleasant walk with specacular views over the sheer cliff faces. We were also divebombed by a great skua as we strayed too close to her nest!
By the time we had got off Handa Island it was close to 4pm so we headed towards our accommodation at Loch Assynt. First though we stopped off at the famous pie shop in Lochinver for an early dinner. Suitably refreshed we had time for another stop at the Little Assynt community woodlands trust, and stunning Achimelvich Beach before driving to the Loch Assynt Lodge where we staying for the next 2 nights. This old converted hunting lodge run by an middle-aged eccentric English couple was more like a posh homestay, where we were invited to help ourselves to any food and drink we should need. We spent most of the evening admiring the many herilooms decorating the house, a letter from George V (who had stayed here many years ago on a hunting trip), a 2 metre model of the Cutty Sark next to our bed, and the many taxodermy highland animals adorning the walls. A very interesting place to stay for 2 nights and the hospitality was top notch.
After a communal breakfast with the other house guests today we set off to climb Stac Pollaidh (Stac Polly). At 612m it is a technically a “graham”, but for the relatively easy effort of getting to the top the views were fantastic. We could see the popular Sullivan mountain, the Summer Isles as well as the jagged coastline, sea lochs we had passed in the previous days.
After a busy morning we drove to Achtibuilie for view of the summer isles and a coffee stop before heading on the ‘Wee Mad Road’ back towards the lodge. This road is 40 miles of winding, undulating craziness with surprises at every turn. indeed we met a herd of cattle that slowed us down for 20 minutes while they found their way back to the farm. For our evening meal we had booked the well rated Kylesku Hotel restaurant just after the Kylesku bridge, a real treat if you love seafood, where you must book ahead as it is supremely popular.
After dinner we still had a few hours of daylight left, so took a quick drive from the restaurant to the Wailing Widow waterfall for some nice photo opportunities as the sun set on the west coast.
Moving on the next day towards Shieldag we stopped off at the impressively deep Corrieshalloch Gorge and colourful coastal national trust Inverewe Gardens. We also had a little walk around Britain’s oldest nature reserve of Beinn Eighe, on Loch Maree founded in 1951. It protects the largest fragment of ancient Caledonian pinewood forest remaining in north-west Scotland. The roads were spectacular and we didnt know what to expect at each corner. As we neared Shieldag we passed through stunning Torridon Glen and the ubiquitous lochs, many with large salmon farms in them. Our hotel, Tigh an Eliean, set on the quiet main street in town had a beautiful setting facing the loch. To top this off whilst we waited for our dinner slot we helped ourselves to some drinks at the hotel’s honesty bar and watched another fantastic sunset. Unfortunatley we didn’t see the famous white tailed eagles who are residents in the area.
Our final day on the NC500 was perhaps also our most highly anticipated as we were to not only complete the journey but we were to drive the famous Bealach na Ba Road, at the end of the Applecross peninsula. I could descibe it but I think the video below will do it more of a justice.
After this fantastic drive we headed south towards Loch Lomond for 2 nights. As we did not drive back to Inverness we did not officially complete the NC500. By the driving on the A87 back past Loch Ness. I suppose this gives us an excuse to go back one day!
Accommodation: There is enough choice of accommodation whether you plan to camp or stay in hotels/B&Bs. During the high season of June to early September the best places will get booked up early. We tried to book 3 months ahead and even then struggled to get our first choice in many places. Of course if you are wild camping you only need to find somewhere safe and secure for the night, eventually though you will need to empty your chemical toilet and recharge the generator so the odd night at a proper campsite is needed.
Food: Due to the nature of some of the small villages you can stay in on the NC500 there is definitely a shortage of ‘quick eats’. We typically ate in the hotel restaurants such as in Bettyhill and Shieldag, these weren’t especially expensive, being approximately £10-£15 for a main, but this soon adds up, if like is you having a big meal out each night. For lunches we stocked up at the supermarkets in the larger towns such as Wick, Thurso and Ullapool to make our own picnics.
Fuel: If you do the whole circular route to and from Inverness plan on driving 700 miles including detours. As a result you will need to fill up the tank a couple of times. There are petrol stations in the larger towns such as Invernsss Wick, Thurso, Ullapool so these are the best places to refuel. Smaller places such as Tongue, Bettyhill, Scourie, Lochinver and Applecross also have small filling stations but may not be manned or even open if your arrive later in the day.
Driving distances (bear mind many of the roads are single track! so you wont be hitting more than 30mph at times!)
Edinburgh to Inverness – 156 miles (direct route) / 171 miles (through Cairngorms NP)
Inverness to Dornoch – 57 miles
Dornoch to Wick – 62 miles
Wick to Bettyhill – 64 miles (via John O’Groats)
Bettyhill – Loch Assynt – 85 miles (via Handa Island turnoff)
Loch Assynt – Shieldag – 118 miles (coastal route)
Shieldag to Loch Lomond – 181 miles (via Applecross)
The NC500 is an increasingly popular driving route around the far north of Scotland, but one I would highly recommend, just plan and book ahead and you will have a fantastic trip!