North Coast 500: Does 'Scotland's Route 66' live up to the hype?
Ben Riley-Smith discovers if the NC 500 is really all its cracked up to be.
“Scotland's answer to Route 66.” That is the pitch for the Scottish tourist board's latest attempt to tempt visitors to the Highlands: North Coast 500. The circular route, launched last year, skirts the very top of the United Kingdom and offers visitors “fairytale castles, beaches and ruins”, according to the blurb. In other words, a slice of Scotland’s soul.
But can the venture really live up to its billing? Route 66, dissecting North America from East to West, has iconic status in US culture. Littered with old school diners, deserted gas stations and miles of straight, flat tarmac, it has become the ultimate trip into the American psyche. Can the North Coast 500 become the same in Scotland?
The landscape is perfect for mountain biking, if you can face the steep ascents Photo: North Highlands
Our journey to answer that question begins on the Black Isle, the leafy peninsula just across the water from Inverness – the starting point for the route. After a late arrival into town, Old Drynie House, a grand and delightful B&B hidden among tall trees, provides a bed ahead of the four-day adventure.
The plan is to follow the detailed maps provided by North Highlands - which helps promote the route - and pick up local knowledge for stops along the way. Alasdair and Deirdre, the charming couple born and bred in Inverness who run the place, share their tips over a hearty Scottish breakfast. With a new list of harbours to visit, vistas to stop at and pubs to avoid, we set off west.
The ascent away from Inverness soon turns into single track as the road skirts around lochs and through valleys tinged autumnal orange and beset by low-hanging clouds. Ninety minutes later Applecross, a coastal village facing the Atlantic picked for a stop-off, is only a few miles away. In the way stands Beinn Bhàn - 'The White Mountain'.
Crawling up the winding road that leads up the mountain gives way to stunning views of Scotland’s west coast as the road plateauexs at the top. Parking up and digging out muddied walking boots from suitcases, a brisk walk towards a telephone signal point reveals a greater panorama – to the south, Skye’s Red and Black Cuillins dot the horizon; to the North, the Outer Hebrides can be glimpsed. Dappled by late-Autumn sun, they appear untouched by human habitation.
Lucky drivers may come across Highland cows and deer along the route Photo: North Highlands
Returning back down the mountain, through a steep glacial valley, we stop for a dressed crab and bowl of lobster tails at the Kishorn Seafood Bar. The award-winning seafood shack, open April through to November with glimpses of the sea to Skye on clear days, provides the perfect preparation for the climb up north to Ullapool that follows.
We arrive with dusk setting in. The lights of the CalMac ferry and the row houses on the water front twinkle across Loch Broom as we descend from the hills and make our way to The Arch Inn. The picture-perfect harbour town has little changed in a century, according to the old maps hanging in the low-ceilinged hotel bar. A handful of snug inns and craft shops are mixed between the white houses that line the gridded streets leading away from the water.
Dinner sees a feast of smoked salmon, sea bass and smoked trout served by the Arch Inn waiters, eaten while overlooking the trawlers that have brought in today’s catch bobbing on the water outside. One ventures out into the pitch black, a single lamp swinging from the front, and chugs away from the harbour, soon disappearing in the dark.
The road weaves through lochs and mountains before following the coast at the top of the UK Photo: North Highlands
The following morning, the most anticipated stretch of the North Coast 500 beckons. The 67-mile road from Ullapool to Durness offers the most staggering vistas of the Highlands at its most wild and windswept. Is there a less populated corner of the British Isles? As we snake north on single track roads warning of wild deer, it feels unlikely.
“Bears, bones and bleak lands” reads the sign that greets walkers as we stop off for a hike 45 minutes north of Ullapool. What begins as a meander alongside an ice-cold stream opens up into a vast glacial valley. Following the rock bed of a long-gone river before climbing steeply, we reach the Bone Caves. Fragments of a polar bears skull more than 20,000 years old have been discovered here as well as evidence of reindeers, brown bears and the ancient huntsman who tracked them. Sheltering from the drizzle, we unpack sandwiches and take in the valley – empty save for a trio of fellow walkers far below.
At least three nights stay en route is recommended for those doing the North Coast 500 - which starts and finishes in Inveness Photo: North Highlands
Another period of Scottish history provides the backdrop for our stay that evening. Forss House, a grand 1810 hotel on the edge of Thurso surrounded by 20 acres of woodland, harks back to an age of estates. Stags’ heads adorn the walls alongside Scottish tapestries and portraits of the Radclyffe family, the former owners. A sublime dinner of game terrine, venison and thick-cut chips dipped in gravy is followed by single malts in the adjourning bar – with a selection of more than 300 on offer.
Heading east along the top of the UK the next day, the land flattens out and becomes greener. Orkney rises from the grey North Sea and becomes ever clearer along the road. We had hoped to spend the morning fishing, but a sea captain tells us conditions are sending even professional boats back to shore. “You’d barely stay on your legs,” he warns.
A series of stop-offs en route fill the time. Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the UK, provides a more dramatic view of the sea that stretches away towards Iceland. Britain’s most northerly gin-makers, Dunnet Bay Distillers, is also close by, started by Martin and Claire Murray. Less than two years after launching, their Rock Rose Gin – packaged in gorgeous porcelain bottles – has already snatched a coveted Great Taste award. Martin says he hopes to double production to 50,000 bottles next year.
There are many opportunities for hikes off into the Highlands, weather permitting. Photo: North Highlands
Another insight into the deep history of the Highlands comes as we push down the east coast. The Grey Cairns of Camster, found down a tiny A road south-west of Wick, rank among the oldest stone monuments in Scotland. The burial tombs, built from grey stone slabs over 5,000 years ago, are still accessible to intrepid travellers. Unlocking the small grate keeping out inquisitive sheep, we crawl on hands and knees through the tiny entrance into the Neolithic structures. A two-metre chamber, tall enough to stand in, is eventually reached – dank, mystical, and more than a little claustrophobic.
The final evening is spent at Glenmorangie House, an immaculate Highland home on the Ross-shire peninsula linked to the distillery, a few miles away. It exudes Scottishness, from the roaring fires and walled garden to wellies sitting by the back door. A tour of the distillery and oldest warehouse, including generous tastings, is followed by an eye-watering array of dishes for dinner where guests share a single, long table. Dram after dram follow in the sitting room, before an impromptu putting competition – carpet the green, a wooden stool’s decorative legs the hole – brings the night to a close.
The short drive back to Inverness, completing the 500-mile circuit, allows for time to mull over the trip, and its claim to be the Route 66 of Scotland. Certainly, the North Coast 500 allows travellers under the skin of the Scottish Highlands as its US comparison gets to the heart of North America. But it offers something else too – a glimpse into the past. Prehistoric bone caves, grand hunting lodges, humming harbours, heather-covered mountains – all play their part in Scotland’s history and its mythology. Having them at the roadside, accessible at the flick of an indicator, is a luxury that few should pass up.
Where to stay
Night one: Old Drynie House
Cost: From £90
Address: Old Drynie House, Kilmuir, North Kessock, Inverness, IV1 3XG
Contact: 07989387676, firstname.lastname@example.org
Night two: The Arch Inn
Cost: From £85
Address: The Arch Inn, 10-11 West Shore Street, Ullapool, Wester Ross, IV26 2UR, Scotland
Contact: 01854612454, email@example.com
Night three: Forss House
Cost: From £135
Address: Forss, Near Thurso, Caithness, KW14 7XY
Contact: 01847 861201
Night four: Glenmorangie House
Address: Glenmorangie House, Fearn, by Tain, Ross-shire, IV20 1XP
Contact: 01862 871 671, firstname.lastname@example.org
Words by Ben Riley-Smith for The Telegraph