The North Coast 500 has been pitched as Scotland’s answer to Route 66. The iconic touring route covers the stunning coastal edges of the Highlands. My wife & I decided we’d go in early May in the hope that we’d miss the midges. A risky move as the weather this time of year can go one way or the other. A week before we went it was actually snowing!
We toyed with riding up, however, after we looked into flights to Inverness we discovered it would only take an hour & 40 minutes and cost us £70.00 each so we decided to hire a bike once there. We found Highland Motorcycle Hire online, got in touch & booked a brand new 1000cc Honda Africa Twin. We’d be the first people to ride it, I was excited to say the least! Ray the owner was brilliant, he offered us advice & gave us hints & tips on how to make the most of our trip. We used the route suggested by North Coast 500 as a rough guide and broke the trip into 6 days. We wanted to make sure we could enjoy the scenery, stop for leisurely lunches, paint, draw & take plenty of photos.
The day came for us to fly to Inverness & Ray had kindly agreed to pick us up from the airport and take us to collect the bike. We’d booked our first night in Tain. Ray recommended rather than take the A9 we take the road via Bonar Bridge (A836) a much more scenic route. It didn’t disappoint, the views were stunning and we were lucky as the sun was shining. It was also a good chance to get a feel for the bike.
We arrived in Tain about 5.00, found our B&B, Shandwick House with no problem and planned our evening. The owners suggested a great place to eat called Platform 1864, an old Railway Station turned restaurant. With full bellies and the day's excitement taking it’s toll we prepared ourselves for the next day and retired.
TAIN / MEY
A hearty highland breakfast and we were off on our first full day on the road. We'd planned to ride up the East coast (A9) via John O'Groats to Mey. The weather was typically Scottish, a morning mist and a nip in the air. The views along the East coast are fantastic. Whilst on route we spotted a convoy of 10 German scooterists riding Heinkels . It looked like one was having trouble with his scooter, luckily they had a back up van with them. We quickly stopped at Dunrobin Castle the most northerly of Scotland's great houses. We then headed off and by the time we got as far as Helmsdale, we were feeling the cold so decided to grab coffee , stretch and have a wander.
We eventually arrived at John O'Groats. The sun was out and it was now a glorious day. We took the obligatory JOG signpost selfie and then grabbed a bite to eat. We stayed in Mey for the night, we dumped our bags and went for an explore, the less said about our accommodation the better. We discovered a great little harbour (Phillip’s Harbour) which was opened by none other than rock legend Jimmy Page. Check out the story behind it it makes for an interesting read… Lisa painted & I went and explored the coastline. When I returned Lisa had been joined by some locals. A family of seals had decided to bask on the shore in the sun and one of them came over to see what was going on.
MEY / KINLOCHBERVIE
The morning weather was a little grey to start with and then soon brightened up. We had no sooner set off and we stopped at Dunnet Beach with its miles of sandy beach and dunes. The following miles were over open exposed land right along the coastline, the views were stunning. A few miles later we discovered a really cool little cafe calledWeavers in Tongue that did a pretty mean coffee and scones, definitely worth checking out. We got there in good time, just as we left a large group of guys on BMW GS’s arrived, who'd travelled up from Liverpool. Nothing could have prepared us for the next section of our route. We reached Loch Eriboll. The single track road hugged the loch, luckily there were plenty of passing spots for the other odd tourer. It twisted, dipped and rose constantly, so much it was sometimes quite difficult to take in the view. Ard Neackie is a mound of land prevented from becoming an island by an umbilical cord of sand and shingle linking it to the east shore of the loch where the Tongue road descends from the moorland from the east. It was picture perfect.
We reached Durness and grabbed some lunch, visited the beach at Balnakeil and then stopped at the Cocoa Mountain Cafe and had the most amazing hot chocolate. With not far to go now we headed off. We passed through vast jaw dropping landscapes that made us think of the plains of Patagonia. Passing through beautiful spots the entire way we reached our B&B situated on another much about it and were keen to experience it for ourselves. On route we passed through more stunning scenery, we even spotted some very frisky mountain goats on top of a crop of rocks at Gruinard Bay. We then rode along the A896 in the shadows of snow capped Beinn Eighe. We eventually arrived at the infamous Bealach na Bà (Pass of the Cattle), 626 metres (2,054 ft), and the third highest road in Scotland. Notorious for it’s steep gradients, hairpin bends and switchbacks. The warning sign at the bottom is plastered with stickers from bikers all over the world (unfortunately I’d forgotten to take any Enjoy The Ride stickers : /) Nothing can prepare you for the sheer scale of the mountains that loom either side of you as you negotiate the single track road. I’d recommend that you approach from the north coast route and make your way down to Ardarroch to enjoy the best views.
The last leg of our trip was a steady 70-80mph along the A890/A832 which was amazing! A road that seemed to go on for ever, straight as the crow flies, with the odd bend and gentle sweep, whilst hugging the River Bran, with pine forests and mountains in the background. We reached our final destination, Beauly about 6.00 o’clock which was the perfect place to call it a day. The Chrialdon B&B was spot on & the welcome from the owner was just what we needed, warm and inviting.
All in all an amazing week of great roads, stunning jaw dropping scenery and a brilliant adventure. I'd highly recommended for anyone who has a passion for wheels and epic landscape to do this & don't leave it too late as it's getting more & more popular. I'd also recommend that if you want to avoid the midges, go during spring before the nights warm up. Believe it or not we were lucky enough to have four days of sun. I'd also make sure you have a reliable bike, you really don't want to be breaking down in total wilderness, nothing for miles and miles, with no shelter and phone reception waiting for the odd caravan to take pity on you. With some careful planning this can be the trip of a lifetime. Do it, you won't regret it!
For more information visit www.northcoast500.com