Driving the North Coast 500
A plan to drive the North Coast 500 (NC500) was hatched in 2019, albeit without expectation of the 2-years hiatus in between. Was it worth the wait?
We were part of an Aston Martin group (7 cars 14 people) all based in mid to southwest England (and so a boring stretch of 200 miles on Motorways before we got to the first enjoyable scenery in the Lake District). Organising the trip was made easier with the help of our friends at Scenic Car Tours.
The NC500 has become almost legendary and attracts many thousands of travellers, from walkers and cyclists to bikers, campers and classic and sports car drivers. As their website says “Embark on one of the world’s most iconic coastal touring routes, and discover the breath-taking beauty of the North Highlands; a place where you’ll find white sand beaches, rugged mountains, hidden gems and a wealth of unforgettable experiences.’”
Hear, hear and here are a few of ours…
Big sky, big sea, big land
Yes indeed, this is the place to come. But what about the roads and the traffic?
You may have heard horror stories of long queues behind camper vans and cyclists. Whilst we saw both, none were a problem. Not only were all of the drivers/riders courteous in pulling over and waiving us past when necessary – and let’s face it, we didn’t need much encouragement – they often stopped for the views so were never in the way for very long.
One of the ‘problems’ for the sports car driver is balancing the sheer joy of pressing on when the roads are so inviting, with stopping to soak up the views and the occasional tourist gems.
That said, some of the roads require great care. They are either single track for fairly long stretches (albeit with lots of passing places and so having to reverse is quite rare) or the surface is pot-holed with some sharp edges and deep drops off the carriageway. An observant driver will have no problems here. We didn’t explore the apparently ‘infamous’ Applecross Road, but some of our party did and reported no concerns.
There are many, many views to behold and many, many parking places to do so. There are also some specific attractions such as the Smoo Caves at Durness. These are impressive caverns, 15m high, accessed from the roadside parking area, down some uneven steps to the beach. Tours are run by boat for £10/£5 per head to the otherwise inaccessible interior.
Another popular detour is the viaduct used in the Harry Potter films (apparently) near Fort William towards the end of the route.
Before that, the Scottish National Trust garden at Inverewe is also a popular cafe stop.
The little museum that presents the story of the Arctic Convoys to/from Russia during World War II provides a quiet moment of reflection about our ability to enjoy the freedom of the open road some 80 years later.
Out of the Ordinary
When bowling along at reasonable speed down steep slopes, around sweeping bends and challenging climbs, one doesn’t expect to give way to a convoy of classic tractors. A line of colourful machines driven by colourful characters… some of whom looked as if they’d owned their 1940s Fordson from new! They were indeed doing the NC500 – for charity – and received a warm wave from everyone they passed. The last tractor was running on paraffin and leaving behind it a lovely aroma!
At a coffee stop on the Isle of Skye (a slight detour from the NC500 route but well worth it) took us to the An Crubh cafe for a well earned coffee and cake. There we witnessed a ‘sunbow’.
Then there’s the so-called Skyfall Road. It’s not easily spotted and not easy to do so on a day that offers enough cloud cover to maximise an attempt at recreating Bond’s and M’s famous breather stop en-route to the fictional house. Sorry to be a plot spoiler if you thought it worth a trip to see the ruined building; it was entirely a film set. However, the valley is very real and not changed much since the famous film (and publicity stills) were shot.
The exact lay-by (actually a passing place) isn’t easy to spot when dodging the potholes and oncoming traffic. Google maps helps a lot as some kind soul has pinned their effort there. If you drive past it, there is room to turn around about 1/4 mile further on. The road is a dead end that’s popular with campers. You may have to disguise or crop-out the passing place signpost that didn’t appear in the movie!
Where we stayed
We mustered at the Crown Hotel in Wetherall near Carlisle. From there it’s a short hop to Scotland with both scenic and direct route options.
- Night 1 – Inverness (the starts/finish of the NC500) – 312 miles
- Night 2 – Bettyhill (via John o’Groats) – 262 miles
- Night 3 – Lochinver – 107 miles
- Night 4 – Gairloch – 104 miles
- Night 5 – Fort William (including the ‘Skyfall Road’) – 278 miles
- Night 6 – Wetherall – 309 miles
Total mileage – 1,372 (including 500+ around the North Coast using the anti-clockwise route)
With thanks to A. & B. King and northcoast500.com for some of the above photos.