I'd read that Scotland had its own version of Route 66 so was curious to see what it was all about. Even though I haven't reached the West Coast of America yet I decided to tackle something that was on my doorstep and started to plan the trip for Spring this year. Warmer weather, sunny days, midgie dodging tricks and paddles in clear blue waters...
However, when coming up with some new content ideas for a client, Peoples Ford, who was launching the new Ford Kuga in February, well it seemed a wasted opportunity not to take the SUV and get on the road with it. And they agreed. Within a week of the road trip being suggested, I was on my way to ticking off a bucketlist item. Nothing like a last minute trip eh? What could go wrong?
Well nothing actually!
It was one of the best trips that didn't really need planned at all. The only decision to be made was whether to go clockwise or anti-clockwise around the Highlands. Instead of warm weather it may well be storms, snow, torrential rain and cold winds but just imagine the amazing views, clear bright skies and winter sunsets. As for where to stay? We just decided to wing it and see where we ended up each night and take it from there.
I did do a little research beforehand as to must sees and dos and had recommendations from a friend, but other than that it was a case of loading up the Kuga and getting on the road bright and early. 6am to be precise. (Can I state I am definitely not a morning person but needs must.)
I must state that after having set off, no one really told me that the West Coast (if not most of the NC500 route) is seasonal so a lot of places were closed. That's only really a problem when it comes to finding places to stay but there was always the Kuga to sleep in. It didn't come to that might I add but it would definitely have been comfortable for sure.
- Check the time of year as many (most) places are seasonal
- There is no phone connection most of the way round (can be a blessing)
- Radio stations won't work and neither will playlists from your phone so pack some good old fashioned cds
- Pack snacks for nibbling along the way (handy if there are no coffee shops open)
- If you're fussy about where to stay or have anxiety issues, book accommodation in advance
- Keep an eye on fuel and don't wing it otherwise you'll be knocking on a farmer's door (if there is one around)
- Bonus points about doing it in Winter - roads are quiet, less tourists around, in fact not many people around at all
We stopped off at Loch Ness after the 3 hr journey from Glasgow and admired the views on Dores Beach and admired the Nessie Hunter. No one was around so I can only assume the owner was out on a trip or looking for Nessie himself.
Onwards to Invergordon and had a bacon bap and coffee at the Crazy Horse. It was the only place in town that was open and after checking out some of the 17 murals created on the streets by local artists, it was an ideal pit stop whilst we waited on the whisky tour at 1pm.
The Dalmore Distillery tour was really interesting and that's coming from me, a non whisky lover. You're given a tour, told about the distilling process and the drunken mushrooms (in french they sound more exotic - champignons ivres) which is the fungus you see that grows off the vapours around the whisky barns on the exterior and the trees. Another interesting fact was they shut production down 2/3 weeks per year to help the water supplies aid the salmon in getting upstream.
Next stop was Dornoch and we were recommended to stop for lunch at the Dornoch Castle Hotel but alas they stopped serving at 3pm in winter and all that was available was tea and scones. This would be an ideal place for an overnight too. Tempting...especially with the whisky bar and log fire but real food was needed. The Eagle along the road was the only place doing food all day so toasted paninis it was.
After refuelling we continued up the coast and pulled off to admire the majestic Dunrobin Castle. Yes, you guessed it. This was seasonal too and closed but we parked and wandered down the side to the sea. The gardens were closed too but we did get to see an amazing sunset so all was not lost.
The next stop would be finding a bed for the night and we continued onto Wick which seemed the best option as it was the only town ahead. Pulling up outside Mackays Hotel I checked if they had any availability, lo and behold they did. This turned out to be a great find. Murray, the owner upgraded us and delivered the best hospitality including free whisky tastings of all the Old Putney Whisky's. (The 17 was exceptional so I was told). The Chocolate Box wine on offer was right up my street. And talking of streets, his premises are in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the shortest street of 6ft 9in on Ebeneezer Street. But let's not forget the food. This was pretty exceptional and if you don't stay at this hotel then you must definitely eat here! They know exactly where every piece of food on your plate comes from. My fish came from an Arcadian boat that came in that very day and the meat came from a local farm. The black pudding, pea and apple risotto sounds crazy but tasted so good. The fish and chips were awesome and the game pie, which wasn’t a traditional pie but a deconstructed pie with a sliver of puff pastry and mix of mashed potato, roast beetroot and game meats was really impressive. I'm hungry now thinking about it...
The breakfast at Mackays didn't let down the food from the night before. Traditional Scottish and smoked house local haddock with poached eggs was on the menu amongst an abundance of choices. So, we decided to head back 10 minutes down the road to the Whaligoe Steps. Gale force winds almost forced us to go back but we braced the steps down after we saw a couple of small children arise from the climb. It was worth the 365 steps down to this former fishing harbour. And yes, the cafe was closed so it was time to move on.
John O'Groats was the next stop. The weather had turned and it was dull but a walk along the beach meant we spotted some seals before getting drenched by torrential rain. Getting soaked meant I had to drive in pants to dry out before changing. Warning: be prepared and take a spare towel to dry off! The Duncansbay Head Stacks were far away and it was still pouring of rain so we admired them from afar unfortunately. Thurso was the next port of call for some soup, coffee and cakes at Caffe Cardosi which didn't disappoint at all. It was well worth stopping off for. After stuffing our faces we headed along the North coast and stopped at Dunnet Bay which is apparently the place to go for surfing and spotting major wildlife. We spotted nothing (it was seasonal after all) but the beach looked like it could have been in Miami. Imagine this on a sunny day!
Nothing much was open in Tongue, nor Durness and the Cocoa Mountain chocolate shop closed at 3pm. Damn! This was where we had planned to spend the night as I really wanted to explore Sandwood Bay and Oldshoremore, and we were running out of fuel as we forgot to get some in Thurso. However after thinking we’d perish on the most northernly barren roads of Scotland, a 24hr petrol station in Durness appeared before our very eyes. And a loo. Heaven had heard us after all but not the part about finding us a bed for the night. So we just had to keep driving and onto Kylesku which seemed the next best "town". And guess what. The only hotel there didn't open for another 6 days. The Kylesku Hotel looks really good so make sure you visit and stay. Or at least eat there as it was highly recommended. I'll just need to go back.
After driving 157 miles most of which on single track roads in darkness and cliff edges we were overjoyed to see civilisation and street lights leading into Ullapool. And even better…3G had returned…hallelujah. Now where to stay for the night! The Argyll Hotel with it’s steak pie and venison sausage and mash, Neil the barman filled us on the local knowledge and how Mercedes filmed a cross country advert where they literally took the car right across the country and completely off road. (I must do some digging to see if that ad has been released yet.) He also told us about how that area was used as the prototype for the Forth Road Rail Bridge and London Underground tunnels. A man of much knowledge is our Neil.
The next morning we set off down the West Coast some more and made our way to Corrieshalloch Gorge for a wander down to look at the falls and ravine. Then on down through one of the most scenic roads stopping to admire views. We went off course to the Mellon Udrigle beach which had white sandy bays and four nosy seals that were hanging around in the ocean. From there to Inverewe Garden, which were closed, but the side gate was open so we still had access to the gardens and were the only ones there. A coffee shop was rather hard to find in this area but we stumbled across the Mountain Coffee Co and Hillbillies bookshop for a Bob Marley inspired coffee in Gairloch which did the trick.
Moving on all the way down to Torridon we admired the brilliant views of Loch Maree and snowy peaks of the mountains. From Shieldag we took the narrowest windiest car-width road edged with cliff views on the side. If you suffer from vertigo like my driver at this point then tough luck. There are plenty of passing places along this road but we were the only ones on it so it made the journey quicker. Well it would have been if we didn't stop to allow goats, sheep and stags to clear the way for us. And take in some amazing views with the lochs, mountains and animals right by the roadside. As we descended into Applecross the sun set behind us which was a rather special sight.
A recommended stop at the Apllecross Inn was on the cards as the food there is a must. It was one of the best meals I've ever tasted. Ever. If you like freshly caught seafood then this is your place. It doesn't get much fresher and the scallops were out of this world. The staff were excellent and dished out the last of the sticky toffee pudding with a side of cranachan to taste as I couldn't decide what to have. Just as well they had one last room for the night as I wasn't going anywhere after eating all that and sitting by the log fire.
And so it was the last day and the journey home. After filling our bellies with the super breakfast at the Applecross Inn, we were told the road over the hill was open (which we really didn't think twice about and wondered why they would even mention that - little did we know what), we left to seek out and admire the infamous Bealach Na Ba twisting, mountainous road with hairpin bends that is the third highest road in the UK. The snow appeared as we hit the top and we realised then what the staff meant. Especially when there was a snowplough going between two points at the top of the mountain to help traffic pass. Getting out to wander around and make a snowman in a really peaceful spot was pretty awesome. The light and views were stunning and there was no one around. That was a moment.
Until we had to descend the mountain and tackle the single track road and curves. I got out halfway down as I wanted to capture the Kuga on the road. It's safe to say my driving partner didn't tell me at this point his vertigo had kicked in and he was really unsure about where he would turn at the bottom. But I patiently waited for him (in the freezing winds) and filmed him as he drove up and down. I sat in the middle of the passing of the cattle and admired the sun and views. That was another moment.
And so were almost done. Down to Lochcarron to drop a coat off to a visitor at Applecross Inn who had left it the night before and our work was done. It was home time. But we decided to take a detour to Skye seeing as we'd completed the NC500 quicker than we thought due to everything being seasonal!
Due to popular demand and many requests from folk, my next post will list the places to go, see and do and you can download the list from there. It's a big thanks to Peoples Ford for helping me tick this off my Wanderlist. It was a great memorable experience to see my own country and, of course, taste some brilliant food. Which is the way to my heart. (Just saying).