The North Coast 500 is a genius bit of marketing. It is the ‘Silk Road’ of North and North-West Scotland, because while it is essentially a roughly 500-mile coastal route round-trip from Inverness, the NC500 – like the Silk Road – also incorporates any number of tiny roads that criss-cross Sutherland, Caithness, Wester Ross, Easter Ross and the Black Isle, that you might like to detour along. The roads themselves have been there for ages and the Highlands and Islands of Northern Scotland have always attracted their fair share of tourists, but ever since the NC500 became a ‘brand’ you can forget about going in summer unless you book well in advance. On the other hand, I’d avoid going in summer anyway and here’s why;
- August can be wet and given Scotland’s famously inclement and definitely variable weather, you might be forgiven for chuckling a bit here. But if you want the driest months try May or June, although they’re not guaranteed either.
- Clouds of the abominable Scottish midge are out in full force in summer and unless you are slathered in Avon’s Skin So Soft (the Royal Marines apparently swear by it), from head to foot, they will torment you. (To be fair, you don’t have to be in the Highlands to be tortured by them.)
- You will often find yourself on single track roads and many tourists are unfamiliar with the etiquette of how to use the passing spots. Even when the roads are wider, many foreigners forget to drive on the left so you’re no better off. Worse still, some hardy souls have the unmitigated temerity to drive RV’s and caravans, which might be great for them but is a pain in the arse for everyone else. The only good news is that, as mentioned, unless you started planning your vacation many months before, you won’t be bothered by any of this because you won’t be able to find anywhere to stay anyway. Unless you’re in an RV.
The NC500 can be done in as little as 5 days, but I think it requires a minimum of a week (we spent 8 days), and if you want to do a bit of hillwalking, take some coastal walks or just saunter along some amazing white sand beaches, then you’ll need even longer. April is a little early to go as several museums and gardens, and probably some inns and restaurants are not yet open, but the upside is that you largely have the place to yourself. Note however that this too may soon become a thing of the past as more and more people figure out that the only way to travel these days is off-season and many Highland establishments are opening earlier to accommodate this growing trend. The best place to start planning your trip is the official North Coast 500 website which provides information on things to do and see, as well as suggestions for a range of accommodation options from castles to glamping. We did the trip with our friends John and Diana and Diana and I both used the NC website and other sources to determine how best to tailor our limited time for our interests.
We spent the first two nights on the shores of Loch Torridon at the Torridon Inn in Annat. It is the sister property to The Torridon next door, a 19th century Victorian sandstone hunting lodge built by the first Earl of Lovelace who was an acclaimed scientist, though not as distinguished as his mathematician wife Ava, daughter of Lord Bryon, who is credited with having written the first computer algorithm. It has been a hotel since the 1960s.
When the lodge was completed in 1887 which happened to be the 50th year of Queen Victoria’s reign, the earl had an extravagant Latin inscription written along the cornice in the hallway in her honor, which can still be seen; Anno Faustissimi imperii quinquagesimo peracto dum iunctos britannos australenses afros et indos praeclara virtutibus et ingenio Victoria Regina tenet memor hanc aulam struxit Gulielmos Comes de Lovelace. (On the completion of the fiftieth year of her most glorious reign while Queen Victoria famed for her virtues and intellect held sway over the united peoples of Britain, Australia, Africa and India, William Count Lovelace built this hall.)
On our first evening, which was also glorious, we strolled over to The Torridon bar where I ordered a pre-dinner gin and tonic to celebrate the first day of the trip. I thought this was suitably apt because there are now hundreds of gin distilleries in Scotland. But J was so horrified that I was in the Highlands and in a whisky bar and not having whisky, that he ordered a double Glenlivet to make up for my shortcomings. We then moved to dinner at the hotel’s 1887 restaurant, where another encomium in Latin refers to the Gregory family who restored the hotel to its former glamor in the 1990s under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. (At least I think that is what it is – my Latin is non-existent – either that or it is the second of the two paens to old Queen Vic, the second being similar in tone to the first with lots of triumph, glory, illustrious reigns and the like.) J and I enjoyed dinner, although our friends did not order as successfully and John was mystified by a ‘deconstructed’ onion soup which was a tad more solid than he had expected from the word ‘soup’. The following night we ate at the Inn which was not nearly as grand but also not as expensive. J was about to order a burger until he discovered it was made from Hielan’ coo (highland cow) and changed his mind. He is already less and less enamored about eating red meat of any sort, let alone a shaggy ‘hieland coo’.
The following day we drove the famous pass to Applecross in Diana’s Range Rover Discovery which John pronounced the best vehicle for such a trip, and indeed the motor powered effortlessly up the switchbacks and steep gradient of the 2,053 ft high Bealach Na Bà, or ‘Pass of the Cattle’, an old drover’s road that is an attention-grabbing single-track road. We took the clockwise direction, driving first towards Kishorn then crossing the pass to Applecross and thence up along the coast towards Shieldaig and back to Loch Torridon. Kishorn is well-known for its oysters, prawns, lobster, mussels and scallops, but as it was too early in the day to partake of this bounty, we headed straight for Applecross, which is one of the most remote villages in Scotland. All the more surprising then to come across the fine cooking at the Applecross Inn which, under the aegis of Judith Fish, is an award-winning restaurant and pub. (The rooms are usually fully booked at least a year in advance.) We had coffee there before setting out to visit Ard Dhubh, Camusterrach and Calduie, hamlets which are even more remote than Applecross, and which most people skip or don’t know about.
When we got back to Applecross – and you must unless you plan on borrowing a fishing boat – we had lunch of langoustines (large prawns, or small lobsters if you prefer), and a crab and mango salad, followed by fish and chips – Scotland’s national dish, after haggis – at the Inn. It was so delicious that when the two J’s paid the bill, they paid £48 too much. On hearing the total, Diana and I said something insightful like “Huh? I know it was delicious but I don’t think that was our bill.” On reflecting that this was undoubtedly correct, both men unanimously suggested we go back and sort it out, on the grounds that we are Scottish (?) while they would saunter off and look at something important. (It was easily sorted out but we did not let them forget it for the rest of the day. Or the next morning, come to think of it – of which more later.)