The US may have Route 66, but Scotland has the NC500. It’s amazing, and we never even knew about it. So here I am, ready to spread the word.
The North Coast 500 is a 500-mile circuit drive you can take around the north of Scotland. It’s not a single road, but a piecing together of various roads along rugged coastlines, through dramatic mountains, and across vast open desolate stretches of land. Scotland is not a large country, but when you’re on the NC500, you could be deceived. I’ve included more pictures than usual with this blog because we were so repeatedly astonished by the landscape that we took 100s of them. It was hard to winnow them down for you!
On the Scotland tourism website, the NC500 is heavily marketed. We traveled it during September and were pleasantly surprised at how quiet it was. (It may be a very different experience during the summer months!) We appreciated this especially since some of the roadways are only one lane, curving through mountainous terrain. We stayed primarily in B&Bs, and at every one we met fellow NC500 road trippers (on bikes, motorcycles, or in cars, usually Brits or Europeans rather than Americans). But once we were on the road, we often felt like we had the entire country to ourselves. So refreshing and good for the soul! We really loved it.
We traveled in a clockwise direction, skipping the section between Inverness and Isle of Skye. Here’s what we found along the way:
Isle of Skye (3 nights)—Skye is the best known and most tourist-driven of the Scottish isles, and is especially popular with Americans and other foreign tourists. So while it is absolutely gorgeous, we found the crowds here a bit overwhelming, especially on the smaller roads and at trailhead parking lots. These, we found, are not designed to handle many cars, let alone large tourist buses. To be honest, the landscape is just as stunning farther north on the NC500. We’ve become rather crowd-averse, so if we were to do this trip again, we’d spend more time in other areas instead.
Ullapool (1 night)—the NC500 headed north from Skye to Ullapool is gorgeous, and the town itself has a lot to offer. We wished we’d had more time there. It enjoys a beautiful setting, and there is lots of hiking nearby as well as water-based activities. It’s also a bit of a Mecca for live music—there were four free music offerings on our one night there. We enjoyed three of them: a junior bagpipe marching band, a very eclectic synthesized accordion player, and a traditional folk ensemble. (We skipped a Scottish Johnny Cash impersonator.) The music scene made me want to stay here and master traditional Scottish music! Ullapool is also a ferry gateway to the Outer Hebrides Islands. We missed the Outer Hebrides, which appears to be an excellent adventure.
Lochinver (3 nights)—We booked a three-day sea kayak group excursion based out of Lochinver. Our talented guide, Sam Weir of KayakScotland, took us out on three very different day trips in the area along the wild coastline. Sam is an expert at designing the best trips accounting for the wind, the tides, and the currents. We learned a great deal while seeing gorgeous scenery and enjoying some vigorous paddling. It was a fabulous three days! Lochinver is known as a foodie town. Despite its small size, it has several excellent restaurants, including a renowned pie shop that is an absolute must-do—venison and cranberry is a favorite! While we spent most of our time on the water, there is excellent and interesting hiking to be done here as well.
Talmine and Bettyhill (1 night each). The drive along the northwest coast from Lochinver to the far north is spectacular, and again, we wish we’d had the foresight to spend more time up here. We visited Cape Wrath—the very northwest tip of Scotland—and climbed Mt. Hope, which gave us a sweeping 360 degree view, including of the North Sea. It’s just gorgeous up here, and so desolate.
The Orkney Islands (3 nights). The Orkneys aren’t on the NC500, but the ferry launch is. We love remote places and were drawn to the idea of visiting these islands an hour off the northeast corner of Britain. We stayed in Kirkwall, on the mainland island. It’s the biggest settlement, but still quite small, quiet and lovely. We rented bikes one day and took a ferry to explore nearby Shapinsay Island. We covered the whole island—over 40 miles—and saw maybe five cars on the road all day! I rented a bike with an electric boost, so I was actually able to keep up with Bob (most of the time) and even zoom past him going uphill—a novel and hilarious experience! The Orkneys have several Neolithic sites (about 5,000 years old, pre-dating Stonehenge), which are really well-preserved and intriguing.
To Inverness and Beyond. After ferrying back from Orkney, we drove the east side of the NC500, stopping first to hike out to the crazy pointy Stacks of Duncansby on the northeast corner of Scotland.
The east is relatively flat compared to the crazy west side. But it is still pleasant and passes through Inverness, which seems like a great town, and is the start and endpoint of the NC500. After a lunch stop, we kept going another hour to reach the Cairngorms National Park for some good “hill walking.”
No trip to Scotland is complete without a visit to Edinburgh, an all-around world-class city. A new friend from our Lochinver kayak group, Ken, treated us to a history walking tour of the city. So great!! Thanks Ken. We hope to return the favor someday. And for those who relish “small world” anecdotes, we discovered that Ken’s father-in-law grew up in a small village in Belarus just a few miles from the village where Bob’s grandmother was born.
We really wished we had more time to take the NC500 much more slowly and explore all the surrounding areas. I think you could spend a relaxed and reflective three weeks on this and still have enough to do to keep you happy. If you like wide-open spaces, peace and quiet, and rugged countryside, it’s a great trip.
But I also should come clean about the challenges:
Midges. These ubiquitous tiny insects are particularly bad in the northwest highlands—the most beautiful part. Wind, rain, closed car windows, and constant movement help keep them under control. We had only one really bad midge moment but they are definitely a force to be reckoned with.
Rain. The weather changes constantly. It rains almost every day, usually just in short intervals. I don’t think we had a single day of all-day rain or all-day sunshine. You just learn to keep your rain gear handy and not worry about it. Rain keeps away the midges, so think about it. I think droves of midges are worse than rain. Such is the reality of Scotland, yet we can still love it.
Cold. We found the weather to be refreshing most of the time, but after several weeks of cold and damp, I was ready for sunshine and stowing away my long johns for good. July and August are a bit warmer but you will also have more tourists. More choices to consider.
Next stop: sunny Croatia! A big change. We’ll talk about it in our next blog.