NORTH COAST 500: ROAD TRIP
Inverness, United Kingdom
Forget what you thought you knew about the UK roadtrip. The NC500 is here to prove you so wrong.
Fruit pastels, dodgy anthems, and a lukewarm Maccas from the service station… This ain't that road trip. Think 516 miles of fairytale castles, deserted beaches, secret lochs, and enough distilleries to make Keith Richards comatose.
The best bit? You get to drive around at your own pace like a climate-conscious cabbie.
NC500 means the north coast and the full route is just over 500 miles. Simples. You’ll be passing through six regions along the Scottish coast. Obvs stopping for haggis and beach breaks on the reg.
For road trip newbs the thought of 500 miles of open road can be proper scary. But it’s actually really easy. Set aside at least five days and then pick two or three of the regions to set up base. Spend a few nights in each of these areas to break up the driving and see more.
You’ll want to fly, drive, or catch the train to Inverness and then begin the journey to Wester Ross. Whiz by misty mountains and mirror-shine lochs, keeping an eye out for eagles and Neolithic age ruins.
Bealach na Bà is one of the UK's most beaut stretches of road. It’s also super narrow and twisty, but totally worth it for the amazing scenery. Bonus tip, it’s worth going off-route in Wester Ross for Red Point Beach.
Sutherland is your next stop and it’s a meaty chunk of the route. There are two really different sides to this guy. One is all jagged mountains falling off into the sea, the other is tiny fishing villages with adorable harbours and crazy pretty castles.
Sutherland is called ‘Europe’s last great wilderness’ for a reason. Bring hiking boots and get on the Cape Wrath trail. You might even spot a whale. And this turrety Disney number above? It's called Dunrobin Castle and it's really real.
The ‘flow country’?
Don’t get it twisted. You won’t be burning incense and working on your chakra alignment. Caithness has got angry phallic sea stacks, huge colonies of sea birds, and headlands that get bashed about by waves.
All that wild wild beauty goes better with gin. Make for the Dunnet Bay Distillery, it’s sitting pretty right by the beach.
There are three whisky distilleries in Easter Ross. By the time you’ve abused them all you’ll be rolling round on the beach with the seals and barking at fish. Once you’re done embarrassing the wildlife, follow the Pictish Trail for carvings and marks left behind by ‘the lost people’.
Glenmorangie Distillery. Nuff said.
The Black Isle is trying to put you off visiting. Don't let the name fool you, it’s actually a rainbow wash of melty pink lakes, deep green farmlands, and an amber swirl of craft beers. Plus, it’s not even an isle. It’s a peninsula.
These forests were made for mountain-biking. Check out Learnie Red Rock Mountain Bikes. These guys have trails for all levels and there’s a dirt jump area. Welcome to the saddle sore life.
Finish where you started, at Inverness - the capital of the Scottish Highlands where you can go on the hunt for the Loch Ness or hang about dreamy cathedrals and 18th century churches. Hit up the Victorian crafts and food market and check out Castle Gallery too.
You’ll want to refuel after the week you’ve had. Start the day with doughnuts and coffee (don’t look at us like that) at Coyote Coffee. Then move onto Cheese and Tomatin for the wood-fired artisan pizza of dreams.
When it comes to eats there’s a DIY attitude on the NC500. At Alladale Wilderness Reserve you’ll forage mushrooms and go trout fishing to prepare your own lunch. Or head to Shieldaig Lodge where you can head out with local creel fisherman to catch your own haul.
Bevvies to go with your sustainably-sourced dinner? Sure you do. Glen Ord, Glenmorangie (the big dog) and Balblair are some of our faves.
The rocks in this part of the world are 3,000 million years old. The best way to see them is to scramble up them like a burly mountain goat. Check out Hamlet Mountaineering and chose between rock climbing, mountaineering or scrambling. Not a landlubber? Go snorkelling (no, really) with Basking Shark Scotland. You’ll go by boat to a sheltered bay and then take the plunge.
If you thought snorkelling in Scotland was bizarre wait till you see the Northern Lights. You’re going to lose your tiny mind. Your best bet is to use this forecast and look for nights with a ‘high chance of activity’. Then you’ll want to park your tush at one of these spots for the least light pollution. Try Alturlie Point near Inverness, Portmahomack in Easter Ross, or Sinclair Bay in Caithness.
Three beaches a flip flop away, whale sightings, and chic Scandi style... The Highland Haven is luxe living on the NC500. It’s secreted away between Thurso and John O’Groats with views out over Dunnet Head.
An eco-lodge at the edge of the world... where do we sign? At Eagle Rock in Strathcarron, the kitchen was designed by a Michelin-starred chef and there’s a library with a ‘media snug’. Vino by the log fire vibes all round.
If you’re planning on camping, stop off at Windhaven on the Caithness leg of your trip. It’s the most northerly campsite on the UK mainland and looks out over the seals on Brough Bay.