North Coast 500 Route
I don’t speak Scots Gaelic but there’s one phrase I’m very fond of – Bealach Na Ba. It means Pass of the Cattle and until the mid-1800s that’s all the North Coast 500 was…a drovers’ route to herd cattle to market.
Since the early 1950s when it was eventually laid with tarmac it’s never looked back but that’s exactly what you should do as you make the steep climb and back down again to reach Applecross in the rugged West Highlands of Scotland.
To say the view is dramatic is like describing vintage champagne as “alright” or diamond’s fire as “shiny”.
The road not only boasts the greatest ascent of any in the UK, rising from sea level to 626 metres in gradients approaching 20%, it is also one of the few in Britain to be engineered with the same tight hairpin bends that you see in Alpine mountain passes.
It is one of my favourite driving roads in Europe but I’m sad to say that I’m no longer able to enjoy it on my own. It is totally unsuitable for learners, large vehicles or motorhomes and caravans, but it seems drivers of everything else have discovered this previously hidden gem of the motoring world.
That’s because it is, for many, the highlight of the North Coast 500, Scotland’s answer to America’s legendary Route 66, designated in 2015 to attract tourists to the Highlands.
It skirts the top of the UK largely following the coastline to show off what the tourist people call “fairytale castles, serene lochs and glistening beaches” in a 500 mile route which is at times challenging, stunning and a delight to the eye and for anyone who finds driving a joy rather than a chore.
The route is straightforward, starting and finishing in the highland capital of Inverness and the only choices then are whether to go clockwise by heading west and then north and east (my preference) or anti-clockwise by scooting up to John o’ Groats at the northeastern tip, then west and south…. and what to use for the journey.
I’ve done it in quite a range of machinery over time but undoubtedly the most splendid is the latest piece of kit to bear the iconic Bentley name, the Bentayga SUV. Yes, it’s now owned by the Germans but assembled in Crewe in the heart of England and the superb four litre V8 diesel has just the right power, torque and economy for tackling the demands of this route, even if the car has a price tag of just under £136,000.
I’ve also seen the road in almost every type of weather from glorious summer sunshine to biting winter winds with ice sculptures hanging from roadside rockfaces to horizontal rain when the road disappears into the clouds and visibility drops to just beyond your nose.
Over the past couple of years, the rise in tourist numbers has brought an increase in the choice of accommodation along the way with some splendid examples of Highland hospitality in hundreds of bed and breakfasts, hostels, campsites, hotels and inns for the four or five nights you should allow to get the most from the trip.
Some of my favourites along the way are the Kishorn Seafood Bar for some of the freshest harvest the west coast waters have to offer and after the Bealach, you can’t beat the luxury of the Torridon Hotel on the shore of the loch of the same name.
Further north in Sutherland is Britain’s most northerly Michelin-Starred restaurant at the 200-year-old Albannach boutique hotel in Lochinver.
If you’re lucky with the weather, the northern coast is stunning with its glorious beaches as you head towards John ‘o Groats and the view across the Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands.
Heading south to Inverness you can take a break at the 15th century Ackergill Tower which has commanded the view over the rugged shoreline at Sinclair Bay for the past 600 years but now offers sophisticated 21st century comfort for overnight guests.
There’s one more essential stop before Inverness and that’s at the Glenmorangie Distillery, which is just a short detour off the main route. There you can enjoy the classic malt to your heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that there’s a very comfortable bed for the night at the nearby Glenmorangie House which lives up to its Gaelic name of “Glen of Tranquility”.
The North Coast 500 has something for everyone – great driving roads, stunning scenery, first class accommodation and fabulous Scottish food, but I have a word of warning.
Between May and September there’s the unwelcome presence of the West Coast midge, a tiny vicious biting insect and the latest figures are that around 21 billion of them are waiting for fresh blood. There’s no guaranteed deterrent, except to avoid damp still areas at dawn and dusk…and stock up with plenty of spray repellant.
Motoring Journalist and Broadcaster