I like chocolate. Seriously, I really love chocolate! I also like driving around Scotland, especially to the out of the way, adventurous nooks and crannies, its unusual spots not overrun by mass tourism yet. Lo and behold, a recent trip enabled me to scratch both itches! Enter the North Coast 500…
North Coast 500: what does it mean?
The UK remains a mixed bag of kilometers and miles, and yes, Scotland’s North Coast 500 means 500 miles. A bit of a drive for sure: no 70 mph freeways here! The roads are winding, hilly and narrow on this deserted and absolutely gorgeous route. Go slow is the motto here, for life and limb – and lamb!
If you do the full North Coast 500, plan on a handful of days, as there’s way too much to see. You’ll find something to stop at every half hour, if not sooner. And that’s without waiting for the proverbial sheep and cows crossing the roads, or inching along behind a farm vehicle. Then again, there is no need to do it all, no reason to drive the whole thing in one go. Enjoy a couple of sections, do it in spurts over a few trips, take detours to the islands like we did: whatever fits your time, budget and interests.
Everyone has different interests but, here are some fun North Coast 500 highlights that spoke to me. Especially chocolate. And as usual, remember it’s a blog, not a travel guide, so I’m keeping it blog-style short!
Where to start? Well, the ‘official” start of the North Coast 500 is in Inverness, but since it’s a circular route, feel free to start anywhere. We went clockwise, from Inverness up along the West coast, then back down along the East. It was mid October and the weather was typical Highlands: clouds scudding across a sometimes blue sometimes black sky, the sun in and out, a sprinkle of rain once in a while, hills and mountains and lochs all over.
Seeing splendid scenery is automatic
Incredible sights all around, all the time: it was hard not to ooh and aah, turn your head left and right – and drive right off those sometimes challenging and often windy roads! I’m originally a stick man but appreciated the automatic transmission in my rental car. It allowed me to concentrate on what’s out and around, not sweat the mechanics of driving.
Gardens, crofting and Clearances
Starting out west, our first regret: we did not have time to visit Inverewe and the fantastic subtropical Gardens. I mentioned them in a previous blog about Kew Gardens in London, a must for those seriously into gardens and gardening, but, alas. Driving up the west coast we passed Ullapool, our ferry port after an Outer Hebridean detour visiting the Isle of Lewis & Harris. Here, the landscape becomes even more dramatic, the roads quieter, the villages fewer and far between. Plan your fuel stops: for your vehicle and yourselves! Plenty of sheep and cows though, and the occasional farmer scraping a living from unforgiving rock land.
There’s more to travel than just having fun, and learning about history and local matters is enriching and rewarding. As in the Hebrides, this area has a sad history of backbreaking crofting and heartbreaking Highland Clearances (Try John Prebble’s 1963 book). Today however, there’s a new future with an emphasis on farm-to-table and top quality local produce and dairy. How that future will unfold without the EU under Brexit remains a question of Scots concern. In the meantime, on the fun front, seeing the occasional adorable Heilan Coo will lift anyone’s spirits!
Hot stuff in the cool north: cocoa time!
Finally, it’s chocolate time! We had read about this amazing hot chocolate outfit in a remote corner of Scotland called Cocoa Mountain. Did I mention I really really like chocolate?
Cocoa Mountain is just about a mile west of Durness, way up north, in the Balnakeil Crafts Village. You’ll find a few other neat outlets there: a Glass Art shop, an Art Gallery and a restaurant, albeit closed during our October visit. Man, that hot cocoa was glorious! And filling! Lots of other delectable treats at Cocoa Mountain too, a perfect break on this windy day.
After indulging, don’t go right back on the North Coast 500 to Durness, but continue north/west for a bit, only about a half mile or so, to Balnakeil Church. The Church ruins sit right at the edge of the Atlantic beach, signs explaining its history. Make sure to wear a windbreaker!
Fun fact: the RAF does bombing practice to the west, above the waters of the Kyle of Durness, near the Base at the awesomely named Cape Wrath! So it’s not all quiet scenery and wheeling seagulls and stuff here… I wonder if they get a military discount on the hot cocoa? They sure deserve it!
A Smoo ride to Durness
Durness itself is a somewhat larger, pretty hub for the Sutherland hamlets around it. The village has a number of tourist attractions, such as Smoo Cave: one side formed by sea water, the other by fresh water, unique in the UK. You can walk in on own, but there’s also a local expert Smoo Cave tour option, year-round. We stopped at the Millennium Cairn, trying not get blown off into the cold Atlantic!
Fun fact: John Lennon spent a boyhood vacation here, and returned for a visit with Yoko just as the Beatles were breaking up in 1969. In 2007, the village put on a “John Lennon Northern Lights Festival”. It featured arts and crafts and performances and the like, in the spirit of Lennon’s musical genius – and to draw in tourists, of course. The story goes that Rubber Soul’s “In My Life” was partly based on a poem John wrote about Durness on his teenage holiday. There are places I remember…
Weaving our way along
About an hour past Durness, our chocolate overload faded sooner than expected. Tongues licking around lips brought no results, so we decided we needed a proper tea and lunch break. Lo and behold, we stumbled upon the charming Weaver’s Café, gift shop and B&B, near the village of – wait for iiit – Tongue.
I got a little nervous seeing “gift shop” signs but the lunch was excellent, the people welcoming, and the outside pretty! It offers B&B too, would have been a nice spot to overnight.
Onwards and downwards
The north coast is incredibly windy! A black sheep along the road seemed to not be heeding the wind warning…
I was glad for my heavy low-profile rental sedan. We stopped for dinner at Scrabster, wolfing down some tasty seafood in the Ferry Inn, as described in my “Scottish Ferry Tales” blog, story number 4, as we took the ferry up to Stromness, Mainland Orkney, from here.
Later on, after Orkney, back to driving the North Coast 500, we loved the town of Wick, Caithness, half an hour south of John O’Groats. Claim to fame here: Ebenezer Place, the shortest street in the world!
We parked along the River Wick and walked to Ebenezer, at the corner of River and Union streets. Per the Guinness Book of World records, the “street” is 6 foot 9 inches “long”, just enough for a door into, yay, a nice restaurant where we had lunch. The Bistro, No. 1 Ebenezer Place, is part of the Mackay Hotel. I wonder how wide the hotel’s rooms are: I don’t expect King beds!
Fun fact: Wick is pronounced “Week” by the Scots. Go with that, as otherwise they’ll think you’re talking about candles and stuff!
Take the next Step
Just south of Wick are the famous Whaligoe Steps. There are 365 of them, manmade, cut into the cliffs, down to the sea. Originally cut to carry fish up, they’re now a popular attraction, so much so that they have to be repaired on a regular basis. If you want to stop, bring an extremely good GPS or map, as there is no signage, which I can sadly confirm. Although, after that tasty lunch in Wick, I’m not sure 365 steps back up would have been feasible!
Fairytale Castle: Dunrobin
Another hour and half south brings you to Dunrobin Castle, the UK’s northernmost Castle, just south of Brora and its Golf Club. Dunrobin in the Gaelic means Robin’s Hill or Fort, and thought to be named after the 6th Earl of Sutherland, Robert, in the 1400s. While the Castle originated in the 1200s, most of today’s buildings are from the 1800s. Dunrobin is open to the public these days from April 1 through October 15th, so we couldn’t see the inside. Still, the Gardens were open and the outside was awesome. Set in a bit of forest, it’s the seat of Clan Sutherland.
Bonnie Prince Charlie is never far away in Scots history and here too, there’s a link. Under William, the 17th Earl, Clan Sutherland supported the English. During the Jacobite Rising in 1745 with the infamous Battle of Culloden, Jacobites under the Earl of Cromartie stormed Dunrobin Castle, and the Earl escaped by the skin of his teeth via an entrance at the back of the Castle.
Hoppiness at lunchtime
Time for refreshments again! We stopped 3 minutes south of Dunrobin at the Golspie Inn, a hotel from 1808, where its Big Burn Bar serves Loch Ness Brewery beer. This brewery went under in 2016 but was then rescued by Cairngorm Brewing, per the BBC headline with a “Monster Deal”. Ha. Their beers all have “-Ness” names, and what IPA fan can resist a name like “HoppyNESS”? Goes great with a nice Scotch pie or a bridie (meat-filled pastry)!
More golf and a Castle
Driving on south, you’ll pass yet another well-known golf club, the Royal Dornoch on your way back to Inverness. Inspired by Dunrobin? You may want to stay in a Castle in Dingwall, just over 20 minutes north of Inverness. Tulloch Castle is a real castle, not some fake hotel, with an excellent restaurant, pub – and Ghost tour! I’ve stayed there myself, loved it, see my blog from a year ago.
From Dingwall, the official North Coast 500 route returns to Inverness going south then east, via Muir of Ord and Beauly, as in “Firth of Beauly”, the water arm on the northwest side of Inverness. Note that to the northeast, it’s called the Moray Firth, fortunately not related to Moray Eels, those nasty nibblers! Eels or not, it’s too nippy for swimming in late October, unless you’re a hardy Highlander perhaps, but a good spot for sailing or fishing.
Out of miles, out of chocolate
Ending our North Coast 500 adventures, we made Inverness home for a relaxing couple of days. There are some excellent lodging options here; more on that and my day in Cromartie on the Black Isle in a future blog. For now, the driving was done and the North Coast 500 officially ticked off the bucket list. Now if I could only find another one of those delicious hot cocoas here! Yum!
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert
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