The North Coast 500 is a driving route around the Scottish Highlands in the far north of Britain. Inaugurated in 2015, it follows a dramatic coastline of infinite variety and then circles around. The 516-mile [830 kilometres], route passes sandy beaches, sea cliffs, caves, castles, lighthouses and lochs. It guides visitors around a region rich in wildlife, history and with a unique local culture, whose Pict, Celt and Norse influences survive through its language, place names and lifestyle. Just over 234,000 people live in the 26,000 square kilometres of the Highland region, and three main languages are spoken there: Gaelic, Scots and English.
The North Coast 500 begins and ends in Inverness, the Highlands’ capital. Located 155 miles [250 kilometres] northeast of Edinburgh and 560 miles [900 kilometres] from London, Inverness is dominated by its 19th-century castle, built of pink sandstone, which stands on the banks of the River Ness.
The route head west out of the city and then north along the edge of the Black Isle, so named for its rich, dark soil. The attractive port of Cromarty is home to some fine Georgian architecture. Its deep natural harbour acts as a vast storage site for wind turbines and oil rigs awaiting repair and servicing. They share the waters with a wide range of wildlife, including dolphins, seals and whales.
End of the world
The route continues past low-lying farmland and long beaches towards Wick. Inland is Flow Country: its name meaning ‘marshy land’ in old Norse. This expanse of rare blanket bog is home to some of Britain’s rarest flora and fauna.
Located at the northeastern-most tip of Britain, John o’Groats is iconic as an end of the road location, and is a famous tourist destination. Here visitors pose for photos in front of its mile marker (Land’s End 874 miles; New York 3,230 miles). However, the most northerly point on the British mainland actually lies twenty kilometres west, at Dunnet Head. Here, it really feels like the end of the world, with waves battering the steep cliffs, seabirds wheeling above the lighthouse and the sea stretching into the horizon.
Further west, Thurso has a thriving surf culture thanks to the impressive waves that rise above the offshore slabs and reefs. The port town was an ancient settlement, and where ferries now depart for Orkney, Viking ships once sailed to Scandinavia.
The nearby Wolfburn Distillery produces award-winning single malts from the cold, clear waters of the Wolf Burn, a small stream running from a subterranean source. Whisky plays a major role in the Highland economy: some fifty distilleries support seven thousand jobs and make a large contribution to Scotland’s £4.9bn-worth of whisky exports. The North Coast 500 passes by many award-winning distilleries, as well as fine local restaurants where seafood and venison are particular highlights.
Two hours further west, Smoo Cave in Durness has been carved out of limestone cliffs by rain and sea water. Once a smugglers’ stronghold, the echoing rock amphitheatre can be explored by foot or boat, with expert guiding the way through a cave system alternately floodlit and eerily dark.
The Highlands west coast feels a long way from modern urban life. The route winds through mountains dating back to primeval times, and the landscape contains some of the oldest rock in Britain: Lewisian gneiss is a suite of metamorphic rocks that date back some three thousand million years.
Located on the shore of Loch Broom, Ullapool offers the best of the northwest: good food, live music, arts and crafts, a small museum, and boat trips to the Summer Isles. It’s a ninety-minute drive southwest to Poolewe, where Inverewe Gardens takes full advantage of the Gulf Stream, which brings milder weather to this isolated peninsula. It creates perfect conditions for the exotic and temperate plants that grow here all year-round.
The mountains of the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve and Torridon rise up on both sides of the North Coast 500 route and are excellent for hill walking. Woodland trails offer less demanding hikes through rare Caledonian pine forests. It’s possible to spot golden eagles, pine martens or even wildcats here.
As the road weaves around the Applecross Peninsula, views open up to the islands of the Inner Hebrides: Raasay, Scalpay and Skye. If the sharp bends of the Bealach Na Ba pass seem too daunting, it’s possible to detour to an easier route, via Shieldaig to Lochcarron.
Feelings of sadness and satisfaction combine as the route finally turns homeward, towards Beauly and the last 25 kilometres back to Inverness. Every mile of the way, the North Coast 500 justifies its reputation as Britain’s ultimate road trip.
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