Part Two of our Discovery 4 drive around Scotland’s super impressive North Coast 500 route
Before departing from the Kylesku Hotel for the second stage of our North Coast 500 adventure, we first consult with our hosts Sonia Virechauveix and Tanja Lister. “Did you know that you can drive on the beach and over the dunes near Durness?” proclaims Tanja. I get out my battered North Coast 500 map. She shows me the exact spot and I mark it, she also mentions a few other must-stop offs, places that guides book fail to mention but the locals are only too keen to share with the discerning traveller. To get out of Kylesku we have to drive across the impressive curving bridge which was opened by the Queen back in 1984. Due to its spectacular setting this bridge has been used in several adverts and countless photoshoots. As we stop at the car park on the northern side of the bridge I feel a little regret that we did not have the time to take a boat trip to where Loch a' Chairn Bhain, Loch Glendhu and Loch Glencoul converge. A fishing boat which was probably responsible for catching our dinner last night passes beneath us.
Before the bridge was built those in cars had to make use of the car ferry, when bad weather moved in and the ferry was not operating, they would have to take the inland detour via Lairg. If stopping in this car park don't forget to look out for the memorial plaque that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the formation of the XIIth Submarine Flotilla. These James Bond-like miniature submarines trained and operated from the waters below us during the Second World War. They would later go on to launch attacks against German battleships along the Norwegian coastline. It was time to continue our North Coast 500 assault. Our second stop of the day involves taking a slight detour off the main route, just after Rhiconich, we climb onto the B801 towards Kinlochbervie, it takes us further off the beaten track towards Oldshoremore. I stop the Discovery in the small carpark and we climb over the dunes, I am now looking at one of the most spectacular and deserted beaches in all of Scotland. The weather is atrocious but still I take a seat on the brown wooden bench that overlooks the beach. Except for my photographer Craig, there is not a soul around. We had our own private beach. Imagine the epic beach parties one could have in Scotland if they had decent weather?
At Durness we leave the west coast of Scotland behind and trade it for the north coast. This scattered little village has much to offer so don’t you dare just drive past. You can take coastal walks along the nearby cliffs or else just chill on one of the several world-class beaches. While we were enjoying the main beach in town, we notice a film crew setting up for a shoot. I ask one of the workers what they are shooting. The movie is about a man who returns from the USA to his home in northern Scotland. The scene that they are shooting involves him walking out of the ocean after a swim. It was not beach weather and I felt a little sorry for the lead actor. I’m sure that he is well paid for his efforts as according to my source this is supposed to be a Hollywood blockbuster. There are two things that every Land Rover driving visitor to Durness has to do. The first is head for Balnakeil Beach and then drive north along it. Once the beach ends there is a track that takes you up and over the dunes and then on to Faraid Head, a military observation post of sorts. It is a very scenic drive along the beach and through the dunes. I use the Terrain Response and engage Sand mode, fortunately the recent rains have hardened the sand and it is not a technical drive at all. On the way back to Durness you just have to stop at Cocoa Mountain, where they serve the best hot chocolate in the world. When they put the massive mug on my table it reminds me of an erupting volcano where the lava has been replaced by bubbling brown chocolate that is running down the side of my mug. I would drive 500 miles for this hot chocolate.
While the roads on the west coast had been extremely narrow, windy and mountainous, they now seem more sweeping and open. We pass several impressive beaches before reaching the ruins of Castle Varrich in Tongue. The castle was once a Mackay clan stronghold. All the incredible white beaches complete with baby blue ocean, are making me hungry and so we stop at the popular Bettyhill Cafe for a great feed. The place also doubles up as a tourist office which is useful. From here we walk to the nearby Strathnaver Museum which tells the sad story of the local clearances after the Battle of Culloden. Tens of thousands of farmers were evicted from their lands and so they fled to the cities and abroad just to survive. It’s a desperate story and how different would these deserted parts look today if the clearances never happened? About ten miles west of Thurso we pass the Dounreay nuclear power station, which is currently being decommissioned. This process will only be finished in 2023 so today it still employs many people in the region. Once you reach Thurso the temptation is to speed on towards John O’Groats for the cheesy pic with the sign. I tell Craig that it can wait and instead head north from Thurso to Dunnet Head, the official most northerly point of mainland Britain. We have to take a minor road to get there but it is well worth it. There are no other tourists about to enjoy the majestic cliffs that seem to fall vertically into the cold Pentland Firth. As I disembark from the Discovery 4 I am greeted by thousands of seabirds. From here I can see all the way to the Orkney Islands. According to my guidebook the lighthouse here was built by Robert Louis Stevenson's dad. I am loathe to leave here but we would like to get to our overnight spot at John O’Groats, before sunset. There is just enough time to stop at the Dunnet Bay Distillers to pick up a bottle of their award-winning gin. We reach John O’Groats just as the sun is setting and park the Discovery next to the well-known sign for our few seconds of fame.
Our overnight accommodation is at the stylish Natural Retreats accommodation just across the road from where we are parked up. Now all we have left of the North Coast 500 route is the east coast section. I don’t want it to end and so before we take the A99 tar road south the next morning, we first head east towards Duncansby Head. No cheesy signs here, this definitely feels like the end of Britain. Craig and I disembark from the Discovery 4 and take a windy stroll along the dramatic cliffs. Thousands of fulmars call these cliffs home, at times we are so close to the cliff’s edge that the nesting birds are no more than an arm’s length away. After walking for about twenty minutes we reach the Duncansby Stacks which consist of several monoliths that rise out of the ocean. It feels as if we are on the set of a Harry Potter movie. The time has come to head south, it's our final day on the route. The plan is to pack in as much as we can. Wick is our next stop, home to the Pulteney Distillery and Visitor Centre. At the recent World Whiskies Awards Old Pulteney's 1989 vintage walked off with the top award of World's Best Single Malt Whisky, beating off hundreds of entries from around the globe. The likeable Kathy Csorogi takes us on a private tour of the distillery. The black and white pictures in the reception stop us in our tracks. Incredibly one of them depicts a Wick harbour scene during the herring boom of the 19th century. Thousands of workers are cramming herring into wooden barrels. Back then Wick was the busiest fishing port in Europe with more than a thousands boats in the harbour. Today this is not longer the case, instead the Pulteney Distillery takes a place of pride in the town. As a fan of single-malt I find the tour of the distilling process fascinating. We reluctantly leave Wick and after driving for about thirty minutes we turn off the main road towards Dunbeath Harbour. It looks like the perfect place for a tailgate picnic, plus we still have some local smoked salmon and scallops that we need to eat. I would definitely recommend coming off to explore the coves and harbours found along this stretch of the route. Thing about driving after a big meal is that you feel tired, the fact that it is a bright sunny day doesn't help matters either. After an hour I need a leg stretch and so we stop at the Dunrobin Castle just north of Golspie. It costs a tenner to get in but as hunting trophies and richly WHERE WE STAYED
Natural Retreats The Inn at John O’Groats consists of several luxury self-catering apartments just across the road from the ocean. For more see www.naturalretreats.com
Where we ate
PICTURES: CRAIG DUTTON
Good food stop and tourist info centre. Phone ahead to order your lunch on 01641 521742 or email them on firstname.lastname@example.org
. VEHICLE HIREDiscovery 4
Thanks to Nikki Gray from 4x4 Vehicle Hire for the use of a Discovery 4. You can hire any model of Land Rover and they offer the loan of a vehicle for as long as you need it or for one day. They deliver everywhere and have offices all over the UK. According to Nikki there's been an increase in the number of Defenders hired out for weddings. For more information see http://4x4vehiclehire.co.uk
, call 07795 199641 or email Northyorks@4x4vehiclehire.co.uk