If you have a bucket list of must-drive UK routes, then Scotland’s North Coast 500 should be at the top of it. This is the first part of our two-part series on this incredible driving route. The next part will be published on 21 October 2016.
If the Land Rover Gods were cruel and said that you can only drive another 500 miles in your Land Rover-loving life, where would you go? For me the answer is a simple one: Scotland’s remote North Coast 500 route. I am not just saying this because of all the mouth-watering smoked salmon and award-winning single malt that I consumed while recently doing this route. No, the real reason I have made this bold statement is because I have never driven a more scenic 500-mile stretch of road anywhere in the world. What qualifies me to say this? I have been lucky enough to drive Land Rovers in some pretty incredible places. Along South Africa’s touristy Garden Route while reporting on the inaugural Land Rover G4 Challenge, across Australia’s Simpson Desert in a Discovery 3 and through South America’s Atacama Desert while following the Dakar Rally. All incredibly scenic driving roads but nowhere near as special as Scotland’s North Coast 500.
The North Coast 500 is a relatively new tourist route that aims to bring you the best of what the Scottish Highland has to offer. I remember my first trip to Scotland in 1999. It was on a backpackers Haggis tour bus and we went to all the usual spots. This included looking for the Loch Ness monster, seeing the Mel Gibson statue (or was it William Wallace?) at Stirling’s National Wallace Monument and watching Scotland play the Springboks at Murrayfield. It was all mainstream tourism, something which the North Coast 500 is most definitely not. The route starts in Inverness, so if you thought that the capital city of Edinburgh was pretty far north, Inverness is another 150 miles further north. As time is money I have arranged to hire a Discovery 4 from 4x4 Vehicle Hire, it will be waiting for me at the Edinburgh train station. 4x4 Vehicle Hire do Land Rover deliveries to all major airports and train stations.
I am a sucker for train travel and have decided to take the Caledonian Sleeper train from London to Edinburgh. It’s nearly midnight by the time we leave Euston station but how great that you can go to bed in your private compartment and then when you wake up you are in Edinburgh? According to people in the know, soon you might be able to put your Land Rover on the sleeper train in London and then drive it off at the start of the North Coast 500 route in Inverness. I predict that this will be a popular way of getting your vehicle to the start of the route in the future. It takes me a good two and a half hours to cover the 150 miles from Edinburgh to Inverness mostly due to the road works. I don't mind though as once you are out of the capital there is no such thing as an ugly road in Scotland. After stopping in Inverness to pick up Craig Dutton, my photographer, it is time to hit the trail. But not before taking a quick detour to the site of the Battle of Culloden, the last pitched battle to be fought on British soil. It was here that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite dream was ended when 1200 Highlanders were brutally slaughtered by government forces in just over an hour. The battle also killed the clan system and shaped the Highland landscape, and our visit happen to coincide with the 270th anniversary. It is only once we cross the impressive Kessock Bridge, that connects Inverness with the village of North Kessock, that it feels as if we are truly on the North Coast 500.
At Tore we leave the A9 behind, we will rejoin it again in a few days when coming down the east coast part of the route. At Garve we take the A832, gone are the big trucks and busses packed with tourists, we are now on a route for the discerning traveller. At Achnasheen I notice a rocky mountain track behind the Ledgowan Lodge Hotel. It lies on a private estate and so we decide to give it a skip. The lodge manager instead recommends the link road to Kinlockewe as this is where Land Rover recently did a shoot with the latest Range Rover Sport. Craig’s eyes light up and so we go and have a look. The road serves as a taster of what lies ahead: a deep blue loch, angry skies and classic Highland landscapes. Once Craig is happy with the pictures we head back to the main route again. The plan is to spend our first night at Applecross but as we make our way along Loch Carron, I constantly find myself stopping so that Craig can take a picture of the postcard-like setting. As we round each turn or corner it only seems to get better and better. The whitewashed village of Lochcarron, situated on the shoreline of the loch, is buzzing with locals and tourists, so we slowly make our way along its waterfront which takes us through the town. No time to stop if we want to make Applecross by sunset. Loch Kishorn too looks idyllic with its fishing farms and many yachts, some of which are in the dry dock getting ready for the summer sailing season. One of the highlights of the route has to be the incredible Bealach na Ba, also known as the Pass of the Cattle. It is the third highest drivable tar road in the UK. Today is our lucky day, the pass is open, when snow and bad weather move in the authorities normally close it. I later found out the pass was closed two days later due to snow. Bealach na Ba was originally built in 1822 and today it has the look and feel of any modern high mountain pass with snow poles, warning signs and strong barriers to halt heavy, out of control vehicles. With sheer drops to our left the barriers are a source of comfort. At times the gradient rises to a pretty crazy 25 per cent, but it is the never-ending series of switchbacks near the summit of the pass that impress me the most.
The Discovery 4 takes it all in its stride, gobbling up the tar and steep road without any hiccups. As we sedately drop down towards Applecross, it is time to enjoy the views across the sea towards Raasay Island and Isle of Skye. What a spectacular way to end the day. After watching the sun set over the ocean we head to the Applecross Inn, the heartbeat of this lovely little seaside village. The inn is famous for its local seafood and it does not disappoint. It was full of hungry tourists while a few brave fools sat on the outside picnic benches where the arctic winds froze their faces. I went for the super-sized Applecross Bay prawns as my main course and a half dozen local oysters as my starter.
If our first day on the North Coast was good, then the second day was even better. We leave Applecross just before sunrise, hugging the coastline as we slowly chug along. The road heads inland once we reach Loch Torridon and somehow the scenery seems more beautiful than the day before. Others obviously agree and I notice several new massive houses on the southern shores of the lake. The town of Torridon is like heaven on earth for mountain bikers and hikers, a few of them are getting ready for a day in the mountains as we make our way through the village. We are now in Beinn Eighe, Britain’s first National Nature Reserve. Its snow-covered mountain peaks makes us feel small and vulnerable as we drive along the valley floor towards Kinlochewe, where we stop at the friendly Whistle Stop Café for some much-needed breakfast. After fuelling up our Discovery 4 at the Tipsy Laird Cafe service station, we head out on the A832. Here we find ourselves on the southern shores of Loch Maree where mountains make mirror-like reflections in the black water while waterfalls drop off green cliffs into the loch. My favourite travel tune Another Universe by Arno Carstens is blasting out over the impressive stereo system. I am so in awe of our beautiful surrounds that I turn around and drive the same section of the road again. As we approach Gairloch, the road turns away from the loch towards the coast. We stop at the harbour for a leg stretch, a few paddlers are putting their kayaks into the cold ocean. Lucky for them they are wearing thick, black wet suits. Ian French, the Marine Biologist from the Gairloch Marine Wildlife Centre & Cruises comes over for a chat. He tells us that we have just missed a pair of white-tailed sea eagles, Britain’s largest bird of prey. Ian has a wealth of local knowledge and is only too eager to impart some of it to us. The one thing that I have learnt in all my travels is stop and engage with the locals. This is often the best way to uncover true travel gems.
By the time we reach Loch Ewe our tummies are rumbling again and so we allow ourselves a stop at the Isle of Ewe Smokehouse. It is expertly run by the friendly husband and wife team Paula and Alistair Gordon. As I browse around their deli and look at the wonderfully smoked goodies including salmon, hake, cheese, scallops and garlic, Paula explains how they do it. “Our products are imbued slowly with aromatic wood smoke and a west coast breeze.” After loading the Discovery 4 with some of their produce, we hit the road again. As it is north facing, Loch Ewe was of great strategic importance during the Second World War. The North Atlantic convoys would gather in the large loch before undertaking the arduous slog to Russia. You can still
see the remains of some of the defence systems used to protect the lochs. Do stop at some of the information panels next to the road to find out more about its
As we make our way around Gruinard Bay I notice a lady walking next to the road with a lamb under her arm. Time to stop for another chat. Her name is Diane Culvert and this morning when she went to work she noticed that one of her sheep had rejected one of the newborn lambs. “I decided to let nature take its course. However, as it is nice and warm at the moment, when I came home the lamb was still alive. I have decided to hand rear it.” Good for her. Not long after passing through Dundonnel, Craig spots a Forward Control and a trailer loaded with several new chassis’ parked up in a yard full of Land Rovers. It would be criminal to just drive past. They belong to Brian Eadie, who owns this little roadside workshop, all the Land Rovers here are in various stages of disrepair and restoration. I poke under a green tarp to see what is hiding underneath it. “That is a 1951 80-inch. I purchased it in the late sixties for £12,” he explains. Craig and I are in heaven and spend the next half an hour looking around. When we leave Brian’s kind wife gives us each a fridge magnet with a Series I on it. We are way behind our schedule for the day and so we only get to enjoy Loch Broom and the pretty port of Ullapool from the comfort of our rapidly moving Discovery 4.
At the Ardvreck Castle ruins we head west towards the coast. Please don’t take the shortcut to Kylesku as you will miss out on so much. The B869 is without a doubt one of my favourite parts of the whole route, this is mostly due to the spectacular beaches found along it. How do you know you have reached Clachtoll? Well here the sheep outnumber humans by 25:1 so once you start seeing way more sheep than humans then you know you have arrived. The campsite at Clachtoll is pretty neat and tidy, but best of all it is literally right on the white beach. Our last stop for the day is at the Stoerhead Lighthouse. Here I am supposed to meet up with Leigh Sedgley who runs the little tea van beneath the lighthouse. Sadly it is already past her closing time so instead we take a stroll up the hill to the lighthouse. From here it takes an hour along the coastal path to the Old Man of Stoer, a spectacular sea stack. As it will be dark in about 30 minutes I decide to put that one in the memory bank for my next trip here. Our overnight stop is at the friendly Kysleku Hotel, where our hosts once again feed us the tastiest local seafood. After this I go and sit outside with a glass of some local single malt in my hand to reflect on the day. We have spent about 12 hours on the road, every second has been worth it. It has easily been one of the best days I have ever spent in a Land Rover. Will I be saying the same tomorrow night? Don't miss next month’s LRM to find out.PATRICK'S TOP 20 ROUTE HIGHLIGHTS
2. Beelach na Ba (Cattle Pass)
The UK's third highest drivable pass
3. Seafood at the Applecross Inn
Oysters, salmon, scallops and prawns, all caught locally www.applecross.co.uk
4. Whistle Stop Café
Great food, good coffee and friendly people
7. Land Rover Workshop
Brian Eadie will always welcome fans of the Green Oval
8. Stoer Lighthouse
Leigh Sedgley’s tea van will make sure you can enjoy a hot drink and warm snack
9. Balnakeil Bay
Explore the beautiful sandy beaches and dunes of Balnakeil Bay
11. Bettyhill Café
Great for food, info centre and museum
14. John O’Groats
After taking the obligatory picture take a visit to the dramatic Duncansby Head
16. Latheron Harbour
A small Scottish picture postcard village
17. Dunbeath Harbour
Get off the A9 and enjoy a stop at this quaint harbour
WHERE WE STAYED
Hartfield House, Applecross Comfortable, affordable youth hostel a short distance away from the village www.hartfieldhouse.org.uk
Kylesku Hotel This place is lovely and boasts tasty local seafood, which probably explains why it is always full. www.kyleskuhotel.co.uk
Discovery 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.
Pictures: Craig Dutton