Whether it’s a beach holiday, a few days abroad or a countryside escape, once the sun comes out we can’t wait to spend a few weeks away. With the pound plummeting and airplane fares rocketing during the high season, road trips have become a sought-after summer holiday alternative in the UK.
It’s no wonder that more and more people are choosing to drive off and get to know the spectacular British sights by car: a road trip offers you the opportunity to dive into the wilderness, get to know the hidden treasures that don’t show up in your typical travel guide and plan your own route.
But, with so much to see, the first challenge is choosing your destination. That’s where Creditplus can help. This year, we bring you the ultimate guide on how to plan a summer road trip to the breath-taking North Coast 500, Scotland’s alternative to the famous Route 66.
You have to start somewhere, so why not at the very top, with a memorable road trip to the northern Highlands?
Featuring roads in the Black Isle, Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross, the North Coast 500 is a scenic route launched in 2015 by the North Highland Initiative. The idea behind it was to create a tourism product that could benefit the northern Highlands by showcasing all its natural beauty, beautiful castles, historic landmarks and astonishing beaches.
The route, which extends for just over 500 miles, follows the main roads across the northern Highlands coast, beginning and ending in the Inverness Castle, where travellers can enjoy an unparalleled view of the Inverness skyline.
In one word: variety. The North Coast 500 has got something for everyone. Tom Campbell, Managing Director of the route, states that ‘for UK motorists, there is simply nothing like the NC500. From awe-inspiring mountain ranges, to white sand beaches, fairy tale castles and haunting ruins, it is clear why the route has been ranked as one of the world’s most beautiful road trips. It’s a place where you’ll discover hidden gems and a wealth of unforgettable experiences — a true bucket list destination.’ All of this topped up with the well-known and easily proven Scottish hospitality.
Apart from the many options it offers to suit all types of travellers, the route has also brought many positive changes to the region. The Managing Director of the North Coast 500 also mentioned that the North Coast 500 ‘has provided tangible benefits for a remote and fragile economy’. And he supports this statement with some impressive numbers: ‘In its first year, it generated more than £9 million and last year worldwide media coverage of the route reached over a billion people. Research by Highlands and Islands Enterprise suggests it could generate up to 200 additional jobs.’ The incredible response by visitors and media alike speaks to the increasing popularity of the route since it was launched back in 2015.
In fact, according to a recent study conducted by University of Glasgow Training and Employment Research Unit and quoted by the BBC, during the first year of the North Coast 500, the areas involved saw an average of 26% more visitors, traffic volumes on northern Highlands roads rose by 10% and both accommodation providers and visitor attractions saw their business opportunities increase by an average of 15 to 20%.
Tom Campbell also assured us that the people at North Coast 500 ‘are committed to making it a sustainable experience, protecting the wild and rugged environment, which makes a journey along the North Coast 500 so memorable”. So, when you go on a road trip through Scotland’s most famous scenic route, not only will you get a rich and enjoyable experience, but also an eco-friendly one.
Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll be spoilt for choice! Here are our top picks for every type of traveller.
For the most adventurous travellers, climbing a Munro on the famous Scottish mountain ranges is an opportunity not to miss. Take your pick: Ben Hope, An Teallach, Suilven and Stac Pollaidh are all accessible through North Coast 500 and can offer challenging climbing experiences that will be rewarded by a breath-taking view of the Highlands.
Hidden in the northern end of the Highlands you can find the surprising Smoo Cave, located 1.2 miles away from Durness. This limestone sea cave has a wonderful cascading waterfall you can bathe in and tours of the cave are available during summer months, giving you the opportunity to visit the impressive inner chamber by boat.
If you’re into wildlife-watching, you can’t miss a stop at the Moray Firth, the largest firth in all of Scotland. It extends from Duncasby Head to Inverness and it is known as one the best dolphin watching spots in the entire European continent, with over 130 of the adorable sea mammals estimated to live there.
Originally built in the Middle Ages and located one mile north of Golspie, Dunrobin Castle is the largest castle in the northern Highlands. Its rich architecture and French-inspired gardens are a remarkable testament to its seven centuries of history. The castle is open to visitors between April and October every year.
Situated 13 miles south-west of Inverness, this medieval castle with over a thousand years of history has a spectacular view over Loch Ness. The majestic Urquhart Castle is a living proof of the rich and dramatic historical heritage of the Highlands and its visitor centre is accessible all year-round.
The Pictish Trail is a treat for history lovers. It goes from Inverness to Golspie, taking you on a journey to explore the incredible stones carved by the Picts - Celtic-speaking tribes who lived in eastern Scotland between the 3rd and the 9th century. The trail extends through 17 Pictish sites and is open to visitors between the 1st of May and the 30th of September.
Achmelvich Bay is a white sand beach located three miles from Lochinver on the magnificent northern Highlands coast. It’s a popular destination for water sports lovers, with water-skiing, windsurfing and kayaking being the most sought-after activities. The only downside to this stunning beach is that you aren’t allowed to bring your dog with you during tourist season.
Located on the Gairloch coast, just 3.5 miles away from the village, this beautiful beach offers you an amazing view of Torridon and Skye. It is known for its warm waters during the summer and it was officially awarded Designated Bathing Waters status for 2017, so if you’re a sun-seeker, going for a swim with a view over the mountains is an experience not to miss.
Famous for its gorgeous sunset, Balnakeil Beach is a crescent shaped beach with large dunes that offer you a quiet and relaxing bathing experience. It’s located in the top north of the Scottish coast, less than a mile away from Durness. Its wide extension of white, clean sand makes it the perfect choice for a sunny, relaxing day in the northern Highlands.
If you consider yourself a proper foodie, you’ll definitely want to treat yourself to some local, fresh seafood during your road trip.
The Kishorn Seafood Bar is located in Strathcarron, in Wester Ross, and offers you a variety of freshly prepared delights you can eat while enjoying the sea view in a friendly environment. And all of this at a reasonable price. Their popularity is well supported by their online review ratings: 4.5 stars on Trip Advisor, 4.6 on Google reviews and 4.9 on Facebook.
The Lochinver Larder pride themselves in serving the ‘best pies in the Highlands’. Their typically Scottish menu is always freshly prepared and they use locally produced ingredients whenever possible.
You can find them in Lochinver, by the Inver river, and their friendly staff and unpretentious atmosphere are bound to make your meal experience a very pleasant one. They have an overall review rating of 4.5 starts on Trip Advisor, 4.7 on Google reviews and 5 on Facebook.
The Whaligoe Steps Café is a small and charming café and restaurant in Caithness. Their fresh Mediterranean-inspired summer menu and their variety of home baked sweet treats make them a good option to sooth your savoury appetite and sweet cravings alike. The surrounding scenery is stunningly beautiful and their reviews speak for themselves: they’re rated at 4.5 stars on Trip Advisor and 4.4 on Google reviews.
Open since 1826, this historical whiskey distillery still maintains its traditional methods to create one of the most reputable Scottish whiskey blends: The Old Pulteney. Located in Wick, the distillery offers guided tours that allow you to peek at their production process and taste their award-winning whisky. If you have a taste for single malt, be prepared not to leave their gift shop empty handed.
This family business is known as one of the best places to enjoy a good Gin in Scotland – and rightfully so. Their Rock Rose Gin has become a huge success among tourists and locals alike and they still source their ingredients locally, whilst maintaining an artisanal approach to production.
This unmissable gem for Gin lovers is based in Caithness and visitor tours are available on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Glenmorangie Distillery can be found outside the small town of Tain, in the county of Ross, and has been producing its worldwide famous single malt whisky since 1843.
They have the tallest stills in Scotland, which are aimed at making sure their unique whiskey blend is condensed only with the most refined vapours. The Glenmorangie Distillery guided tour offers you complete access to the distillery and warehouses, where you will be able to see their whisky making process step by step and finish with a complimentary drink.
The North Coast 500 route offers many accommodation options, with just as many different price ranges. The type of accommodation you choose will of course depend on your route choice, personal preferences and travelling budget. Here are some popular alternatives you can consider when planning your road trip:
You can find several friendly B&B's throughout the northern Highlands. These usually offer a cosy ‘family-like’ environment at reasonable prices and are ideal for couples or small groups. Some of the most popular B&B’s in the North Coast 500 route are the An Grianan, in Inverness, The Steading, in Sutherland, and the Gairloch View Guest House, in Gairloch.
Hotels are a good accommodation option for larger groups of people and are usually a bit pricier than your average B&B. The Royal Highland Hotel in Inverness, the Dornoch Castle Hotel in Dornoch, and the Ackergill Tower in Wick, are some of the most comfortable and well recommended options you can find along the way.
Hostels are a low budget accommodation alternative, especially popular among young groups of friends. They usually offer dormitory style facilities and private room options. Some of the most popular hostels you can find on the North Coast 500 route are the Hartfield House Hostel in Applecross, the Gairloch Sands Youth Hostel in Gairloch, and the Great Glen Hostel in South Laggan.
If you’re up for a camping adventure, you can stay at one of the camping sites available in the northern Highlands. The type of facilities available vary, so we advise doing your research before booking your camping spot.
Some of the most sought-after camping sites in the North Coast 500 route are the Shore Campsite in Achmelvich, the Gairloch Holiday Park and the Sands Caravan and Camping, both of which are in Gairloch.
As with any road trip, being aware of what you can expect from your route is key to make your travelling experience as smooth as possible. With a route as varied as the North Coast 500, there are some specifics you need to consider before going. We’ve listed some of them below to make your life easier and your trip even more enjoyable.
The official North Coast 500 route and Visit Scotland suggest five to seven day itineraries to get to know the North Coast 500, and we agree that’s the minimum amount of days you need to really enjoy your road trip. With so much variety in terms of what to see and do along the way, rushing through it just seems like a waste.
Also, bear in mind that you’re likely to end up driving quite a lot and not always under ideal conditions, so you should also account for resting periods during your trip.
The North Coast 500 route includes several remote locations where you’re likely to struggle to get decent 4G, Wi-fi and satellite signal, so taking an old-school paper map instead of relying entirely on your GPS is definitely the way to go.
You can print out our route map directly on this page or you can download one directly from the official North Coast 500 website. Taking a contour map is also a good idea if you’re travelling by bike or motorcycle.
A lot of the roads you’ll find along the North Coast 500 will be narrow, single-tracked and vertiginous, so be prepared to drive extra carefully. You’ll also need to be aware of the wildlife you may find along the way. Sheep and deers may very well take you by surprise, so keeping a safe speed is essential to avoid any unpleasant encounters.
Inexperienced and city drivers should approach the route with extreme caution, but if you take all the necessary precautions, the driving experience can be a fun and memorable one. You can find some useful road safety tips on the North Coast 500 official route page.
One of the most mood-wrecking things that can happen on any road trip is running out of fuel. This is even more true for those travelling the North Coast 500 as some parts of it are very remote and you may not be able to find a petrol station for several miles.
Filling up as soon as your tank is half empty will help you make sure you reach the next petrol station before running out and can certainly make your trip a less stressful one.
The North Coast 500 is well supplied in terms of accommodation options, as we’ve shown you above, but it is also increasing in popularity by the year, so booking your accommodation ahead of departure is imperative.
Not only will this prevent you from not finding a place to spend the night, it can also save you a lot of money and disappointment, as whatever options you find available on the spot – if any – may not correspond to what you’re looking and expecting to pay for.
We’ve aimed to provide you with a comprehensive guide to help you plan and enjoy your road trip to the stunning northern Highlands, but we know the North Coast 500 can offer an almost endless range of activities and experiences. If you’d like to know more about any aspect of your road trip, these are your go-to websites:
North Coast 500 – The official page of the North Coast 500 scenic route. It’s packed with itinerary suggestions, tourist information, travelling advice and activity suggestions. It also provides an interactive map including the main points of interest in the route.
Visit Scotland – The official consumer website of Scotland’s national tourist board. They provide official information aimed at tourists to make sure all visitors get the best possible experience out of their Scotland trips.
If you’ve already travelled through the North Coast 500, please feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences in our comments section.
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