Scotland’s North Coast 500 is the UK’s version of America’s iconic Route 66. Launched in 2015 by the North Highland Initiative to promote tourism in lesser known areas of the country, the route is now enjoyed by visitors looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.
Weaving around the Highlands, the 516 mile loop starts at Inverness, taking visitors through Easter Ross, Wester Ross, the Black Isle and up north to Sutherland and Caithness, before journeying back to the city. Travelling through six Scottish regions, set aside ten to fourteen days to complete the whole loop, or pick a side and spend a week exploring either the East or West coast. If you fancy, extend your trip to include a stop-over at the beautiful Isle of Skye, which connects to the northwest coast via a bridge.
WHERE TO VISIT
From wild beaches, to spooky ruins, deep valleys to towering mountains, this route is bursting with beautiful, rural landscapes, as well as family-friendly attractions. Don’t be afraid to venture off-piste; some of the most magical Highland spots are those left undiscovered.
The Highlands are home to some of the largest castles in the country. Dunrobin Castle is a grand chateaux-style stately home in Sutherland, which overlooks the Moray Firth. Once a boarding school and home to Earl of Sutherland, the house and grounds are now open to the public between April and October. In neighbouring Caithness, be sure to visit The Castle & Gardens Of Mey, once a royal residence, which is famous for its walled gardens and view of the Orkney Islands.
While in Inverness, take a 25 minute drive from the city centre to visit Loch Ness. The perfect start to your Highland adventure, the mysterious Loch is a must-see. For more dramatic scenery, journey to the eerie Smoo Cave in Durness, which stands over 50ft tall and can be explored either by boat or on foot. This route also offers plenty of opportunities for hikes and walks, either through the vast forestland or mountains, where you can expect to spot plenty of local wildlife, including the eponymous Highland cow.
Fishing Villages & Beaches
There are several quaint fishing villages and wild beaches to visit along the Highland coastline. Durness, in Sutherland, is home to Ceannabeinne Beach, a stretch of white sand framed by rocky cliffs, as well as the family-friendly Balnakeil Beach, near Cape Wrath. In Wester Ross, stop at the pretty Ullapool, Torridon and Applecross, which look out to the Summer Isles and Isle of Skye. Most of the coastal villages run boat tours between March and September, so you can go dolphin or seal spotting and, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
Producing everything from whisky to gin, the Highland distilleries are world-class. With more than 50 distilleries in the region, there’s bound to be something to suit every taste. Balblair in Tain is one of the oldest in the country, producing top-quality single malt Scotch whisky, while the relatively new Badachro, on the west coast, creates small batch artisan gin. If ale is more your thing, visit the John O’Groats Brewery at the very northern tip of the route.
WHERE TO STAY
From luxurious hotels to cosy B&Bs, there’s an accommodation option to suit every budget on this route. Alternatively, for those keen to get back to nature, pitch a tent at one of the many campsites.
Smoo Lodge, Durness
Once you hit the northern part of the route, you’ll arrive at Durness, a village boasting pristine beaches and expansive moorlands full of walking routes. Stay at Smoo Lodge, a pretty B&B perched on the shore next to the iconic Smoo Cave and less than a 15 minute walk to Sango Sands beach. Rooms are simple, yet stylish, and decorated in soft neutral colours with floral infused patterns and golden touches. For breakfast, the lodge serves a classic Scottish fry-up featuring veg grown in its own garden, alongside locally sourced or foraged ingredients.
Kylesku Hotel, Kylesku
In the northwest corner sits Kylesku, a boutique hotel with a relaxed bar and restaurant. There are eleven contemporary rooms to choose from, including large family suites, most of which look out over the vast Loch Glendhu. Perfectly positioned to explore nearby Ullapool and the Scottish Geopark, the hotel staff will happily provide you with a tasty picnic hamper to take on your daily adventures. Even better, this hotel is dog friendly, so you can bring your pets along for the ride.
The Torridon, Torridon
The Torridon is a luxury hotel in Wester Ross. A traditional, castle-like exterior contrasts with a contemporary, stylish design concept, with pops of colour breathing life into the oak panelled rooms. For dining, the Torridon Inn offers gastropub-style food, while the hotel’s formal restaurant, 1887, serves up a seasonal tasting menu. The hotel also offers exclusive adventure packages for guests, so if you’re up for a pre-organised hike, cycle or boat ride, then make sure to reserve a spot well in advance.
Shieldaig Lodge, Badachro
This refurbished Victorian hunting lodge perches on the picturesque Shieldaig Bay, and is situated among 26,000 acres of forestland. Warm and welcoming, rooms come complete with log fires and glorious waterside views, while the hotel’s cosy lounge areas are decked out in traditional Scottish fabrics – the ideal spot for an evening spent sampling the extensive whisky and gin collection.
Three Chimneys, Isle of Skye
If you decide to extend your journey to the Isle of Skye, the Three Chimneys is the place to stay. One of the few hotels on the island, it’s home to a top-notch restaurant and neighbouring guesthouse. Lovingly nicknamed ‘The House Over-by’, there are four cosy, chic rooms to choose from, all with plush king size beds and luxurious touches. Overlooking Loch Dunvegan in the north west of the island, it’s the perfect nesting hole for those spending a day or two exploring Skye.
WHERE TO EAT
Expect to enjoy plenty of seafood, as well as venison and Scottish beef on this route, with most restaurants serving up local, sustainably sourced produce.
Kishorn Seafood Bar, Kishorn
With a menu brimming with fresh fish, and a view over to the Isle of Skye, this seafood bar located in the tiny fishing village of Kishorn, is a must-visit after a day spent exploring. Serving only sustainably sourced fish from local fishermen, menu highlights include a warming leek and haddock chowder, and an impressive seafood platter complete with plump mussels and prawns from Loch Torridon.
Mac & Wild, Falls Of Shin
London’s Mac & Wild is known for its burgers and meat dishes, but it actually started life in the Highlands. Serving only the best cuts of meat, the restaurant offers an immersive dining experience complete with wild cooking, dramatic views and five-star hospitality. The Mac & Wild team also bottle their own cocktail mixes and run a butchers, so be sure to pick out some quality produce to take away with you. Well worth the slight detour.
The Seafood Shack, Ullapool
Winner of the BBC Food and Farming award for the ‘Best Street Food/Takeaway In The UK’, this tiny seaside shack in pretty Ullapool changes its menu daily. Based on local fishermen’s catches of the day, the simple but spectacular dishes range from salmon sourdough pizzas to lobster mac and cheese, pan fried scallops to garlic and herb langoustines. Even in chilly weather, sitting on the loch side benches while tucking into a tasty, freshly made seafood dish is a memorable experience.
Whaligoe Steps Cafe, Caithness
This traditional waterside cafe features a menu that is anything but ordinary. Veggie dips, grilled halloumi bites and honey roasted aubergine act as side dishes, while locally sourced venison burgers and freshly caught prawn platters take centre stage as mains. The heathbread, which is baked to order, is unmissable. Perched on a clifftop in a secluded location, reward yourself with lunch after climbing the Whaligoe Steps, a natural staircase cut deep into the cliffs.
Captain’s Galley, Scrabster
The unassuming, award winning Captain’s Gallery is where to head to for a smart dinner. Creative, seasonal dishes are this restaurant’s MO, with thai-spiced market fish and native brown crab appearing on the menu frequently. The ginger, saffron and pear crème brûlée is a must order, and is served alongside elderflower infused ice cream. Run by a husband and wife team, you can also pay a visit to their neighbouring fish and chip bar for a classic seaside supper.
WHEN TO GO
Scotland is prone to temperamental weather, so it’s best to embark on this route in spring or summer. For those chasing the aurora borealis, autumn offers you your best chance, when the skies are often dark and clear.
HOW TO GET THERE
You can drive, fly or get the train from London to Inverness, the route’s starting point. Flights run frequently from Gatwick, Luton and Heathrow, and take roughly an hour and a half. Car hire is available at Inverness airport or in the city. You can also catch the Caledonian sleeper train, which in itself is an unforgettable experience. From Edinburgh, the drive to the start of the North Coast 500 takes just over three hours.