North Coast 500 Adventure – Part 5 (the end!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had booked a couple of nights at Bunchrew House Hotel, just outside Inverness, as we had missed Inverness out at the start of our trip. Turned out to be a very good choice – excellent food, comfortable room, great service etc, but the highlight was the choice of gins in the bar.  Upwards of 50, all Scottish, and many I hadn’t even seen before let alone tried!  Just had to try the recommended ‘gin flight’ – 3 different ‘island’ gins and a bottle OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAof tonic, all served with the recommended garnishes etc. With a couple of other pre and post dinner drinks over the two days, I think that took my tally of new gins for the trip up to about 15… Great views from the hotel over the Beauly Firth, including a spectacular sunset.  Definitely recommend this hotel!

Next up was Rogie Falls – half an hour outside Inverness, with a pleasant mile or so woodland walk down to some pretty, EM120867_DxOif not particularly high falls.  A handy wooden footbridge across the falls gave the best view, even if it did make me feel sick looking down (there was worse to come later that day!)

Not strictly on the NC500 route, we were keen to see Glen Afric, as it was touted as one of the prettiest glens in the Highlands – perhaps a little oversold, it was indeed beautiful (even in the rain, our first for quite a few days) but maybe not the very best views we had seen.  Someone had also recommended we visited Plodda Falls, which we found after quite a long diversion, the last mile of so over an extremely rough forest track – not at all comfortable in a very low car with hard suspension… Fortunately the rain abated and we took the short walk through the Douglas Firs down to the falls – very pleasant I thought, but not exactly exciting, until I heard the roar of water and realised there was more a further few yards away.  OMG! – walking out onto a cantilevered viewing platform you are right over the edge of the main falls which drop some EM120885_DxO40metres – talk about scary! The whole structure was shaking (or was it just me?) Absolutely incredible, and there are several other falls all coming into the same point, before the river rushes on. If you’ve got time, you can follow a path all the way to the base of the falls, but when in full flow (as they were when we were there) the spray will soak anyone on the path.

No visit to Inverness would be complete without a visit to Ffordes – the largest seller of used camera gear in the UK. Very tempting, and most helpful staff, but I managed to get out with my wallet unscathed, but there is always on-line…

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Commando Memorial

That really was the last of our journey on the NC500 proper, so the next day we headed south along the shores of Loch Ness, making the usual stops in search of Nessie – no sightings, but lots of tourists out and about by now.  As we’d not had chance to stop there on an earlier trip to the Highlands, we visited the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge – erected in the early 1950s as a tribute to the commandos who served in WW2. An imposing 5m high monument on a small hill, the bronze statue of 3 commando comrades looks out towards Ben Nevis and has a sombre but uplifting atmosphere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd so down through Fort William and into Glencoe with a brief side trip along Glen Etive in search of more deer (no luck, just some crazy kayakers shooting the rapids).  As it was Saturday, and the sun was shining, the A82 was unbelievably busy, with every car park/stopping place rammed, so we just headed straight on without further stops to the hotel on Loch Lomond where our whole adventure began. A beautiful late afternoon stroll along the loch into Luss – such a pretty little village. Woke next morning to the best sunrise we had seen all trip – and all from the comfort of the balcony outside our room. A great finish to what had been a fantastic trip.

I had done quite a lot of research before our trip, but here are a few points which may help if you plan to do the NC500 any time soon:

1. The ‘best’ bits for me were along the west coast, so try to allow at least 3-4 days to cover that part of the trip, even if you do from Tongue/John O’Groats to Inverness in 2 days. We went clockwise around the route, but going the other way would be just as good!

2. Consider going in April/early May to avoid the worst of the crowds and the infamous midges (I guess mid-October/early November would be good too.) Book hotels well ahead as they are busy even at that time the year.

3. Don’t miss out the Bealach Na Bar/Applecross or Lochinver ‘circuits’ – for me they were the best bits!

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Kylesku Bridge

4. Keep your car well-filled with fuel – there are some long stretches without service (gas) stations. Likewise if you need to eat during the day, plan ahead – it wasn’t always easy to find places for lunch.

5. If you like a ‘wee dram’ remember that the drink-drive alcohol limits in Scotland are much lower than the rest of the UK. Likewise, watch the speed limits, especially on faster main roads like the A9 and A82 and around towns, and do give way to following traffic on the single lane with passing place sections.

So thanks for sticking with me – what was going to be a two part blog ended up being five, but then it was almost a two week trip, and the 500 mile advertised route ended up almost 1700 miles door to door for us!  But boy, was it worth it! We had a great time, saw some amazing scenery, stayed in fab hotels, ate some fantastic food, and met some really welcoming and friendly people, and a few Highland ‘coos’ too!

Here are a few last photos for now – when I get round to editing them all, I’ll add them to the relevant posts.

North Coast 500 Adventure – Part 4

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATongue Hotel turned out to be a good choice (to be fair there aren’t many hotels around here anyway!) – one of our fellow guests was BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, so we figured if it was ok for him, then it was ok for us. A (relatively) early start next morning as we had to be in Dunnet Bay by 11am for our pre-booked tour of the Dunnett Bay Distillery – home of Rock Rose, one of our favourite gins. Our tour (we were the only ones there) took almost an hour and a half, and we learned so much about the gin process, helped along by sampling several of their products! Definitely worth a stop if you are passing that way, and well worth the £12 pp cost.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe briefly stopped at the Castle of Mey, one time summer holiday home of the Queen Mother – it was pretty busy there and we only needed to use the loo, so onward… Interestingly, the whole physical geography changed along here – although there were cliffs all along the coastline, just inland it was pretty flat, and the harsh gorse and heather landscape changed to mostly pasture.  Lots of abandoned ‘crofts’ – apparently dating back to the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries where tenants were evicted in favour of land being used for sheep grazing. 

And so we arrived at John O’Groats, not actually the most northerly point of the UK mainland, but pretty close, and home to that famous sign for the obligatory photograph. Rather like Lands End (by co-incidence we had been there only a few weeks earlier) it was a place to say you had visited, then move promptly on! A couple of miles away is Duncansby Head, yet another lighthouse, and the cliffs are home to thousands of nesting seabirds.

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Ackergill Tower

From this furthest-most point on our trip, it was time to head south now, just a few miles to our next overnight stop – Ackergill Tower, just outside Wick. A genuine castle this time, built around 1475 and pretty much in continuous occupation since then, it is now a 33 room hotel standing right next to the sea. Billed as a luxury hotel (and priced accordingly) it almost lived up to our expectations… First up – a seriously imposing building – a big solid stone facade, with towers and turrets etc, and cannons outside the entrance! We ventured to the top of the tower – three flights of stairs up, and then up a narrow spiral stone staircase and out onto the battlements. Given my fear of heights I think I did pretty well. Our bedroom was comfortable, and both the drawing room and huge vaulted dining room were impressive to say the least with wood panelling, plasterwork and huge pictures of the landed gentry former residents.  The food was good (we had booked dinner, bed and breakfast) and although the service was reasonably good, it lacked the polish of other hotels we stayed in on our trip.  What did amuse us was the music playing in the dining room – a little CD player in the corner, playing a single CD of popular Scottish music, over and over again.  Fair enough, although it was weird hearing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ at breakfast in April!

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Dunrobin Castle

Heading out next day, it was mostly cliffs, beaches and rolling countryside, with a few stops to take in the views. Dunrobin Castle, with 189 rooms the largest castle in Northern Scotland, was our next stop. If you don’t want to tour the building itself, there is a path that takes you down to the shore, and this offers fine views of the exterior.

Passing the village of Tain (the home of Glenmorangie), and the ‘parked’ oil rigs in Nigg Bay, we stopped at the Storehouse of Foulis (another recommendation) for lunch – good food and reasonably priced too.

We spent a good hour at Chanonry Point, just outside Inverness on the Black Isle, as this was recommended for dolphin watching, but alas there were none – the best times are apparently later in the summer, on a rising tide, so that will have to wait until another visit. A beautiful and peaceful spot nevertheless with views across to Fort George on the other side of Cromarty Firth, and down to Inverness (and another lighthouse of course!)

North Coast 500 Adventure – Part 3

Achmelvich Beach

Achmelvich Beach

Our next couple of days were spent exploring the beaches, lochs and hills around Lochinver – part of the ‘official’ NC500 route, but definitely not recommended for larger camper vans! Some of the nicest scenery we saw all trip here…  Just outside Lochinver, Achmelvich is well signposted, and like all the beaches we visited, has good free parking and easy accessibility down to the beach. Truly beautiful and the whitest sand you will see on any beach in the UK, with rocks and cliffs to explore and get a higher viewpoint.  From here it was just a few miles further on to Clachtoll beach – just off the road, and with a camping and caravan site close by.  Despite that, at 11am we were the only people on the beach!

Stoer LighthouseWe next took a lengthy diversion to the lighthouse near Stoer Point – more great views and the option to walk the 2 miles to Stoer Point for the more adventurous. Very rural around here – lots of derelict farmhouses and agricultural machinery, and one (working) smallholding had a dead fox hung up on the fence by the house! Needless to say we didn’t hang around here for long… 

Secret Tea GardenGetting peckish by then we were on the lookout for a nice spot for our picnic lunch (ordered from the hotel the night previous) and found yet another glorious beach, just by the side of the road at Clashnessie.  Just a few steps down onto the beach, spread out the picnic blanket on the white sand, nicely sheltered from the wind by the sand dunes and we were made up!  Like most of our trip, the weather was again dry, and it was great to feel the sun on our faces. Come mid-afternoon, we found ourselves in the village of Drumbeg – great views again out to sea, and we found a quirky little spot for an afternoon cuppa – the Secret Tea Garden. With a delightful little patio seating area, and home made cakes, what’s not to like! Just worth noting – the place doesn’t have a loo, so best stop at the public facilities at the viewpoint in Drumbeg Village just up the road… 

Ardvreck Castle

Ardvreck Castle

More very narrow and steep roads took us back to the main road near Unapool, and back via the shores of Loch Assynt to our hotel. After this very hectic and actually quite tiring day, we were glad to spend the next day checking out the beaches again!

Our next stop on our way north was Ardvreck Castle – just a ruin now, but superbly positioned overlooking Loch Assynt – definitely worth exploring and a good spot for photos.  On then to Kylesku, and its beautiful curved bridge. Kylesku BridgeFrom here it’s up to Scourie, and although the beach was ‘so-so’, the rocky headland was well worth exploring and we saw many different sea birds.  Earlier in the trip, some friendly visitors we got talking to had recommended we find the beach at Oldshoremore, just outside Kinlochbervie, so that was our next stop.  Kinlochbervie itself was pretty unimpressive – just a working fishing port, but the beach we were looking for was awesome! With the tide out, it must have been a good 200 yards from sand dunes down to the sea, and I guess the beach was over a mile wide – again with rocky headlands at each end. During the hour or so we were there, we only saw 2 other people on the beach. Fair to say that the beaches in Scotland are truly superb!

Kyle of Tongue & Ben Loyal

Kyle of Tongue & Ben Loyal

A quick spot of lunch at The Old School restaurant near Kinlochbervie – a characterful place with good food and drink (and it has rooms too apparently), and back onto the main route towards the far north west. After several more stops to take in the views of lochs, sea and mountains, we decided to skip the detour to Cape Wrath, and press on to our next hotel. Stunning views all the way – my favourite view from this part of the trip was from the causeway over the Kyle of Tongue, looking across to Ben Loyal.

North Coast 500 Adventure – Part 2

Loch Maree Viewpoint

Loch Maree from Glen Docherty

After our hair-raising drive around the Applecross Peninsula, it was time for something a little more leisurely, so for our next day we didn’t stray far.  We started in the quant village of Kinlochewe, with its brightly painted cafe, and took the short diversion up to the viewpoint at Glen Docherty, which affords wonderful views over Loch Maree, the third largest loch in Scotland. Then we took the single track (main!) road a little further north along Loch Maree to the beautiful sandy beach at Gairloch – there’s easy parking by the church/cemetry and a boardwalk  down to the beach. What a wonderful beach!

Next up, we took a short diversion off the official NC500 route to Badachro as we had seen signs promising a decent pub for lunch. Although the views over the harbour from the pub lounge were great, and the bar had a good selection of drinks (including the local gin), sadly the food was a little disappointing and ‘mine host’ was rather overbearing!

After another night at our hotel, where we tried their rather less fancy and more reasonably priced Torridon 1887 Pub for dinner, it was on the road again. Next real place of interest was Loch Ewe, used in WW2 as the start point for many of the ill-fated North Atlantic convoys. Apart from the remains of some fortifications, there is currently a NATO refuelling depot there which rather spoils the view over the loch! Next along the route was Gruinard Bay, with its beautiful panoramic views out towards the Summer Isles, before a drive alongside the heavily wooded Little Loch Broom, across some spectacularly deserted moorland, before down to the sea again at Ullapool.

Gairloch Beach

Just another beach…

Rather than take the ‘official’ route straight up to Assynt and our next hotel at Lochinver, we elected to take ‘minor’ roads there (heck even the ‘major’ roads are often single track with passing places!) and what an afternoon it was. Passing the base of the impressive Stac Pollaidh (pron. Stack Polly) mountain, we reached Loch Oisgaig, another spot where the freshwater lochs virtually meet the sea, and a lovely little peninsula that directly overlooks the Summer Isles. More beautiful beaches and viewpoints around Polbain, some quite isolated properties (both old and new) but a wonderful sense of peace – if ever I go missing, you will know where to start looking for me!

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Summer Isles, from Polbain

To be honest, we could have stayed there forever, but our hotel, Inver Lodge, beckoned so on we went through beautiful Inverkirkaig and onto our base for the next couple of days.

Lochinver from Inver Lodge

Lochinver, from Inver Lodge

Built in 1986, this is definitely not the prettiest hotel you’ll find in Scotland (it looks more like a residential home or golf clubhouse!) but perched as it is on a hill above Lochinver, it has fabulous views over the harbour and surrounding area from every room and certainly delivers! We stayed for 3 nights (they frequently have a 3 for 2 offer on accommodation) and enjoyed great service and fabulous food – it has an ‘Albert Roux’ restaurant and we tried his signature Soufflé Suissesse starter – delicious, rather like ‘floating islands’, but with cheese sauce instead of cremé anglaise…  Another opportunity to try some local artisan gins too – looking at the selection on offer there will soon be as many Scottish gins available as whisky!

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Gruinard Bay and the Summer Isles

Here are a few more photos from this part of our trip…

North Coast 500 Adventure – Part 1

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Loch Lomond (in the rain)

Our first road trip for quite a while, and top of my bucket list, the North Coast 500 (NC500) is marketed as Scotland’s answer to US Route 66. Roughly 500 miles long, it starts and finishes in Inverness, and pretty much follows the coast road around Northern Scotland. Planned as a holiday rather than a photo trip, there was obviously going to be lots of photo opportunities, but not much time for considered and contemplative photography – right from the outset I figured it was going to be pretty much snapshots only. So, no filter systems, just my Olympus E-M1ii camera and 12-100mm ‘superzoom’ lens, and a Pen-F and 17mm as ‘backup’.

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Glenfinnan

Starting from home in Shropshire added another 250 miles each way to the start point, so it was more like a NC1000 for us! It all started in rather damp fashion, with a grim drive in the rain through the M6 roadworks in Cheshire. Fortunately the rain eased off after that and we got to our first overnight stop on Loch Lomond without incident, although the rain made another appearance. Staying in the excellent Lodge on Loch Lomond overnight, with the added bonus of a sauna in our (upgraded) room set us up for what turned out to be an eventful second day.

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Ferry Crossing

It started well enough, with a steady drive up through beautiful Glencoe, followed by a brief stop in Fort William to take in an exhibition of Scottish Landscape Photography.  All good stuff.  Then the plan unravelled – the swing bridge at Spean Bridge on the A82 had jammed in the open position, totally blocking the route northbound.  Rather than waiting until it was hopefully fixed, or taking a 90 mile diversion, we opted to cut across to Mallaig via Glennfinnan, and take the ferry to Skye, before crossing back to the mainland and working along the coast.  We had an anxious hour’s wait as the ferry was fully booked and we had to go standby!  Fortunately they squeezed us on, and we had a bracing 35 min journey across The Sound of Sleat to Ammandale, incidentally pretty much the only way to Skye before the Skye Bridge was opened in 1995. Not so lucky were the dozen or so cars in the queue behind us – they had wait for the next ferry 2 hours later… So it was then a straight drive to Broadford, and across the Skye bridge to pick up our original planned route – we were on Skye for just 25 minutes!

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The Torridon Hotel

After a further couple of hours driving on fairly twisty and narrow (sometimes single track) roads, it was a relief to get to our hotel in Torridon – straight into the bar for a well deserved gin and tonic! A decent enough gin selection, but nothing compared to the almost 400 whiskies on offer! A beautiful hotel, albeit at the top of our budget, but so full of Scottish style and charm.

Up bright and early next morning (more sunshine too!) for our first ‘serious’ part of the NC500 – the Applecross Peninsular, and the infamous Bealach Na Ba pass through the mountains.  Reaching just over 2000ft at its highest point, this is not a road for the faint-hearted, or for camper vans – one section is very narrow indeed, with a gradient of 1 in 4, a series of hairpin bends, and

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Start of Bealach Na Ba

very steep drops just beyond the crash barriers! However, the views are simply amazing, looking out across the hills towards Loch Carron in the south, and Skye and its outlying islands to the west. After a brief stop at the summit viewpoint to take in the vista, it was all the way down again into the quaint little village of Applecross with its beautiful, if rather stony beach.  A quick lunch at the excellent Applecross Inn and we were off again, along the coast road back towards Shieldaig.  More amazing scenery as we tracked along the coast – mountains to our right, and sea to the left, with Skye and its islands of Rassay and Rona in the distance. With so much to see, and so many places to stop off and admire the views, it took us a good couple of hours to make the return journey to the hotel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn amazing day, and one that completely surpassed our expectations. Roll on tomorrow, and Part 2!