Stay in an ice hotel, attend a winter festival and wander through an ice castle.
The narrow highway is flanked by a pair of mist-shrouded mountains. Hairpin turns descend to the head of a long freshwater loch. As we pull over to behold the view down the glen, sunlight glistens off a rainbow and the soaring drone of bagpipes comes on the radio tuned to BBC Gaelic, one of the only stations we can receive. A few miles ahead, according to the map, there’s a stretch of twisty single-track tarmac—with single-lane bridges. And, considering our location, there’s a decent chance we’ll encounter some free-range sheep.
To be considered “classic,” a road trip must have several essential features: stunning scenery; distinctive food, drink and accommodations; rich history and culture; and activities that appeal to a range of travellers (you have to justify confining your family in a car for a few hours every day).
Scotland’s North Coast 500—an 800-kilometre coastal loop around the northern Highlands—is billed as the British version of the United States’ Route 66, albeit with no neon Americana. Launched in 2015, the NC 500 is a thrilling journey punctuated by breathtaking hikes, lavish lodgings and cliff-top castles, and populated by dreamers who are reimagining old traditions to craft new lives in this beautiful region they call home.
Day 1: Inverness to Beauly
The gateway to the NC 500 is Inverness, a small city on the northeastern shore, easily reachable by rail from Glasgow. Having never driven on the left side of the road before, the three-and-a-half-hour train trip—a relaxing blur of fields and hills, stone bridges and slate roofs—is a welcoming alternative to driving for my wife, twin daughters and I after our overnight flight.
With its walkable core of restaurants and shops clustered below its castle, Inverness is the perfect place to get rooted in Scottish history.
It’s a short drive to our first destination: the National Trust for Scotland ’s immersive Culloden Visitor Centre and adjacent battlefield, a revered patch of windswept grasses where, in 1746, the last full-scale battle on British soil—short and bloody—changed life in the Highlands and Scotland forever. More recently, the battle has been featured in the television series Outlander, swelling visitor numbers and generating interest in Scotland’s past.
Nearby, the 4,000-year-old stone rings and grove of trees at Clava Cairns, a Bronze Age burial site, provide a tranquil postscript. As does the Mayfield Guest House in Beauly—a quiet country B&B with Netflix for the kids—located less than 45 minutes to the west of the historic site.
Day 2: Beauly to Gairloch
The art of indifference toward the rain—not uncommon in Scotland—has been perfected by locals. Following their example, we don head-to-toe waterproofs and hop into canoes on the River Beauly with a guide from In Your Element outfitters. We make sure to scan the sky for osprey while paddling through a lush forest.
“I take a dip in the ocean, which proves warmer than expected.”
Afterwards, we dry off at the Highland Museum of Childhood, a hands-on collection of toys in a restored train station in nearby Strathpeffer, a Victorian spa town. Fuelled by shortcake, we drive west through a glen and pass beneath the more than 1,000-metre-high Beinn Eighe massif. Half an hour later we reach the village of Gairloch, where our room at the Myrtle Bank Hotel overlooks a beach. Out the window, we watch our twin girls gathering sea glass. Joining them down on the beach, I take a dip in the ocean, which proves warmer than expected.
Day 3: Gairloch to Lochbroom
At the Isle of Ewe Smokehouse—just north of Gairloch—owners Paula and Alastair Gordon hang salmon fillets above a fire spiked with shavings from oak whisky barrels. As the couple’s daughters show our girls their backyard beach, Paula stuffs a cooler with smoked scallops and brie and gives us directions to nearby Mellon Udrigle, a crescent white-sand beach with Caribbean-clear turquoise water. We follow up our picnic with a walk along the craggy headland, scrambling hand-over-hand up slabs of rock before continuing east.
“[the owners] hang salmon fillets above a fire spiked with shavings from oak whisky barrels.”
That evening, at the Braemore Square Country House near Lochbroom, we meet another young entrepreneurial couple. Lisa and Chester Hodgkinson recently purchased this 1840 coach house on the grounds of the former estate of Sir John Fowler, the civil engineer who built the Metropolitan Railway—part of which would later be used by the London Underground. Their valley property, bisected by the River Broom—where Chester takes guests fly fishing—is on an ancient pathway through the Highlands.
Renovated into luxurious apartments, and with the promise of fresh farm eggs for breakfast, Braemore Square is a restful stop on our trip up the western coast.
Editor’s note: Since publication, Isle of Ewe Smokehouse has closed. Owners Paula and Alastair Gordon are embarking on a new venture in the area that you can read more about here.
Day 4: Lochbroom to Scourie
We stretch our legs early into our drive on day four with a walk across the Fowler-built footbridge spanning Corrieshalloch Gorge, a 45-metre deep canyon just upriver from Braemore.
It helps us to work up an appetite for lunch in the fishing village of Ullapool. We stop at The Seafood Shack, a takeaway twentysomething friends Fenella Renwick and Kirsty Scobie opened in 2016 to serve fish and seafood that would otherwise be exported. Every morning, they dash down to the pier to see what the fishermen have caught and devise a daily menu based on what is available.
Meals in hand, we find a courtyard overlooking the harbour where we devour tender garlic crab claws and spicy smoked haddock soup—a Thai twist on archetypically Scottish Cullen skink soup.
After driving further north, we hike through a limestone valley to the Bone Caves of Inchnadamph, a series of large hillside caverns named for the array of animal bones (reindeer, wolves and even a prehistoric polar bear skull) discovered inside.
After a quick photo at Ardvreck Castle, an iconic 15th-century ruin on Loch Assynt, we reach the remote Scourie Hotel, which has been welcoming anglers since the 1840s. Sinking into a couch in the fireside lounge the wonky Wi-Fi won’t let me check email. I close my laptop and join my family for dinner in the hotel pub.
Day 5: Scourie to John O’Groats
Our morning drive to the Balnakeil Craft Village, in the northwest corner of Scotland, involves long stretches of single-lane highway lined by barren, rocky ridges that disappear into the clouds. The mood is edge-of-the-world ethereal, which is appropriate—we’re headed to Cocoa Mountain, perhaps the most remote artisanal chocolate producer in Europe.
Twelve years ago, James Findlay and Paul Maden left white-collar careers to set up a chocolate factory and café in this village of artists and crafters, which sprang up in the 1960s at an abandoned Cold War early warning station. Cocoa Mountain’s hot chocolate is probably the best I’ve ever had.
Continuing on our way, we stop at nearby Smoo Cave, a massive sea cavern set into limestone cliffs, before embarking on a dramatic two-hour drive along the north coast. The meandering highway draws sports car enthusiasts, plucky cyclists and people who crave exquisite spirits.
After dropping Lisa and the girls off at a sweeping, sandy beach, I pop into Dunnet Bay Distillers where Claire and Martin Murray use local botanicals—like sea buckthorn and rowan berries—to handcraft gin and vodka with floral tastes. Opened in 2014, the distillery sold 100,000 bottles last year and employs 10, helping the Murrays—and other young families—to build a future in this remote corner of Scotland.
John O’Groats, a land’s-end hamlet at the northeast tip of Scotland, is just past Dunnet Bay. The high-latitude summer sun is bright when we arrive at our posh lodge at Natural Retreats. Floor-to-ceiling sliding doors open onto a deck with epic views of the North Sea and nearby Orkney Islands.
Day 6: John O’Groats to Brora
After an epic sleep, we drive south to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, a ruin atop the seaside cliffs, which is in the process of being restored. Built between the 15th and 17th centuries, the complex is still one of Scotland’s finest surviving medieval fortresses, and we explore it with reverence.
A half hour down the coast, we descend the Whaligoe Steps—more than 300 stone steps that lead to a natural harbour enclosed by 76-metre sheer rock faces—on shaking legs as thunderous waves slam into the shore. Caretaker Davy Nicolson, whose grandfather was one of the last fishermen to work these waters, explains that “goe” means inlet, and locals used to winch-up dying whales that washed ashore.
We bunk down for the night at the Royal Marine Hotel in Brora, a former country house in a town known for its golf. The girls dash to the indoor pool as Lisa and I note the snooker room for later.
Day 7: Brora to the Black Isle
We are running out of steam after our whirlwind week, but are energized when we visit Dunrobin Castle, located a few kilometres from Brora and home to the Sutherland clan since the early 1300s. Its rooms are extravagantly furnished, and the gardens are idyllic, but it’s the birds of prey demonstration—hawks, owls and others zipping above our heads—that I’ll never forget.
Nor would I ever tire of the view from Black Isle Yurts, an eco-resort perched on a peninsula high above the Moray Firth, about an hour south of the castle. Brother and sister Kenneth and Jenny Adam started renting hand-crafted yurts on their farm in 2015. With a small wood stove, our off-grid abode is storybook-cozy. The water of the firth below, shimmering in the late-evening light, is spellbinding. I lace up my boots and search for a path down to the shore. Reverence for this region magnifies the NC 500’s beauty, producing a magnetic pull that makes us feel at home.
[This story appears in the May 2018 issue of WestJet Magazine]
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