The soul-crushing experience of driving in London can be enough to grind down even the most dedicated fan of cars. No matter how many horses are hiding under the bonnet, they’re not much use if you’re crawling along at 4.8 miles per hour.
That’s why Scotland’s North Coast 500 is such a tantalising prospect – on these very isles, we have a sweeping road trip route through spectacular unspoilt scenery that promises to rekindle your love affair with the automobile.
That's all well and good, but if the accommodation is a windswept shack, with only some sheep and a Bear Grylls recipe book for company, then the whole enterprise becomes considerably less tempting. Can you really enjoy five days of pristine, deserted asphalt and dramatic primordial vistas, yet still devour a delicious meal and melt into a king sized bed at the end of each day? I’m here to tell you, yes, you absolutely can.
The route begins on your departure from Inverness, which feels like heaven after the average-speed purgatory of the A9. There is the option to fly to Inverness direct from Luton, Gatwick or Heathrow and then rent a car, but if you’re serious about this sort of thing you’ll likely want to warm up your own vehicle. Just be sure to consult the official map before striking out for the day, as GPS will usually opt for the most direct, least thrilling option.
I chose to tackle the 500 clockwise and, being a fan of a wee dram, my first stop was just West of Inverness. The Glen Ord Distillery, currently the fourth largest producer of Scotch, offers a tour of the whisky making process and a tasting session – though it’s advisable to book ahead. With only a handful of miles under my belt and plenty yet to go, this wasn’t the ideal time to get utterly trashed, lest I also receive a tour of the local constabulary’s private accommodation. Fortunately the staff were happy to decant this designated driver’s portion into containers that might look disconcertingly like urine sample pots, but do the job nonetheless.
I’d also need all my faculties intact for the next leg, the white-knuckle ride over Bealach Na Ba, a winding mountain pass near Applecross. One of two sections of the route map that are marked as ‘minor roads’, it’s a narrow single track that carries you 626m above sea level and back down again over a mere 11 miles of tarmac. That’s higher than One World Trade Center in New York. As you’d imagine it features obscenely tight hairpins and has gradients approaching 20 per cent. Nervous drivers and captains of five metre long luxobarges need not apply, but (fortunately) neither should ponderous caravan owners.
After arguably the most challenging section of the entire drive, I couldn’t think of a better place to arrive than The Torridon Hotel. A beautiful, turreted 19th century shooting lodge cradled by the surrounding Torridon mountains, it boasts sumptuously furnished rooms and, perhaps more importantly after a period of such sustained concentration, a bar equipped with 350 malt whiskies and the obligatory roaring fire. Fine dining is on offer at the 1887 Restaurant, a real treat in the context of the hotel's relative isolation, but the proprietors also run the lively Torridon Inn next door that offers high-end pub fare and a selection of ales if that's more your speed.
One of two sections of the route map that are marked as ‘minor roads’, it’s a narrow single track that carries you 626m above sea level and back down again over a mere 11 miles of tarmac. That’s higher than One World Trade Center in New York.
Day two and the roads up to Aultbea were marginally less vertiginous, but there are still sections that feel more like a rally stage than a public highway; a tarmac rollercoaster with vegetation mere inches from your wing-mirrors. Aultbea itself, along with neighbouring Mellon Charles, is a thriving local community on the banks of Loch Ewe and there are two very good reasons to drop anchor here.
The first is a visit the family-run Isle of Ewe Smokehouse, which provides mouth-watering, traditionally smoked salmon to seemingly every hotel along the route. Its small store, connected to the smokehouse itself, is well worth a visit, offering up all manner of sublime deli treats.
Should you find yourself hankering after its produce when you return home, which is a distinct possibility, there’s an online mail order service as well that will deliver fresh Scottish salmon to your door in chilled packaging.
The other reason to swing by the area is a pit stop at the Aultbea Perfume Studio, which is actually a minute or two further up the road in Mellon Charles. Not only does it offer a staggering array of handmade perfumes and toiletries, the connected Aroma Cafe is a charming lunchtime spot blessed with spectacular views across the loch back towards the Torridon mountains.
The next leg took me through another breathtaking valley that wouldn’t look out of place on the next season of Game of Thrones and past the dizzying Corrieshalloch Gorge, which plunges 61m into the earth. Not recommended for those who feel what the French call ‘l’appel du vide’.
It was the duty of my next overnight spot to answer the call of the void inside my stomach at the end of the drive. The traditional Inver Lodge Hotel sits in a commanding position above the tiny fishing village of Lochinver and is perfectly angled to catch spectacular sunsets over the sea in the West. It’s also home to the Chez Roux restaurant by Albert Roux, brother of Michel and co-founder of Le Gavroche.
No delicate portions here though; the emphasis is on sophisticated but hearty fare befitting of such a remote location and such a cosy dining room.
Day three involved tracing a route across the very top of Scotland and one of the most varied driving days of the entire trip, taking in both twisting Highlands passes and arrow-straight roads. The final destination was John O’ Groats, but not before a well earned stop at the Dunnet Bay Distillery, the UK mainland's northernmost distillery. Rather than the usual Scotch, this small family-run operation creates unique, multi-award-winning aromatic gin and vodka from the ingredients in its own botanical garden and packages it in distinctive wax-sealed ceramic bottles, which are sold on site. Make sure to clear a space in the boot.
Rolling into nearby John O’ Groats for the night you’d be forgiven for expecting the worst kind of tourist trap, but even the most well-known stop on the route defies expectations. Natural Retreats offers a series of modern, luxury self-catering cottages with striking, panoramic sea views, each of which sleeps six. The newly opened Stacks Bistro, a stone's throw from the famous signpost, offers a small menu of inventive dishes made from fresh ingredients. People have been walking, running and cycling the 850-odd miles from Lands End to John O’ Groats for decades, it’s heartening to know there’s now a good feed and comfortable night's sleep at the end of it.
The final full day of driving featured smooth, sweeping coastal roads that wouldn't look out of place in California and a brief stop for restorative coffee in the Whaligoe Steps Cafe, perched high atop the sea cliffs. My personal finishing line was the five-star Links House at Royal Dornoch, home of the famous championship golf course. With just eight generously sized bedrooms and fabulously attentive staff, there’s a distinct air of old-school exclusivity about Links House. What’s more, the similarly diminutive restaurant, capably run by talented young Head Chef Jon-Paul Saint, blends seasonal and local ingredients in an exceptional selection of dishes.
As I cruised back southwards through Inverness the following day, the temptation to pull a hard right and do the whole thing again was almost too much to bear. And while the rare freedom to drive right up to the national speed limit is admittedly part of the North Coast 500’s appeal, with so many inviting stops and so much good food and drink along the way, I’ll be taking my time when I next tackle this petrolhead’s pilgrimage.
Need to know:
For more info about the North Coast 500 visit northcoast500.com or get the app from the iTunes or Google Play store
For more info about Isle of Ewe Smoked Salmon visit smokedbyewe.com
For more info on Rock Rose Gin and Holy Grass Vodka visit dunnetbaydistillers.co.uk