Occasionally I’ll compile lists of the world’s most epic roads. They range from the scenically spectacular – Australia’s Great Ocean Road, say, or California’s Pacific Coast Highway; the exciting – Italy’s Stelvio Pass and Mount Fuji’s Touge roads; and the dangerous – Bolivia’s Yungas Road or, for that matter, Germany’s killer Nürburgring. Until recently I was unaware that the most joyfully sublime route of them all is right here in Blighty: Scotland’s northernmost coastal and highland roads.
It’s known as the North Coast 500 and, in the past two years, it’s become a bit of a thing, pushed by the tourist board and given a hashtag. Even Brad Pitt enjoys alone-time thundering around these mountains and glens on a vintage motorcycle. Some call it Scotland’s Route 66, a 516-mile loop from Inverness to the tip of the isle and circumnavigating back. I saw supercars, caravans, bikers and walkers along the way, each tackling it at their own pace, pausing regularly to absorb the views. My mode of transport: the Maserati Levante.
It took 18 hours of driving time over three days, pit-stopping at castles, lochs, beaches, Michelin-starred restaurants, and an eccentric B&B. The first thing I do in Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, is fuel myself with lunch at Albert Roux’s restaurant at the Rocpool Reserve Hotel, overlooking the River Ness, where I will stay on my final night after completing the 500. With Chez Roux’s signature lemon tart in my belly, I saddle up the titanium-coloured Maserati and whip out the map. No sat-nav for me; I want to know where I’m going and where I’ve been.
I drive the route anticlockwise, allowing the scenery to get more and more breath-taking as it unfolds. Out of Inverness, I cross the Black Isle, named after its dark farming soil, pass the Dalmore whisky distillery and make my way up the east coast. Oil rigs in the Cromarty Firth can be made out through the side window, camouflaged between the battleship grey sea and sky. I peel off momentarily at Balintore to visit the Mermaid of the North, sitting 10ft high on a rock and carefully positioned so that locals can check the tide as her tail becomes fully submerged.
Cruising along the clifftops with the North Sea to my right I settle into my Levante’s red leather cabin and cast an approving eye over the carbon-fibre trim. At £54,000 – £70k with all the options mine enjoys – this SUV, the first from Maserati, is in a highly competitive segment. Most premium 4x4 buyers want a diesel engine, sales figures tell us. Maserati’s 3.0 V6 single-turbo produces 275bhp and 600 NM of torque, making it capable of 0-60 in 6.9 seconds and 143mph flat-out. The figures are respectable for a diesel SUV, but what about for a Maserati? When you press the Sport button it starts to pull at the leash. The engine note turns from a non-committal murmur to a promising growl. You still know it’s a diesel though, and to a life-long Maserati fancier, bolting a diesel to a car bearing Neptune’s trident is close to sacrilege.
Still, it’s hoovering up the miles effortlessly as we pass the turreted Dunrobin Castle and continue along the A9 to Dunbeath. The rain ceases, clouds part, and gorgeous sunshine casts upon the route, illuminating the roadside gorse bushes and turning the sea’s slate-coloured murk to beautiful azure. Dolphins and rainbows appear. Really. Distracted, I stick to the A9 as it heads inland when I should have carried along the coastal road. The scenery changes to brown and desolate moorland, peppered with bothies and Skyfall-esque ruins, and I let the Levante off its leash on the sweeping and empty road. The one section of traffic I encounter – half a dozen cars stuck behind a truck – is dismissed in one decisive move. The car automatically lowers itself at speed to reduce drag.
This is starting to feel like a proper Maserati mission; moody horizons arrive under my 20in wheels faster than expected, and bridges over brooks test the impressive suspension. Past an outcrop of wind turbines, I correct my map-reading mistake and take the A882 back to the east coast towards Wick. Nearby, on the rugged shoreline, stands Ackergill Tower, my remote luxury lodgings for the night. This five-storey 15th Century castle takes one back in time. It’s stocked with interesting antiques, taxidermy and tartan, and I relax with a glass of single malt at an elderly writing desk. My suite is filled with period touches including a regal four-poster bed. Elsewhere on the 3,000 private acres you’ll find Europe’s largest and most luxurious tree house. Staying in the tower, though, I am afforded a view of the coal-black rocks and crashing waves, and I’m woken to the muffled sounds of bagpipes. I sensed there had been something spectral in the room in the night; strange flickers of light in mirrors and windows, which spurred me to ask at breakfast whether there might be a ghostly legend?
I picnic in the wilderness, taking the Levante off-road and engaging the heightened suspension and traction settings.
As it turns out, there was. Early in the castle’s life, it’s said, the owner kidnapped a local girl known as the ‘Beauty of Braemore’. Attempting to escape her abductor, she leapt from the battlements to her death.
A short drive from Ackergill is John O’Groats where the wind is howling and a signpost to Land’s End (876 miles to the south west) greets rosy-cheeked visitors. A few miles later, I pop my head in at the Castle of Mey, where the Queen Mum headed when she needed to get away from it all, and stop at Dunnet Bay, a surfer’s paradise. Thurso is Scotland’s most northerly town and its granite-fronted high street will be the last proper hub I see till I return to Inverness tomorrow. Car ferries dominate the view to the right, to-ing and fro-ing from the Orkney and Shetland islands, followed by the nuclear facility at Dounreay. It’s an incongruous sight, like something from Moonraker, squat on the horizon amid the unspoiled moorland.
The roads here are more rewarding than anything else I’ve found in Europe, and although you need to keep your eyes peeled for cyclists – the Levante’s sensors yelled at me once or twice when it thought I was being blasé with Lycra lives – it’s just you, the newly-surfaced A836 and its natural delights. I can see why this is crackerjack for motorcyclists, and to be honest I am yearning for a V8.
Whereas other Maseratis are built in the supercar mecca of Modena, and its petrol engines assembled in Maranello on the Ferrari production line, the Levante is made at the Fiat Chrysler plant in Turin. I have a nagging feeling that this is the designer outlet village Maserati, not something from the couture line.
Until now the diesel was all that was on offer to UK buyers, but last month it was finally announced that Britain will get the Levante S, with a 3.0 twin-turbo V6 petrol delivering 164mph and acceleration to 60 in under 5.2. It starts at £70k. It’s still more ‘Italian Range Rover’ than ‘high-sided Ferrari’, but 424bhp makes it worthy of the trident badge. Bellissimo!
I picnic in the wilderness, taking the Levante off-road and engaging the heightened suspension and traction settings. It traverses the terrain with ease and we settle at the base of the Cranstackie mountain, overlooking Loch Eribol, roughly halfway round the North Coast 500.
Having skirted glistening lochs and caramel beaches I head south at Durness and into ever-more wondrous landscape. The mountains of Foinaven, Arkle and Quinag are almost within touching distance, but separated by boggy and rocky moor. I stop at the 16th Century ruins of Ardvreck Castle and accost Highland cattle. Switching suede Italian driving shoes for Hunter wellies feels something of a metaphor.
The Porsche Cayenne set the trend for exotic-badged SUVs, and in base diesel form, the Levante is quicker, not to mention better looking. Comparing the Levante S to the GTS Porsche there’s little between them in performance terms, but the Maser is six grand cheaper and less in-your-face. The Porsche would look horribly outré here in the Highlands. The latest and most serious rival for the Levante is, I wager, the attractive Jaguar F-Pace, and it starts at a much lower price point of £35k. The 237bhp 2.0 twin-turbo diesel F-Pace Prestige has similar performance to the Levante, albeit not as torquey, and weighs in at a more reasonable £42k. For £52,665, which is £1,500 less than the Levante, you can have the 296bhp diesel F-Pace S, which clocks 60 in 5.5 secs, a mammoth 1.4 quicker than the Maser. Or do yourself a favour and for £700 more you’ll have a 375bhp petrol V6.
However, though there have been a few sexy Jaguars over the years, I just don’t buy it as an exotic marque the in the same vein as Porsche and Maserati. Jaguars are driven by estate agents, while a Maserati – even one built in Miraflori, not Modena – makes the driver feel like an artistic, charismatic rake; as mysterious as these Highland crags and mercurial as the weather.
The small fishing port of Lochinver is day two’s finishing point. Shaped like a policeman’s helmet, Suilven rises 731 metres above the town and is one of the most distinctive mountains in the country. After a restorative at the Caberfeidh pub, which has a stirring view across the bay, I check into the Albannach Hotel’s penthouse suite, the spacious attic of a 200-year-old house on the hill. This cosy boutique hotel, with just five bedrooms but plentiful snugs, boasts Britain’s northernmost Michelin-starred restaurant. Following a mouth-wateringly saporous dinner, washed down with Gevrey Chambertin, I pass out five minutes into The Wicker Man, exhausted from the miles.
Fog descends on Beinn Bhan mountain as I traverse it, steering gingerly around sheer drops. It occurred to me that throughout this whole journey I hadn’t seen any cars in ditches. Well, here’s where I find one, a hatchback that had taken several rolls.
Day three and 234 miles still to go. The scenery, unbelievably, continues to improve. Through South West Sutherland the Levante passes the dramatic peaks of Canisp, Cul Mor and Ben More Assynt. This Geopark consists of some of the most ancient and unique geology in the world, dating back three billion years. I park at Gruinard Bay, with its rocky coves and unusual pink sand leading out to island-studded waters.
Pooewe is sheltered on the south side of Loch Ewe, and don’t be surprised if you see a movie star or two running on the beach. Pool House is a small family-run hotel, which is kitted out in the most eccentric style. The owners, the Harrisons, are ancestors of Edward Smith, the captain of the Titanic, and one of the six guest rooms is filled with mementos from the White Star Line and that disastrous voyage. The weighty cast iron bath is just like those you’d have found on board the ship – no wonder it sank. Other themed rooms include Chinese, Renaissance Italian and Marie Antoinette French. Daughter Mhairi did the interior decor, and explains, “Most people come back from holiday with a stuffed donkey; my father brought back half of India.” The Maharaja room is the smallest in the house, and the Harrisons were apologetic when Brad Pitt knocked at the door unannounced, as it was the only room they had.
Brad did the NC500 on an old Triumph and loved being able to go unrecognised. Kate Winslet stood in the garden hula-hooping when she and Sam Mendes stayed. Channing Tatum was a more recent, and perhaps even more unlikely, guest of Pool House and when I flick through the visitors book I spot Jamie Bell, who stayed a couple of months back. Who knew Pooewe was the talk of Hollywood? Is there a top secret WhatsApp group on which they can swap vacation tips?
We lunch on wonderfully fresh crab, salmon and langoustine served by Mhairi’s sister Elizabeth and then head for the final furlong. Past the sandy beaches of Gairloch, the ancient volcanic peaks of Assynt and through Caledonian pine forests, we turn off for the most twisty part of the journey yet; the Bealach na Ba mountain pass. The views across to the Isle of Skye here were jaw-dropping; it feels like you’re on the edge of the world. At Applecross, a herd of seals bob up and swim towards the Levante inquisitively.
Fog descends on Beinn Bhan mountain as I traverse it, steering gingerly around sheer drops. It occurred to me that throughout this whole journey I hadn’t seen any cars in ditches. Well, here’s where I find one, a hatchback that had taken several rolls. As the Maserati makes its way over the other side of the mountain, the fog abates but nightfall is on its way. Once I get on the A832 I’m able to put the hammer down, and the threescore of these final 516-miles flicker in the rear-view mirror.
It has been an unforgettable trip, and the Maserati was a comfortable, confident and capable steed with which to embrace every majestic mile. The North Coast 500 is our greatest asphalt-covered gem. Traffic and speed cameras would ruin it, though, so please, I humbly beg of you; don’t tell a soul.