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. Read more: How to find quiet sanctuary in the buzzy, bohemian city of Prague 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