Words: Yours truly • Photos: David • Location: Tongue, Scottish Highlands
For my birthday this year, David and I decided to tick one more item off our bucket list: Drive around the North Coast 500 in Scotland.
What’s the North Coast 500, you ask?
North Coast 500 (or simply NC500) is a 500-mile long route of stunning seaside scenery in the far north of Scotland. It’s nicknamed ‘Scotland’s Route 66’; it’s widely known as one of the top coastal road trips in the world; in fact, it’s been tipped as “the Best Road Trip in the World” by Condé Nast Traveler… you get the picture!
If you’re planning to take on the route, if you need some help planning the most epic road trip you’ll ever take in Europe, keep on reading because here are five stop points that I think you should check out along the way, plus a few tips we’ve gathered from the locals to help you make the most of your trip.
Fortrose is located within the Black Isle peninsula, and it’s only around 25 mins’ drive from Inverness. Perfect if you want to base yourself in a less populous spot. The town itself is relatively quaint and quiet. There’s not much there that makes me want to go back in a rush… except for one thing, the local dolphins.
That’s right, Fortrose is a popular location for spotting bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth – which we did! Check out my Insta stories for my dolphin sighting on Chanonry Point.
Pro tip: The best times to see dolphins are an hour or so after the tide starts to come in, so either 11-ish in the morning or 6-ish in the evening. Obviously there’s no guarantee that you will see dolphins, but going during these hours will maximise your chances – it took us a good hour of waiting and walking back and forth along the beach to finally spot them.
Drive a little further north towards John o’ Groats, you’ll find Wick… Jut don’t forget to stop by Dunrobin Castle and catch the falconry display, which is on twice a day at 11:30am and 2pm.
Wick is probably the last ‘big town’ you’ll come across before you drive deeper and deeper into the Scottish Highlands, so this is your last chance if you want to stock up on your road trip snacks from the supermarket.
Wick is the perfect stop point on your way to John o’ Groats, not only because the mostly northerly point of mainland Britain is less than 30 mins away, it’s also home to historic Girnigoe Castle (or what’s left of it) – to find the castle, head straight to the lighthouse car park and you’ll see a walking trail on your left that leads you down to the castle remains – so you can easily visit both of these sights in one day like we did before moving on to your next stop, which absolutely needs to be…
Tongue is where we chose to spend my birthday. For two nights we stayed put in an Airbnb near this beautiful coastal village.
There’s plenty in and around Tongue that I’d recommend so here we go:
- Skinnet Beach between Midtown and Talmine is beautiful during low tide, when you can actually walk quite far out on the causeway.
- On the way to Skinnet Beach, we saw our first herd of the iconic Highland cows – so if that’s on your to-see list, this is the place to go.
- For food, the restaurant in Ben Royal Hotel serves some a combination of modern cuisine and traditional Scottish dish.
- If you’re only after a quick bite, then check out Weavers Cafe, it’s got a good view of the coast and they make delicious soups!
Friendly warning: If anyone tells you that you should go to Chocolate Mountain in Durness, please don’t waste your time or your money on stale croissants and sickly sweet hot chocolate.
Ullapool is probably one of the more ‘exciting’ stop points in the Highlands; there’s a selection of bars, pubs, takeaways, and restaurants on the seafront to choose from. A word of warning though, this is a very popular destination for many tourists so you absolutely do need to book in advance. We made the mistake of not making a reservation ahead of our arrival and we ended up getting turned away by all the most popular restaurants in town before settling for one of the pubs, which was decent, but if you want to avoid disappointment then book a table.
five Fort William
This is a bit of a cheat since Fort William is not technically located along the NC500 route. However, if like us, you don’t want to do the whole round-trip and end up back in Inverness where you started, you can deviate and drop off in Fort William instead… I won’t tell.
Ironically, the drive out of the highlands from Fort William was one of my highlights of the trip. I mean the drive through Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park is really quite stunning, so imo taking a detour via Fort William is worth it even if it means you don’t get to complete the last leg of NC500.
Finally, here’s a few things you need to know:
- If you’re wondering whether to go clockwise or anti-clockwise around the NC500, it’s a well-known fact that the latter option is preferred – it’s also the direction we took. Travelling from east to west will really save the best for last: the scenery will get more and more breathtaking by the mile.
- You will need at least five days to drive around the NC500. We did it over seven days, and I personally thought that was the perfect pace.
- According to locals along the NC500, the route gets really busy during the summer, which is completely understandable so if you want to beat the crowd and traffic, it’s advisable that you avoid the high season.
I hope you’ve found these tips useful! Leave a comment below and let me know have you ever driven on the North Coast 500? If so, what do you think about my picks? If not, would you like to?
Until the next post, bye~