This is a great blog by Gabbi Armstrong who is the Communications manager for the North Coast 500, So good, we didnt think you should miss it, so here it is in all it’s glory. You can read more from Gabbi at the North Coast 500 website
For those who have yet to complete the North Coast 500, you’ll find that one of the joys of travelling in the North Highlands is the ever-present option to turn off a main road and find at the end of it a gem that can still qualify for the title of undiscovered.
If you’re looking to head off the beaten track while completing the North Coast 500, read on for some of our top recommended detours and bases through the North Highlands. Please note, that some of these roads within the North West Highland Geopark are single track – if you cannot accurately reverse your vehicle several hundred yards on a narrow single track road or if your vehicle is larger than a standard VW T5 conversion (i.e. about 16-18feet in length) please avoid and take an alternative route.
The Black Isle
Set up base and explore the area for a day or two at the start or end of your trip. The Black Isle was once the kitchen garden of the Highlands, and is one of the best areas for wildlife watching along the North Coast 500. Some of the best spots to see dolphins are at Chanonry Point and at North Kessock.
Along the way, you’ll find three nature reserves: Udale Bay, Fairy Glen and Tollie Red Kites. Here, you’ll be able to search for ‘fairies’, watch the red kites being fed, or see thousands of waders, ducks and geese in their natural habitat.
Keeping in with nature, you’ll find plenty of caves to explore – Cairds Cave is one we’d particularly recommend – and on a clear day, you can see Ben Nevis from Eathie Road.
While much of the Black Isle’s Pictish past is clear to see, with plenty of historic buildings to uncover, you can also combine this with the modern – North Kessock, for example, is particularly popular for arts and crafts. For more inspiration, have a look at our Black Isle article.
Explore the interior of the route
While the 516 miles of coastline which make up the North Coast 500 are well known, don’t disregard the interior of the NC500 route. It’s a great place to set up a base to take day trips from and really get to know the area in depth. If time is limited, even spending a morning or afternoon exploring the intertwining roads within the interior will add so much to your trip – by getting off the beaten path and exploring the heart of the rugged North Highlands, you’ll have a truly valuable experience.
Known as one of the wildest places in Europe, much of the scenery in the middle resembles the north-west coast to a certain extent; wild, dramatic, less discovered and more remote. Discover the intertwining roads of Sutherland in the middle of the NC500 route, and Caithness in the north east – and all the experiences within. You could easily spend a week just in the middle of the North Highlands; the whole area is overflowing with things to see and do.
The interior of the NC500 is ideal for adventure and outdoor activity enthusiasts. Try fishing, walking and stalking, take a yoga class, or try foraging for food. You could even bag a Munro at Ben Hope, or try your hand at panning for gold on the Kildonan River!
With wildlife in abundance, why not take a wildlife tour with Alladale Wilderness Reserve or Invercassley B&B? See eagles soaring, deer roaming the moorland, or watch salmon leap in the summer months at Falls of Shin.
Falls of Shin isn’t just the perfect destination for wildlife enthusiasts. Foodies, too, are well catered for. Join Mac and Wild Restaurant at Falls of Shin for wild cooking, haggis making masterclasses, salmon viewing, botanical cocktail making, or a ‘whisky in the woods’ experience, to name a few.
For nature lovers, head up the Helmsdale Strath (A897) and discover one of the world’s rarest habits – RSPB Scotland Forsinard Flows. When night falls, the Forsinard Flows lookout tower is a unique vantage point for stargazing. You could even be lucky enough to spot the Northern Lights at the right time of year! History fans will love the fascinating Strathnaver Trail, which takes in 29 archaeological sites starting at Strathnaver Museum, where you can pick up a guide and explore as far as you wish.
The HEART of Sutherland is the only county within the North Coast 500 which has access to the east, west and north coasts of Scotland – by detouring off the main route and taking two or three days to explore the coastline from a base, you’ll really be getting to know this wonderful part of Scotland. The areas around Bonar Bridge, Lairg and Altnaharra are particularly scenic.
Explore the seaboard villages
There are so many wonderful seaboard villages along the North Coast 500 – you could break away from the main North Coast 500 route and spend a few days visiting these fascinating villages alone. If you’re passing Balintore in Easter Ross, make sure to visit the Seaboard Memorial Hall and visit the Mermaid of the North. Alternatively, you could complete the Pictish Trail, taking in Tarbat Discovery Centre, Nigg Church and Shandwick Stone, plus many more intriguing local history points.
Glenmorangie House is the perfect Highland hideaway on the east coast. Set among rolling fields, it’s easy to see why this beautiful country house promises ‘tranquillity restored’. It’s the perfect place to recharge your batteries, visit the historic Hilton of Cadboll Stone, enjoy sensory food experiences and sample Highland single malt whisky from Glenmorangie Distillery, only 20 minutes away.
Take a detour off the main NC500 route and explore the Tarbat Peninsula in Easter Ross – just off the A9, on route to Tain. The best way to see all that this area of natural beauty has to offer is on foot. The Tarbat Peninsula divides the Dornoch Firth and the Moray Firth, both of which can be seen if you complete the Tarbat Ness Walk, an exhilarating coastal circuit of the Tarbat Ness headland, beginning and ending in the picturesque village of Portmahomack.
As you leave Portmahomack to begin the Tarbat Ness Walk, stop to take in the views across the Firth and over the Sutherland hills, towards Golspie and Brora. By following the road past the Tarbat Discovery Centre for around three miles, you’ll reach the very tip of the peninsula and, of course, Tarbat Ness itself, upon which sits one of the tallest lighthouses in mainland Britain. More than 40 metres in height, the Tarbat Ness Lighthouse was constructed in 1830 by Robert Stevenson, the uncle of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson.
Dornoch and Tain
Dornoch is a great base along the east coast – from exploring the beautiful cathedral, to enjoying an indulgent hot chocolate at Cocoa Mountain, or even afternoon tea at Links House, there’s plenty to see and do in this historic town.
Madonna famously got married at Dornoch Cathedral, and while we can’t guarantee you’ll spot any celebrities while you’re in the area, Dornoch does promise world-famous golf courses and wide sandy beaches. Increasingly, Dornoch is known for its boutique shops – from arts and crafts at Simply the best Gifts, to designer clothing and artisan gifts at The Jail Dornoch, you’re sure to find a special keepsake to take home from your trip in Dornoch.
If you’re looking to explore the east coast of the North Highlands in greater depth, Dornoch is the ideal base, with a wide range of accommodation to choose from. Choose a luxury hotel, a charming B&B, beautiful self-catering accommodation, or a top campsite or glamping pod – the choice is all yours. Head over to our blog on Dornoch for more ideas.
Likewise, fans of history and heritage will fall in love with Tain, the oldest Royal Burgh in Scotland. Experience more than a thousand years of history in this charming town. Visit Tain & District Museum and immerse yourself in the fascinating heritage of the North Highlands – from Pictish carvings to Viking burials and Medieval kings.
Evanton and Alness
Evanton is a delightful village on the east coast, with origins that can be traced back to 1810. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, make sure to visit the Black Rock Gorge, where filming took place for a scene in the fourth film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Evanton Woods is a hidden gem, bought by the community in 2012 with secret trails to explore and a woodland cabin, ponds and family friendly events throughout the year. The beautiful, scenic river on the edge of the woodland is popular among fishermen. If you fancy a spot of fishing yourself, speak to Roger from TroutQuest.
If you’re looking to extend your stay in Evanton, why not head to the Black Rock Caravan Park? Set up camp or choose their bunkhouse or glamping pods – all of which are ideally located next to the river. Alternatively, the Novar Arms Hotel is a great base for exploring the area for a few days; if you’re not staying overnight, why not stop in past for dinner one evening? In contrast, the beautiful floral town of Alness has had considerable success in floral competitions over the years, scooping up various titles in the RHS Britain in Bloom competition.
For some of the finest views in the area, head over to Struie hill outside Alness – the ‘Million Dollar View’ offers an excellent vantage point to soak up the sweeping panoramic views. If you are feeling energetic, Fyrish Monument, atop the hill above Evanton and Alness, is a popular walk among locals and offers unsurpassed views of the firth and Black Isle. It’s a must-visit!
The North West Highland Geopark – take a pebble route!
The North Coast 500 meanders through some of the North West Highland Geopark. You don’t need to be a geologist to enjoy the fantastic landscape on the north west coast! You will be blown away by the wild and rugged landscape, so come along and explore one of the wildest places in Europe.
Explore the lesser travelled roads of the North West Highland Geopark by taking one of their six self-guided pebble trails. Journey through three billion years of time and discover more about the rocks beneath your feet. The pebble routes take in small communities and hidden treasures including film worthy mountains (the recently-launched film Edie, starring Sheila Hancock, was filmed on Suilven), the most remote beaches in the UK, and a hamlet that holds the record for Britain’s coldest temperature at a freezing -27C.
Four out of six of these pebble routes take you away from the main North Coast 500 route, taking in favourite villages and hamlets of those who have ventured off the beaten path of the NC500 too – with superb food and drink, accommodation, outdoor attractions and experiences you should not miss, from boat tours, canoeing and hiking expeditions, to snorkelling and snow palace building.
- Pebble Route 1: This route brings you through a series of small crofting townships to Britain’s most westerly fishing port of Kinlochbervie.
- Pebble Route 2: Entering Coigach is similar to arriving on an island! You would be forgiven to think you were driving on the end of the earth.
- Pebble Route 5: Welcome to Ceathramh Garb – the Rough Quarter.
- Pebble Route 6: The longest of their pebble routes – The Moine Thrust Route.
Download four pebble routes as a preview here, or purchase the pack of six with all the tools you need to understand how the landscape you’re seeing is formed. Presented in a bespoke wallet, these pebble route guides include simple geological maps with tourist information, photographs and details about the landscape, culture, history and geology.
You can purchase the pack online or at a range of outlets in the Geopark, such as their Rock Stop Café in Kylesku.
Located on the north-west coast of Sutherland, towards the northern shore of Loch Inchard, Kinlochbervie was traditionally a crofting community. This pretty village is now a brilliant base for outdoor enthusiasts. Take the road to Kinlochbervie to reach Sandwood Bay – the most remote beach in the UK. The Old School House, a restaurant with rooms housed in the former village primary school, makes an excellent overnight base.
Achiltibuie and the Summer Isles
Achiltibuie and Coigach are best known for the stunning views of the west coast which stretch from the Cuillins to the hills of northern Assynt and the western isles. You’ll find a superb choice of sandy beaches on the peninsula here, at Acheninver, Badenscallie, Badentarbat, Reiff, Camus an Glas Eilean and on Isle Ristol, but the best known is at Achnahaird, which frequently ranks among the best on the west coast and has sand at any state of the tide.
The sea cliffs at Reiff are considered by many to be a climber’s paradise, second to none for the quality of the climbing. The combination of sea, islands and mountains results in extraordinary views of the west coast and Summer Isles, and a number of easy walks in the area take full advantage of the scenery. Give scrambling or rock climbing ago with Tim from Hamlet Mountaineering – or why not try mountain guiding? Get some experience in the hills while learning about the local wildlife and nature. For more inspiration, head over to our blog about Achiltibuie.
The small fishing and crofting village of Aultbea lies on the shores of Loch Ewe, about 12 miles north of Gairloch. Sheltered by the majestic mountains and caressed by the warm gulf stream, Aultbea has a relatively temperate climate. The famous Inverewe Gardens with its subtropical gardens, half a mile north of Poolewe flourishes as a result.
On your detour, discover how Loch Ewe played an important role in the Second World War at the Russion Artic Convoy Museum. There still remains evidence of Loch Ewe’s connection to the war with various information plaques detailing the fascinating historic activities that took place. You may even come across ruined gun-emplacements and other small military buildings as you enjoy one of the many scenic walks around the area. There is also still a NATO refuelling station on Loch Ewe and naval ships can often, still be seen on the loch.
On your detour or during your stay here, stop by The Perfume Studio at Loch Ewe. Enjoy some light refreshments at their bright and airy Aroma Cafe or in their outside seating area while you watch for otters in the loch. The Perfume Studio is also home to a range of perfumes, skin creams, toiletries and soaps, all of which are manufactured on-site and sold in the adjoining gift shop.
Once you’ve returned to the main North Coast 500 route, visit Mellon Udrigle and the north-east facing beach of Camas a’Charaig. This broad stretch of white sand slopes into the turquoise seas and, in our opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in Wester Ross. There are many beautiful walks in the area, both along the coast and inland, to suit different levels of walkers.
Did you know that Red Point Beach, by Badachro, is said to be the Queen’s favourite beach? Stunning natural seascapes aren’t the only reason to detour towards this former fishing village on the north west coast. The 26,000 acre Shieldaig Estate offers a variety of walks and heights, including the enchanting Fairy Lochs. The nearby Shieldaig Lodge is perfectly positioned to allow you to try a whole host of new experiences – from creel fishing to whisky blending, kayaking, seashore foraging, falconry the choice is yours! Foodies are well catered for, too – at Shieldaig Lodge, head chef Jerome Perdont and his kitchen brigade use locally-sourced ingredients and home-grown produce to create daily-changing, bespoke menus, while the Badachro Inn is the perfect rest stop for ale, wine, great views and even better food.
For gin lovers – a world of artisan, small batch gin awaits you at Badachro Distillery!
Wester Ross is a land of breathtaking landscapes, secretive hill lochs, mist shrouded mountain peaks and Mediterranean style beaches. Drive through thriving communities with a vibrant culture stretching back thousands of years to the Neolithic ages, and detour towards Strathcarron, where you’ll find Carron Restaurant and Attadale Gardens – the gardens are a delightful hidden gem along the North Coast 500.
You could even take a trip to Plockton or Kyle of Lochalsh from here, if you’re looking for a longer detour.
Although not directly on the NC500 route, the enchanting Victorian spa village of Strathpeffer is only 20 minutes north-west of Inverness. The village was in its heyday during the late 1800s and early 1900s due to the popularity of the spa! The Victorian obsession with healing waters meant that visitors came from as far away as London to ‘partake of the waters’. The waters contained sulphur and were believed to be of benefit to your health and could cure ailments; the waters of Strathpeffer were thought to be the most “efficacious in Britain.” Treatments such as hot sulphur baths and peat baths were prescribed to ease stiffened joints – the very first pump room in Strathpeffer was opened in 1820, prompting the construction of several hotels in the village.
When you drive through today though, it’s actually the stunning architecture of the Victorian villas and hotels that appear to be the main attraction – however, you can still visit one of the original pump rooms – the exhibition details the different types of treatments available back in the day, unfortunately you can’t taste the waters now!
Whether you visit at the start or the end of your trip, make sure to stop by – there is something for everyone! The surrounding area is also perfect for walks and nature trails, including through Blackmuir Woods and along the Cat’s back to Knockfarrel where you get beautiful views of Ben Wyvis. Wildlife enthusiasts can view Slovenian grebes, enjoy red kites flying over the village and watch for Scottish wildcats – Strathpeffer is a Scottish wildcat hotspot!
For more information about Strathpeffer, see our blog post.
Take a detour to Little Garve, before heading back through Garve or on towards Achnasheen. Afterwards, continue on to see Loch Glascarnoch Reservoir. You could tie this into a longer detour to spend some time getting better acquainted with the wonderful areas in the interior of the North Coast 500 route!
Glen Affric is widely considered to be the most beautiful glen in Scotland. Home to woods, lochs and moorlands, this enchanting area really comes into its own during autumn, where the change in seasons transforms the glen into a blaze of colours.This remote part of Scotland will reward you with beautiful wildlife and wilderness rarely found in the UK. Pack your walking boots, camera and enjoy the tranquillity and peaceful surroundings at the start or end of your NC500 trip!
Although we always recommend taking at least 5-7 days to explore the North Coast 500, if you can afford to take 10 days or more along the route, setting up base for a few days at a time, then you’ll be in a position to really soak up the Highland wilderness and try different experiences.