Inverness is an historic city near Loch Ness and is the gateway to the North Highlands. It’s also the start of Scotland’s North Coast 500, our answer to America’s Route 66 and a route which is being added to every traveller’s bucket list, not to mention bikers, hikers and caravanners.
I finally got my chance to head off on this famous route at the beginning of July.
My last attempt of the North Coast 500 got rained off but not before spending two nights in Applecross, which you can read about here (Applecross), so this time we travelled from Inverness to Gairloch on the west coast. The route offically begins at Inverness Castle, a red sandstone castle build in 1836. There were a castle on the same spot previously however and it's here, after helping Mary Queen of Scots during the seige of Inverness in 1562 that Clan Fraser and Clan Munro took the castle for themselves. The city itself lies on the banks of the River Ness, which runs from Loch Ness to the Beauly Firth. If you believe in such things you could take a little detour here and see if you can find the Loch Ness Monster, I've searched and didn't find so I picked up my map and was ready for a road trip.
I knew before I set off that my journey would be a hell of a lot more than the 517 miles, by the time I took all the detours, to find the beautiful beaches, castles and villages. Not that I minded, I wanted to see everything I could, and couldn’t wait!
Rogie Falls was the first stop, 2 miles past Contin on the A835 to Ullapool. The beautiful set of waterfalls are just a short walk from the car park at the side of the road and you can get some cracking photos from the new suspension bridge. The water tumbles down from Ben Wyvis into the Black Water River and in the summer you might even spot the salmon leaping. I love the crashing, therapeutic sound of waterfalls, especially when it has been raining and there is a lot of water. That day it was raining…..a lot, and it was amazing.
The drive to the west coast was pretty uneventful as the rain was pouring down and we had driven the road before so the CD went on and we played a few car games to keep us amused until we reached Acnasheen. TIP - If you see a car park along the route with a few cars in it it pretty much guarantees there will be a stunning view so it's worth joining them. The view won’t always be obvious from the road and won’t be revealed until you park up, get out and look around. Acnasheen was one of those places. The view from the car park and viewing point gives you your first glimpse of Loch Maree and the winding picturesque road leading to it. This view is the one you will find on the front cover of the NC500 map (Don’t forget to pick one of these up in Inverness or any other biggish Visit Scotland shop). This is a view you need to stop and appreciate, there will by hundreds more but this is the first one that will make you catch your breath and make you really excited for the rest of your trip.
The drive into Gairloch gives you your first glimpse of the turquoise blue waters often found along the north west coast. The view point next to the church as you drive in offers another gorgeous view, this time out to sea. The popular (but never busy) Big Sands beach is perfect for walking the dog and taking in the breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains or head further to the car park at the end of the public road, park the car and take a walk to another stunner of a beach - Redpoint. There are actually two beaches here and you can walk between the two, although it does get boggy. The sunset here is said to be magnificent. If you want more information about the area you can visit the GALE Centre in the village, which is open all year round and will provide you with maps, bus times, guides and any other information you might need.
The village is gorgeous although the phone signal is not! I know, it's to be expected this far north, but it's a pain when you are trying to upload photos for you all to see!
Day 2 was spent gallivanting around the Gairloch area. I spent some time exploring Inverewe Gardens in Poolewe which overlooks Loch Ewe. Because of the surrounding woodland and the warm winds of the Gulf Stream the gardens are filled with rare and exotic plants and a huge amount of delicious looking fruit and veg. It's run by the National Trust for Scotland and costs £11 per adults with offers for families and members. We also drove to Mellon Udrigle beach which was easily one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Pure white sands and clear water with a superb background of mountains including Suilven and the Coigach range. The setting was magical! After dinner that night, back at our wigwam (see below) we lit the fire pit and toasted marshmallows while watching the sun set behind the mountains of Skye.
The next section I completed was from Gairloch to Lochinver, it wasn't a massive section but there was so much to see that I wanted a bit of extra time in the area. If you'd like to read it you can find it here.
The Sands caravan park is a two minute drive away and we opted for a wooden wigwam. I do love a bit of glamping. The site has its own private beach with more stunning turquoise waters, looking over to Longa Island and the Isle of Skye. Clean shower blocks, a big shared kitchen area and a laundrette meant we had everything we needed so we could relax for a couple of days. The wigwam itself had a wee table, a kettle, a picnic bench and a fire pit. A couple of very welcome plug sockets and some decidedly iffy Highland wifi meant I could keep my readers up to date with my adventures then switch off and chill out. There was also a fantastic little shop with quirky momentos and all the essentials. There aren't a lot of shops around this area so i admit, I did do a little shopping.
We found the best little place to eat in Gairloch. I like anything quirky and colourful so when I came across the Hillbillies Book Store and trading post and the accompanying Mountain Coffee Company (See? Even the name is cool) I was in my element. This book shop has a unique theme mixing travel and exploration with Bob Marley of all people. Never have I seen such a collection of travel books, diaries and stories. I was in heaven. The cakes and coffee were delicious and the whole place had a lovely laid back atmosphere. This is what I love about travelling the most, these little gems I find, without flashy websites, without adverts everywhere, just quietly doing their thing. Living their best life in the middle of nowhere, chatting to customers and not checking their phones. A pretty ideal lifestyle.
You can read more about my trip around the North Coast 500 here