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The North Coast 500

Five hundred miles of breathtaking mountains, babbling rivers, long lochs, fairytale-like castles and pearly white beaches... iFly reporter Iris drove the dazzlingly beautiful North Coast 500 in northern Scotland.

Road trip!
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Text & photography
Iris van den Broek

With a cup of tea in hand, I gaze through the stained glass windows at the beautiful gardens sprawled out in front of me. It’s not every day I wake up in a castle, but I’m in Scotland and a night at a castle is one of the possibilities. Achnagairn Estate is an amazing estate only a few miles outside of Inverness and a fantastic place to spend the night before starting on the North Coast 500, the route I’ll be driving.

Nc500 02 Achnagairn
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Day 1

Inverness to Badachro

The North Coast 500 is a five hundred mile (516 to be exact) long coastal route through the northern Highlands of Scotland. The road has been there for some time, of course, but the entire route was dubbed the NC500 in 2015 and subsequently proclaimed one of the world’s most beautiful road trips.

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    I drive through a series of picturesque villages towards the west coast, where the first highlight of the trip awaits me: the famous Bealach na Bà. It is an unforgettable drive over the mountains of the Applecross peninsula. Bealach na Bà is Scottish Gaelic for ‘Pass of the Cattle’, as this winding road was once used to drive sheep over the mountains from one valley to the next. But, I soon learn, the road is no more than three sheep wide.

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    This single-lane road has vicious hairpin bends and, in some places, a gradient of twenty percent and dizzying heights. But the reward for all this adventure is huge, as the drive is breathtakingly beautiful and offers fantastic views of the Isle of Skye. The road ultimately ends in Applecross, where I take a break to enjoy classic fish & chips while enjoying views of the bay.

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    “The Baelach na Bà has vicious hairpin bends and, in some places, a gradient of twenty percent and dizzying heights”

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      Local gin

      I continue towards Badachro, a small, seemingly nondescript village were it not for the local export product: Badachro gin. At the top of a hill, owners Gordon and Vanessa run the Badachro Distillery and charming Aird Hill Bed & Breakfast, where I spend the night. Their micro distillery delivers gin across the entire United Kingdom and even exports to Germany. They personally harvest the ingredients for their gin in the surrounding area and Vanessa dates the labels by hand. Everything about this product is artisanal and authentic – and you can taste it.

      Nc500 07 Day1 Local Gin Collage

      The taste of the Highlands

      Badachro may be small, but in terms of culinary excellence, the town is definitely well endowed, as I experience that night at the Victorian Shieldaig Lodge. This hotel and restaurant was originally a hunting lodge, which is why it has its own falconry. Large falcons and aristocratic owls gaze attentively at me as I walk past.

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      The owner greets me with enthusiasm: “You’re lucky. We caught lobster today, so that’s what’s on tonight’s menu.” I’m served a five-course sampler, with lots more local catches, including oysters from Cape Wrath further north and langoustines from the bay in front of the hotel. The vegetables are from the hotel’s vegetable garden and a nice added touch is the lemon sorbet in a layer of Badachro gin!

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      Day 2

      Badachro to Lochinver

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        Endless photo stop

        When I continue on my journey the next morning, I’m once again impressed by the endless wilderness of the Scottish Highlands. The grandeur and beauty of this landscape are extraordinary – completely untouched by human activity. But all this beauty also provides a dilemma: there is only so much time and I want to stop my car at least ten times every mile to take a picture.

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        A must-stop is the Corrieshalloch Gorge, a deep mile-long gorge. Corrieshalloch is Gaelic for ‘ugly hollow’, but nothing could be further from the truth. I walk across the 25 metre suspension bridge and peak over the edge at the impressive Measach waterfall crashing into the depths below. There is nothing ugly about any of it.

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          Only fifteen minutes away on the edge of the crystal clear Loch Broom is the fishing village of Ullapool. After all that impressive nature, a little bit of action is a welcome change and, besides, it’s lunchtime. As I noticed last night, fish is extremely common in Scotland, not surprising considering the geography. Locals Kristie and Fenella have taken good advantage of this with their popular Seafood Shack. This food truck has already won several awards. The dishes on the menu could certainly hold their own just like in any other fine ding restaurant: half a lobster, beautiful langoustines and haddock tempura with lemon mayonnaise – everything caught by their partners, who happen to be fishermen.

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            Haunted castle

            My final destination for today is Lochinver, but my journey first takes me along Loch Assynt, home to the run-down Calda House and spooky ruins of Ardvreck Castle. The remains of this fifteenth century castle, built by the MacLeod clan, are located on the banks of the loch. Some say the castle is haunted by ghosts.

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              The daughter of one of the MacLeod castle owners drowned in Loch Assynt and is said to be seen occasionally on the beach. There are also stories about a tall man in a grey suit who wanders around the ruins. Neither of them show up while I am there, of course, but the dramatic clouds gathering above the castle definitely contribute to the spooky atmosphere.

              Accommodation tip

              The Inver Lodge Hotel, located high on a rocky hillside, offering fantastic views of the bay at Lochinver. It’s almost a pity to close the curtains in your room here.

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              Day 3

              Lochinver to John O'Groats

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                On day three, I have officially fallen in love with Scotland. From charming meadows to rugged mountains and from deep forests to vast plains, the varied landscape is amazing. The biggest surprise occurs after only ten minutes of driving: who would have thought that Scotland had white sand beaches with azure blue waters? Achmelvich Beach can easily match any Caribbean beach, apart from the palm trees of course. It’s a sunny day, so there are already people lying on handtowels at the beach.

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                Only 30 minutes later, I’m once again in a completely different landscape, with rocks, sheep and the impressive Clashnessie waterfall as the backdrop of the village of Clashnessie. To get to the waterfall, I have to tread through mud and cross the river balancing on boulders before I reach this fifteen metre-high waterfall and feel the mist on my face.

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                Glamping in the hills

                Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to stay longer, since I still have quite a ways to drive. My journey continues over the northern tip of Scotland along even more tropical-looking bays and rugged rocks to my accommodation for the evening, the Braeside Retreats. These brand-new glamping pods are located high on a hilltop just outside the city of Thurso. From my private hot tub (every pod has one!), I enjoy the quiet of the evening and the setting sun above the Orkney Islands on the horizon.

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                Day 4

                John O'Groats to Delny

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                  The day starts foggy so, unfortunately, I’m not able to see much of the northernmost tip of the British mainland: Dunnet Head. Nor am I able to see the Stacks of Duncansby further away in the sea. I wander around the northernmost city in the United Kingdom, John O’Groats, where fishing boats, ropes, fish traps and nets can be seen everywhere. The signpost tells me I’m closer to the North Pole than to New York. Although it doesn’t feel like it because, even in this remote area, there is a Starbucks. Luckily, there is also the more traditional Roads End Coffee Shop. John O’Groats has mythical status among hikers because this is the end point of the End to End trail, a 1,956 kilometre-long trail from the southernmost point of the British mainland (Land’s End) to here.

                  Nc500 Day4 22 Dunnet Head
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                  Legendary whisky

                  As I continue on my journey, the fog lifts somewhat. The eastern coast of the Scottish Highlands is completely different than the west coast. It is less rugged and pristine, but friendlier and more charming. I drive to the Clynelish Distillery since, after all, no journey through Scotland is complete without a visit to at least one whisky distillery. Clynelish has been around since 1819 and is especially famous for the cult whisky Brora, of which only a few hundred bottles can be found around the world.

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                  The tour of the distillery is impressive, with the highlight being the enormous room with six copper kettles where the distillation process takes place. My guide tells me that even the exact shape of the kettle affects the taste of the whisky, so it’s a sensitive process.

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                  A fairy tale come true

                  Fifteen minutes down the road, I drive past one of Scotland’s most beautiful and most intact castles: Dunrobin Castle. With its elegant white towers, this castle would not be out of place in a Disney film. Once the property of the Counts of Sutherland, who had it built in the thirteenth century, the castle was remodelled to its current looks in the early nineteenth century, inspired by French castles like Versailles. There are no fewer than 189 rooms, some of which are open to the public. Through the windows of the castle, I can see the sea and lovely castle gardens. This is definitely a place where fairy tales come true, if only for the day.

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                    Accommodation tip

                    Book a night at Delny Glamping , where you can spend the night in a cosy glamping pod in the beautiful hills of the Highlands.

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                    Day 5

                    From Dornoch to Inverness

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                    Coming full circle

                    On day five, my road trip comes to an end. Thanks to the endless flow of impressions, I feel as if I have been on the road for at least three weeks. A visit to Inverness Castle completes the circle, since this is the official start and end point of the NC500. I can now say without a doubt that it is rightfully one of the world’s most beautiful road trips.

                    The car driven on this road trip was sponsored by the car rental company Arnold Clark.

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