If, like me, you love Scotland but are so overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of stunning places to go for a holiday and photography trip that you're not sure where to start, then the North Coast 500 offers a fantastic route around which to plan a visit. There's a lot of driving involved, much of it along single track roads (which I love as they slow the pace of travel right down and it's nice to pull over in a passing place and wave people by), so ideally the trip requires at least a week, although longer would be fantastic. Or, if you only have four or five days, it can be done much more quickly (I added on extra bits to the journey and spent a couple of days in one area, thereby lengthening my trip).
The North Coast 500 (NC500) was launched as a concept in 2014 by the North Highland Initiative (NHI), a non-profit organisation that was established by HRH, The Prince Charles, in 2005 in an effort to develop economic growth across the North Highlands. The NC500 is branded as "Scotland's answer to Route 66, the new scenic route showcasing the fairy-tale castles, beaches and ruins" and has quickly become a hugely popular route achieving international acclaim and attracting more visitors from all around the world. As the NHI describe, the NC500:
"Brings together a route of just over 500 miles of stunning coastal scenery, the route path naturally follows the main roads across the coastal edges of the North Highlands taking in the villages and towns of places like Ullapool, Durness, John O'Groats, Dornoch and Inverness."
Shortly after the route's launch I spotted the team's page on twitter, read their website and have been itching to do the NC500 ever since. I finally made it up this May - a great time of year to travel around Scotland for a number of reasons:
there aren't many midges yet;
the weather can be fantastic for driving and camping (although this year the weather was mostly a bit too good for photography with lots of blue sky and sunshine days - amazing weather - perfect for a first visit and recce trip!);
the wild flowers and wildlife are in abundance;
the days are lovely and long;
there's very little chance of snow on the high passes (there are snow gates on some of the roads so parts of the route may be impassable in winter);
it's still off peak season so the roads are pretty clear (they were actually blissfully clear all the way North from Edinburgh!).
all the accommodation and cafes are open (many close at the end of October/early November due to low footfall - it's currently not worth their while opening during deep Winter as there aren't enough visitors to cover the cost of opening - although a couple of businesses I spoke to said that the success of the NC500 means that they may open all the way up to Christmas in the future).
My route followed the NC500 clockwise as I wanted to get the Bealach na Ba pass out of the way early on in the trip. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous about this pass, I get vertigo when anywhere near edges and in my imagination this pass was becoming a bit of a scary beast, despite the reassurances of great friend Justin Nugent, who'd been telling me for years it wasn't bad and is fun - you were right Just, it was actually really good fun to drive :-).
Trip planning tip: I'd contact the NC500 team to get hold of a copy of their official route map - it's brilliant and really handy to have in advance so you can write on it all the places/viewpoints you don't want to forget during your adventure - thanks to David & Ken from the NC500 team for sending me a copy ahead of my trip!
Here's an itinerary of my trip, with links to some fantastic places to stay or have a bite to eat for anyone else planning on doing the NC500:
Day 1: Inverness to Gairloch via the Bealach na Ba pass, with a stop, at Justin's recommendation (thanks Just!), at the Applecross Inn for lunch. The food was fantastic, I had freshly gathered scallops, they were delicious and the staff were lovely - although my goodness they were busy, luckily I arrived at bang on 12 o'clock for lunch, minutes ahead of a car rally who quickly filled the pub and benches outside. After lunch and a leg stretch at Applecross I decided to crack on along the route - I had planned to stay at Applecross but the far north west was calling, I so love it up beyond Ullapool and couldn't wait to get there! I headed on, stopping to take a snap of the little white house with the red roof (gotta be done, it's right next to the road and there's plenty of space to pull over without blocking a passing place). Further on I stopped off at Nanny's cafe and gallery in Shieldaig for tea - lovely, lovely place and the owner, Lynn, was nice and chatty and welcoming - if they did rooms I would have stayed there as Nanny's is one of those places that feels like home. I then headed for Gairloch, driving beneath the Torridon mountains. My goodness they were jaw dropping to see - but too overwhelming, if I'd stopped I'd've got distracted and would've lost too many days. I stayed over at Sands Camping and Caravan Park - this was a very lucky find, I'd not booked or planned on staying here, it was just in a handy place next to a lovely, long beach as sunset was approaching. It's an excellent site - lots of space so you're not crowded together, slap bang next to the beach (some of the pitches were in the dunes), a great toilet and shower block (a good shower is a godsend when you're on the road), well equipped and spacious self-catering kitchen facilities, and an on-site cafe for a slap up breakfast - perfect!
Trip planning tip: there is very little if any signal along much of the NC500 route - I'd done a lot of pre-planning using Pinterest and, knowing that I might be out of signal range, took screenshots of my NC500 Pinterest board before I left home so that I had it to hand throughout my trip. Lots of places, like the lovely Nanny's, do provide free wifi, though, so if you need to connect along the route you can.
Day 2: Gairloch to Mellon Udrigle beach. I love the photography of Ian Cameron, his way with colour is just wonderful and he knows his locations intimately, I have friends who have been on a number of his workshops and they keep going back for more - if I could afford to, I'd go on one too! I bought his book 'Transient Light' when I started photography in 2010 and it remains my favourite photography book. Anyhow, Ian's photographs of Mellon Udrigle beach are, to my eye, exquisite - there is one image in particular that I adore, with a range of subtle blues throughout the scene, from the lines in the sand to the sea and the distant mountains beyond, all in beautiful, delicate layers of blue. Even more appealing is that those distant mountains include Suilven, my favourite mountain (and many other folks' favourite too - it is so alluring and distinctive and unusually shaped, and it's just so humblingly ancient!). So, although Mellon Udrigle is off the NC500, I'd been dreaming of seeing the place for so long that I had to go there and stay for a night. I had thought about wild camping there, but there is a little, family run, very basic camp site right next to the beach so for £11 for the night I pitched my tent there. The nights are very short in Scotland in May, so I decided to have an early night and miss sunset in order to get up at just after 3am for sunrise instead - a bit of a gamble but, incredibly luckily, it paid off! Sunrise at Mellon Udrigle beach was an absolute stunner, nature really put on her disco frock and gave one heck of a colourful light show in the hour before dawn - one of the best morning's I've ever had, I shall never forget it.
Day 3: Mellon Udrigle beach to Lochinver. I passed some fantastic looking places on this day - Gruinard Bay looked particularly good from a photography point of view - but I wanted to crack on up to Lochinver so didn't linger. I topped up the car at Ullapool then headed on up coast, stopping briefly at Ardmair beach. Ardmair beach is definitely a spot to return to under more atmospheric conditions - it is made up of large, pale silver pebbles - gneiss I think - it's a very gneiss beach ;-). Then I turned off the route to have a drive round the Coigach peninsula, passing underneath the impressive and distinctive mountain of Stac Pollaidh. As I was driving along the little single track road in the middle of nowhere enjoying the sunshine with the windows rolled down, I pulled into a passing place to let another car by - and then I heard "Anita!" - it was Jon Gibbs! How brilliant was that - Jon's so lovely and a brilliant photographer - it made my day bumping into him and stopping for a natter in the middle of the road in north west Scotland. Jon leads photography workshops and was up for another visit to find some new and great locations for his clients - he'll be delivering a workshop up around Lochinver this Autumn. Jon's not only a brilliant photographer, he's also a lovely person and gives his clients his undivided attention - he doesn't take his own camera on workshops so that it doesn't get in the way of helping his clients get the absolute most out of their time - and he loves cake, so workshop clients certainly won't go hungry :-) - I can't recommend Jon's workshops highly enough. Jon's images from his trip, as indeed all of his photographs, are beautiful and can be seen on his website here. After having a natter with Jon, I drove along the 'mad wee road', the back road that passes through Inverkirkaig, to Lochinver. One day I'll explore that little road properly - it's dotted with little lochans and small silver birch and rowan trees, it is stunning in Autumn. I stayed over at The Lochinver Bunkhouse, which is under new ownership and has been done out really nicely, and they provide complimentary tea, coffee, milk and fresh home made bread too - and the showers are proper power showers, bliss! I hadn't booked so was very lucky to get a bed in one of their small dorms, and it was quiet that night so I had the whole room to myself.
Day 4: I'd decided to set aside a couple of days to stay in this area for a good explore as I'd visited once before and loved it. Day 4 was spent dotting about exploring viewpoints and beaches and generally chilling as it was a beautiful, sunny day. Achmelvich beach in particular was gorgeous - it's silver white sands lapped gently by a crystal clear sea with beautiful turquoise waters - heaven. Lunch had to be a visit to the famous Lochinver Larder for one of their pies - I had a haggis, tatties and neeps pie - it was delicious, I can see why people rave about the place - had pudding too, as it looked too good to resist!
Day 5 and 6: As a treat, and having seen a recommendation on twitter by the lovely Douglas Griffin (whose photography I have long been an admirer of), I'd booked two nights in a lodge on the Coigach peninsula at Port Beag Chalets at Atlandhu near Achiltibuie. The chalets are beautiful, with simply stunning views over the bay to the Summer Isles and the distant Torridon mountains. They are owned and run by Linda, who could not be a friendlier host to welcome you and help you with any queries during your stay. Linda's cabins are gorgeous and open all year round, you can stay for short breaks of a couple of nights (off-peak season), or longer. Because you can stay for just two nights, I'd recommend staying even if you've hired a campervan to do the NC500 - Linda's chalets are a little off the route but they're about half way round the route so ideally located - they are worth the minor detour. They provide a very welcome break from spending so much time in a vehicle during your trip - plus they are very well equipped with washing machines and other practical things that campervans don't have. Linda gave me loads of tips for places to visit for photography, including 'secret' beaches and a small hill nearby which gave an outstanding 360 degree view of all the surrounding mountains - Suilven looked especially handsome from that viewpoint so I spent a fair few happy hours sitting up there taking in the views. A very big thank you to Linda for such a wonderful stay - I can't wait to visit again, hopefully for longer next time - and, like Doug, would highly recommend staying here to anyone planning to visit the area.
Day 7: Atlandhu to Durness, to explore the coast there and to visit Cocoa Mountain . After a nip back to Ullapool for an Ultimate Breakfast at The Tea Store Cafe and to top up with petrol, I headed on along the NC500, aiming to get to Cocoa Mountain for one of their legendary hot chocolates before they closed at 6pm. I made it just in time and the hot chocolate didn't disappoint, it was delicious. After that I set off to see if I could find some sea stacks that I'd seen in some of Ian Cameron's photographs - he runs some of his workshops along Scotland's north coast so knows the area very well. I, on the other hand, don't know the area at all - this was the first time I'd been further north than Lochinver. The scenery was stunning and I went to the wrong beach for the particular sea stack I'd seen Ian photograph - however, what is the wrong beach?! The beach I went to, Balnakeil beach and bay, was stunning - and massive, and totally empty! So I explored there for a couple of hours until sunset. I didn't get any photos worth sharing, but it was a great recce and I'll return another time hopefully. I headed into Durness to stopover, popping into the village pub for a late bite to eat. The pub, and village's main camping site, overlooks Sango Sands - lo and behold, there was the sea stack I'd been looking for, just 2 minutes walk from the car park! That's the way the cookie crumbles sometimes when you're exploring new places, and I'd not researched the area properly - sometimes winging it doesn't work, but winging it is fun and you find things you didn't expect that way. Almost forgot to say - as you head up this way you'll pass a sign for Oldshoremore beach - gobsmackingly gorgeous beach, I nearly didn't go but am glad I did - it was blistering blue skies and sunshine when I visited, so I've no photos, but it's absolutely worth a visit!
Day 8: Durness, John O'Groats, Duncansby Head, back to Inverness, then home. By now the good weather I'd enjoyed for much of the trip was over and the rain and wind had set in and I was feeling pretty tired, so I flew around the rest of the route and decided to head home. This wasn't without a visit to John O'Groats, though, and then a leg stretch in the rain to have a wander along the clifftops at Duncansby Head. I just took my little camera with me for the wander at Duncansby Head as it was drizzly and windy. There was low cloud and the sheer, steep cliffs looked fantastically dramatic in the conditions - not cliffs you'd want to get too close to the edge of, I stayed well back behind the fence. The path still gives great views of the cliffs, which were teeming with nesting sea birds, including kittiwakes and puffins. Flocks of gannets also flew by in formation, a wonderful sight. The low cloud gave very limited visibility, but I knew from a quick chat with the tourist office lady and from trip research that there are massive sea stacks off the coast here, so I wandered along the path for about 20 minutes or so to see if I could see them. Then, just visible along the cliff line and emerging from the cloud, was a sea arch, and a sea stack and another sea stack - what a sight! I took some snaps with the little Sony (these are very rain smeared and grainy but they reflect the atmosphere of the day so I've kept them to share them here so you see how fantastic the stacks are!) and then just stood in awe looking across at them. Another location to return to for sure. There are lots of other things to see along this stretch of the route but I'd seen so much and had seen all that I'd hoped to see and more - you reach a point on an adventure when you feel content and ready for home, to refresh, take stock and then plan your return trip, so, after visiting Duncansby Head, I decided to call it a day.
Thank you for reading and making it all the way to the end of this blog, which turned out a bit longer than I'd planned, but that's how good the North Coast 500 was - 8 days (I'd thought it was 7 but actually it was 8) very well spent and lots of memories that will last a lifetime :-).