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Scotland: North Coast 500

Updated: Jan 25

This has taken me months (on-and-off) to write with various things happening! I hope you like and enjoy the read - any feedback or comments please feel free to drop them below!

Thanks a million,

GB x

SEPTEMBER 2020 (We were not at this point in a national lockdown and were in a tier system).

When COVID-19 forced our trip of a lifetime to New Zealand to be postponed, we were left feeling deflated, low and very much in need of a mini adventure. With stricter Covid-19 restriction looming and the threat of localised lockdowns, we made a very quick decision to plan a 7 day UK road trip....but where?!

When we first started our planning, we looked at Cornwall and going 'down South' for a sun-filled week by the coast but then as time quickly ran away from us, places started to get fully booked so we chose a week long road trip of adventure - sightseeing and mystery in Scotland - The North Coast 500.

With 3 days to plan there wasn't much time to think - luckily Google Maps, Instagram and Pinterest played a huge part in helping us decide where to go, what to see and how long roughly it would take to get there. Below is the actual route we plotted out - we based this on foodie hotspots, key roads along the NC500 route and hotels (which looked just divine).

The route would take us a total of 6 days to complete - stopping off at a number of beauty hotspots and driving some of the most iconic roads on the NC500. A lot of websites recommended to do the route clockwise starting at Inverness and heading to the West coast however we started at Inverness and headed North along the East coast to John O'Groats (which we're really pleased we did and would definitely recommend doing the same!).

Our starting point was our hometown Embsay driving around 7 hours to our first stay at the Ness Walk Hotel (Inverness) (pictures below) A gorgeous 5 star boutique hotel nestled on the banks of River Ness. When I was booking all our stays I searched for properties along the route but also ones which had character or luxury. With 2020 being a year of staying in the UK it was pretty much fully booked up everywhere so had to hunt for a few of the places to stay (and pay a little bit more) but the searching and extra money paid off in this instance. Ness Walk's staff were amazing - greeted with champagne (and fresh orange juice for Aaron as a non-drinker) we were then taken to our room which was contemporary and very spacious.

We booked ourselves in at their Torrish fine dining restaurant for my first ever 3 course gourmet fine dining experience and it was HEAVEN. I'm a huge dessert fan and getting a plate with 3 mini delights was a true treat! Much needed fuel after a full days travel.

After a wonderful nights sleep in an extremely comfy bed we had a full Scottish breakfast before packing up our belongings and heading back on the road to go and find Loch Ness!

Whilst Ness Walk Hotel was in Inverness, Loch Ness its self was a short 25 minute drive West inland. It had always been a dream of mine since being a little girl to see Loch Ness and keep an eye out for the Ness herself! We parked up at Urquhart Castle (which was on restricted access due to COVID-19 but bookable in advance using online tickets) and walked a short way up the road to get a full view of the Loch in all her glory! What a great feeling but also to experience this on our first real exploring day of our road trip. Mega!!

(Picture below: me and Aaron stood on the roadside overlooking Urquhart Castle)

We jumped back in the car and motored on back to Inverness and up the East coast road to John O'Groats.

BIG NOTE HERE: Whilst we were in a hybrid vehicle, we were lucky to be able to switch between modes from electric, to petrol only to mixture of the two and thank goodness we could. Currently the infrastructure is not there for full electric vehicles (on the East coast especially) and there were times we commented on the drive saying what a relief we felt and wondered what other motorists must do on that drive.

We arrived at John O'Groats and to be honest, there wasn't much to see or do there but we weren't sure whether this was Covid-19 related or just how the town was. So we grabbed some lunch and carried on our drive around to Thurso to our next stay Forss House Hotel.

What a stunning building set in beautiful grounds. I used to live in something similar to this building in a local village of Hetton so the place was very homely to me. The decor was vintage and had it's stately home esq quirks - old clocks on the wall in the hallway leading up to the rooms, Chesterfield sofas in reception with checked carpets. Very traditional but also gave a great sense of Scotland. The food was excellent - it was our second evening of gourmet fine dining and the menu felt quite similar in style to that of the Torrish at Ness Walk. Rich, flavourful food and fairly sizeable portions which is not what you always expect at a gourmet restaurant. I've recently looked on their website and it seems like since we've stayed, it's been renovated to a high standard and the rooms look even more luxurious than before!

We awoke the next morning and decided that after a couple of indulgent meals and days we'd have breakfast and then before check-out, explore the land surrounding the Forss House Hotel with their advertised woodland trail. A gorgeous loop went from around the front of the building, through a small woodland area and to an old water wheel. Such an idyllic setting and short walk at 8am - what a way to start the next travel day!

Onwards and across we went towards the West coast, travelling across the tip of the country to our next stay in Rhiconich at Ardbeg House B&B. Having not really seen much at this point along the road from Inverness to Thurso, we were feeling excited by the prospect of beaches and scenery - which did not disappoint at all. We stopped off at Melvich, Strathy and Ceannabeinne beaches for a stroll along the sand - something which I love to do each year on our holidays but with Covid, I didn't think 2020 I'd be able to get my toes in sand and sea (granted this was fresher than any I had been in a while). With the cool wind and no one around, it made a great spot for some isolated thinking and peaceful time out.

When we arrived at our next accommodation Ardbeg House B&B we thought we were in the wrong place - we booked this very last minute through Airbnb. Susan (the host) checked us in no problem at all; warned us of the Stagg noises we may hear whilst staying in her home, local places to eat and how it was all operating due to restrictions. Like I said, AMAZING!! The room was just ideal for what we needed for the night, small but cozy and very warm - bathroom was a little dated but again, had everything we needed for a peaceful nights stay. There wasn't much in the town of Rhiconich but we weren't staying there to see anything specific, it was simply a place to stop to break up the driving and trip. The next day would be a bigger jaunt and we were well rested ahead of the journey. Susan made us the best breakfast with everything you could possibly want whilst also explaining which route would be best to take to The Torridon hotel. I would recommend Ardbeg House B&B to anyone - we said after the trip that Susan helped make our stay even more special than some of the hotels we'd already stayed at - she was going to be a tough act to follow.

On we went and it was going to be a long day (but actually ended up being about 5 hours driving) we went on the coastal road following all the twists and turns via Lochinver - stopping off to take pictures of remote castles and picturesque scenery along the way. One of the places Aaron had heard of was Clashnessie Falls - a 15m waterfall just a short 15 minute walk up from Clashnessie Bay.The day we did this, it was throwing it down and my Dr Martens didn't thank me for it - they were water logged after the walk but my goodness was it worth it - see for yourself in the pictures below!

Our next stop off was Ullapool for lunch - a fairly small town with a few art galleries, cute shops and cafes (most of which were closed with Covid restrictions in place) however we had a lovely meal at The Frigate and was a perfect pit-stop before we continued our journey on to Torridon. After a short 20 minute drive from Ullapool we passed a turning for a viewpoint and upon further inspection found it to be Corrieshalloch Gorge - A stunning gorge with the Falls of Measach plummeting into one of the most spectacular gorges in Britain. Honestly -an absolute must if you're driving the NC500 - we could have easily driven by it and never have known it existed but luckily our curiousness took over and we had to take a closer look. It was roughly a mile walk with various bridges and viewpoints. NOTE: the viewpoints were not for the feint of heart or those worried about heights!

See what I mean about the beauty and the height? Stunning!! After about half an hour or so we decided to get back on track with our journey. A lot of cars on the way were clearly doing what we were and also as groups - check out this super car group on the road to The Torridon.

Following more long winding roads and routes through the mountains we finally came to The Torridon - WOW what an entrance and building - without a doubt, it was very impressive. The architecture, grounds, reception all of it - although there was definitely something missing... the building was full of character but the people were not or a some what stuck up their own arseholes kind of character. Due to the last minute booking, we only had the choice of the 'Stable' rooms which were not within the main Torridon building. This (for some reason) meant we were not privileged enough to go into the dining area within the main Torridon building, or any further than the reception for that matter but instead we were sent to their on-site restaurant 'Bo and Muc' for our breakfast. Don't get me wrong, the room was OK but we paid a third of the price to stay at Ardbeg House B&B and the room was equal in terms of facilities and also the hospitality was far better at Ardbeg. We left the Torridon with a bit of a sour taste in our mouth and we can only stress; please don't go there if you're bothered about paying a small fortune and being ignored and made to feel inferior to their more esteemed guests. Rant, over!

A slight side note: we only stayed there for one night but when we were leaving we noticed signs for mountain bike store rooms and also trials - it would be a fantastic area for going biking so keep that in mind if you're looking for adrenaline filled activities - check out this link for their very own map of the Torridon Trails.

We just happened to leave The Torridon for Glencoe when the rain had just shown it's ugly face - the drive would only take 3 hours so we decided to take it steady and enjoy the scenery. We had heard that the coastal route would have been a lot longer in terms of time but also more of the same we'd previously done... DON'T LISTEN TO OTHER PEOPLE, stick to your own plans!!! Because we did listen to others and we missed out the route to Applecross and the infamous road Bealach Na Ba - a mega driving road and one of the best in Scotland (There is specific advice about this road for different vehicle types so check that out before heading there) Also, given more time (if you could add another few days into your itinerary I would suggest a trip across to Isle of Skye which is something I wish we'd have had the time to do). But, maybe next time!

We arrived in Ballachulish (near to Glen Coe) to spend the night in our very own luxury hut at Aos Si Lodges - this one was a very last minute decision as we'd not chosen where to stop and due to lockdowns starting to get tighter in Scotland we'd not heard from the host straight away and was a little worried that it was too good to be true! Turned out the host was elderly and isolating so our contact was via text and we saw no one upon arrival - it was so surreal. The lodge itself was just gorgeous (see below!) very romantic and a short drive to the local shops - I would love to stay here again!

We spent the night planning our next day and what we wanted to see - after a quick Google I found out that we were super close to Glenfinnan Viaduct - made famous of course by the Harry Potter train to Hogwarts - so that was a definite visit for the day after. We didn't really know exactly where we were supposed to go to view the train or even be able to ride it (if that was even possible, especially at the time with Covid etc.) but we headed to the visitors centre car park and went to the information site and 'look out' point - which doesn't actually show you the famous view from the films, nor can you see the track from there either. We had already paid for the parking for the day so we decided to leave the car and walk up a pretty steep hill by the roadside to the train station as surely we could see it there to find out more about it. Arriving at the station, we we're coerced into buying and making an 'exhibition' donation in return for the directions of the path which leads to the correct viewing point. If you go; don't bother with the exhibition. It's honestly not an exhibition but more a collection of old things that the villagers have probably kept and then put them on display to charge an admission. Perhaps a little harsh but also very true! Anyway, the path to the viewing point is behind the station up some steps - just so you can avoid the payment of shame.

We arrived there and we had no clue at that point how long it was going to be until the train passed or even if it would be the famous train so we just ate our sandwiches on the embankment and waited for 30 mins.

To our amazement the train arrived and I recorded the whole thing - I was completely blown away by it and even though it was not the famous train, it didn't matter - the magic and sparkle was still there for me having grown up reading and watching the Harry Potter books and film series. Have you seen the train? Been on it? Let me know in the comments section below as I'd love to know if it would be worth another visit in the future and taking a trip on the Hogwarts Express.

From leaving the viewpoint we hopped back on the car and headed on down the road towards the Lake District - the home of the rolling hills and beautiful masses of water. The Fjords of England. We were staying someone top secret to me at the time as Aaron had booked this for my 30th birthday however we never made it due to the pandemic so when we knew we were going on this trip, we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to end the holiday with a treat.

The drive wasn't complete without another film location stop off - filmed on Dalness Estate, and used as a backdrop in James Bond: Skyfall - Glen Etive, near Glencoe. The estate is now owned by the National Trust of Scotland but once belonged to the family of James Bond's creator, Ian Flemming. It is the scene where Bond explains to M this was his home and where he was from. NOTE: the road is very narrow and only suitable for normal or smaller vehicles (not HGV or bus suitable, check before you head down there!)

Turn the volume up and have a listen to the engine roaring along the winding road of Glen Etive.

After this short detour off the road to home, we headed towards the Lakes, we were both completely blown away by some of the scenery and roads on the way back and they were equal to the sights we'd seen on the NC500. Here's a quick snapshot of the journey from Glencoe...

As we continued, we drove past Loch Lomond and the way the sun was hitting the water was just like being away in the French or Swiss Alps - truly stunning! I had to pinch myself a couple of times wondering how I had got to the ripe old age of 31 and never been to Scotland and also never been informed by anyone of its natural beauty.

After a heafty (ish) drive we arrived at my surprise gift stay at Lodore Falls Hotel & Spa in Keswick, if you've never heard of Lodore Falls, I suggest you check it out (Aaron did good!) We stayed in one of the luxurious spa suites and had a gourmet 3-course evening meal in the hotel Lake View 2 Rosette restaurant. It was heavenly!

We luckily arrived at the hotel the day that spas were allowed to reopen in the UK after being closed for months due to Covid - Aaron had already pre-paid for our spa access as part of the room so we were first in there the morning after and made the most of all the rooms and facilities available. Happy 1 year belated 30th Birthday to me!!

We stayed there just one night and whilst the hotel was stunning, it also attracted some 'glam' guests from all over the UK for long weekends away. Our sleep was disrupted by a group of guests who were staying in the next room to us. They'd obviously booked with friends and were having a party in their room. Even though at this point certain Covid restrictions were still in place, the hotel didn't seem to do anything about it. I felt for Aaron because he'd clearly spent a small fortune for us to stay there but then he felt it was tainted by our rowdy neighbours which was a real shame.

After a disrupted nights sleep we luckily knew we only had the short 1 hour 30 (ish) drive back to Embsay. So after having a full breakfast and the last one of the trip we sat and reflected on our time away. We felt truly grateful to be only a few hours drive away from Scotland, we know that we want to spend more time there in the future and also had a relaxing, indulgent break away together. I can honestly recommend the NC500 to anyone who has a sense of adventure and loves a road trip!

Is there anything from our trip you'd like to know more about? Any advice? Tips? or even have any thoughts on what you've read? Drop me a note below and I will try and answer the best I can!

Thanks again for taking the time to read this - it means such a lot to me!

GB x AKA: Yorkshire Explorer

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