In the remotest corners of Scotland, the North Coast 500 winds through a remote coastline of Caribbean blue beaches, heather-covered moorland and enchanting castles. Although the 516-mile route draws on centuries of legendary history, its more formal incarnation as the North Coast 500 in 2015 as part of the Northern Highlands Initiative , an innovative effort to deepen sustainable tourism in these remote communities. The circular route starts at Inverness Castle and takes you through five counties: Easter Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, Wester Ross and Inverness-shire.
Colbackie Beach, SutherlandPhoto: Courtesy of Elizabeth Wellington
My partner Tyler and I head out the last week of August to avoid the high mosquito season (mosquitoes are pesky little bugs that dominate the Highlands in June and July) and young families who have already returned home for the school year. The season is as short as the summer days in this far north are long. A trip between May and the end of September promises to open up the best pit stops for business.
Because of its impressive terrain, you'll need an excellent driver to climb mountains on the left side of often one-lane roads. A year-round wardrobe is equally essential – waterproof hiking boots and a sturdy raincoat are the bare minimum, even if you don't plan to venture beyond the dry warmth of your car.
The famous Campbell's of Beauly, founded in 1858Photo: courtesy of Elizabeth Wellington
We booked travel to Inverness by train, but there is also a small airport if you are traveling internationally. Arnold Clark , the rental car agency, ensures a smooth transition from rail to road by dropping off the car directly at the station. From there, stock up on tweed and warm wool at Campbells of Beauly , the Highland outfitter with an unparalleled reputation, before heading north along the east coast.
Dunrobin Castle from its stately gardenPhoto: Courtesy Elizabeth Wellington
The ride north from Beauly unfolds in idyllic beauty: sloping hills frame hidden coastal villages as we pass through the market town of Tain and then Glenmorangie distillery , where red doors beckon us for a tour of the iconic waterfront distillery. We drive inland for an early dinner around Mac& Wild , where the two founders draw on their Highland roots with a rustic approach to Scottish standbys that attracts many in London. This, their third restaurant and homecoming, sits above that of Sutherland Falls by Shin , where we watch salmon leap upstream before diving into an insatiable menu of burgers, venison and haggis. We spend this night in the first of many lovely B&Bs – cozy Great music greets us with bottomless tea and sends us off with a heartwarming breakfast of pancakes and bacon.
A falconer and an owl at Dunrobin CastlePhoto: courtesy of Elizabeth Wellington
Leaving this fairy tale in the rearview mirror, the road climbs steeper to high green cliffs with sweeping views of the North Sea. Following our GPS to Whaligoe Steps Café, turn into someone's driveway for a light lunch (it's not) before descending the famous 365 Whaligoe Steps to the craggy former harbor. Sprayed with sea salt, it feels like we're at the end of Scotland, and we almost are – soon we'll reach John O' Groats, a remote outpost and one of the northernmost points on the mainland that doubles as a ferry port for the Orkney Islands. We drop off our luggage at the Scandinavian-meets-Scottish cottage we managed Natural retreat and on to dinner at the elegant Forss House Hotel (a less remote alternative), where longtime manager Anne serves us with an upbeat Highlands accent and joyful mien.
About the Whaligoe StepsPhoto: courtesy of Elizabeth Wellington
The next day we marvel at another stunning castle – this one with a royal connection. Mey Castle is a beauty, as the Scots say, made even more delightful by glimpses of the cheeky humor of the late Queen Mum (Queen Elizabeth's mother), who brought this decaying property back to life in the 1950s. A guided tour is a must, and if you're lucky, one of the Queen's former employees will honor her legacy with unique anecdotes.
Soon we are winding our way across the north coast, watching rolling fields develop into "Flow Country", the world's largest bog and a sea of green and golden tundra. The beyond scene signals the start of single-lane roads ahead as we begin to share the North Coast 500 with local sheep and an errant chicken, all of which have priority over vehicles. Don't let the GPS fool you as you swing into the northwest. These parts of the journey take much longer than any algorithm can accurately judge when you have cars passing and sheep sinking.
On the road in northwest ScotlandPhoto: courtesy of Elizabeth Wellington
As we stop and walk with local farm animals, our hearts beat at Colbackie Beach, the first of a wave of wondrous turquoise beaches to come. We cross the Kyle of Tongue (a shallow, wide bay) and pursue Loch Eriboll, framed by Ben Hope, Scotland's northernmost Munro (peaks over 3.000 feet). We can't help but stop once again beach head , which warms our toes with powdered sugar sand and crystal clear sea. In Strandglück we land at the beautiful Smoo Lodge , where the owners Merlin and Kyunghee welcome us with homemade brownies à la mode. After a walk to the natural wonder of Smoo Cave, we treat ourselves to a dinner of excellent Korean dishes and seafood by reservation only, a welcome break from our daily lunch of fish and chips.
Balnakeil Bay in DurnessPhoto: Courtesy of Elizabeth Wellington
After waking up, we welcome all four seasons before tea time. We rise with clear skies and warm sun hiding behind low-hanging clouds as we venture to Balnakeil Bay. With two azure beaches and breathtaking dunes – all under the watchful eye of a 17th-century home. A hot chocolate from Kakao Berg near Balnakeil Craft Village warms us up for an icy ride through the rocky, rugged coastline, which is even more impressive in stormy skies.
The road spits us out at the tiny village of Scourie, where we get a break from the sideways rain at a former post office with a legendary history. Gorgeously renovated, the Scourie Hotel lures me into a deep leather chair next to a warm fire while Tyler heads to the mountains for an afternoon of fishing. The owners, the Campbell Family, benefit from exclusive fishing rights to two huge estates that give guests access to 25.000 hectares and 300 lochs and lochans (lakes and small lochs) offer. The fishing logs in the lobby date back to 1912, and you can feel the Scottish tradition alive and well within these storied walls.
South of the small hamlet of Kylesku, we drive through the Assynt, where lonely peaks rise through brooding moors. This strip of the North Highlands is one of the most uninhabited parts of Europe and is home to some of the oldest rock formations in the world – you can sense an ancient solitude as you drive past the ruins of Ardvreck Castle. Drop anchor in the working-class town of Lochinver for a French-inspired meal in the background with a pink sunset around Inver Lodge Hotel before falling asleep to dreams of sheep and green hills.
The ruins of Ardvreck Castle, the 15th century seat of the MacLeods of Assynt. Centuryphoto: Courtesy Elizabeth Wellington
Winding roads take us further south to Wester Ross and the bustling town of Ullapool, where ferries and fishing boats rock in the harbor. For lunch we opt for a food truck run by two local gals Fenella Renwick and Kirsty Scobie, simply known as The Seafood Shack . Our food is simply spectacular – we devoured fried haddock wrap, fish cakes and Cullen Skink soup (a Scottish specialty) along with Irn Bru (Scotland's iconic orange soda) at outdoor tables.
A hearty lunch at The Seafood Shack in UllapoolPhoto: Courtesy Elizabeth Wellington
Invigorated by lunch, we finish the ride to Victorian Shieldaig Lodge , which sits next to a field of furry cows in a quiet cove. With familiar cordiality and impeccable service, the staff makes sure that we feel at home in the beautifully furnished rooms and on the huge 23.000 hectare estate feel at home. Here you can board local skipper Ian McWhinney's boat for a lesson in creel or shellfishing and captivating Highland lore.
After our last night on the west coast, we drive through Beinn Eighe nature reserve , the last piece of ancient woodland that once covered the great north of Scotland. From there, the village of Applecross beckons us with a breathtaking view of the islands of the Outer Hebrides. The smoked salmon and local cheese at beloved Applecross Smokehouse Take a picnic and consider the road ahead. The upcoming Bealach Na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) is the highest and most hair-raising road in the U.K. – if, like us, you're tired from the drive so far, opt for the more relaxed, two-lane drive back to Inverness via Shieldaig.
Coul House Hotel in Contin, Inverness-shirePhoto: courtesy of Elizabeth Wellington
Once you have the Highland capital firmly within reach, the elegant Coul House Hotel in nearby Contin, the boutique Rocpool Reserve Hotel and family-friendly Ardconnel Court Apartments all serve as cozy stopovers to say goodbye to this unprecedented journey. We made our way to pink Inverness Castle for one last bit of Highland magic before packing our bags for our journey home. A bag filled to the brim with Highland provisions – smoked salmon, small drams and a tin of homemade shortbread – ensures that we enjoy the bounty of the North Coast even after saying goodbye.