With ancient wonders, intoxicating landscapes and a dram of Highland drama, Mike MacEacheran and family take an off-season road trip around Scotland’s North Coast 500.
The irresistible draw of the North Coast 500
Silvery water, brilliant blue sky, a coastal belt of green woodland and we’re motoring along Loch Carron on the hunt for grey seals. Our vessel is Sula Bheag — meaning little gannet — and at the helm is Calum Mackenzie, who’s been captaining wildlife trips on the sea loch for more than 40 years.
He’s an entertaining host, later letting us take the wheel and don skipper hats on return to Plockton harbour. But first, all eyes on this cold autumnal morning are on a knot of rocks close to the shoreline, that are seemingly moving.
Wherever we go there’s good humour in the air
“These are our regulars,” says Calum, pointing to a haul-out of a dozen fattened seals, the pinnipeds shifting their ink-blotted tummies and tails skywards to catch the sunlight. “There’s Ron, Imber and Lou — all present and correct in the middle.”
It’s a well-worn joke that flies over the heads of the wide-eyed children leaning over the boat rails, but it’s one that helps set the mood.
Wherever we cruise — from Duncraig Castle, originally bankrolled by the Chinese opium trade, to Eilean a’Chait Lighthouse in the shadow of the whisky-gold hills of the Applecross peninsula — there’s a twinkle in the captain’s eye and good humour on the air.
The North Coast 500 is an enchanting route for a full-on family adventure
Like Sula Bheag’s captain, the seals, grey herons and lipstick-beaked oystercatchers we see are unmistakably happy with their lot.
They live in Scotland’s sparsely-populated northwest Highlands on one of the most sublime stretches of the North Coast 500: an exhilarating 516-mile loop around the northernmost bits of the British mainland. It’s now the absurdly popular habitat of motor homes and campervans every summer, but our answer to Route 66 still remains a stitched skein of peaty land and pewter sea lochs, and it’s an enchanting place for a full-on family adventure, particularly so if you hit it in the off-season.
Opt for the North Coast 500 off-season, if you can
We’re here during the half-term holidays in late October, a time when this northern route is as quiet as it can be. Most people arrive when the days are at their longest, but such has been the tourist windfall since the route’s launch in 2015 that the North Coast 500’s limited infrastructure is buckling under the pressure; most recently, the idea of a levy akin to the tourist tax on overnight stays in Venice has been mooted.
Arriving later in the season by contrast, means responsibly-minded families can learn they’re not only tourists, they’re guests. It’s a powerful reminder that supporting communities in the right way is the heart of sustainable travel.
The North Coast 500 is abundantly blessed by spine-winding bends
Leaving Inverness in the rear view, the road begins at pace, running over the Kessock Bridge to the Black Isle, through barley fields and half-asleep farmlands, before striking out for the seething North Sea coast.
Our plan is to first stop in the dune-fringed village of Brora, then gather momentum as we loop around the coast, ending four days later where the road folds in on itself as it reaches Plockton, Loch Torridon, Applecross and the Bealach na Bà: a tightly-coiled ribbon of single track blessed by spine-winding bends.
Never mind the sublime views, this is a road that makes an F1 race track look like a Scalextric set.
Swap distillery tours for ice creams and picnics
I’ve completed the route on a few occasions now, but this time the backseats are occupied by both my kids (aged nearly seven and four), meaning the procession of smoky malt distilleries (that’s Glenmorangie, Balblair, Dalmore, Old Pulteney, Clynelish and Glen Ord) are off-limits and my wife and I are surrendering to other diversions. Namely, rock pooling, picnicking, dolphin spotting and ice cream slurping.
An early highlight is fairy tale Dunrobin Castle, a Beauty and the Beast chateau garbed in plaid. With fireside drams still high on my evening agenda though, it’s a fair trade-off.
Make a Pitstop at the Royal Marine Hotel in Brora
That first night, we stop on a beachside bluff in Brora at the Royal Marine Hotel. A stay here is a little like visiting the sort of wonderfully eccentric uncle we all wish we had.
The sheer pleasure of a night of dominoes by the fire and tatty scones and smoked steelhead trout the next morning is only eclipsed by manager Billy McKechnie, who whips out a set of bagpipes to soundtrack our dinner and breakfast with his Highland repertoire. For the kids, it’s a rare excuse to scream and dance in a posh hotel, and almost as beloved to our ears as the basso profondo crash of the North Sea.
“Same time tomorrow for Scotland the Brave?” Billy chips in over our porridge. Sadly, we have to pack up, with the road calling us on. Like the endless sea outside, it keeps moving.
The North Coast 500 remains one of Britain’s wildest roads
Despite its popularity, the North Coast 500 remains one of Britain’s wildest road trips and it’s hard to disagree when the route rounds the northern tip of the mainland.
It dashes along a wind-whipped coastline, past tumbledown fishing villages curled up in sheltered coves, and the sandy beaches of Dunnet Bay. Beyond that is a vast landscape of embosomed hills and fragmented sea lochs that are a long way from any city.
That night, we stay near where the salmon leap on the River Forss at the delightful Forss House hotel, close to Thurso. The food and drink are terrific here, as is the sense of space and light on the road.
Every mile is an impromptu education for kids (and parents)
The next morning there’s silence outside, but not in our car, with the kids shouting out dolphin sightings (mostly incorrect) and asking for impromptu roadside toilet breaks (all too common, sigh).
The benefit is the extra chance to inhale the smallest details. The salty flavour of the sea air, the peaty hills, the screech of warring gulls. At Smoo Cave, we clamber over a boardwalk into the enormous sea chamber and run our fingers along the mottled rocks.
At Cocoa Mountain in nearby Durness, it’s syrupy hot chocolate with marshmallows to warm us up. On the road south through Assynt, it’s an impromptu education in the geological riddles of million-year-old hills. All of it terrific for kids, and for parents like us, who spend too long looking at screens.
The North Coast 500 is like a favourite family book
A storm approaches later and we take shelter in Ullapool. Seeing the town on arrival, you’d think it’s only purpose is business with the sea.
There’s a thicket of fishing boats, piles of creel traps, and fish and chips on the menu at every pub. Tomato ketchup needs rationing in our house, but now, in the lashing rain at The Ceilidh Place hotel, all virtuous parenting is abandoned with full-bellied haddock and fries, fizzy drinks, ice cream and pints of beer. It is our Ark.
Corrieshalloch Gorge bursts with drama
Before we leave for Loch Carron and Plockton the next day, we decide to stop briefly south of Ullapool at Corrieshalloch Gorge, a mile-long canyon and tiny wooded world with a plummeting cascade.
It is, I think, the perfect summary of the North Coast 500 itself. Keeping with the wilderness theme, it bursts with drama for pint-sized travellers, toiling to thrill us and our kids at every turn, with every gush. And ghosting through it all is the sense that the road is like a favourite family book: to be returned to time and again.
How to plan a North Coast 500 road trip
How to get there
Several UK cities, including London, Birmingham and Manchester, offer flights to Inverness
Where to stay
Royal Marine Brora, family rooms (2 adults, 2 children) B&B, from £145 per night
Forss House Hotel, family rooms (2 adults, 2 children) B&B, from £118 per night
The Ceilidh Place, family rooms (2 adults, 2 children) full board, from £340 for two nights
Plockton Inn, family rooms (2 adults, 2 children) B&B, from £175 per night