… although, with all due respect to the Proclaimers and the catchy 1988 hit from one of Scotland’s favourite bands, not to mention my obsesson with all things ambulatory, driving 500 miles is a lot easier. Especially if the route in question is the North Coast 500 — a circuit at the top of Scotland that’s billed as the country’s equivalent to America’s classic Route 66.
My family spent a week touring the NC500 recently, and despite never having driven on the wrong side of the road before, I’ve got one word for you — go! (All photos in this post by the multi-talented Lisa Gregoire: @lisaanngregoire.)
We started our journey with a ScotRail train trip from Edinburgh to Inverness, with passes from Montreal-based ACP Rail, which can help you arrange train travel throughout the U.K. and Europe. Settling into our seats and leaving the bustle of Edinburgh for a three-and-a-half-hour ride through the Cairngorm mountains was a perfect way to reach the gateway to the NC500 after a trans-Atlantic flight.
Following a quiet day in Inverness, we set off westward, tackling the route in a clockwise direction and starting to enjoy the narrow (and often single-track) highways pinched between sky and sea. Our highlights included — the full story is coming in a few months to a travel magazine near you — the friendly proprietors and amazing salmon and scallops from the Isle of Ewe Smokehouse, the mouthwatering garlic crab claws and spicy fish soup (fresh from the pier that morning) at the Seafood Shack in Ullapool, restful and luxurious nights at the Braemore Square Country House and in our Natural Retreats lodge in John O’Groats, a cozy sleep and breath-taking views of the Moray Firth at the Black Isle Yurts, the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had at Cocoa Mountain (Europe’s most remote chocolatier) in Durness, the best gin I’ve ever had at the wee Dunnett Bay Distillers, and a beautiful canoe outing on River Beauly with guide extraordinaire Jenny Jauncy from In Your Element. (Sadly, I didn’t have a chance to get onto the water on a paddleboard while in Scotland — next time!)
(Clockwise, from top-left: Isle of Ewe Smokehouse, Seafood Shack, Braemore Square Country House, Dunnett Bay Distillers, local beer and cheese at the Myrtle Bank Hotel in Gairloch, the back patio at Braemore, Black Isle Yurts, Cocoa Mountain, Natural Retreats.)
We did some hiking while driving the NC500 — including a walk to the Inchnadamph bone caves (below left), where the skull of a 20,000-year-old polar bear (!) was found — but saved the bulk of our trekking for a sojourn to the big mountains of Glencoe after the road trip was complete. There, we climbed a peak (Buachaille Etive Beag, below right), and the next morning ascended to the lost valley where the MacDonald clan hid their cattle during some strife with their rivals.
Ready for some urban adventures, we wrapped up our trip back in the capital city, taking in a couple of amazing shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe — which lives up to its billing as the largest arts festival in the world — and visiting other world-class attractions, including the illusions and visual trickery at Camera Obscura. On a solo afternoon outing, I also got in a steep climb to the city and sea views atop Arthur’s Seat.
When you add it all up, maybe I did walk 500 miles.