Forget Route 66, grab a campervan and tackle the North Coast 500 in Scotland for the drive of your life
- The recently rebranded North Coast 500 is a spectacular 500-mile route
- Graeme Thomson tackled the trail in a campervan with his wife and children
- They drove from east to west, starting on the A9 from Inverness to Thurso
Think you need to jet off to Route 66 in the United States or to the wide-open spaces of Australia for a classic campervan adventure? Think again. There’s a spectacular 500-mile route here that’s perfect for a road trip.
It’s the recently rebranded North Coast 500, Scotland’s awesome alternative to the world’s better-known highways. Join it and you’ll take a long loop around the windswept head of the nation, where rain can add to the drama and where sunny days make you feel you’re in holiday heaven.
Better still, you can enjoy your Scottish adventure in some style with a campervan that includes a shower, kitchen, wi-fi and king-size bed. And don’t worry if you’ve never driven a campervan before. Rental firm staff will show you the ropes, and the best vans have touchscreens with instructions on everything from setting up bunk beds to refilling the water tank.
Magical journey: A motorhome crosses the Kylesku Bridge on the North Coast 500
Yes, big vans take a bit of getting used to (parking can be tricky at first), but once you taste the freedom there’s no turning back.
My trip was a ten-day tour in an ingeniously roomy Bailey Advance motorhome with my wife and our two youngest children, aged 12 and 14.
We tackled the trail from east to west, starting on the relatively forgiving A9 from Inverness to Thurso. It also allowed the drama to increase as the holiday progressed.
An early highlight was the gloriously empty beach by our first campsite in Brora. It’s from where we visited Dunrobin Castle, ancient seat of the Earl of Sutherland and a towering monument of baronial elegance. We also detoured to the breathtaking Falls of Shin, where we watched salmon leaping upstream.
Heading north, we left the A9 to visit the Whaligoe Steps, a rough-hewn set of 350 or so stone steps carved into a cliff face. Descending gingerly to an eerie amphitheatre surrounded by the North Sea, the only sounds were the crashing waves and the cries of terns and kittiwakes.
We bypassed John O’Groats and its tourist hub and spent a night at Dunnet instead, where the vast beach was bathed in glorious pink light at sunset that night.
However, it wasn’t until we were west of Thurso that the magic of the route really hit home. Pootling along a single-track road across the top of Britain, it felt as if civilisation was ebbing away. Near the Kyle of Tongue, a golden eagle rose from the verge beside us and even the children were diverted from their screens.
Elegance: Dunrobin Castle is the ancient seat of the Earl of Sutherland
In peak season, pre-booking berths along the route at affiliated Caravan and Motorhome Club campsites is recommended to guarantee a spot each night. But there’s something to be said for going off grid. At the most remote point of our trip, we stopped over at Laid, a dot on the banks of Loch Eriboll, and loved it. We barbecued local salmon and sweetcorn and drank lemonade and Orkney Northern Light ale. As dusk crept in, a seal bobbed a hello at the loch edge.
The next morning, the children braved the Golden Eagle zip line 120ft above the beach at Durness, before we explored Smoo Cave.
We then turned south-west, twisting through moonscape terrain from the Kyle of Durness, skirting Cape Wrath and travelling 70 crooked miles to Ullapool. It’s a magnificent, barren stretch of road which, in a motorhome, can feel a bit like driving a tank along a towpath.
After days of basic living and little human interaction, by the time we reached Ullapool it felt as if we were rolling into Las Vegas. The low-key buzz was welcome and we took full advantage. We spent the day grazing at the Seafood Shack and browsing books at The Ceilidh Place. Next morning, we visited the botanical gardens at Inverewe before wending our way to our final campsite just south of Loch Maree.
The following morning, we drove along hairy roads near Loch Carron, pottered about in Plockton, the picture-perfect home of fictional TV police officer Hamish Macbeth (played by Robert Carlyle), and visited Eilean Donan, the most photogenic castle in Scotland. It was our final day and it felt as if a spell was wearing off as we re-entered the slipstream of reality. The North Coast 500 does that to you.