A Wee Drive – North Coast 500 Road Trip
This time last year I set off in CSR #023 for a drive around the greater part of the North Coast 500. The road trip was organised by the Property Road Racing Club, comprising a group of likeminded souls working in or around real estate.
We met in Balloch at the foot of Loch Lomond, with a terrific variety of cars between us, including a Datsun 240Z running a 2.6 litre engine, a bright red modern Mustang and a Litchfield chipped Subaru BRZ. For me at least it was the first time meeting the others, and for all of us the first time on the North Coast 500.
Heading out along the Loch Lomond shore, we grabbed a coffee at the Glencoe ski station, thankful to be in from the cold and smirr (drizzly mist to those of us south of the border). From there we managed to find the small turning to the left that headed to the so-called Skyfall Road, used during the filming of the Bond film. If you can recall Daniel Craig standing by his DB5 with Scottish mountains as the backdrop, that’s the one.
As we progressed the road got increasingly narrow, but also progressively more broken up which was not suiting the front splitter at all. So, leaving the CSR in the company of the local chickens I hopped into another car and we made our way out to the northern tip of Loch Etive. Stunning scenery with the black clouds adding to the moody ambience, but also encouraging us to push on.
Target for the night was the Isle of Skye, across a remarkably humped bridge for those not familiar with it. Having travelled all this way it would have been rude not to have at least one whiskey distillery tour and tasting, and so we did just that at the Torabhaig Distillery, before heading into Portree and our digs for the night.
After a night in Portree, we set off after an early breakfast for a lap of the north of the island. On the coastal road we were immediately spoilt by quiet roads and breath-taking scenery. Dropping down into a bay with the morning sun on the sea to the right, a loch with mountains beyond to the left and a snaking road ahead of me to the ascent beyond was one of the great moments of the trip, and all before our morning coffee.
After reuniting in Portree, we retraced our steps of the afternoon before, back to the mainland and a stop at Eilean Donan Castle. Dating from the 13th Century and located on the meeting points of three lochs it has been called the most beautiful castle in Scotland and I would not disagree.
Heading back north we tracked the edge of Loch Carron before turning off after Tornapress for the challenging Bealach na Ba Pass. Steep and narrow, this is not for the faint hearted or the lowly slung, with the front splitter taking its first real beating and caps were proverbially doffed for a wide and low Ferrari following us up.
Devoid of trees at the summit, with black clouds building and a mighty wind, after a quick photo stop we pressed on for our lunch at the delightful Applecross Inn, where whilst enjoying generous portions of the local fish, the clouds parted and a fabulous afternoon is the sun presented itself.
Leaving Applecross via the narrow road hugging the coastline was a pure joy, particularly after the earlier fear that that the weather was turning for the worse, with a clear blue sky and the most magnificent highland cattle at the road edge and frequently getting even closer.
As we turned back inland the scenery changed again, with thick forests and some of the most fabulous roads I’ve driven on. Smooth, wide and winding through the pines, as we dropped down to Little Loch Broom my mind was made up: This had been the best day’s driving ever.
The last treelined miles into Ullapool didn’t disappoint and we arrived early evening exhausted but elated after the most magnificent day, with 200 miles under our belt. The Ceilidh Place Hotel provided a warm welcome and an entertaining evening in their lively restaurant.
Leaving Ullapool we almost immediately started climbing as the road took us inland and deeper into the Highlands. With a scenery dominated by stone, passing through Elphin we stopped at Cam Loch to take in the raw beauty, with the castle ruins reflected in the millpond smooth water.
With a significant distance to cover, we hit the road again, quite literally for the front splitter which finally gave up the fight. To be honest, having had to scan the road and brake hard to try and protect it for much of the journey, its departure was a blessed relief and allowed me to relax for the remainder of the trip.
Heading further north to our goal, we paused at the lovely Clashnessie Bay. A soft sandy beach demanded to be walked on, and so we did. Yet another landscape to add to the ever-growing list.
Next stop was to be the Kylesku Bridge, a landmark on the North Coast 500, with the tyre marked car park laying testament to the octane fuelled fun that came before us. As we arrived another group were leaving, with only the redlining of Porsche, Lotus and TVR engines breaking the silence. After a photo session of us crossing the bridge, it was round the corner to the Kylesku Hotel for coffee and the acquisition of stag antlers as a memento of the trip.
From Kylesku it was 35 miles to Durness on the north coast and a realisation that this wasn’t the place to be low on fuel. Thankfully, we narrowly beat a large group of motorcyclists to the only pump for 20 miles. Self service with a credit card what it lost in pump speed it more than made up for in cost!
Blessed with weather from a summer’s day and feeling like we were at the edge of the world, which I guess was partly true, we motored along the north coast struggling to find somewhere that wasn’t fully booked for lunch. We ended up in Thurso. Feeling like any other town it marked for us the end to the otherworldly west and north coast Highlands that we had enjoyed.
None of us had been to John O’Groats before, and so although there was some debate over lunch at to whether we should replace two sides of a triangle with a single side direct to Wick, we decided that as we’d come this far we’d go and see what it was all about.
We were pleasantly surprised by what we found, with the famous signpost, a great café and the scenery far less spoilt than we’d feared. My companions had just 20 miles to go to their hotel in the Wick for the night, but I had to get home a day earlier and so after fond farewells I got on the road.
The east coast road whilst lacking the drama of the west was just what I needed after what had been a long day already, and so with the sun setting half way through my journey I drove into the late evening and beyond to reach the Ballathie Country House Hotel, just north of Perth.
Arriving after the kitchen had closed, the barman kindly arranged for a sandwich to be prepared, which was washed down with a beer or two. What a fabulous weekend!
Apart from the front splitter I specified for the car, and which I’m now treating as effectively a service item to be renewed each year, the CSR had been perfect. Not too big for the narrower lanes, but with enough room for my kit and stag antlers! Thrilling and engaging when I wanted it to be, with an exhaust and engine sound to savour, but civilised on the long schleps in-between.
If you’re considering the trip yourself, top tip would be to focus your time on the west coast from Isle of Skye up to Durness. It’s by far the best part both for scenery and roads. Otherwise, whilst we got lucky with the weather, I would definitely go out of season. A lot of the fun would be lost stuck behind endless campervans and the narrower roads (a single lane with passing points) must simply grind to a halt in the summer. Book ahead for lunch, even in April we struggled. Oh, and try not to be low on fuel in the north-west corner, it’s a lot more remote than you’d imagine.
Written by: Phil Churchill