I’m back again! Life really comes at you fast, doesn’t it? One minute I was sat in my halls writing a very delayed post about surviving freshers week, the next we were all sent home due to a cheeky pandemic and I was out volunteering on the frontlines. However this post isn’t about that, it’s about my most recent travel adventure now that lockdown restrictions are easing! Me and mum had booked a while ago to visit Scotland and hire a campervan but only managed to actually go in early August, about six months later than planned. We had the best time driving the NC500, read on to find out more…
First things first… what actually is the NC500? The North Coast 500 is a 516 mile route around the Scottish Highlands, starting and finishing in Inverness. The route was officially launched in 2015 as a way of improving Scottish tourism and is popular with road trippers and also endurance cyclists! Whilst the route has been beneficial to many of the smaller communities that rely on tourism, it’s also important to note that it is slightly controversial, with some travellers littering, driving dangerously and disrespecting local communities… We tried our best to mitigate this by staying in designated camping sites, always binning our litter or taking it with us if there weren’t adequate facilities, using public toilets (seriously, this seems to be a massive issue from the signage up there, don’t be gross guys…) and always pulling over to let locals pass on narrow roads and driving respectfully. Shopping locally was also important to us when possible to try and put as much money into the local economy as possible, especially post- COVID.
With all that said, here’s what we got up to!
Our holiday started on a rainy Sunday evening, getting the train from Three Bridges to London Victoria. We then got the tube to Euston where we boarded our sleeper train to Scotland! We got to use the first class lounge at the station to have something to eat (who can turn down complimentary snacks) because of our ticket type, and also got a fancier cabin on the train. This included bunk beds, a teeny tiny ensuite bathroom, a sink and a window. We also got some fancy toiletries included on our beds when we arrived! We settled in for the journey, mum quickly falling asleep whilst I stayed awake longer watching our progress up the country. At 3:30am we woke up pulling into Edinburgh Waverley station, where we had to disembark the train due to staff shortages on the onward journey!! We got onto a replacement coach instead and continued north through the Cairngorm’s National Park (I finally got a couple of hours sleep on the bus) and eventually arrived into Inverness at 7am. After storing our luggage in a locker at the station, we headed out in search of breakfast and found somewhere serving a traditional full Scottish breakfast alongside a veggie option; not even in the country for 3 hours and I’d already tried haggis! The morning was spent wandering around, buying some extra t-shirts to compensate for my poor packing skills and ticking off some sights such as Inverness Castle and Leakey’s Bookshop.
A family friend picked us up around lunchtime and drove us out to the campervan hire pickup; I immediately got lifestyle envy as the location was GORGEOUS. We were hiring our van through Highland Auto Campers and I could not recommend them enough. The owners were lovely, the vans were all beautiful and perfectly equipped for a holiday in the Highlands, and the pickup location is perfect for driving the NC500 or visiting Skye. After a quick introduction and tour of Ruby, our converted Ford Transit van, we were ready to go!
On our first afternoon, we drove west to Applecross as we had planned to do the NC500 clockwise. This was a beautiful drive and included the (literally) breath-taking Bealach na Bà. This was definitely an experience and not one for the faint hearted, although the views are unparalleled especially on a clear day like we had. That evening we arrived at our campsite in Applecross in time for a fish and chip dinner and a stroll down to the waterfront where we were treated to some live music and even more beautiful views.
Our day started early after a well-needed nights sleep and we headed away from the campsite in search of a pretty breakfast spot, which we definitely found! We then drove up the coast to Shieldaig for a second breakfast and a visit to the well stocked village store for provisions. After a wander around the village we drove up to Torridon to visit the open air church. We parked at the Countryside Centre and walked around the waterfront to get there, stopping at the National Trust deer museum on the way! We then went on the LONGEST walk ever to find a ‘waterfall’ (which we never found) and got quite eaten by midges on the way. Then it was back to Shieldaig to check in at our campsite and have dinner, before a short walk out to the peninsula where I was hit by some more serious lifestyle envy after finding the tiniest cottage nestled on a hidden beach, seriously wow.
Another ‘before breakfast’ start took us into Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, the first of its kind in Britain! Breakfast was a filling bowl of porridge before starting up the Mountain Trail from Coille na Glas Leitir car park. This walk was around 7km and pretty strenuous, with lots of very steep, almost scrambling parts. We had beautiful weather for it and the views were incredible. I’d definitely recommend picking up the leaflet from the car park to get some history/ geography lessons whilst you walk! Lunch was a picnic on the shore of Loch Maree before heading onwards to the beautiful sandy beaches of Gairloch. After finding a spot on our campsite and a walk on the beach, we settled in with takeaway pizza for an early night.
Breakfast was eaten on the pink shores of Gruinard Beach before driving to Corrieshalloch Gorge. This was already quite busy by 10am, however it’s definitely worth visiting as the view from the suspension bridge is stunning (although not if you’re scared of heights…) We wandered down to the viewing platform as well which is amazing before returning to the van and driving to Ullapool. We didn’t have a booking for this night and were advised that we could just turn up to the campsite, however I’m glad we got here early as there was already a queue and we managed to get the last spot on the waterfront watching the ships returning from the Outer Hebrides.
After getting lunch in Ullapool, we visited a couple of shops and then the ‘big Tesco’ to stock up on food. This felt pretty surreal after a few days of staying in tiny rural villages! Dinner was falafel and flatbreads eaten on the waterfront before we walked back into Ullapool to find a post box and a pub for a drink! I had an elderflower Thistly Cross cider which was super yum.
Another early start found us in the car park below Stac Pollaidh, cooking porridge in the van and sheltering from the wind and rain outside. After psyching ourselves up for a while (and the weather clearing slightly) we headed out on the circuit walk. The weather wasn’t actually that bad when we were out, although visibility got worse as we got higher, and we were able to appreciate the views below and also above of the towering rocks on the summit, one of Britain’s least accessible! We decided against doing the ridge walk as well due to the poor visibility and high winds, having a cup of tea halfway around instead. After we got back to the van we drove up to Lochinver for a much needed toilet break and some lunch by the seafront. We had originally planned to visit the Inchnadamph Caves (or ‘Bone Caves’) but changed our minds when we saw how busy the small car park was!
Instead we headed north again, stopping briefly at Ardvreck Castle before driving down the tiniest, winding road to Achmelvich beach, which o m g was worth the stressful road and even more stressful car park. WOW this beach was stunning, it honestly didn’t look like it belonged in Britain with its crystal clear blue water and white sand. Unfortunately there was zero phone signal there and I wasn’t very well prepared, so it took us a bit of ‘back n forth-ing’ to find the hidden the Hermit’s Castle, apparently the smallest castle in Europe! Our campsite for the night was at Clachtoll beach, where we enjoyed a slightly random raffle and some good chips!
I’ll leave this post here, at the end of the West coast, before it gets too long and boring! The next part will follow us along the North of Scotland and back down the East coast to Inverness…