The staycation is back in fashion in a huge was in 2020, mostly down to the travel restrictions imposed on us by the coronavirus pandemic. Many of us are rediscovering what the UK has to offer, whether that be a seaside break in Cornwall or a hiking holiday in the Lake Districts. If your idea of a good holiday is a road trip through some of the UK’s most spectacular scenery, then why not join thousands of other motorists on a trip around the Northcoast 500?
Northcoast 500 – What Is It?
The Northcoast 500 is a circular driving route taking you around the very north of Scotland. As it is a large loop, you can start and finish at any point, although most drivers start in Inverness before heading west. The entire route is 516 miles long, perfect for a week or ten days exploring the north of the UK mainland. The route was formally launched in 2015, as a way of encouraging more tourists to parts of Scotland which have historically seen a lower volume of tourists than other parts of the country. The route has gained a huge amount of attention internationally, and features regularly on the lists of top driving routes in Europe.
Driving the Route
Part of the attraction of the Northcoast 500 is the remoteness of the location. It’s a chance to get away from the crowds and find lots of little hidden coves or beaches to stop and enjoy the scenery. However, the remote location is part of the reason why you need to do a bit of advance planning too. Shops are few and far between, and supermarkets practically non-existent. There are small towns and villages with local mechanics, but if you break down then it might be a while until help gets to you. Try to minimise the chances of this happening by making sure your car is in tip-top condition before setting off from home. Keep up to date with regular servicing, and go online to make sure your MOT and road tax is still current. Plan your route, and book accommodation ahead of time. At busier times of year, B&Bs, hotels and campsites are often full and unable to accept customers who aren’t booked in advance.
Most people start off at Inverness and head west. The main feature on this part of the road is the famous Bealach na Ba, a winding single-track section of road with spectacular views from the top. Once you reach the west coast, the main thing to look out for is the beaches and coastal scenery. Some of the nicest beaches are just off the main NC500 route, but are well worth the diversion. Small towns like Gairloch, Ullapool and Wick have pubs, shops and other facilities for visitors and are popular places for breaking the journey. Don’t miss the chance to visit John O’Groats, the most north-easterly point on the UK mainland before turning south again and heading back towards Inverness.
Driving In Scotland – The Practicalities
If you’ve never driven on single-track roads before, it’s worth taking a quick refresher of the Highway Code to get to grips with the etiquette of pulling in to let people pass. Although speed limits are the same in Scotland as in other parts of the UK, the main difference is the drink drive limit which is substantially lower. Even one drink could well put you over the limit, so don’t risk it. As many areas covered by the Northcoast 500 are very remote, the mobile phone signal can be patchy too, although it’s often much better in towns and villages. You won’t need your international calling card to make phone calls north of the border, or your EHIC to get medical attention either.
Getting to Inverness from the rest of the UK is easy too, and will be easier once the A9 from Perth north has been fully upgraded to dual carriageway status. If you don’t fancy taking the long drive north, then there are several direct rail services from London via Edinburgh up to Inverness, or take a budget airline flight up to the capital of the Highlands and pick up a hire car to drive the rest of the Northcoast 500 route.