NC 500 and Scottish Highlands

Back in 2013 I made a plan for myself to go on some of the most iconic road trips in the world in the next 10 years. As part of that plan I travelled to Melbourne in 2016 and went to the Great Ocean Road. In 2019 I got an opportunity to tick another iconic road trip off my bucket list and this was the Majestic North Coast 500 in Scotland. Based on my experience I will share the best way to do the NC 500 in the most convenient possible manner.

Car Rental:

One of the key part of any road trip is the selection of car, rental company and also the place of rental and drop off. During my first trip to the Great Ocean Road I picked one car from the airport but later found that it would have been much cheaper had I reserved one ahead. So, this time I did my research beforehand and looked at different options at least one month ahead.  I decided to book the car from Edinburgh Airport. I picked Edinburgh because the 8-hour drive from London to Edinburgh is unnecessary, I easily took a night bus from London, it saved both time and money. As for pick up location, I always pick Airport as you can take or drop off your car pretty much any time of the day. Also, there are more options at the Airport counters. 

Docs Required:

When renting a car in Europe you will need the following documents (Bangladeshi National):

  • Passport
  • Driver’s License (With Embedded Chip)
  • International Drivers Permit (Mandatory in Europe, not in UK)
  • Credit Card in Primary Drivers Name (Your card must cover the car rent as well as another $700 deposit)

Route Plan:

When doing my research, I realized that July is peak tourist season in Scotland and most hotels and hostels are fully booked. So, I decided to book all my accommodations as early as possible. So, it was very important for me to finalize the night stops. After reading a few blogs and spending stupendous amount of time in Google Maps I was finally able to make a concrete itinerary. 

Day 1: Edinburgh City Tour

Day 2: Edinburgh to Glen Coe

Day 3: Isle of Skye and night stay at Inverness

Day 4: Inverness to Lochinver

Day 5: Lochinver to John O Groats

Day 6: Back to Edinburgh

I will not say that this is the best possible itinerary. If I had more time, I would have added 2 more days, then the whole planning would have been perfect, and I could have covered everything that the Scotland North Coast has to offer.

Day 1: Edinburgh City Tour

Edinburgh is a fascinating city and it’s a pity I got to spend only one day here. Ideally you should spend minimum two days here to make the most of your stay in this marvelous city. I booked my hostel at Safe Stay Edinburgh and for $20 per night it was great value for money. The location was also next to the iconic Royal Mile, right at the heart of old town. Some of the must visit places in Edinburgh are Edinburgh Castle, Royal Mile, Calton Hill etc. My favorite part was the short trek to the top of Arthurs Seat, which is a small hill overlooking the city. The panoramic view of Edinburgh from the top of Arthur’s Seat was mind-blowing. Edinburgh also has a buzzing night life with some great bars and clubs with great live music and party keeps going till late at night. 

Day 2: Edinburgh to Glen Coe

One of the most important rules of any road trip is to have good companion and I was lucky to have four of my best buddies with me. So, we made our way to Edinburgh Airport Car Rental Centre to pick up our pre reserved BMW X1. Unfortunately, we were little late reaching the airport and our reserved car was gone by then. We had to contend with a sedan, a BMW 318, a decent upgrade and after some negotiations, Sixt manager gave us some discount. 

On the way to Glen Coe, we got our first taste of Scottish Highlands and it was love at first sight. The barren lands with twisting roads in between was a sight to behold and driving was pure pleasure. Our first stop on the road was Loch Lomond, one of the hundreds of Lochs in the area. Scottish Highlands is a vast area and although there are proper 2 lane roads covering most of the major tourist attractions, you will also find some single lane roads here and there. Feel free to take some detours and step away from the map. Don’t follow what the GPS is telling you and you will end up in some astounding places. On our first day, we took one such detour and after nearly 15 miles of driving without any directions we ended up in a remote lake called Loch Etive beside the Glen Etive Forest. It was a sight to behold! On the way we also found a wild deer which got really close to our car and even poked his nose inside! 

We stayed the night at a quaint little town called Kinlochleven. We booked our beds at Blackwater Hostel and it was a very well managed accommodation. There were also options for Glamping but all of them were already booked. The weather was not very good the entire day and we hardly saw sunshine, rather it was cold, gloomy and it rained a lot. Still the highland views kept our spirits up and we yearned for better weather in the upcoming days.

Day 3: Isle of Skye

Isle of Skye is one of the best places in Scotland Highlands and it also the most visited. So even before 1 month, I could not find a single budget accommodation. So, we planned to do a day trip in Skye and travel to Inverness at night and stay there, which meant a whole lot of driving on the day. We knew that one single day at Skye is never enough, so we decided to visit some shortlisted places only. First place we visited was near Glen Coe, it’s called Glenfinnan Viaduct. Although you may not have heard about this place, you have for sure seen it before. This is the actual location where Hogwarts Express was shot, and it was something all five of us really wanted to see. Also, our research showed us that a steam engine train similar to that of Hogwarts Expresses crosses the viaduct at 10:45 AM. So, we reached the place and made a short 15 mins trek up the mountains in treacherous rains and muddy conditions just to catch a glimpse and seeing the Hogwarts Express whistling past us was all worth it. 

Afterwards we headed to Skye, we had to cross a ferry on the way as well. After crossing the river, the scenario changed significantly. The sun was out for a few minutes and we were crossing some amazing landscapes. One of the memorable ones was a random roadside waterfall with waters as white as milk. Our target in Skye was to make it to the top of a hill called Old Man of Storr. As we reached Storr, the sky opened up again and it was treacherous. Nonetheless we put our raincoats on and headed to see the old man. The 700m trek was more difficult than I imagined, and the rain made it worse. But after nearly 90 minutes, we were able to reach the top. It was magical but we also wondered what it would have been had the weather been bright and sunny. Exhausted, we took a pitstop at a beautiful small village called Portree and had fish and chips for dinner. On the way to Inverness, we also stopped by a beautiful castle of Eilean Donan. The drive from Portree to Inverness is one of the best I have ever driven in my life. We understood why NC500 was called one of the top road trips in the world and officially we haven’t even started the NC500 route yet.

We stayed the night at Lochness Backpackers Lodge and it was very good. The rooms were clean and the hosts were also very friendly and attentive. The lodge had a very chill common place with a huge collections of board games. 

Day 4: Inverness to Lochinver

The NC500 is a 500-mile circular loop starting from Inverness and circle through the Northern villages of Scotland, including the Northernmost point of United Kingdom, John O’ Groats. We decided to do the trip clockwise and our first part of the day’s journey was from Inverness to Lochinver. Our first stop on the route was Urquhart Castle which supposedly has the best view of Loch Ness. Although we didn’t capture a glimpse of Nessie, we did get some fascinating views of the mystical Loch. Afterwards, we ended up in a beautiful seaside town called Cromarty where we had the best Seafood pizza ever at Café Sutor Creek. 

I got to know about a fascinating golden sunset at a beach in Achmelvich with white pristine sands and we set about looking for it. It is one of the hidden gems of this part of Scotland and the hours we spend on the beach and the surrounding hills were unforgettable. We stayed the night at a quaint B&B called Tarradh Guest House. I was pleasantly surprised to see wild deer roaming around the neighborhood and some even came to graze inside our hotel perimeter. The towns here get quiet by 7PM and most restaurants require reservations at least 24 hours ahead. Achmelvich was so beautiful that we stayed there for hours and didn’t mind skipping dinner for one night. It is definitely one of the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen in my life. 

Day 5: Lochinver to John O Groats

The entire route from Lochinver to John O’ Groats is on the border of Northern Coastline with mind-blowing views of the North Sea. On the way to John O’ Groats there are two major towns, Durness and Thurso. While Durness is a small town with limited things to do, Thurso is the biggest town in the area, it even has a Tesco! There are hundreds of place on the route where you need to stop but with great self-restraint, we limited our stops to 4-5 places. We took a detour at the start of today’s trip and ended up at a majestic shoreline full of different species of birds. The ancient light-house of Stoer also stood above majestically with all its glory. 

The scenery of today’s route was just stunning and we wanted to stop and admire the place after every few miles. We once again got to realize today why NC500 is called one of the top road trips in the world and I was beginning to think whether we should have planned a couple of more days here. We had lunch at Smoo Cave Restaurant just beside Smoo Cave, which is a natural underground cave with multiple tunnels. Unfortunately, because of bad weather, it was closed.

As it was getting late, we skipped a few places like Tongue and Bettyhill beach and headed straight towards Thurso. We bought Chinese takeaway dinner and planned to eat in front of Dunnet Head lighthouse which is the 2nd most Northern part of mainland UK. Although the Chinese food was questionable, nobody can question the serenity of the atmosphere and scenic views on display. We reached John O’ Groats after sunset and so decided to call it night in Seaview hotel. I believe it was the only hotel there, but it had a good atmosphere with a few tourists to chill with till midnight. 

Day 6: John O Groats to Edinburgh

We headed to John O’ Groats first thing in the morning and reached the Northernmost part of United Kingdom. It was a triumphant moment and I also got somewhat sad realizing that our amazing trip is slowly coming to an end. There were a few souvenir shops and also a Starbucks! Having reached our target of the trip, we started the long journey back to Edinburgh. It was a long drive to Inverness without any stops, as we had to return our car in Edinburgh, we decided not to take any long stoppages, rather enjoy the sights while we drove. The Eastern shorelines were equally beautiful, and we had amazing views of the ocean all the way till Inverness. Inverness is the biggest town in the area with lots of hotels, restaurants, shopping malls etc. We had a quick lunch at Subway and headed for Edinburgh. Before returning the car at the airport rental station, we stopped at a service station, got the car refueled, vacuumed and also got a good old automatic wash. I always suggest returning the car in a decent condition so that there is no risk of additional charges. 

At the end of the it all, I ran out of adjectives to describe the road trip. If I ever have the chance to do the circuit again, I would happily do so, only this time I will plan for 2 extra days at least. This trip was special to me for a personal reason as I will be moving to USA next month to start my MBA. 

Route 66 : You are Next!! 

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