As we start to think about where we can actually go whilst social distancing during lockdown and, looking ahead, during the time of the coronavirus in general, we started to think about dream road trip destinations right here in the UK. One route immediately came to mind…
#1 THE NORTH COAST 500 DRIVING EXPERIENCE IS ONE OF A KIND
The sign at the foot of Bealach na Bà reads “not advised for learner drivers”, but that advice could easily apply to the majority of roads that you’ll encounter along the NC500.
Narrow, single track country roads are all that you’ll encounter for around 200 miles across various sections of the route. Blind corners and summits, hairpin bends and vertiginous edges are commonplace. Throw in that sheep and lambs are often mooching at the side or in the middle of the road, the possibility of a deer suddenly leaping in front of you and, of course, increased traffic given the route’s upsurge in popularity, and it’s certainly a drive unlike any other.
Some will love the driving experience offered (a big reason why it’s become a huge bucket-list item for sports car and Top Gear types), whilst others may spend hours gripping the wheel in fear. Andrew, despite his initial trepidation and frequent failure to make it out of third gear, loved taking on the country roads and, for both of us, simply navigating more than five hundred miles across the Highlands was memorable in and of itself.
However, the inexperienced (and those not used to driving on the left) should approach this route with caution and the correct mindset, and all drivers (even Clarkson types) need to note that driver etiquette and road awareness is hugely important when driving the North Coast 500.
#2 FIVE DAYS IS NOT NEARLY ENOUGH TO FULLY ENJOY THE NORTH COAST 500
The official North Coast 500 route suggestions point to five day itineraries for motorists; in our opinion, that really isn’t enough time.
Of course, if your main ambition is simply to tick it off the bucket list, enjoy the scenery, food and main sights, then you may be able to squeeze it all in – but, we suspect, you might just regret doing it so quickly.
We still felt a little rushed and had to forego a few of the places we had been looking forward to (like the Smoo Caves) in order to make another site in another town, or arrive at our accommodation with enough time to enjoy it and find some food for the evening.
#3 MOBILE PHONE AND INTERNET SIGNAL ARE INTERMITTENT IN THE HIGHLANDS
Any foreign visitor might be a little surprised that such a tech blackspot still exists in the UK. However, the majority of the times we checked for phone or 3G signal, there was nothing at all.
Now, this can be viewed very much as a positive – a rare chance to disconnect, escape the world for a while and remove the everyday distractions which could detract from your enjoyment of all the beauty of the Highlands.
However, it’s also important to know about this in advance so you can prepare accordingly i.e. take a paper note of your accommodation’s address and telephone number as you won’t always have google to back you up, create an offline mobile map, make people aware you may be difficult to reach whilst you’re driving the route etc.
Each accommodation in which we stayed on the North Coast 500 did have wi-fi of good enough quality for basic browsing and checking on e-mails, the news, social media etc, but just don’t expect rapid speeds.
#4 ON THE NC500, SIGNPOSTS AND MAPS ARE BETTER THAN GPS
When we picked up Jock the Jeep from Car Rental in Inverness we input our first stop off point into the GPS (Muir of Ord). However, on approaching the Kessock Bridge (not on the route), we realised that perhaps relying on the car’s system was not going to be the best approach for navigating a route which intentionally sends you the ‘long way round’.
So, if you plan on sticking to the prescribed path, our tip is to switch off the GPS (which is trying to get you from A to B in the quickest way possible) and instead keep an eye out for the brown tourist trail roadsigns. These signs don’t actually say ‘North Coast 500’ but rather things like ‘Wester-Ross Tourist Route’ or ‘Coastal Route’. Once you’ve made it out of Inverness, it’ll be quite clear what to follow and these brown signs are well placed, so you’re unlikely to go too wrong and end up driving straight up to Ullapool along the A835.
#5 YOU MIGHT NOT THINK YOU’RE IN SCOTLAND WHEN THE SUN IS SHINING BUT….
…. that feeling may not last.
As shown in ourTwelve Reasons to Drive the North Coast 500 post, the route is home to some stunning outdoor locations, including Caribbean blue waters by picture-postcard beaches (we’re not lying!). If you’re lucky enough to have good weather when you visit, then you will leave with no doubt that this is one of Europe’s best road trips.
But, be aware that that beautiful weather may not last. This is Scotland after all, where four seasons can be experienced in one afternoon and we’ve had snow in May. Therefore it’s essential that you pack for (and mentally prepare yourself) to have some rain and ‘dreech’ weather whilst on the route – make sure to check the weather report for each day before you set off.