LOVE TO WANDER
Our trip ends today with aa 5 hour drive south from Dunblane home.. It has been an interesting trip to this remote, far flung land where there is a marvellous amount of nothing to do. If you are looking for solitude, room to wander and reflect and allow yourself to " just be", then you will find plenty of it in the Scottish Highlands.
The North Coast 500 is certainly a spectacular road trip - equal or better than the Garden Route, the Big Sur. the Beartooth Highway, the Badlands Loop the Canadian Iceway or the Coromandel Peninsula NZ that we have experienced previously. Although only established in 2015 (with support from Prince Charles), its reputation is growing quickly with world's best road trips ratings: of CNN Travel No. 2, Wanderlust No. 11, Hello Magazine No. 8, The Telegraph No.4.
You can obviously do this trip either way round, but I think East to West is best because the scenery on the West coast is much more stunning than the East, so you can get the history and a feel for the place on the East and save the best until last on the West coast.
It would have been quite possible to do this trip in three or four fewer days, though this would have given much less opportunity to explore on foot, especially making allowances for the rain and windy weather. It would be possible to complete it in just a week, but to do it all in the car would be missing a huge amount. We walked a total of 135kms in two weeks and the walks were the highlights of the trip for us.
The trip would probably have been better in May, when the maquis would have been in flower and the seabirds would have been around (April to July, but before the onslaught of beastly midges. The roads would probably be pretty challenging in the height of Summer given the volume of traffic still on them at the tail end of the season.
Perfection on this trip would have been a combination of the best bits of all the hotels we stopped in:
Views, welcome and fireside - Kyleskue Hotel, Kyleskue
Breakfast, bed and bath - Mackay's Rooms, Durness
Restaurant - Aultbea Hotel, Altbea
Beach and view from the room - Bettyhill Hotel, Bettyhill
Whisky Selection - Dunblane Hilton Hydro, Dunblane
After dinner coffee, chocolates and liqueurs - Mackay's Hotel, Wick
Recommended reading: The North Coast 500 Guidebook by Charles Tait. A comprehensive guide to all the region has to offer.
Useful website: www.walkhighlands.co.uk
Wish I had seen: A Highland Fling; Castle Mey (ran out of time!)
Wish I had packed: More Kleenex tissues, wellies
It took us the best part of 6 hours to drive from Shieldag to Dunblane where we decided to break the long return journey home with an overnight stay. En route, we made a small detour to visit the Kelpies at Falkirk.
They are an amazing piece of sculpture designed by Andy Scott, built to commemorate the horses that towed the canal barges. He built large scale replicas of two of the horses named Baron (the taller with head up) and Duke (the smaller with head down). The cleverly crafted steel structures are illuminated at night and their scale means they tower impressively over the road as you approach the site. Well worth the detour!
A nightcap of Bunnahanhain 12 year old whisky made for a smooth finish to the evening. Described as: "fresh and fragrant with hats of seaweed and malt on the nose. Soft and supple on the palate with sherry, a hint of sweetness, malt and juicy sultanas. A sherries, herbal finish with a balanced, salty tang." Very memorable.
We stopped at Victoria Falls this morning, just off the A832 out of Shieldaig, Gairloch. (NB - there are two Shieldaigs on this area - one near Gairloch and the other Torridon!). You can take the short walk right up close to the falls without risking falling in - it's a very pretty spot.
The weather had closed in, so we spent most of the day driving the remainder of the North Coast 500 route down the wild West coast, including the hairpin bends down the Applecross to Lochcarron stretch, which is a breathtaking road. We saw two RVs attempting it despite the very clear warnings that it is unsuitable for them. The sunshine and rain showers meant that we saw many beautiful rainbows along the road - at one point, we drove right underneath one!
Makes you smile:
Benn Eigh Visitor Centre was doing its best in very wet conditions. They get 2 metres of rain a year and 2/3 days are wet. A. board in the Visitor Centre invited you to note what you had spotted on your walks. People had mostly written midges, slugs and bumblebees - nothing as exotic as a golden eagle, otter or deer!
Inverewe Gardens at Poolewe - just down the road from Aultbea - provided a great place to spend half a day. There are 54 acres of gardens to explore with interesting plants from all around the world including Japan and Africa. The location is protected by the Gulf Stream and level planting of Scottish pines which allows many plants which would not ordinarily survive these harsh conditions to thrive. The gardens and house are run by the Scottish National Trust - there is a reciprocal arrangement with the National Trust so entry is free for members. There is always something in bloom at Inverewe and - although late September is probably not the best time to visit - there was still lots of interest and colour. The house has been beautifully restored and gives a really good impression of what life was like for Maire - only daughter of the original owner and the main curator of the garden back in the 1930s. How lovely to be able to leave a legacy of a beautiful garden like this so it can be enjoyed by future generations. I will take away ideas for my own garden in the hope that I can do the same - albeit on a very much smaller scale!
Eels used to come out of the bath taps when they ere first turned on and you had to wait for them to go down the plughole before you could take your bath!
Shieldaig Lodge is a Victorian hunting lodge set in a 26,000 acre estate next to Loch Gairloch.
It has lovely waterside views from the lounge and dining room and a massive selection of whisky and gin in the bar, It was disappointing though the there was no menu for the whisky and gin. collection which left you not knowing prices and with no descriptions of flavour/nose to tempt you. to try something new. We stuck to old favourites as a result, which was a missed opportunity. The hotel has a falconry, which adds a bit of interest, and a snooker table if you fancy a game. This was the most expensive hotel we stayed in though and - although it is comfortable and the restaurant serves local produce - there is better value to be found elsewhere.
A small loch-side Highland hotel ideally positioned between Ullapool and Gairloch . Great food, comfortable rooms, beautiful views and a lively bar. The locally sourced scallops and cheeseboard were particularly good.
The journey wasn't too long today, so we were able to stop at Invercircaig and walk to the Kirkaig Falls on the way. The 2.5 mile path is muddy after rain - somideally tackled with wellies! Today was lovely and sunny though and the falls were impressive when we got to them. after the rain the previous evening. Two fishermen we met on the path on the return trip told us that continuing on the path for half a mile or so beyond the falls brings you to a loch and a great view of Suilvan. We missed it, but if you are coming this way yourself, you might want to try it?
We took the long road to Aultbea passing through the pretty Brae of Achinahaird - very photogenic. A stop at a tiny cottage on the shoreline was rewarded with a hot cup of tea and. a nice chat with the very elderly Scottish lady owner who had moved to the village in 1960 when Gaellic was still being spoken.
Makes you smile:
The Scottish café owner wanted to know where we had been on our travels. When we told her we had been to Wick, she made us laugh by saying she didn't think that much of it - she remembered she bought a blouse there about 20 years ago!
Two deer, not far from the roadside!
The day started fine, so we headed over to the beaches at Oldshoremore that we had driven past in our haste to reach Sandwood Bay. A Highland cow with huge horns posed for a photo at the start of the walk - an interesting sight so close to the beach. The cluster of beaches on this little stretch of coast are very pretty but somehow less impressive than Sandwood or Balanakiel Bay. The rain came down on the way back too which didn't help.
A walk around Loch Gleann Dubh later in the afternoon yielded much more interest with a sighting of a small seal colony on a rock in the loch and a crane.
Rock Rose gin - as the bottle says: "The precious key botanicals are blessed with the freshest air and finest Highland water. They are lovingly prepared before being hand-distilled to create a true taste of our beautiful and rugged coastline. Flavourful and fish, zesty yet berryful with a long, smooth finish. One of nature's little treats.
Polar bears and reindeer once roamed this land, as a trip to the Bone Caves will inform you.
Crab supper. It promised great things, but it wasn't fully prepared, so it was very messy to eat and there was very little white meat.
The drive from Durness to Kylesku only takes about an hour and a quarter, so we took a short detour.at Scourie and almost got blown into the sea the wind was so strong. A ferry runs from Scourie to Handa Island where there are seabird colonies in the Summer, but we were too lat for that. We decided to take the scenic coastal route around Drumbeg which yielded some impressive views of this lonely land. Drumbeg boasts an impressively well stocked local store which sells everything from award winning Cornish cheeses to a privately bottled single malt whisky and a whole range of food and useful things in between. The force of the wind shortened our day a little, but we managed to fit in a blustery walk to the Kylesku Bridge from our hotel. There used to be a ferry operating across the loch here during daylight hours only and took an hour on a calm day. If you missed it, you faced a 100 mile trip via Laird. Winds of 100mph were recorded during construction - you could see why today.
A hiker wearing a shortish green kilt. I hadn't got the heart to wait for the obvious photo in gale force winds ...
Makes you smile:
A fellow resident at our hotel had a huge dog which was a labrador poodle cross - a fairly unlikely cross breed given the difference in size?! It was a soft old thing in every way, putting its paw up to shake the hand of everyone who walked by.
From the village in Durness, you can walk out along the edge of the cliffs at the edge of Sango Sands and out along the headland all the way to Faraid Head. It is about 4 miles to get to the end of the headland and another 4 miles back along the bay. The path takes you very close to the roaring ocean and - as the cliffs are fairly low - you have a feeling of almost walking in the sea! There is a military site at the end of Faraid Head which is a bit of a shame, but you can understand why the MOD would choose a remote location such as this for their practice area. There is a very apologetic signboard explaining why it is necessary to operate sites like this.