It’s time for a road trip. An epic, multi-day, take-your-breath-away road trip. You’re thinking along the lines of Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway, but you want to leave the United States this time. Something like the Amalfi Coast in Italy or the Great St. Bernard Pass in Switzerland, though without the crowds. Scotland sounds good. You’ve always dreamed of seeing the Scottish Highlands’ rugged coast. Well now there’s a 500-mile drive to show off its gorgeous scenery.
The North Coast 500 is a new—created in 2014—scenic drive that winds between small villages, medieval castles, glacial mountains, windswept beaches, and amazing natural wonders. The 516-mile road crosses hidden trails and rushing waterfalls. Family-run seafood restaurants, little inns, and beloved whiskey distilleries sit alongside the road. While water, whether a loch or the dark gray ocean, is never far from sight.
The circular drive begins and ends at Inverness Castle, a red sandstone castle in the capital of the Scottish Highlands. You decide to follow the five-day itinerary, which will give you plenty of time to see the sites, enjoy the open road, and make plenty of stops along the way. Start by following the southern shore of the Beauly Firth and head north toward the little village of Muir of Ord. Here you must choose to follow the NC500 clockwise or counterclockwise. You head west.
Your first stop is Rogie Falls, a series of waterfalls along the Black Water river. A wobbly bridge crosses the river in front of the falls, while paths lead through the surrounding forest. From the falls, continue heading west through the scenic Wester Ross mountains. Before reaching the coast, you meet Bealach na Bà. The Pass of the Cattle is a twisting, single-pass mountain road across the Applecross peninsula. This nine-kilometer stretch of road is famous for its switchbacks, hairpin turns, and steep climb, ultimately rising more than 2,000 feet above sea level to become the third-highest road in Scotland. You’re still gripping the steering wheel tightly when you meet the coast in Applecross.
The small town of Applecross was once only accessible by water. Along the waterfront, the Applecross Inn’s beer garden is the perfect spot for a break. Eat fresh seafood from Applecross Bay—both the crab salad and the whole prawns sound delicious—while staring at the waves and the seagulls in the distance. The hearty meal will fortify you for the end of today’s drive. Don’t forget to take in the views to the left of the Isle of Skye and the Hebrides as you leave town.
The last section of the drive follows the southern shore of Loch Torridon. The 15-mile-long sea loch was created by glaciers. It’s now bordered by dramatic mountains to the north and Torridon, a fishing village, to the east. You’re ending your day at the Torridon, a castle-like hotel surrounded by nearly 60 acres of parkland. After settling into your comfortable bedroom, from which even the freestanding bathtub has a view, go downstairs for a five-course dinner—including wild garlic velouté, Ullapool scallops with spiced aubergine, Dornoch lamb or wild bass, and roasted figs—at the Torridon Restaurant. Then walk around the loch’s shore before capping off the night with a tasting at the Whisky Bar. If the rest of the North Coast 500 is this breathtaking, you’re in for a wild drive.