Dom and I made the decision to drive the NC500 for our holiday this year. The NC500 is the North Coast road which runs in a sort of loop around the Highlands of Scotland both starting and ending at Inverness. Although the roads themselves have been there for years, the route itself has only existed as an official tourist destination since about 2015. It’s driven by thousands of people every year in every vehicle from pushbikes to motorhomes and everything in between. Each vehicle maps out its own route and they are all slightly unique and ours was no different.
Before we set off on a journey where the starting point alone was 375 miles from home there were things to consider.
- Which vehicle? This was easy for us. We’ve got a 1974 VW camper called Buttercup. Ok so she’s a bit thirsty and in the past has been a hill chugger and on a couple of occasions a hill refuser but we love her and we’re used to camping in her. She runs on E5 so we just needed to make sure getting fuel in some of the more remote places wouldn’t be a problem.
- Which way? West to east or east to west? We chose to go up the east coast, along the top and then down the west coast. There are several forums and groups which are worth joining if you are considering this journey which can offer advice or opinions on every aspect of the route. I recommend the NC500 group on Facebook. The general consensus was that east to west was the way to go.
- Itinerary. We’re not huge fans of planning to the nth degree but we had a rough idea of our first few days. We stayed with relatives in Carlisle to break up the journey to Inverness, booked our first night’s camping at Bunchrew campsite in Inverness (lovely spot just by the water with great facilities), used Helmsdale Harbour carpark which is a well established area for campers on the route and three days before setting off we arranged to stop at a friend’s near John O’Groats. From there we’d go with the flow.
- Applecross. This is, by all accounts, a beautiful spot on the West Coast. There is flatter route into the town but then a choice awaits you. Either drive all the way back along the coast to Shieldaig or use the infamous pass Bealach na Ba. This road is the steepest pass in Scotland and until 1975 was the only way in and out of Applecross itself. Given Buttercup’s past performances on steep hills we made the decision to rule this out of our trip. The main gripe of locals is people using unsuitable vehicles (there are warning signs about driving the pass in large vehicles or as a novice driver which many people ignore) and also breaking down and holding up the traffic. We certainly didn’t want to add to that and we didn’t want to do a 50 mile round trip in a van who is thirstier than a student on a night out.
- Skye. Although not officially part of the NC500 many people get to the Kyle of Lochalsh and turn right over the bridge. We’d been to Skye before and loved so we left this on the table as a possible option depending on time.
- How long to go for? I’ve seen people race around in 5 days but I’ve also seen people posting about taking a month. We opted in the middle for 2 weeks including getting there and back to Liverpool.
- Maps. We already had an OS road map for the area and I would definitely recommend doing this. There is far more detail and it makes it easier to find those little hidden away gems off the beaten track.
Our mechanic gave Buttercup a quick once over to set our minds at ease. Mechanically, she’s been incredibly reliable but we were asking her to do a lot of miles on demanding roads and wanted to make sure she was in good condition before we set off.
All that remained was to pack the van and go. The next few blogs will chart our journey along one of the most fantastic holidays we’ve ever had. Enjoy the ride.