Last we spoke to Dave from Elgin and the Big Yellow Bus they had plans to have a go at the North Coast 500 and true to their word that trip is now complete, having taken a week in July this year to get it in the bag.
Fortunately for us, Dave remembered to take a few photos and scribble the odd note between sips of fine ale so here is Dave’s unique, no-holds-barred view on the highs and lows of the Big Yellow Bus’s journey round the NC500.
What is the North Coast 500?
The North Coast 500 (AKA NC500 https:\\www.northcoast500.com ) is a 516-mile (830 km) route around the scenic north coast of Scotland, starting and ending at Inverness Castle. It was launched relatively recently in 2015 and has become very popular very quickly as it links many features in the north Highlands of Scotland together in one iconic road trip.
The year it was launched, the route was named fifth in Now Travel Magazine’s “Top 5 Coastal Routes in the World” and has been described as “Scotland’s Route 66”. If anything, the route has been a little too successful and has significantly increased the traffic on the highland roads at certain times of year.
Where Does the NC 500 Go?
The normal clockwise route runs through the traditional counties of Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland and Caithness. Working clockwise, the route starts at Inverness and runs via Muir of Ord, Applecross (including the notorious Bealach na Bà), Gairloch, Ullapool, Scourie, Durness, Thurso, John o’Groats, Wick, Dunrobin Castle, Dingwall then back to Muir of Ord and Inverness.
After some thought and discussion online, I chose to take the anti-clockwise route from Inverness up the A9 first. The consensus online was that it gets better and better that way round. I am inclined to agree and pleased that we took that option.
We followed the route faithfully to Ullapool after which the NC500 route heads South via Gairloch to Applecross and onward over the infamous Bealach-na-ba. However, due to a strong desire to stay in the sun we clipped the bottom left corner of the official route and headed East slightly early. Fortunately, living in Elgin means we can pop back any time for a weekend trip.
Preparing for The Trip
Before heading off, I thought it would be prudent to do a wee bit of maintenance, as I’ve been aware for a while that the bus has a slight leak from the rear axle and has clearly been leaking for some time. Oil drained and refilled – seems that about 2 litres was missing! Also – Glitter – how did glitter get into the diff oil? Oh wait, that’s not glitter.
Anyhow, maintenance completed we set off, marvelling at how much quieter the bus was with a back axle full of clean oil!
Detour to The Black Isle
On the face of it, the leg from Inverness to John O’Groats is just a blast up the A9 – so some detours are called for to make it interesting.
First detour was around the “Black Isle” which is neither black nor an island but has some pretty wee villages to visit on the way (Munlochy, Avoch, Fortrose, Rosemarkie and Cromarty). Whilst at Rosemarkie, it’s worth a further wee detour to Chanonry Point as you can often see dolphins playing in the low tide from there. Sadly, on the day we were there, there were none to be seen and no spaces in the rather limited car park for the BYB in any case.
Lunch stop at Cromarty highlighted the first of many signs that the NC500 is becoming a bit of a victim of its own success. The “Links” at Cromarty is a large open grass area (not a golf course) overlooking the Cromarty Firth. Due to overuse and some abuse by visitors in general – and Motorhomes specifically – the Links are now closed to all vehicles by means of a steel post set into the access road. (https://www.ross-shirejournal.co.uk/news/barrier-erected-at-coastal-links-following-anti-social-behaviour-180320/ Anyway, after a sandwich and a cup of coffee, we were off North again and on to Dornoch.
We entered Dornoch and got ourselves pitched up on the Dornoch Caravan and Camping Park – a tidy site and well recommended. The bus fed us, then we wandered into Dornoch village for a few pints in “The Eagle”. No bad.
Those who know the BYB will be impressed to see it is parked on grass, and there is no sign of self-excavation around the wheels or indeed any agricultural assistance in getting onto or off the pitch!
A reasonably early departure from Dornoch saw us arriving early at Dunrobin castle, which is a most pleasant place to visit.
It’s the seat of the Earl of Sutherland. In the early 19th century George Leverson-Gower was the instigator of the Sutherland Clearances, which displaced thousands of tenants from their lands. Shameful clearance history aside, there was an entertaining display of falconry – a couple of falcons and a hawk were put through their paces accompanied by excellent narration by the handlers.
There is also a small ‘stuffed dead thing’ museum on site. Best avoided if you are not keen on seeing dead things which should really have been left alive – elephants, giraffes, big cats and the like.
After the castle, a quick back-track into Golspie took us to the small but excellent Coffee Bothy for a bite of lunch. (https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Coffee-Shop/The-Coffee-Bothy-186246894768198/)
The run from there up the coast through Brora, Helmsdale, down and up the infamous Berriedale Braes, Lybster and to Wick was a swift journey. A quick stop at Helmsdale to visit the Timespan Museum was ½ an hour we won’t get back. Underwhelming is as positive as I can be.
So, arriving at Wick we had planned to stop there for the night, as there might be something to do (drink) of the evening. Having driven through the town first, we decided to top up the diesel at the shining beacon of civilisation (Tesco) and carry on to the top corner. Well, John o’Groats anyway.
Sadly, we don’t really do ourselves any favours in the far North. John o’Groats is best described as a signpost surrounded by a let-down. Pretty much everything shuts at 6pm. There is a row of crumbling shops – all but one is empty. The non-empty one is trading as a ‘craft shop’ (bric-a-brac would be more accurate).
Anyway, we checked into the campsite which is basic but clean, tidy and well organised. There is a car park across the road, which you can camp in for free but we felt that doing that right on the doorstep of a campsite is taking the piss.
Reviews of the only place locally for a meal encouraged us to eat in the bus again, but we took a stroll to the “Seaview Hotel” for a pint or 2 and to be fair the food, pub grub, looked OK and seemed a fair price.
On our return back at the campsite, around 30 motorhomes swept in majestically, in what immediately turned out to be a convoy of chaos. The Italians had arrived! Co-pilots jumped out, and in a frenzy of shouting and arm-waving, they all got parked up on, over, and off their levelling ramps. Luckily, they did settle down for a quiet night fairly quickly.
Castle of May
Next morning, we continued, West now as we’d ‘turned the corner’ to our first tourist stop of the day at the quaint Castle of May – once the private holiday home of The Queen Mother. A most informative guided tour told us of the history of the castle and the typical order of activities whilst The Queen Mother was in residence each year. Seems she would take up residence with some guests accompanying her for the whole visit and some others more transient. Entertainment would take place every night in the form of a meal followed by a ‘late night’ – seems she liked a piss up.
From there we drove on to Rock Rose distillery. Sadly, the tours were not available when we visited unless we waited until the afternoon (11am and 2pm are available). Gin purchased, we headed onwards.
From there, on to Thurso for lunch in the Bydand café. Excellent soup, it has to be said. However, another town that is easily forgotten.
Next landmark is Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Facility. Holding our breath, we carried on past. In 1998 the 100-year decommissioning plan was accelerated to 60 years. The current plan from 2007 was for a 17-year programme – so in theory only 5 years left. 25 tons of radioactive reactor fuel was initially lying there to be dealt with.
The scenery along the coast from Thurso to Durness starts to become more impressive and the roads a bit more challenging – a sign of things to come for sure.
We were booked into the very popular Sango Sands campsite at Durness for the next stop. It’s a large site, and pretty chaotic, but has all the facilities – including a decent bar and restaurant next door.
Once again we found the area was awash with motorhomes parked anywhere and everywhere. Sango Sands did seem to be at 100% capacity, and is the only campsite in the area, so once more NC500 is a victim of its own success.
Food and drink in the Sango Sands Oasis was pretty good, as were the breakfast rolls from the campsite kitchen in the morning.
You can’t visit Durness without a venture into the 83m long “Smoo Cave”. We duly obliged and added to the 40,000 others who it is estimated visit the cave every year.
It’s situated around a mile to the east of Durness town, and can be explored by boat or by the path from the car park on the cliffs. The cave boasts one of the largest entrances to any sea cave in Britain and is floodlit inside. It was formed by a burn that runs down into the rear chamber, as well as erosion caused by the sea. It was certainly dramatic and definitely worth the effort.
A short drive was then the plan, to arrive at the highly rated Kylesku Hotel for a meal (and we had a table booked too). As there is no campsite anywhere near it, we had planned to ‘free camp’ in one of the car parks at either end of the Kylesku Bridge.
En-route, we took a trip to Kinlochbervie with a hope for some lunch at the recommended “Old School House” – but when we passed we realised that not only did we have zero chance of getting the bus into their drive, the gate was shut anyway.
Heading onwards, the next place recommended is Shorehouse at Tarbet. This is also the place to catch a ferry to Handa Island, if that’s your plan. We settled for lunch followed by a 99-point turn to get the bus pointing the right way without driving into the sea.
Once more – a large layby just as we got to Tarbet was chock-a-block with motorhomes. I was quite surprised, as this is a fair way along a very narrow road which is severely up and down but there they all were, the enterprising lot!
Once we’d got back to the “main road” – still single track with passing places, and still no actual road number – we headed South to ultimately meet the A894 and aim for Kylesku.
It is worth noting at this point that over every crest and round every corner is a “oooh, ahh” moment. The scenery really is spectacular and difficult to do it justice with a photo. This is why the NC500 has become so popular.
We arrived at Kylesku fairly early, which was the plan so we could make sure we got a place to park the bus. The car park at the South end of the bridge had plenty of space, so we stopped there and took a stroll down to the hotel for a pint and a look at the view.
This is when we realised that, despite the strong warning from the Kylesku Hotel by email that we’d never get a motorhome turned around in the road, there was not only plenty of space, there is also a big layby on the access road with no parking restrictions. Also, it’s opposite a rock bank, not someone’s house, so ideal for the night. The bus was quickly moved down from the bridge.
We had very high expectations of the evening meal, having booked as advised, and having seen the meals folk were tucking into earlier in the afternoon. The food was ‘good’ but not stunning. At >£100 for a meal for two (without a bottle of wine!) it was a disappointment. Oh well, live and learn.
Pressing on South in the morning we decided to drive for a bit, then get breakfast. This is where the scenery really does get amazing. Suilven is a sight to behold first time you see it.
We found ourselves in a quaint drinking village with a fishing problem. Welcome to Lochinver. The Lochinver Larder served the dual function of a breakfast and pie shop. We stocked up for later. ** Warning – great pies, but hipster prices **
Having explored the (tiny) coastal road towards Achiltibuie and Port A Braigh on a previous trip, we decided to take the more direct route past Loch Assynt and Ardvreck Castle down to Ullapool.
We had a few options in Ullapool for parking / camping, but my preference was to utilise one of the 4 motorhome spots with hook-up at the back of the Royal Hotel. £10/night – can’t beat that.
Ullapool is blessed with some good pubs and restaurants, so we spent the day sampling them and headed out on a boat trip around the Summer Isles seeing what wildlife we could hassle.
After a spotting a variety of seabirds, seals, dolphins and a sea eagle (at some distance) heading home with his lunch, we returned to Ullapool and headed to the Ceilidh Place for lunch and a pint.
An afternoon of Ullapool turned into an evening involving live music, good food and good ale. Arch Inn, Seaforth (Can’t recommend this place really, always a disappointment somehow!) and the Argyll were also sampled.
The NC500 route then heads South via Gairloch to Applecross and onwards over the infamous Bealach-na-ba. However, as the weather was closing in from the West, we decided to head inland to keep in the sun.
We followed the main A835 back towards Inverness through Garve and Contin. I would usually stop at Rogie Falls for a wee walk, but the car park was rammed full – no way the BYB was getting in!
Heading South on the “wee roads” through Marybank, Urray, Muir of Ord, Beauly and Tomnacross we made our way to Drumnadrochit on the shores of Loch Ness and the “Loch Ness Bay Camping” site – another one to recommend.
A quick bus trip (public transport not BYB) into Inverness for lunch and to meet some relatives plus a couple of pints (of course), then a quick bus trip back down the loch and we were back at the van. We now had neighbours, compete with pet rabbit.
Return to the Moray Coast
The next morning, we continued following the weather, and carried on North and East, passing around Inverness and on to the Moray coast.
Our destination for the night was close to home – the Hopeman West Beach caravan site.
This site has had some major investment in recent years and it really does show. Their most recent addition is “Dory the Double Decker” which offers many culinary delights which can be sampled within her restored interior or al-fresco alongside. And, after 500 stunning miles, the best food of the trip, was only 6 miles from home!
Summary of the Big Yellow Bus NC500 Trip.
A few take away points from our experience travelling the North Coast 500 in the BYB.
Is it the North Coast 500 worth doing?
Yes 100% the scenery is stunning and you meet a few interesting characters on the way. It’s a great way to take in several of the main points of interest in one trip.
Would we do it in July again?
Possibly not the whole thing in July. We don’t live that far away so will definitely be doing bits of it on weekend trips. It has become very popular and a lot of the camping areas and sites were full unless you arrive early so another time of year may be better and less busy.
What were our highlights?
The scenery generally is what the trip is all about. Suilven is a sight to behold first time you see it. The boat trip from Ullapool was excellent. It’s amazing how much wildlife it’s possible to fit in one boat trip. And Smoo Cave at Durness is not to be missed.