We've had a wonderful 4 days and I'd definitely say the NC500 can be enjoyed in 4 days (from Newcastle). Here's the Zed packed and ready to go . . . .
The first day Cherrym and wife, PorthoZ4 and wife, Chezsherman and Steph and I met up at a layby on the A68/A69. We'd discussed the night before the best way to get up to Fort William and with the weather being so brilliant I fancied taking the A68 for a leisurely top down 'saunter up' rather than across on the A69 and up the motorway from just North of Carlisle. The traffic on the A68 was a pain and surprising and in hindsight, perhaps just taking the convenience and pace of the A69/motorway route might have been better.
In fact although we had the weather and the roads at times the traffic gods were not with us. It seemed every junction and entertaining part of the route we'd find a 'heavy' or a commuter holding up our progress. It was a case of just sit back and ride the traffic until a safe overtake opportunity - seemed every heavy we came across was on the best bits of road though
This was a theme on many days of the route where just a few minutes might have led to a clearer run in many cases – but that's the traffic gods for you! - Can't expect everything to be on side!)
The weather and sunshine made up for this and we pulled up at Jedburgh for our first stop. AlienZed took a close look at the damage caused by stone chips on our first NC500. It's interesting to note that the route seemed far 'cleaner' of gravel and stones just a month later with very little problems during our run but if you do decide to take the route early in the year you may find debris on the road may be an issue – our bonnet wings and windscreen were peppered all over (even some stones in the cab and stone chips on the top of the boot!).
We took the route via Helensburgh after crossing the Erskine Bridge (the route here passing through many 50 zones with varied speed limit gantries. Traffic quite busy and needs concentration if you don't have cruise control.) The route via Helensburgh to Arrochar and Inverary takes in some lovely Lochside runs and smooth tarmac roads. With the weather so good it was very enjoyable alternative to Loch Lomond.
We stayed in the Premier Inn at Fort William and it only cost £38 as Mike had booked in November last year! The rooms were large and the breakfast at the associated Brewers Fayre next door was superb and set us up for the next days driving. That morning we had a surprise visit from Alfa Scosezzi in his fabulous Black ///M coupe. (Steph and I had met him on last years Skye run). He joined us for part of our 2nd day.
Throughout the run we had agreed to swop the lead and this worked well with everyone getting the benefit of a clear road. However being first on many of the single track roads mean you're also clearing the way for the others – quite a strain!
Heading out of Fort William the route is quite busy and the traffic called for a relaxed approach. We stopped at Spean Bridge and called at the Commando Memorial. What a setting and a fitting tribute to war time training and sadly, loss. The memorial garden makes it all the more poignant .
The road to Eilan Donan (Castle) is terrific and a highlight for me was the A87 which is a fabulously twisty road – brilliant. Photos can't do any of these experiences justice but with traffic on side this is a very picturesque part of the route.
A stop at Eilan Donan is very special and it's such a familiar 'Scottish Castle' having been used in many ffilm and TV features. Apart from how busy the location is and the car park being packed it's still a marvellous sight – a good comfort stop as well, though the queue for drinks meant we left and headed out for Applecross and Lochcarron.
We turned off before the Skye bridges onto the A890 and this section was fun running alongside of a Loch (there's quite a bit of this) includes a Tunnel as well (small but I still had time to listen to the straight six echoing off the walls). There are some beautifully smooth stretches of tarmac on this section.
Turning left off the A896 to Lochcarron, The Pass of the Cattle is a left to Applecross. Nothing can prepare you for this experience. If the visibility is good the views out over the Lochs improve as you climb and you'll never stop taking photos! The road is single track and narrow so we went up as a three car and a two car to allow for passing. Climbing up between the mountains to the top is magical (and it's very steep towards the top). There is a pull off and place to park where we discussed the route! We were lucky as the sky was blue and we could see the view (low cloud had obscured it on our first run).
The run down to Applecross is different. After an initial 'alpine section' it opens up with some wide and fabulous vistas (and excellent photo opportunities. A great single track road (where you can see ahead) and calls for concentration. The edges of the road (as on many of the routes) would cause serious damage to tyres wheel and suspension. Can't imagine how long it would take for Recovery!
Applecross Inn has excellent food (we booked in on our first run) but on this run it was so busy and had no parking for 5 Zeds so we pressed on looking for a place to stop on the route. This is another wonderfully engaging driving part of the route (not many sections aren't!) and it is brilliant in the fabulous weather we had – amazing scenery views and a twisty varied route that goes on for ever.
We found a cafe at Shielaig (you have to take a left off the main route, to the village) for an unscheduled stop. This location was beautiful and we had coffee and cake looking out from a raised verranda above the roof of a pub come cafe. The view was amazing and the weather so hot I sat in the welcome shade by a wall! Finding a place to take refreshments on this part of the route was quite difficult but heading to Shieldaig is an option.
The weather led to relaxed stops and no rush to head out to our Hotel at Ullapool. The roads were quiter in the afternoon and we had an excellent run across this section to our next stop at Harbour Lights. This was a family built and run hotel with small rooms but a wonderful outlook over the water. The Zeds were safe and we took a walk into the Town for a meal and drinks and to discuss the day. Lots of places to eat here but quite busy.
The breakfast was excellent again and the full picture wall looking out over the Loch, amazing. An earlier start (to avoid the traffic arriving off the Ferry) led to us assembling (and applying sun cream) in the carpark just after 9am. Fuel is available just beside the Royal Hotel.
So much of the route begins to merge in with other days it begins to get difficult to separate them. The road out of Ullapool is a lovely road North with lots of twisties but the real gem for me is the loop to Clachtoll which is a single track road continuing on to Drumbeg. This is like a scalextric track in parts with black and white armco and continuous tight bends. You have to beware of oncoming traffic but the environment is very special and I loved this part of the route (not for everyone though - not everyone was as keen and enthused by these tight sections).
Turning left to the Kylesku Bridge the road opens out to some more terrific driving (of a very different nature). The car park at the end of Kylesku bridge makes a brilliant scenic stop and is recommended.
From here to our next stop at Durness the road offers opportunities for speeds not possible on the single track roads and offers terrific corners and bends with some excellent sight lines (but not all).
We stopped at the Chocolatiers at Durness's old Cold War Bunkers Site – an old military site. Their drinking chocolate will keep you going for many miles (though their chocolate pieces are expensive).
We headed for Tongue via the John Lennon memorial at Durness – Cherrym had heard that there was a memorial here to John Lennon and wanted to seek it out. We found it by the Village Hall on the way out of the Village and it commemorated that John Lennon had holidayed at this spot when a child and had many happy memories of these holidays. In fact the words from his song 'My Life' were carved into stone at the site and said to be about these holidays.
We had agreed to miss out part of the NC500 on this run as Cherrym felt the section past Dounray and on to John O'Groats was not special enough. Steph and I had visited John O'Groats on our last NC500 so we knew what he meant though I enjoyed the novelty of visiting this iconic location.
Instead we took a right turn to the A836 to Lairg and Boarbridge. We had a lovely coffee stop at Lairg (again unscheduled) – another lovely location and sat outside with sandwiches and ice cream.
On to Alness and across the north of Inverness towards Aberdeen where we turned off for Grantown on Spey for our final stop at the Rosehall Hotel. A lovely large old Georgian house on the main road/square. The town was small but we found a great eatery and then a quiet hotel to have a few drinks and the usual chat about the day. All very relaxing and enjoyable.
A fabulous breakfast (with linen napkins) in a large beautiful room with lots of period features again set us up for a long day of driving on more wonderful roads. Heading for Glenshee the roads were fairly clear and again offer great driving pleasure but we did seem to overtake a persistent estate car more than once due to stops and map/sat nav reading. The obligatory comfort stop at Glenshee Skiing Centre and some photo set ups (the only ones of the trip) brought to mind that we would be heading home and parting company after a brilliant few days of comraderie and driving.
Back via Blairgowrie the Forth Bridge and the A68 with a stop for food at Jedburgh.We all commented again how lucky we had been with the weather and said our reluctant farewells after such a fantastic trip!
I'd recommend such a trip but we had been blessed with fabulous weather on both trips and I can't imagine the frustration of low cloud and poor weather when the scenery is so fabulous. I'd also wonder how long before some of the roads become more controlled. Blanket speed limits on some single track sections for example. We met one 'heavy' driver that was obviously sick of having to pull over to let 'sports cars through' it led to his frustrations being directed at us but understandably so when he's trying to travel against the traffic – perhaps keep this in mind if you have a heavy heading your way – get off the road and let them through – inevitable conflict between those trying to work and us on holiday. I'd also comment that it makes sense to take it easy past and through small hamlets and isolated houses by the road – there's plenty of clear road so why antagonise the locals?
Finally I think the benefits of less traffic and congestion early (or late) in the year makes a run on the NC500 more of a driving experience. I could see the difference a month had made in traffic volume so can only imagine the frustrations of a peak season visit.
Go do it if you can and I hope the weather is on side – it is a beautiful and very different driving experience.
Thanks for Cherrym in organising our run (and booking the hotels) and thanks to all the others for adding to a wonderful experience. It was brilliant!