Since its launch in 2015, the North Coast 500 has been named many things - Scotland's answer to Route 66, the only way to discover the Highlands and one of the best coastal road trips in the world.
And, we're happy to tell you, that it more than lives up to the hype.
In June 2016, we spent eight nights driving the route in 'Jock the Jeep' and we absolutely loved every minute and every mile. The rugged Highland scenery was as beautiful as one would imagine, the driving challenge along single-track country roads and hairpin bends unforgettable, the local seafood, whisky and gin were divine, the hospitality second to none and some of the sights along the way were worthy of any traveller's UK bucket-list. From sweeping coastline and picture postcard beaches, haunted ruins and stunning castles, to puffin, deer and dolphin-spotting and the hand of thousands of years of history upon your shoulder at every turn.
If you want to experience Scotland at its best, then the NC500 simply has to be on your list.
We've created this 'Definitive Guide to the North Coast 500' to help fellow travellers prepare for their own unforgettable road trip in the Scottish Highlands. You'll find key information here as well as links to our articles to help you plan your route and discover the unmissable spots, guides to important practical information to know before you set off and plenty of photos to make you realise just why the NC500 really is as amazing as everyone says.
What is the North Coast 500?
The roads which form this route have always been there. However, the 'North Coast 500' is the new name given to a specific itinerary by the non-profit North Highland Initiative in order to create wider awareness of this remote part of Scotland as a tourist destination and to make it a little easier for people to plan their time up here.
Beginning in Inverness, travellers have the option to start the NC500 route heading west towards the Applecross peninsula (B) before taking on the long winding roads of the gorgeous west coast, or they can travel north-east through the coastal landscapes of the Black Isle towards Wick and John O'Groats (E). For us, the most picturesque parts of the route were on the western and northern sections (C to E) - so it's up to you whether you would like to save that for the end of the journey or savour it at the start.
What is the best way to do it?
Take your pick from an old banger, luxury sports car, electric car, campervan, bicycle or motorcycle - as long as you have your own set of wheels, you can tackle the North Coast 500 (although one chap has done the entire thing on foot!)
When making your choice of transport, there are a few things to bear in mind. If you're a cyclist for example, you need to be aware that completing this route is no easy feat and should not be attempted without a high level of fitness, whilst those with larger vehicles such as campervans or caravans, you should know that there are some very narrow sections of road - such as the Bealach na Bà and the B869 from Lochinver to Kylesku - which you are advised against taking. A good level of driving experience is essential alongside an awareness and appreciation of how to conduct yourself on countryside roads - after all you are sharing the roads with "people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the roads in and around the NC500 as well as your fellow travellers, so make sure you know how to drive responsibly, safely and respectfully."
If you're travelling from further afield or don't have your own vehicle, then car rental is available in Inverness with Focus Vehicle Rental.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?
We spent eight nights on the route, but could easily have spent two weeks, whilst cyclist James McCallum completed it in just 28 hours!
The official itineraries suggest five days and this will give you just enough time to sample some of the main sights and highlights, however it will probably leave you feeling you could have seen more along the route and perhaps a little rushed. We would say an action-packed six days should be your minimum.
Our main tip? Don't underestimate just how much there is to see and do in this part of Scotland in addition to simply drinking in the beautiful landscapes. Oh, and it's actually 516 miles in total!
ESSENTIAL READING: 11 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE DRIVING THE North Coast 500
DO I NEED TO PLAN OR BOOK ANYTHING?
Yes, 100% yes! The route is becoming more and more popular since it has been christened as the NC500 and demand, particularly in the summer months, is increasing.
Taking the time to sit down and plan your route before you set off is vital. Not only will it mean you get more out of your time in the Highlands, but it will allow you to get in early and book your accommodation in advance (if you're a camper, then you'll be happy to know there are loads of campsites and responsible wild camping is legal). As a wee gift from us to you, you can get £25 off your first Airbnb booking by signing up here.
What is there to do on the NC500?
From visiting distilleries, dining out on exquisite seafood and hiking to wildlife spotting, sea kayaking or hanging out on hidden beaches and discovering ruins - there really is a surprisingly diverse array of attractions and activities along the NC500. And this is in addition to the breathtaking scenery which you can enjoy for free every step of the way!
If you're driving the route in five to seven days, then you won't be able to see or stop at absolutely everything, so taking the time to ensure you at least see what you love is the best approach. For example, if you're a huge whisky fan, then taking some tours at these NC500 distilleries and breweries is an excellent start point for planning your journey.
Our main advice is to ensure you spend a decent amount of time researching activities and sights along the route and make a relatively fixed itinerary, which leaves a little time for spontaneity along the way.