The first and most important thing to know is that the North Coast 500 is a jaw-droppingly beautiful route. Amongst some of the most picturesque scenery in Europe can be found in the Scottish Highlands and you will devour it all as you travel the winding roads from Inverness to John O'Groats and back down.
But that's not all.
Stunning deserted beaches, artisan distilleries and delicious fresh seafood, picturesque lochs, historic golf courses and beautiful castles, proper Scottish hospitality, a diverse array of wildlife and enough outdoor activities to tire out even the most active of adventurers, the NC500 offers everyone a taste of the 'tartan, bagpipes and shortbread' Scotland you've seen in the brochures but, importantly, has enough surprises over the five hundred plus miles to make you think about the country in an entirely different way.
We spent eight days driving the route and, in this post, we'll share some valuable lessons, practical tips and essential things to know so you can prepare for your perfect road trip in the Highlands.
#1 the driving experience is one of a kind
The sign at the foot of Bealach na Bà reads "not advised for learner drivers", but that advice could easily apply to the majority of roads that you'll encounter along the NC500.
Narrow, single track country roads are all that you'll encounter for around 200 miles across various sections of the route. Blind corners and summits, hairpin bends and vertiginous edges are commonplace. Throw in that sheep and lambs are often mooching at the side or in the middle of the road, the possibility of a deer suddenly leaping in front of you and, of course, increased traffic given the route's upsurge in popularity, and it's certainly a drive unlike any other.
Some will love the driving experience offered (a big reason why it's become a huge bucket-list item for sports car and Top Gear types), whilst others may spend hours gripping the wheel in fear. Andrew, despite his initial trepidation and frequent failure to make it out of third gear, loved taking on the country roads and, for both of us, simply navigating more than five hundred miles across the Highlands was memorable in and of itself.
However, the inexperienced (and those not used to driving on the left) should approach this route with caution and the correct mindset, and all drivers (even Clarkson types) need to note that driver etiquette and road awareness is hugely important when driving the NC500.
On the single track lanes, there are plenty passing places, but you need to be aware of these and embrace them, not view it as a game of 'who's going to stop first'. Acknowledge drivers who have stopped to let you pass with a wave and keep a sensible speed at all times - these are not roads for you to try and drive like an idiot and it is most certainly not a race track.
Lastly, aside from the myriad of camper vans and caravans, motorcycle troops, bicycle groups and sports car convoys present on the roads here, do remember that these are country roads used by locals each and every day. Not all who live up here are happy about the route's success (increased tourist traffic on roads being a big reason), and so visitors must go out of their way to be respectful and sensible at all times. If stopping for a photo opportunity, ensure you're not going to obstruct other drivers or take up an invaluable passing place.
Insider tip: There were many more petrol stations than we anticipated along the route, but don't underestimate how many miles you may have to drive before you are able to fill up. We took the approach that as soon as we went below half a tank of diesel in Jock the Jeep, we would fill up at the next station - this served us pretty well.
#2 there are many ways to do it
As hinted at above, there are a variety of tourists and travellers making their way around the NC500 and that's largely due to the fact that accommodation and activities along the route cater to a diverse variety of tastes and budgets - the only common denominator is that most people require some wheels (although we did see a couple of hitch-hikers!).
From those driving a Lamborghini and used to luxury to families on a two week hill-walking holiday, a camping cyclist, a group of motorcyclists, or a couple on a romantic long weekend, each will find something to suit them. Picturesque campsites and dorm beds in hostels, five-star B&Bs and castle hotels or homely hotels and guesthouse, all are available at various points along the route, whilst your food can come from stockpiling from the supermarket to pub grub, self-catering or fine-dining at some exquisite seafood restaurants.
The beauty of a road trip like this is that anyone can do it - the views are the same if you're in an old banger or a muscle car - and if you take the time to do some research beforehand, you will be able to plan a route which marries accommodation, facilities and service providers to suit your personal tastes and budget.
Insider tip: As the route increases in popularity, it's becoming even more important to reserve your accommodation in advance. Do also be aware that most places only allow you to check-in from 4 p.m. onwards.
#3 five days is not nearly enough
The official North Coast 500 route suggestions point to five day itineraries for motorists; in our opinion, that really isn't enough time.
Of course, if your main ambition is simply to tick it off the bucket list, enjoy the scenery, food and main sights, then you may be able to squeeze it all in - but, we suspect, you might just regret doing it so quickly.
With our eight day route, we thought we would have plenty time to do and see everything worthwhile and would actually be struggling to fill our days; we couldn't have been more wrong. With our itinerary planned out in advance, we still felt rushed and had to forego a few of the places we had been looking forward to (like the Smoo Caves) in order to make another site in another town, or arrive at our accommodation with enough time to enjoy it and find some food for the evening.
We could have had easily spent two weeks on the NC500, especially when the weather was on our side. This would have allowed us more time to discover each place and explore some of its less accessible hidden gems, bag some Munros (a 3,000+ feet hill if you didn't already know), rush less and enjoy more of what we were there to see.
So, if you are able to, go slow and spend a few more days on the route. We'd highly recommend it so you can fully drink in the beauty all around you - it really is world class.
Insider tip: If you can extend your time in the Highlands, pick a town or village you like the sound of and use it as a base for two to three nights to explore and enjoy the surrounding area, as well as take some day-trips to points elsewhere.
#4 mobile phone and internet signal are intermittent
Any foreign visitor might be a little surprised that such a tech blackspot still exists in the UK. However, the majority of the times we checked for phone or 3G signal, there was nothing at all.
Now, this can be viewed very much as a positive - a rare chance to disconnect, escape the world for a while and remove the everyday distractions which could detract from your enjoyment of all the beauty of the Highlands.
However, it's also important to know about this in advance so you can prepare accordingly i.e. take a paper note of your accommodation's address and telephone number as you won't always have google to back you up, make people aware you may be difficult to reach whilst you're driving the route etc.
Each accommodation in which we stayed did have wi-fi of good enough quality for basic browsing and checking on e-mails, the news, social media etc, but just don't expect rapid speeds.
Insider tip: Many large villages have at least a couple of bars of phone signal, so if you really do need to make a call, take note of where the next stop is on the map and be sure to check when you're passing through.
#5 signposts and maps are better than GPS
When we picked up Jock the Jeep from Focus Car Rental in Inverness, we input our first stop off point into the GPS (Muir of Ord). However, on approaching the Kessock Bridge (not on the route), we realised that perhaps relying on the car's system was not going to be the best approach for navigating a route which intentionally sends you the 'long way round'.
So, if you plan on sticking to the prescribed path, our tip is to switch off the GPS (which is trying to get you from A to B in the quickest way possible) and instead keep an eye out for the brown tourist trail roadsigns. These signs don't actually say 'North Coast 500' but rather things like 'Wester-Ross Tourist Route' or 'Coastal Route'. Once you've made it out of Inverness, it'll be quite clear what to follow and these brown signs are well placed, so you're unlikely to go too wrong and end up driving straight up to Ullapool along the A835.
Insider tip: As well as a sheet of paper with key information (hotel address and numbers), we downloaded an offline google map of the NC500 area as well as bringing a physical map. Check out this link for an interactive google map of the official route which you can save to your phone or tablet.
And, although this should go without saying, leave the map reading and phone fiddling to your passenger - all drivers should be fully concentrated on the road ahead!
#6 you will struggle to say anything right
Achmelvich. Ben Wyvis. Kinlochbervie. Aultbea. Torridon. Kishorn. Dounreay. Gairloch. Kinlochewe. Badachro. Kylesku. Bealach na Bà. Inchnadamph.
Yep, we still have no idea how to pronounce some of those properly - and Andrew's Scottish! Emily's English tongue simply couldn't fathom half of the place names along the NC500 route (even Ullapool!), whilst Andrew mangled a lot of them, with emphasis on all the wrong syllables - we can only imagine how difficult it must be for some visitors from further afield.
So, don't be surprised if you are met with a blank faced look when you ask somebody for directions to Gairloch or if they know a good restaurant in Torridon - the likelihood is you're saying it all wrong.
The reason some of the names here in the Highlands may seem a little different is because most are anglicised from the Gaelic spelling and pronunciation - a language which has, thankfully, undergone a bit of a recent revival in Scotland. In fact, you will see many signs along the NC500 with the place names and welcome greeting in both English and Gaelic.
Insider tip: One Gaelic phrase that will be essential for your time in Scotland is 'Sláinte Mhath', meaning 'good health'. It's used to cheers/toast when you have a drink.
Watch this video to make sure you get it right. And, if you'd like to know the meaning of some of the common words in place names in the Highlands, check out this short guide.
And speaking of drink....get some inspiration for your route with our favourite distilleries and breweries to visit on the NC500.
#7 You might not think you're in Scotland when the sun is shining but....
.... that feeling may not last.
As shown in our '12 Reasons to Drive the NC500' post, the route is home to some stunning outdoor locations, including Caribbean blue waters by picture-postcard beaches. If you're lucky enough to have good weather when you visit, then you will leave with no doubt that this is one of Europe's best road trips.
But, be aware that that beautiful weather may not last. This is Scotland after all, where four seasons can be experienced in one afternoon and we've had snow in May. Therefore it's essential that you pack for (and mentally prepare yourself) to have some rain and 'dreech' weather whilst on the route.
Insider tip: We'd recommend stocking up on some snacks and drinks before you leave Inverness - and bring a thermos! There are some excellent cafés and eateries along the route, but there will also be periods where you might not have the time to stop at them, you feel peckish in the middle of nowhere or you simply want to have spontaneous picnic lunch at a stunning viewpoint.
#8 Make an itinerary before you go based on what you love
We have slightly different approaches when planning a trip. Andrew will spend hours researching and noting down things we can't miss and essential information, whilst Emily is a much more relaxed, fly-by-the-seat of-your-pants sort of girl. Although that inevitably causes a bit of bickering, this yin and yang approach is actually what makes us such good travel buddies.
For the NC500, we were both genuinely surprised at just how much there was to see, do and enjoy all along the route. And, the fact of the matter is that in five or ten days you simply will not be able to do and see everything, so instead concentrate on creating an itinerary which allows you to do most of what you want, whilst leaving aside some time for a wee bit of spontaneity.
For beaches, to ruins, to outdoor adventure and distilleries - find out where to find the things you love on the NC500 in our wee guide with interactive maps.
Insider tip: Locals always have the best tips and we were grateful for the many excellent suggestions on where to go and what to see along the way - they really did know so much about their local area. So, be sure to ask the people at your B&B, hotel or hostel for their thoughts and tips.
#9 Do not underestimate the 'Highland Mile'
Don't look at the map and think 'we've only got 80 miles to drive today, we'll have loads of time'.
The roads are slow and difficult to navigate and you'll inevitably get stuck behind a caravan or two. Once you factor in endless stops for unmissable photos, side-trips to museums, beaches and a wee hike, time for lunch, a little tea break by the roadside and spontaneous detours to places you see signposted off the route, it will be 7 p.m. before you know it and you'll only have driven 60 miles!
Of course, that's not the worst thing in the world, but as we've said above, we really did have to rush through some sections of the route in order to make it to a restaurant by closing time or ensure we could make it to a certain spot before it was too dark. This experience of being much more rushed than we had anticipated is why we believe most people will need much more than the recommended five days to fully appreciate everything the route has to offer.
Insider tip: Remember that the NC500 brings you to some remote and rural parts of Scotland - the two main towns of Wick and Thurso's only have a combined population of around 15,000 - so don't expect everything to be open until late. Shops and restaurants may close by 5 p.m. throughout the week and not open at all on Sunday, whilst many restaurants' last-seating is at 8 p.m. (and during the weekend on peak summer months, we highly recommend you phone ahead to reserve a table).
#10 Prepare for midges and ticks
The 'scourge of the Scottish summer' didn't actually affect us too much. Perhaps that's because midges are selective about who they annoy and bite (only the females bite) or maybe we were just lucky.
But, have no doubt, midges (which are sort of like tiny tiny mosquitoes) can be a major pain in the arse. They swarm around you in a cloud of nuisance at dawn or dusk and make you very uncomfortable - with a group capable of landing around 3,000 bites an hour. Dangerous? Not really. Annoying? Absolutely! That romantic drink on a cool summer night by the water might just be ruined by them.
Ask anyone in Scotland about how to combat the midge and you'll be met with a few different recommendations, with Smidge and Avon Skin So Soft sprays being two of the more well-known approaches. There is an excellent online free midge forecast map available for the region and, if, then this article by Loch Ness Cottages is a very good read.
Ticks are however a more serious and growing concern in this part of the UK. They're those horrible things that you might find clung to your cat or dog and engorged with blood. They're disgusting and do present the serious risk of Lyme's disease, the prevalence of which has increased in the last ten years. For more information on ticks, and how to avoid them or minimise the risk, check out this post from Undiscovered Scotland or read leaflets from the NHS and the Highland Council.
Don't let these nasty little critters put you off travelling up here, but just be aware of them and be prepared.
Insider tip: Don't forget to pack your suncream too! The temperature hit 27 degrees when we were driving the NC500 and, with not a cloud in the sky, we were relieved that we had remembered to bring some along.
#11 You'll probably drive a wee bit more than 500 miles...
We actually drove 739 miles over the course of eight days. Doubling back to take a photo, several missed turnings or unscheduled detours, a handful of extra miles seeking the perfect beach, a few journeys between our hotel and local restaurants and a trip via Achtibulie to visit the Summer Isles on a kayak. They all added up.
However, if you have the time, throwing in a few more miles going OFF the official North Coast 500 route is not going to be a wasted endeavour. Despite covering many of the small and winding roads along the coast, there are many beautiful parts of the Highlands which will be skipped over by the majority. Yet, for those that seize upon the opportunity to explore and discover just where that signpost to the curiously named village, harbour or bay leads, you may just find your own Scottish hidden gem.
Driving the North Coast 500 also acts as the perfect gateway to visit the isles of Skye, Orkney or Lewis - so it could just be the start of a long-lasting love affair with this part of the world.
What are your insider tips for driving or cycling the North Coast 500? Let us know in the comments! Or why not check out our definitive guide to the NC500 route or our beautiful post '12 Reasons to Make the Scottish Highlands Your Next Adventure'.
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