Raise your digital hands who has not heard of the North Coast 500 tour around Scotland? I am waiting. Anyone? Aye, I thought so!
If you’ve ever been interested in Scotland, you will have likely come across the ultimate Scottish road trip – the North Coast 500 (NC500). Often compared to Route 66 in the United States of America, NC500 takes you on a loop of the entire north coast of Scotland, starting and ending in Inverness.
There is already a plethora of information out there about this trip. Places like Visit Scotland or the routes own website, North Coast 500 have a lot of guidance. There’s also a My Saturday Drive guide on it here.
The route is full of amazing driving roads and filled with beautiful scenery, wildlife and activities. However, I feel like a lot of people get lured in by the rugged beauty of the north west coast and they spend the majority of the trip there. By the time they are around the east coast, they just head straight for the number one attraction (keep reading to find out but you probably already know it) and then head to Inverness and call it a trip.
Don’t get me wrong, as much as I love the north west coast myself, I knew there are amazing, less known places on the east as well. My partner and I went up there for a couple of nights and I would like to share our experience with you. Maybe this will help when planning your next trip to Scotland or maybe it will help you escape for a little bit and imagine you are in this beautiful country for a few minutes. Either way, enjoy!
Well, yeah, this was the number one attraction I was talking about earlier on. Arguably, probably the most beautiful castle in the northern highlands, Dunrobin castle sees many a visitor throughout the year and gives you a little taste of Scottish luxury with a hint of French influence.
On our first day, we set out with Dunrobin Castle in mind. Given that it was the most northerly we were going to go during our trip, we chose to see it first. The Castle is normally open from 29th of March till 15th of October, in line with most other seasonal tourist attractions, but this year, given all that’s been going on, it was open from 17th of July to the 31st of October. More details about opening times can be found here.
My best tip for visiting Dunrobin Castle is to give yourself plenty of time, especially if you come in the summer months as it can be quite busy. I would recommend at least 3 hours to take everything in, both inside and outside the castle.
If you happen to visit outside of those dates, the castle will be closed but the grounds and gardens are still open to the public. First time we visited was in the middle of winter and we could only walk in the gardens. We were delighted that we got to experience the inside as well!
2. Dornoch Beach
After taking in the beauty of the castle, why not go for a walk on a beautiful beach? Recommended to us by one of the workers at Dunrobin Castle, Dornoch Beach is a nice wee gem that not many know about.
It’s about 20 minutes drive south from Dunrobin Castle and it rewards visitors with miles of golden sand and tranquil waters.
3. Loch Fleet/Skelbo Castle
Just a few minutes north of Dornoch, there’s another beautiful place called Loch Fleet. It’s a stunning wee spot with amazing views all around and plenty of wildlife to enjoy.
There are also ruins of an old castle called Skelbo. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, the site was closed but maybe you will be in better luck when you visit!
4. Fyrish Monument
For those that like a bit of hiking, there’s no better trail than the Fyrish Monument Walk. Located just outside of Alness, the Fyrish Monument stands a mere 1400 feet above sea level. It was built in 1782 under the command of Hector Munro, a general who had served in India and wanted the monument to resemble the gate of Negapatam, a port which he took for the British in 1781. He commissioned the build to help keep the locals in labour after they were cleared off the land. Legend has it he would roll stones from the top of the hill to the bottom give the workers an excuse for working longer.
Putting the peculiar history to the side, the walk itself can take about 2.5 hours in total and it rewards walkers with a stunning view of Cromarty Firth.
Top tip, as with many steep hikes, wear only 1 or 2 layers as you will quickly get very warm. The ascent is quite steep with a fair bit of going up and down.
5. Lunch in Lairg
Are you hungry? A brisk hours drive from the Fyrish Monument through some fantastic Scottish scenery and you will find yourself in Lairg. We were on our way to the next item on our list (Shin Falls, see below) and we stopped off at The Pier café for food. With great service, delicious food and an amazing view to top it all off, we cannot recommend the place enough!
6. Achness Falls
Now this is a true hidden gem! Recommended to us by our wonderful host (stay tuned till the end if you want to know what the best place to stay on the north east coast is!), Achness Falls is a wonderful little nature wonder through beautiful woodland alongside River Cassley. It’s also a great place to watch the salmon leap but unfortunately, we didn’t luck out with this one. It was really beautiful though and we just took our time, wondered about and finished off with just sitting on a bench and admiring the view for a wee while.
7. Falls of Shin
Another spectacular waterfall, only 20 minute drive form Achenss Falls, is Falls of Shin. This is probably the number one place in Scotland to see the salmon leap. And, as it turned out, luck was finally on our side and we got to see the salmon leap for the first time in our lives. It was quite a magical experience, almost unbelievable how the fish can not only swim against the strong current, but also jump out of the water many feet up in the air to get to the next step of the ladder! Nature is truly fascinating!
For your best chances of seeing the salmon leap, you will have to visit between the months of May and September but probably the closer to September, the better. If you fancy more wondering through the woodlands, there are loads of walking paths created by the Forestry Commission. You can find more information at the visitor centre. right across from the falls, where there is ample free parking and a gift shop.
8. Tarbat Ness Lighthouse and Wilkhaven Point
Tarbat Ness Lighthouse sits at the northern tip of the Tarbat Ness peninsula. It was built in 1830 and stands 53 meters tall. You can correct me if you are more knowledgeable, but I think this is the only lighthouse in Scotland to feature the red and white stripes (at least to my knowledge) so I think it’s a pretty cool place to visit.
You can spend a good hour or two wondering about the coast, taking the scenery in and, if you are really lucky, you may be able to see dolphins swimming in the bay! Once again, we were unlucky unfortunately.
9. Roggie Falls
Last but not least, another breathtaking spot, only 20 minutes north west of Inverness is Roggie Falls.
There are a couple of trails you can chose from, but the number one you must do is the salmon trail. It’s only about a mile and it takes you to a suspension bridge where you get a great view of the falls. And just like Falls of Shin, if you visit close to September you will get a good chance of seeing the salmon leap up stream! Once again, we were lucky enough to see the salmon leap!
10. Do not bother
I hate to sound negative, but if we have a negative experience, or if we feel like we could have gone somewhere else and enjoyed it more, we would like to share it with the world.
Chanonry Point is a popular spot for seeing dolphins, at least according to the internet. We gave it a go as well but we couldn’t help but feel like it was more of a tourist trap. You were hard pressed to see any dolphins, especially close to such a busy place and paying the car park fee (if you are lucky enough to get a spot) just so you can stare from a small crowded beach was not worth it.
I would have much rather spent that time in Inverness (where we ended up anyways for food and fuel) exploring the town.
Thank you for reading and making it so far! You are the reason I write all this stuff and I am glad I am able to help you when it comes to road tripping in Scotland. This is by NO means a paid advertising spot. it’s just an honest dude recommending a fantastic B&B based on an amazing experience.
My partner and I have stayed in small B&B’s before. We feel it’s the mot authentic way of experiencing a place as not only you get to feel what it’s like living there, but you also get to meet and chat and possibly become friends with someone local. The cherry on top is that you are also helping out the local economy, a totally reasonable thing to do, especially during 2020!
While for the majority of cases our experience has been a positive one, Beechwood Lodge has been by FAR the most pleasurable experience we had. Gunta and Kristine, our hosts, went above and beyond to ensure we had a comfortable stay. From the initial contact over email to the very last minute we were on the property they were incredibly professional and super friendly and made us feel like we were home.
Even though we had a rough idea of what we were doing each day, Gunta was kind enough to look up places that we could visit each day and even printed out an itinerary for us. Tell me of another B&B owner who is so great with their guests!
The breakfast was amazing, the rooms immaculate and the absolute icing on the cake were the two rescue doggies that live on the property. Nothing beats morning doggie cuddles and a hot cup of coffee!
Gunta, Kristine, if you are reading this, Maryanne and I thank you for your wonderful hospitality and hope that one day we will come back!
Until Next Time
So, there you have it. That was our little north east coast getaway. It took us a total of 3 days (including driving there and back). We used about 1.5 tanks of fuel and achieved 1 million smiles per gallon and experiences we will never forget. I hope it will give you some inspiration for your next trip to Scotland!
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