What can I say? I love sweets, in all shapes and sizes! You only live once, so why not indulge once in a while? Or, in my case, most of the time...
So, technically, this is still the fourth leg of our NC500 trip, but it was quite a long drive so there was a lot to do. In this post you will see the things that we did in the afternoon on our way down to Polbain. Be prepared for some more beautiful beaches and unexpected stop offs as we veered a little bit off the beaten track to the village of Drumbeg.
After fortifying ourselves with a hot chocolate from Cocoa Mountain, we hopped back in the car for some more exploring along the road to Polbain where we would be stopping for the night. We had (all too soon) reached the west coast and started our descent back south. How lucky we were then to have some more spectacular views, blue skies and generally clement weather to comfort us! Again, I am not quite sure which beach this is that we stopped by, but as you can see, there was clear water and white sand. It was a little nippier than it looks in the picture but we had a lovely time stretching our legs with a short walk along the beach.
We noticed that, on the West coast, there were a lot more people selling home made food from their houses. This was the first sign we saw for fresh, home style seafood and I couldn’t resist the siren call of oak smoked salmon. Especially as it was four pounds, which is a pretty good deal in anyone’s book. We found the house in question and – I kid you not – a little old lady answered the door, super puzzled until we explained that we wanted to buy some salmon.
Forgive the weird angle, I took the picture while I was sitting in the car! Look how fresh that salmon is! We also bought a little cup of hot smoked salmon pate which we ate with some crackers that we had been carting around in the car. It was nice to have a little car picnic (it was a bit windy to sit outside) and eat something that was fresh and local. Although, having said that, the majority of the food that we had eaten so far was fresh and local! Expect to see a lot more seafood as we travel down the West coast.
Even though we had quite a long way to drive that day, we decided to veer a little off course after our seafood stop and took a detour to the village of Drumbeg. Drumbeg is only a tiny tiny little town but it has a magnificent view out to sea. There were plenty of sheep munching on the grass and again, it was quite idyllic. This is probably the time to mention that these photos are all unedited and I haven’t amped up the colour saturation – this really is how it looked. If you haven’t booked your ticket to Scotland yet, i’m not quite sure what you’re thinking.
Drumbeg has a general store and a beautiful little shop called Assynt Aromas that sold home made soaps and did cream teas in their garden. We were super lucky because 1. It was a sunny day and 2. we had the entire garden to ourselves.
We had a delicious cream tea with a huge scone and a dollop of that fabulous clotted cream that only seems to happen properly in the UK. We were also visited by a giant bumblebee that are native to the area. Unfortunately he moved too quickly for me to photograph, so you will just have to imagine an enormous bee, buzzing from flower to flower and generally bumping into things. Although, if you have a phobia of bees, maybe don’t imagine that…
Instead, you can think about this little guy that I met in a field opposite the Drumbeg general store. He has a little bit shy at first, but then he seemed to enjoy having his nose patted.
We saw this ruined castle from the road and decided to take a short walk across to it. Again, we were the only people around and the sun was shining and really, why not?
This leg was really filled with unexpected adventures and the kind of spontaneous stumbling upon beauty and history that came to characterise our whole trip. I’m sorry that I haven’t got exact names and addresses for many of the locations that i’m sharing but, in a way, I don’t think you would want to do exactly what we did. Not because it was sub par in any way, but because I think that a road trip like the NC500 is a really personal one. You don’t feel like you’re one of a million people like you do in tourist locations like the Lakes District in England or on the way to Stone Henge. Instead, this road trip is about personal discoveries, it’s intimate, it’s special. Maybe i’m just a huge sap, but I really felt like we were the only two people on earth for most of this trip.
So, we ended up in Polbain for the night, which was probably our most spartan stop over so it doesn’t rate a huge mention and didn’t really take any photos of that one! Don’t worry, i’ve made up for it on the next leg, travelling to the beauty that is Sheildaig via Ullapool where I had some of the most delicious food i’ve ever had from a food truck. As always, if you have any questions or want to share some of your memories or tips, leave me a comment in the section below!
No, this isn’t a still from a post-apocalyptic dystopian film, this is a little taste of the magic that followed us from Talmine to our next stop in Polbain for the fourth leg of our NC500 trip. Read on for the kind of whimsy you can only find in the far north of the Scottish Highlands with misty beaches and Smoo Cave, where vikings used to fix their ships. Also, please excuse my low resolution iphone photos. I’m sure you can take better ones. If you go…
After spending a ridiculously restful night in our Airbnb in Talmine, we hit the road again to explore more of the far north coast. This leg involved a lot of spontaneous getting out of the car and wandering through spectacular and unexpected places. Because of this (and my natural reticence with organising or recording anything at all) I don’t have specific directions or locations for some of these stops, but I hope that they will inspire you to take your own journey and find something that nobody else will. The photo above was taken on a beach somewhere to the West of Talmine, but before you hit Smoo Cave (i’ll tell you a bit more about that soon!). We rounded a bend and the coast opened up to us revealing a sandy beach awash with fog. Firstly, I couldn’t believe that I was seeing golden sand similar to beaches back home, and secondly, I couldn’t believe the thickness of the fog. I took this photo of my husband who was walking no more than fifty metres behind me and soon after taking it, the mist swallowed him up completely.
When I was walking from the hills down to the beach, the fog was so thick that I couldn’t see the water. When I reached the water and looked behind me, the fog was so thick that I could no longer see the hills. It was curious and surreal and I felt as thought I had wandered through a diaphanous curtain and into another world. We must have spent an hour exploring this dream beach before reality nudged us and we had to return to the car. If you come from a country that is land locked, expect to be constantly getting out of your car to explore the varied and beautiful beaches in Scotland. If you come form a country like Australia, where beautiful beaches are the norm, you should still expect to be constantly getting our of your car to appreciate these empty and pristine stretches. Looking back at the map, this one may have been the beach at Rispond, but is also may not have been. It’s all part of the adventure, right?
After driving around Loch Eriboll, we made it to the next “ooooooh aaaaaah” destination – Smoo Cave. Briefly, Smoo Cave (near Durness) is a huge series of caves that open onto a rocky inlet. It is special for three reasons:
1. Smoo Cave is undeniably amazing to look at and explore
2. Smoo Cave has geological significance
3. Smoo Cave has historical significance
After parking in the carpark at the top of the cliff, you will need to walk down a hundred or so shallow stairs to reach the water level entrance to Smoo Cave. I didn’t find these steps onerous at all but I am relatively fit and if you have issues with your knees or with mobility in general, it might be difficult for you (particularly the steps back up). But, all that aside, can we agree with point number 1 – that this is a pretty beautiful and unusual looking place? When we arrived in Spring, it was relatively quiet and we only saw a smattering of other tourists there. As you walk into the first cave, you are struck by the coolness and the darkness. For a cave with a relatively large mouth, it sucks light like a black hole. It’s geological significance comes from the fact that the first chamber was hollowed out by the hungry sea, whereas the second chamber, accessible by the footbridge in the picture above, was formed by freshwater and rainwater passages. It’s a double cave!
If you want to fully explore the inner cave, there are official guides available that will take you on a tour of Smoo Cave. You will have to climb down into an inflatable boat but these guys looked like they knew what they were doing. We would have gone on a tour except that we had a long way still to drive before our stop for the night. So we explored for a little while, and imagined ourselves face to face with the vikings who used to hide out here while they fixed their ships. That’s the historical part I was talking about earlier! Can you imagine Ragnar and Floki discussing ship designs in this rugged place? I can! Still, the magic had to end as again, reality nudged us back to the car.
We were a little bit peckish after our cave exploring so stopped a little further on at Balnakeil Craft village. The village looks a little bit strange because it’s not quite a village in the traditional sense. It’s a collection of flat, concrete buildings that were built in the 1950s as as part of an early warning system in case of a nuclear attack. However, it was never commissioned and was abandoned soon after. It was later adopted by a collection of artists and crafters and became what it is today.
The siren call came from Cocoa Mountain Cafe and Chocolaterie which was really the last kind of shop I expected to find here. While the weather was still chilly, we ate outside, warmed by the delicious and decadent hot chocolate adorned by generous drizzles of melted milk and white chocolate.
You can also choose fair trade tea or coffee if
you’re some sort of mutant and chocolate doesn’t appeal to you you would prefer. All the chocolates themselves are handmade and free of gluten and artificial flavouring. I can’t remember exactly what selection we made but I do remember that they were smooth, rich, and delicious! It was difficult not to buy one of everything and I had to settle for a resolution that we would come back another time to sample a few more.
So, even though this leg of the trip wasn’t quite finished at Balnakeil, I will finish this post here and continue the journey in the next one. When I do this again, I think I would try to stay overnight, or for a couple of nights, nearby. It was a truly lovely spot.
As always, if you have any questions, leave them in the comments below! I’ll leave you with one more photo of the walk down to that fabulous dream beach from the beginning of the post. Just because it’s my blog, and I can.
Welcome to part three of my NC500 roadtrip. If you’re still with me, I’m assuming you’re either planning a trip of your own, or reminiscing about one you’ve taken. Either way, i’d love to hear from you so don’t forget to leave me a message in the comments section below!
Let me start by saying that while each leg of the journey was lovely and special, our stay in Talmine was my absolute favourite part. We will get to that in a minute! After a lazy morning in Lybster, we headed north along the coast up to John o’Groats. ‘What a strange name!’ I hear you say. John o’Groats is the northern most point of the mainland of the United Kingdom and you might have heard of people embarking on epic journeys from Land’s End in Cornwall in the South of England, to John o’Groats in the far north of Scotland. It’s named after a Dutchman called Jan de Groot who ran a ferry route between the mainland and Orkney. The story goes that he had seven sons who each fought over who was the most important. To diffuse the tension, Jan built an octagonal house with eight doors, so that nobody could be seen to be sitting at the head of the table.
With only a very small village nearby, John o’Groats really feels as though it’s on the edge of the map. The weather and the ocean can be extreme but we were blessed with beautiful blue skies and the sun was shining the day we went to visit. We took a stroll along the shore, standing by the famous signpost that tells you how far it is to Land’s End and other important destinations. There were lots of warning signs about how perilous the rough seas can be and looking at the reinforced sea walls, I can believe that it gets pretty hairy when the weather is dirty. I still think it would beautiful even if the sun wasn’t shining.
We stopped at the tea rooms for what turned out to be a very generous morning tea complete with cupcakes, scones and sandwiches. We couldn’t finish it all but the ladies were kind enough to wrap up our leftovers so that we could take them with us. Bless! After our tea/lunch/holiday-meal-that-happens-at-whatever-time-you’re-hungry we went for a longer walk along the coastline.
We drove to Duncansby Head Lighthouse which is about five minutes further east of John o’Groats, then hopped out of the car to stretch our legs. You can walk between the two points but it will take you a couple of hours, rather than a couple of minutes! Still, if you’re not in a hurry, it looks like it would be a beautiful walk. Instead, we followed the grassy path that hugs the clifftops for as long as we felt like, which turned out to be this point, where we had an epic view of the cinder stacks that sit in the ocean. These cliffs house a number of seabird colonies and there were a few nature photographers out the day we went. We wore our hiking boots but the terrain is mostly grassy with some slightly boggy patches, so you could get away with sneakers etc.
When when we had had our fill of the ocean and craggy cliffs (so… maybe never…) we hopped back in the car and headed west to our stop for the night in a tiny town called Talmine. This was one of the longest drives of our NC500 route and took over two hours. This wasn’t because the road was tricky to drive, rather, it is such a beautiful stretch of road that we wanted to make it last. Again, the skies were blue, the seas were calm, and the sheep were plentiful. We still hadn’t seen any of of the cutest animals on earth – the highland coos – but that didn’t matter once we entered the Kyle of Tongue.
The Kyle of Tongue has a bit of a strange name but we can overlook that because it is legitimately one of the most beautiful places on earth. As we drove over the causeway, we screeched to a halt and jumped out of the car. We were surrounded by sea that twinkled from blue to emerald and stretched out to the actual ocean. The water is flanked by mountains that stretch off into the distance and roll gently down towards the sea loch. I must have stood for ten minutes just with my mouth open as I took in this spectacular view. There are only a few sparsely spotted houses along the hills and it feels pretty much uninhabited.
We were met by our airbnb hosts Steve and Lea who run one of the most comfortable and hospitable bnbs i’ve ever stayed in. Please, if you are planning on stopping anywhere near here, let me know and i’ll give you their details. My biggest regret is that we didn’t stay a few nights with Steve and Lea (and their incredibly soft and playful dog). From this picture you can get a sense of how sparse the population is here and how wonderfully serene it is. As we sat by our huge bedroom window, sipping on our mugs of tea, the sun began to set over the mountains. Steve told us that in Winter you can see the northern lights from their house and really, I can believe it. I had no idea that Scotland was so far north! As sunset went for hours, we interrupted it with a brisk walk over to the Craggan Hotel for some dinner.
I decided to go for a traditional scottish dish with a bowl of hearty Cullen Skink.
(I left this picture small because it is a very visually unappealing dish! Lucky it tastes great!)
If you’re Australian, you’ve probably only heard the word ‘skink’ before in the context of lizards. Fear not, this is not a lizard soup, rather it is a thick soup made with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. The addition of milk makes it look like it’s split and gluggy, but in the chill of a scottish evening, this soup is warm, delicious, and exactly what you need. Definitely try one while you’re in Scotland, and definitely try the Craggan’s.
The mountains turned fire red and glowed while the sun went down. I’ve never really seen anything like it before and to look at that picture, you might think you were in a desert rather than the Scottish Highlands (if you didn’t look at the sea loch below the mountains…) You can see that the tide has gone out, revealing a big sandbar at the bottom right of the photo. In the morning when the tide was still out, there was a whole group of seals basking on the sand. Steve and Lea had set up a telescope so that we could watch the seals as they flopped around enjoying the sun.
Then, as the sun slowly (very slowly) sand beyond the horizon, the glow faded but the landscape was still beautiful. If I ever decide to throw everything in to go and live a life of solitude somewhere, Talmine is where you will find me.
So that was the third leg of our NC500 trip from Lybster to Talmine. Are you getting a hankering for the open road yet? Are you currently driving the NC500? Drop me a line in the comments section below!
Coming up next: Part 4 of our NC500 road trip from Talmine to the Summer Isles
Alright lovelies, are you ready for some more road tripping? This one is a little longer, but read on for NC500 Part 2: the road from Inverness to Lybster. This leg involved some fancy whisky, ridiculously beautiful coastline, and some precarious hiking to reach this ruined castle…
After a great night’s sleep in Inverness, we hopped in the car to drive the second leg of our NC500 trip. We followed the trusty A9 northwards towards Tain and were treated to some lovely views of the landscape surrounding Cromarty Firth as we passed over Cromarty Bridge. The sky was blue and the gods were smiling down on us… the Whisky Gods, who lead us serendipitously to the door of the Glenmorangie Distillery five minutes before the tour began.
See? I wasn’t kidding about those blue skies.
The Glenmorangie Distillery has been quietly crafting whisky on the banks of the Dornoch Firth for over a hundred and fifty years. We were met by Anna, our guide, who showed us through the different rooms in the distillery and explained the whisky making process. I loved being in the mash room, which smelled sweeeeeet! Literally. She also shared with us the history of the men who work there. Despite having a huge production output, the distillery has been traditionally run by a very small staff who always come from Tain, the local village. As they make a point of employing local men, the staff were given the monicker “The Men of Tain” and it was really lovely to hear about how a local company was still carrying on traditions to support the community, despite being outrageously successful.
We walked through the factory to see where the whisky sleeps before being bottled. The cask room was cool and dark and filled with wooden barrels that housed the different types of delicious whisky. The barrels were made of different types of wood which gave each style of whisky its distinctive taste. We also learnt about the different ways the distillery is trying to rejuvenate the natural wildlife. They have been putting money into reforming the natural oyster beds that used to line the river, and their pledge to keep the water clean and free of byproducts. That part was pretty impressive!
After our whisky tasting, we crossed the beautiful Dornoch Firth and continued along the coast to our home for the evening in Lybster. This was the first time that we realised that we were really getting into the high country as the villages got further and further apart, spread along the rugged coastline. the weather for our NC500 trip continued to be ridiculously beautiful with glorious sunshine and little more than a light breeze coming in from the sea. We are spoilt for beaches in Australia but I have to say that I would swap those golden sands for these wild pebble beaches any day. Our experience at Lybster definitely had me falling in love even further with this landscape.
When we reached our airbnb, our lovely hosts told us about a place they called ‘Ropey Cove’ which was a path down to the pebble beach at the end of the lane that our cabin was on. We thought that it was just a quaint name, I mean, how cute does Ropey Cove sound? It was a super steep slope with no track down to the beach other than to abseil yourself down on a thick rope that was hammered into the ground in a way that did not inspire confidence. Still, I laugh in the face of danger so I wen’t down first.
Now do you see why I was so keen to get down there?
I’m in love with Scotland. Really. The ancient rock thrusting itself up through the ocean, the smell of that salt water, and the hush of the sea as the tide came in, are all things I would happily live with every day of my life. We were the only two people exploring that day and it was so damn peaceful. While you will definitely find your own secret places to explore when you travel the NC500, I think experiences like this epitomise why this road trip is so incredible. This is definitely not something you will be sharing with a thousand of your closest friends, like you would be in Venice, or Dubrovnik. Scotland still has that untamed wildness that makes you remember why this world is still such an incredible place. It also reminds you why it’s so important to keep it that way.
Once we climbed back up the rope, we made like mountain goats over to this little ruin perched on the top of a fairly steep little hill. Can you see a path there? No? That’s right, because there wasn’t any. We hopped through some marshy patches and some thick, thick grass (thanking god it wasn’t midge season yet!) and many times I thought I was going to slip right back down to the bottom. But we didn’t, and were rewarded with these spectacular views as the sun decided it would think about setting. Just kidding – it wasn’t going to set for another hour or two!
We passed a happy night in Lybster before moving on to the third leg of our NC500 tour through the highlands. Just a quick warning though, as the landscape gets wilder, the villages are further apart which means that you want to be watching your fuel gauge and planning ahead where you want to get your groceries. Some towns you stay in won’t have a restaurant other than a fish and chip shop so make sure that you have an idea what you will be doing for breakfast and dinner each day. This leg was the first one that we used to stock up on groceries such as milk, cereal and bread. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Ok are you ready for some road trip fun? Im super excited to share with you the first leg of our NC500 trip where we drove from Edinburgh to Inverness. If you haven’t heard about the NC500, flip back to my last post where i’ve given you a helpful overview. Then buckle up and get ready for sheep, spectacular scenery, and the open, open road!
Leaving Edinburgh, we took the A9 towards Inverness. No, the shot above isn’t of that road, that road isn’t super interesting so we are going to fast forward there. We stopped along the way at a little town called Pitlochry, which is pretty as can be and has quite a few places that you can stop at for lunch.
Or perhaps a huge donut milkshake – i’m not judging
We also poked our heads into the numerous charity shops and scored a couple of paperbacks to read along the way. The countryside was green and beautiful, and we went through dark and deep forests – at time’s mildly concerned about Birnam Wood…
English students/teachers should be aware of the significance of that one for a certain King Macbeth. Luckily, these woods weren’t moving.
We followed the A9 pretty much all the way to Inverness and our accommodation. We stayed in an airbnb here and were so sad that it was for only one night! Let me know if you want a recommendation though, it was an incredible old house with a very friendly host.
When we neared Inverness, the road opened and the landscape grew more wild and rugged and… inhabited by majestic sheep.
Inverness itself is a big town with lots to do both there and in the immediate surroundings. As I said, we were only staying overnight so, as the daylight hours were ridiculously long (sunset around 9.30 anyone?), we decided to take a drive to Loch Ness. Only roughly an hour away, the road is narrow but beautiful, particularly in the golden and sunset hours. There seemed to be only one road in to Fort Augustus from our side of the loch so we weren’t too worried about getting lost – although we did somehow manage to return on a different road to the one we came in on. As long as you follow the road signs to Inverness or Fort Augustus, you should be fine.
Loch Ness is beautiful and peaceful at dusk. The tour buses have gone and it seems as though it’s just you and Nessie – wherever she may be. The water is dark, almost black, and very still, save for the light ruffling of breezes. We stretched our legs by walking a little way around the shore of the loch and tried to do a bit of monster spotting, before stopping for dinner.
Maybe I saw something… maybe I didn’t…
There are only a few options for dinner, so don’t expect oodles of choice. If you have special dietary requirements, you should probably bring your own food. After dinner the sun was really starting to set so we walked up the series of locks that control the flow of water down into the big loch. Confusing I know, but it will make sense when you see it.
Or just look at the pretty sunset
The drive back was a little nerve wracking as it was dark and of course there are no street lights out on the back roads. There are also a number of stretches that are single lane roads, but you will see the headlights of any oncoming traffic long before you need to pull into a passing place. The drive back to Inverness was where we saw some of the most stunning sunsets across smaller lochs. It really gave us a taste for what the rest of Scotland would be like and we were very excited for the next leg of our journey. So are you planning on doing the NC500? Or just reminiscing? If you’re planning, let me know if there are any other details I can help you with by leaving a comment below!
Here’s one last sunset shot to see you out.
And a little taste of what’s to come: NC500 Leg 2 was the day we drank fancy whisky, ate dirty sandwiches, and got more of an adventure than we bargained for…
Been watching Outlander? Fan of Braveheart? Want to see the iconic bridge that the Hogwarts Express crosses? If so, I think you’re going to love this series of posts! Since visiting briefly ten years ago, Scotland has had a special place in my heart and i’ve been wheeling and dealing to get myself back there. There’s something about the frosty climate that breeds a stoic and welcoming people who have a rich and varied cultural history. There’s a bit more than bagpipes and blood sausage to this country. In this next series of posts, i’m going to share the details of the holiday I just spent in Scotland, specifically something called the NC500 and I hope you enjoy it!
If you’re from Australia, you will know that the road trip is at the very least, a rite of passage and at the most, a national sport. With the vast distances and incredible landscape between cities, hopping in the car and getting on the road is one of the best ways to see the country. So when we were looking into exploring the Scottish Highlands, we immediately began looking into driving routes.
The most publicised driving route around the highlands is called the North Coast 500 (NC500) which most people follow in a clockwise direction, beginning in Inverness. We decided to go anti-clockwise because we’re such rebels *cough*not*cough*. No, we actually wanted to end up on the Isle of Arran so it made more sense for us to go this way. For those of you playing along at home, you can see an interactive map here which will help you visualise this whole thing.
Here are the things you need to know before setting off:
1. The quality of the roads on the NC500 is excellent, but the further north you get, the more single lane roads you will be on. Don’t worry though, the locals know what they’re doing and there are many, many passing places that you can pull into so that oncoming traffic (or those behind you) can pass. You can get away with renting a medium sized car. We got a Ford Kuga which was perfect and had no trouble with some of the steeper roads.
2. You should see some highland coos, one of the greatest creatures ever created.
3. You will see lots of sheep, sometimes on the road, sometimes not, sometimes staring off into the distance like a heroic explorer. I’m not sure if this is your thing, but this was one of my favourite things about driving through Scotland!
4. Unless you’re going to pitch a tent or you’re driving a caravan (and sometimes even then) book your accommodation before you go, otherwise you might end up having to stay in a bothy like the one above! We mostly stayed in airbnbs which were a lot of fun. There are also some excellent hotels that you can stay at if your budget is a bit more generous.
5. Take your time and keep your camera ready – can you spot the photographer here? It is possible to do the route in a week or so, but why rush it? I could have spent at least an extra day in every place we stayed. Also, you will need time for all the photos you will need to take. I say ‘need’ because the landscape is so unbelievably beautiful you will want to catch every second of it so that you can relive it when you’re stuck at work and everything sucks. P.s. super thanks to my husband who took a lot of the photos i’m going to share with you in this series.
Now that i’ve whetted you’re appetite, are you reading to come along on the NC500? What iconic road trips have you taken or are you planning on taking? Let me know in the comments!