Take the high road to the Highlands for the perfect UK motorhome holiday
BY STEVE FRANKLIN
Steve Franklin drives Scotland’s spectacular North Coast 500 scenic road
The Proclaimers may have sung about walking 500 miles – and even 500 more – but they were never 500 miles like this. For a start, we didn’t walk. With my children Rohan, 12, and Uma, nine, we travelled in a top-of-the-range swift Bessacarr 496 motorhome.
The North Coast 500 is Scotland’s answer to America’s Route 66, providing a road trip through the Highlands, where the journey means as much as the destination. We were met at Inverness airport by Jo from Highland Campervans, who introduced us to our dream machine, provided by Swift Group. It’s about as far from roughing it as you can get. The vehicle sleeps six and includes an ingenious double bed that lowers silently from the ceiling at the touch of a button.
Don’t think camping stoves and coolboxes. Think full-size oven and grill, four-ring gas and electric hob, microwave and fridge with freezer compartment. Of course you get your own loo and shower on board and the back of the “van” is a lounge with sofas and scatter cushions. It converts easily into a massive double bed at the end of the evening. It drives as easily as a car, so after a quick talk-through from Jo about the various gadgets on board and where to go and what to do, we were ready to set off.
After a stop to stock up on supplies – motorhomes are popular in the Highlands so you won’t be glared at in the supermarket car park – we were off. The NC500 route is a loop that runs up the north-east coast from Inverness, right the way across the top of Scotland, back down the other side and along to where you started. We were glad our first stop, after a long morning travelling up from England, wasn’t too far away.
We cruised to the Caravan Club campsite at Brora, a straightforward drive up the coast from Inverness. Everything is well signposted and if you keep the sea on your right you can’t go wrong. Brora is a peaceful town and only a golf course separates the grassy campsite from a stunning sandy beach. There’s endless space for the kids to play and explore – and we made full use of it. If you’re more used to packed-out beaches down south, prepare for a completely new experience. Because here in the Highlands, even in summer, you’ll find miles and miles of empty sand. It’s incredibly relaxing and peaceful and we slipped easily into holiday mood.
With our packed schedule we spent just the one night at Brora, so after breakfast on board we were off again. We topped up our fresh-water tank, emptied our “grey water” from the shower and washing up and hit the road. It’s worth pointing out that motorhome users are a friendly bunch, so you will never be stuck for advice if you forget how something on your van works. There are plenty of easygoing tourists willing to offer advice and the Caravan Club campsite operators are a helpful lot, too.
The NC500 route makes life very simple for anyone who wants to explore the Highlands without getting lost. You don’t have to do the whole route, of course, but we decided not to cut the corner and followed it up towards John o’Groats, the famous little town at the north-east tip of the UK mainland. We stopped there for a walk and pictures by the landmark signpost, had a snack on board the van and drove on.
It’s an obvious point but the freedom of the road really is just that. If you want to stop for a break, there’s no hunting for service stations or roadside cafes. We had everything we needed on board so a tea/toilet break just means pulling off the road for a few minutes.
After John o’Groats, we followed the NC500 route across the north coast, stopping when we saw something interesting (often) and enjoying the drive on the near-empty road. The second night we felt brave enough for wild camping – the practice, perfectly legal in Scotland, of finding your own place to spend the night. Our van was self-sufficient and although it’s simple to plug into the power at a campsite, it has a battery on board that charges from the engine and means it will work just fine out in the wild. Rohan and Uma loved the idea of this, and somewhere near the village of Tongue, we diverted on to a country lane and soon found a welcoming forest clearing and settled down for the night. No TV, of course, but we cooked and ate dinner, watched an eagle hunting nearby and listened to the owls hooting as the sun set.
Next day, we headed for Durness and a slightly busier (by Highlands’ standards) campsite, stopping off at the impressive Smoo Cave nearby, where Vikings used to repair their ships and the children discovered a proper echo. If you shriek loud enough the caves will shriek back a second later after you’ve finished. Who needs video games? We were in the heart of the West Highlands, where the scenery is at its best. It’s possible to drive for miles without seeing another vehicle or house, and enjoy a landscaped carved by glaciers and unchanged for centuries.
We camped again near the welcoming – but isolated – little port of Ullapool before our final Caravan Club site at Kinclochewe. We spent two nights there, exploring the mountains, the pretty beach at Gairloch and just soaking up the wild Highlands atmosphere. We had dinner at Kinlochewe’s Whistle Stop Cafe, where the food was excellent and being 39 miles from the nearest shop was clearly not a problem.
For our final day there was only one place to go – Loch Ness. No trip to this region is complete without calling in at the exhibition centre beside the famous loch – then a boat trip out to search for Nessie. Did we see anything mysterious in the chilly waters? Well there was a dark shape in the distance we couldn’t quite explain. We completed the route with the short drive back to Inverness and were sad to give Jo the keys and say goodbye to the van that had kept us safe, dry and happy for an unforgettable week.
The Highlands has so much more to see and we can’t wait to get there again. One thing I will proclaim…for us there’s now only one way to mop up the miles. And yes, we would be happy to do 500 more!
Highland Campervans of Inverness rent a Hylander Campervan for around £695pw in high season. A vehicle similar to the Swift Bessacarr 496 is around £900pw. highlandcampervans.com – swiftgroup.co.uk
freedomtogo.co.uk is the the one-stop-shop for leisure vehicle info.
The Caravan Club offers 3,000 overnight locations throughout the UK. Pitches are from around £4, adult £5, child £1.30. caravanclub.co.uk
Inverness airport is served by flights from across the UK. hial.co.uk
Tourist info: visitscotland.com
Best time to go: Scotland’s road trip beckons spring to autumn