In case you missed it: I’m sharing my recent roadtrip around Scotland with a series of mini guides to the places we went. You can catch up on the whole trip with this post, and see why we loved the Isle of Skye so much here.
The North West of Scotland is about as wild and rugged as it gets. The roads are single-track and windy, and you can go miles and miles without seeing anything other than the rocks and mountains. To give you an idea of our route, after getting back onto the mainland from the Isle of Skye, we wound our way up the western coast, staying in Gairloch, Lochinver and Rhiconich before we headed over the top to Thurso. I believe this is the opposite way round to the North Coast 500 route but it covers the same places. Here’s what this area offers.
Where to stay
Be prepared: if you are travelling up to this part of Scotland, don’t expect a ton of options in terms of places to stay. Its beauty is in its remoteness, so hotels will be few and far between, and pricey! We went with small hotels and B&Bs which were mixed and often simple and unfrilly. Maybe we could have done this part of the roadtrip faster and with fewer nights’ stay, but there really is so much to do up here that we didn’t want to miss out. Maybe skip Gairloch if you are doing the same route, and whatever you do – do not stay in the cheap and definitely-not-cheerful Gairloch Hotel.
What to see
Applecross mountain crossing has fantastic views through the mountains and over to the sea. The detour can take about an hour with plenty of pulling over to allow cars to pass. It’s an exciting drive and definitely worthwhile, especially if the weather is nice and clear (which it wasn’t for us). We had lots of fun encountering highland cattle on the road in this area.
The Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve in Kinlochewe is somewhere we briefly drove through, but I definitely wish that we had stopped for longer. There are several visitor centres throughout the park which had more information about the area and nature trails and walks of varying lengths and difficulty. We stopped spontaneously at one to stretch our legs and had the nicest walk through the woodland with the backdrop of the mountains behind.
About ten minutes north of Gairloch is the beautiful Inverewe Gardens which is well worth the entrance fee. We arrived at opening time on a rainy morning and had the whole place to ourselves for a while. The beautiful array of plants and flowers provided us with a fun morning of picture-taking, and with views to Poolewe across the bay and a coffee shop and museum on site, you could easily spend a couple of hours here, rain or shine.
The Old Man of Stoer rock formation in the sea near Lairg (not to be confused with the Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye!) is accessible by a windy walk along the rugged coastline. It was muddy and boggy but warrants fantastic views, especially on a good day as we had. You’ll have to drive out of your way for this view, as it’s a little off the beaten track.
Up near Durness in the remotest and least populated parish in the UK, we were blessed with beautiful weather for a walk along the sandy and practically Mediterranean Balnakeil Beach. A trip to the local Smoo Cave is also a fun activity – for a small price you can go on a group guided tour into the caves via a dinghy and some clambering.
Other things we didn’t get around to doing include seeing the puffins on Handa Island, walking around Stac Pollaidh in Inverpolly and going to Achmelvich Beach in Lochinver. We also had lunch and a wander around Ullapool which is the largest town in the North West. And north of Ullapool is Knockan Crag which had a nice trail over the mountain and an interactive exhibition about the importance of the geographical feature.
Where to eat and drink
Heading northwards from the end of the Applecross mountain pass, we stopped in the tiny village of Shieldaig where we stumbled across the cutest family-run cafe, Nanny’s. Honestly, whenever I look back on the trip to Scotland I remember the pure happiness of finding this cosy and lovely community cafe which had a fantastic selection of hot drinks, cakes and sandwiches. The funnest part of any trip is discovering hidden gems like this in the middle of nowhere.
Between Lochinver and Rhiconich, we stumbled across the loveliest hotel and restaurant in Kylesku.
If you are going up to the top of Scotland, you cannot miss a visit to the famous Cocoa Mountain chocolate shop and cafe, tucked away near the crafting village of Balnakeil. You will pay about £5 for a hot chocolate but you will love it, I promise.
Phew, it’s only writing this I realised how much we managed to pack into our three days in this part of Scotland. I think we could definitely go back and see more of this beautiful area – and especially do some more walking and hikes. Look out for my next blog post in this series which will cover our favourite parts of the North East of Scotland.