“God’s own country”? An understatement, I say, and haggis for breakfast too!
We’ve reached “the end of the road” according to the sign at John o’Groats on our driving tour of Scotland, with the dogs. It’s been a wonderful trip so far. The weather has been very kind to us, it was 25 degrees last week, so our view of the best of this country has been perfect. And what fantastic, grand, beautiful, jaw-dropping scenery it is, with a new gobsmacking view, sparkling river, picture-perfect harbour or grand loch vista seemingly around every corner. It’s over 30 years since we were touring here last, dragging a trailer, staying in a tent, in the rain, every day, with a very-nearly-toddling one year old, when we were both the age our youngest daughter is now. That was a memorable experience up the west coast too but this is the proper way to see it, sunny, warm, clear fresh air with no crowds, only a few midgies, comfortable hotels, a lovely car and hundreds of miles of fast, fun, exhilarating road through some of the best countryside mainland Scotland has to offer.
Our original idea was to drive the North Coast 500 mile circuit of the West Coast and the Highlands, the ‘NC500’ as it is dubbed by the Scottish Tourist Board, starting from Inverness, up and over the top, down the west coast then back to Inverness. But a) we’ve got the dogs, and b) we didn’t want to do the full 500 mile circuit. We’re limited to dog-friendly hotels, of course, and we thought the north west corner of the country was likely to be rather bleak and featureless. Maybe we were wrong but even the trip to John o’Groats and Thurso didn’t really appeal but we included it because we’d never been ‘to the top’ before. Now that we’re here I’m very glad we came. The long drive up the Highlands east coast can’t beat the scenery on the west coast but the roads are still fun and there are many other things to stop and see instead, castles, lochs, distilleries and many small towns & villages. Many of the beaches here on the north coast are world-beating and very beautiful indeed. Not lie-on-a-lounger-and-sizzle-with-a-beer beautiful but simply beautiful in and of themselves.
We put a mildly-aggressive mileage schedule together based on tours contained in two old AA Touring Guide to Britain books I bought from M&S nearly forty years’ ago, shortly after I first started working on Oxford Street. Doing it this way, we thought, we’re not limiting ourselves to a single ‘See Scotland’ route determined by marketing people but instead we’ll fit in as many of the best sightseeing routes as we can into the time we’ve got and it’s worked out very well, so far. The popularity of the NC500 meant we had to book our dog-friendly hotels a number of weeks in advance to be sure of staying where we wanted and not be forced to drive hundreds more miles to get to farther-flung hotels. The ‘boys’ have both been perfect travel companions, snoozing in the car whilst we drive many hours each day, jumping out for a walk around somewhere new then bedding down without any fuss at each of our overnight hotels.
We started our trip just over a week ago with a 6+ hour Sunday drive to our first pub stop at Arrochar, near Loch Lomond. From there we’ve followed the guide book tours returning to, or moving on to, our next overnight pub or hotel. I understand why we’ve not returned to this part of the world for so long but I’m really glad we’ve finally come back and seen what I believe is some of the most beautiful and remarkable countryside in the world, and we’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of the world’s beautiful places in our travels over the years so we think we’re reasonably qualified to judge. As a driving holiday our route is also one of the very best in the world, and again, we’ve been lucky to have done a number of other great world-class drives too. The people we’ve met have been friendly and lovely and we’ve managed to understand most of them. The car’s been fabulous, the weather’s been great and the food’s generally been good. Great breakfasts, particularly, including smoked haddock and haggis at most places, black pudding at all, but the cooking has also been scarily poor at a few places. That’s normal anywhere, I guess, and what sometimes makes eating out an adventure. We’ve enjoyed some very nice local real ales, from a proper barrel rather than a frozen steel keg, although I have had to ask for the sparkler to be removed rather too many times, presumably a hang-back from the fizzy Tartan Bitter days of our last visit. Our rooms have all been comfortable, the boys have been good and the main event, the scenery, is just to die for. And it’s all just there, waiting for you to drive to see it, and we have regarded it with the proper awe and respect it reserves. The only downside, I must be honest, has been some very questionable coffee at a number of places along the route and nowadays there’s surely no excuse for that on the British mainland. Ah well, not even God’s own country is perfect then.