North Coast 500: Scotland's answer to America's Route 66

It has been dubbed Scotland's answer to America's Route 66. Yet while the North Coast 500 cannot boast long, flat stretches of highway, edged by cactus-strewn desert, neon-lit diners and eccentric motels, it does offer a jaw-dropping glimpse into the furthest-flung reaches of Great Britain. 

This 830-kilometre loop weaves through a myth-soaked tapestry of glacial lakes, moody mountains and breathtaking coastline, and boasts an array of pit stops yielding fantastic food and drink, spine-tingling wildlife encounters and memorable brushes with Highland culture. 

The NC500 deserves at least four or five days of your time, ideally between April and October, when you'll get the best weather and most daylight. You start – and finish – this epic drive in Inverness, 250-kilometres north of Edinburgh. Steering clear of the crowds heading south, to the nearby tourist magnet of Loch Ness, I take the A862 road west towards Muir of Ord, a little village where the NC500 forks off in clockwise and anti-clockwise directions. 

Plump for the former and, within a couple of hours, having driven via a string of misty valleys, lovely lochs, rivers and waterfalls, you'll be on Scotland's rugged north-west coast, a region characterised by its dramatic, soaring cliffs, icy turquoise bays, salty-aired seaside villages and enticing spots like Kishorn Seafood Bar (kishornseafoodbar.co.uk). At this timber-framed local favourite, you can feast on freshly caught scallops, lobster and salmon, while gleaning beguiling views of the Isle of Skye (one of Scotland's 790 offshore islands). 

Seafood – and Skye vistas – are also dished up at the Applecross Inn (applecross.uk.com/inn), a quaint village pub that does a mean haggis (flambeed in Drambuie, topped with cream and served with oatcakes). There are seven snug rooms at this inn, which sits at the end of the steep, twisting Bealach na Ba (the Pass of the Cattle), one of Scotland's highest mountain passes.

The west coast has plenty of other enticing places in which to relax and refuel. Complementing homely B&Bs and tartan-bedecked cottages are eclectic affairs like the Torridon, a plush former hunting lodge hugging Loch Torridon (thetorridon.com); Ceilidh Place, a Scottish music-and-literature-inspired retreat in Ullapool (theceilidhplace.com), and the Rua Reidh lighthouse, near the whale-and-dolphin-watching hotspot of Gairloch (stayatalighthouse.co.uk). 

Foodies love The Albannach, a boutique hotel near Lochinver that houses Britain's most northerly Michelin star restaurant (thealbannach.co.uk). On the east coast, whisky fans are drawn to Tain-based Glenmorangie House, an upscale farmhouse linked to a distillery (theglenmorangiehouse.com). Dornoch Castle Hostel is another luxury Highland icon, occupying a 16th-century bishop's palace (dornochcastlehotel.com). 

You could easily spend the whole trip just driving, gawping at the scenery, and pulling over for photo stops, meals and naps, but the NC500 also rewards active souls and history buffs. There's an abundance of coastal walks, including thigh-straining ones near Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the British mainland, and Duncansby Head (whose rocky outcrops evoke the Great Ocean Road). 

In Camster, between Lybster and Wick, you can crawl on your hands and knees into Neolithic burial chambers dating back 5000 years. Looking to "bag a Munro"? That's scaling a Scottish peak over 910 metres high. West coast options include Suilven (a cone-shaped mountain labelled Scotland's Sugar Loaf) and An Teallach, which overlooks Little Loch Broom south of Dundonnell. Scotland's northern-most munro, Ben Hope, is accessible from Tongue, one of the delightfully named villages on the far north coast (it neighbours Bettyhill and Coldbackie). 

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Just outside Tongue, hike amid the 14th-century ruins of Castle Varrich – one of numerous evocative old fortresses dotting the highlands. For a picturesque, intact castle, it's hard to beat Dunrobin, 20 kilometres north of Dornoch. The historic seat of the Sutherlands – one of Scotland's most redoubtable clans – it woos visitors with its fairytale spires and turrets, and twice-daily falconry displays. 

Although the NC500 has quickly become one of Europe's most talked-about touring routes since it was launched last year – in a bid to boost rural tourism – it remains relatively traffic-free. In fact, there'll be times when you think you have it all to yourself. But don't daydream too much. Cyclists and caravanners adore it up here – you might meet them while rounding a hairpin bend – and wildlife occasionally makes its presence felt. It's not uncommon to be stopped in your tracks by wild deer or shaggy heiland coos (highland cows).

Steve McKenna was a guest of Visit Britain.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.northcoast500.com

www.visitbritain.com

www.visitscotland.com

GETTING THERE

Fly to Inverness from London Gatwick with Easyjet (www.easyjet.com), or take a direct train (eight hours) from London King's Cross (www.virgintrainseastcoast.com). Pick up a car from either Inverness airport or the city centre (www.europcar.co.uk).

FIVE OTHER GREAT DRIVES IN THE UK

CORNWALL: Described by the poet John Betjeman as "like another country", England's most south-westerly county is a road tripper's delight. Its winding country lanes lead to spectacular beaches, blooming sub-tropical gardens and cultural gems like the clifftop Minack Theatre; www.visitcornwall.com

THE COTSWOLDS: Painswick, Cirencester and Bibury are just some of the pretty, pit-stoppable towns and villages on the Romantic Road, which splits into two loops in the Cotswolds, a quintessentially English region that undulates between Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon; www.cotswolds.com

JURASSIC COAST: Sheer chalk and sandstone cliffs, pastoral countryside, fossil-filled museums and quaint resorts like Lyme Regis make the Jurassic Coast one of the Britain's most enchanting seaside regions. It stretches 150 kilometres through Dorset and east Devon; www.jurassiccoast.org

LAKE DISTRICT: A haven for hikers, this lush, postcard-perfect slice of Cumbria – all glacier-carved lakes, hills and valleys – is a jaw-dropping joy to drive through (though the narrow roads of this national park get rather busy on summer weekends and school holidays); www.lakedistrict.gov.uk

CAUSEWAY COAST: Spanning almost 200 kilometres, this coast-hugging treat links the Mourne Scenic Route just north of Belfast with the Wild Atlantic Way at Londonderry. As well as the dramatic basalt columns of Giant's Causeway, you'll take in the scenery that inspired Belfast-born writer C.S Lewis' magical Kingdom of Narnia, plus the bays and glens that double up as Westeros in Game of Thrones; www.visitcausewaycoastandglens.com

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