Did you know that Scotland has it's own 'Route 66'? It's a fairly recent creation called the North Coast 500 and it even has it's own website. This is the Scottish tourist board's latest attempt to get more people up to the Highlands, where few tourists often tread. The route itself starts in Inverness, fires across to Fort William and then up to Ullapool, then Durness and across the north coast to John O'Groats and Wick, before heading down the north east coast back to Inverness.
We decided to put our own twist on the journey and did it in reverse, also starting in Wick, which would allow us time to visit the Orkney Islands on Day 1 and take in the Highland Park Whiskey Distillery tour. This meant a brutal 13 hour schlep up to Wick on Day 0 with most of us starting in the Home Counties around London. This also gave us chance on Day 1 to visit a second distillery on the route. Dunnet Bay Distillers specialise in high end Gin and Vodka, and the owner was more than happy to throw on a free tour with some samples for us.
In our party we had the following cars: Porsche Cayman GT4, VW Golf R Estate, BMW M5 (E39), Porsche 911 (997), Porsche Cayman S (987), Subaru Impreza WRX, & a Honda Civic Type R (Wakita Jap import).
The Golf and Civic representing hot hatchery were going to struggle with the genuine sports cars on paper, despite being very quick cars, however front engines, front wheel drive, four wheel drive and committed driving meant they punched well above their weight throughout. Especially when the roads got slippery and the Porsches had to back off slightly. As the Golf R Estate owner, I couldn't have been prouder of the way the car kept up with the pack and when driven at 10 tenths, could stay on the tail of anything except the GT4 in the dry. In the wet though it would just grip and grip and grip. The Subaru was also scary quick and didn't even break down! But the Hero Award surely went to Simon in his Civic. Packing approx 100bhp less than most other cars at 240bhp, he was the most committed driver by far, and the sight of him nibbling at the rear of the £75k GT4 constantly was amusing to all. If you backed off for a second he'd be past you. Ten tenths all the time.
Comedy moments were provided by the biggest, heaviest and oldest car in the fleet, Nick's 16 year old M5. With a monster 4.9 litre V8 engine hauling almost two tons of steel and leather around on well used suspension, it was never going to be dynamically dominant. However the straight line power of it, meant it stayed in touch with everyone despite carrying some interesting angles through bends. At least it sounded great doing so with the (almost) straight through exhaust system. Unless of course if the Rick Astley cassette was playing, which it was. Most of the time.
But enough about the cars. The scenery was stunning. Absolutely beautiful. My biggest regret was (as Snapper Elect) not having more time to pose cars and shoot the landscapes. Such was the demands on us to get to hotels before kitchens closed (try finding alternatives in the villages we stayed in!). The light and weather comes and goes so quickly in Scotland during April. You have to just grab the light when you can.
The hotels and people were amazing too. Hotel owners calling the chef back to work just for us when we arrived late (Bettyhill Hotel). Opening up lounges just for us to drink in (Summer Isles Hotel). Letting us park in their personal car park spaces (Mackays Hotel in Wick). Such is the vastness of the region and lack of people, that we often met the same people twice, including a fellow petrolhead who we passed in a frenetically driven Mitsubishi truck with a sheep trailer on the back. That evening we praised his reluctance to let us pass easily, and the next day met him about 60 miles further west in his supercharged Audi RS4 and chatted to him for half an hour.
Fuel stops became highly strategic. All cars required Super Unleaded, although most (like my Golf) would happily run without fault on 95 RON fuel. Not so the Impreza. It's tuned state and potentially marshmallow engine internals required the highest grade possible. This wasn't helped by it's tiny fuel tank and sub 150 mile range when driven hard. Ullapool had the only Super Unleaded pump west of Thurso, so we stopped their twice to brim the tanks. Applecross had a Community Filling Station run by villagers for non-profit, such was it's remoteness.
For us the trip concluded at the wonderful Clachaig Inn in Glencoe. Sandwiched between the mountains, it looked more like a ski lodge, and we walked in to a traditional Scottish acoustic band playing and many locals singing. It was a wonderful atmosphere and a perfect place to sink a few whiskeys, laugh at the previous few days experiences and mentally prepare for the long slog home the next day. Here are some images to take you there.
For the full gallery of images from the trip - CLICK HERE