Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of the massively successful new North Coast 500. It’s just that this epic Highland driving route is a bit prescriptive and misses out so many amazing places. It also focuses tourists on certain parts of Scotland rather than letting them naturally spread around. So I recently took my young family away for a Highland campervan adventure that flirted close to, but was most definitely not, the North Coast 500.
We picked up our campervan from aptly named, Highland Campervans. Last year I took one of their vans around the North Coast 500. They report that many of their bookings these days come from people looking to head along the NC500, as it’s also known. It’s a great 500-mile route that sweeps in a big circle from Inverness around the Northern and Western Highlands and then back down to Inverness.
Highland Campervans these days understandably include NC500 guidebooks and maps in their motorhomes. We were determined to do something different, so instead of heading west straight to nearby Inverness we went east to the Caravanning and Camping Club’s site near Nairn. It was a good choice! We enjoyed a peaceful night staring at the stars through the vaulting pine trees that are sprinkled around the sight, a great start.
Black Isle Discovery
The next day it was on to the NC500, but just to nip over the Kessock Bridge. While others craned their necks to try to see dolphins from afar as they headed north we took the first possible exit for the Black Isle – arguably the best place in Scotland to see dolphins.
Rosemarkie and the Cromarty Firth
We eased our campervan along the quiet roads that slip along the underbelly of the Black Isle to Rosemarkie. Here another Caravanning and Camping site awaited. It was perfect. Our pitch gazed out over the Cromarty Firth, the hulk of Fort George looming back at us across the water. As the sun slipped down a dolphin swam right in front of our van, much to the delight of my wee daughters, Tara and Emma, who had joined me on this campervan adventure.
Shore Based Dolphin Spotting
The next morning we eased along the sand and shingle beach that lay right in front of us. Our destination was Chanonry Point just around the bay, arguably the best place to view dolphins from the shore in the UK. We were not disappointed. As the tide started to rise (the best time to come is around two hours after low tide) they appeared. First one hulking bottlenose dolphin and then another. And another and another.
The dolphin fun didn’t end when we left Rosemarkie after two action packed days (I’ll leave you to discover the glorious Fairy Glen and the Crofters Bistro yourself) and headed north to Cromarty. This lovely old fishing and merchant village is home to a brilliant bakery, where you can try a local delicacy, the buttery.
After our heart-clogging treat we hooked up with ace local outfit Ecoventures. Their legendary skipper Sarah soon zoomed us out on the Cromarty Firth in search of more bottlenose dolphins. Again we were delighted as we came across a very active pod playing in the bay. We also enjoyed great bird sightings and Sarah told us about the minke whales and basking sharks she encounters regularly, as well as the odd humpback whale and even killer whale.
Dornoch and Wester Ross
Next up was the trip to Dornoch and, of course, we resisted the temptation to toddle back to the NC500 and the faster A9. Instead we persuaded the ferryman who runs the tiny wee Cromarty-Nigg ferry that he could fit us aboard. He could. Just. It was a fun experience squeezing on and crossing on this old dame. It also cut our driving time quite a lot.
The NC500 batters from Dornoch north all the way to the top of Scotland. We didn’t want to do that so instead – after a night in the town – we headed for what is easily the most spectacular region the North Coast 500 visits, Wester Ross. Our last two nights were spent in a wee private spot near Achiltibuie. It was not on the NC500 and not an official campsite. All I’ll tell you is that it used to be the site of my number one campsite when I wrote the first Cool Camping: Scotland guide in 2006 and it’s down a wee lane near Achnahaird Beach. Those views. That beach. All off the NC500 but (for me) unmissable if you are in this part of the world.
Skirting Loch Ness
All too soon it was time to head back to the campervan base. We could have followed the NC500, but you’ve guessed by now that we didn’t. Instead we headed more directly south to end up on the shores of Loch Ness. I always think it’s surreal that first timers to Scotland who chose to tackle the NC500 for a week won’t even catch sight of Scotland’s most famous loch. Nor, of course, the famous monster.
After five brilliant nights and six action packed days we ended up where we had begun, like I also did when I covered the whole 500 miles of the North Coast 500 last year. We had, though, this time escaped the crowds and though we couldn’t buy a souvenir mug or t shirt of our trip we left with indelible memories of standing watching wild dolphins, fresh butteries, deserted beaches and a swathe of some of Scotland’s finest scenery burning through our veins.
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