By Katherine LaGrave. Photos: Getty.
Route 66 is iconic. One of the U.S.’s original highways, it was established on November 11, 1926 and has since become a common touch point in popular culture, referenced everywhere from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) to Disney Pixar’s Cars (2006). Five thousand miles away, across the United States, the Atlantic Ocean, and up in the northern reaches of the Scottish Highlands, the thoroughfare has also exerted its influence, and has largely led to the development of what Scotland is calling its “answer” to Route 66: the North Coast 500.
Created in 2014 by the North Highland Initiative nonprofit, established by Prince Charles to raise awareness for less-visited parts of the northern Highlands, the North Coast 500 is a circular scenic route beginning and ending at Inverness Castle. Driven in full, its actual mileage is 516; its sections include Inverness-Shire, the Black Isle peninsula, the area of Easter Ross, county Caithness, county Sutherland, and Wester Ross. Looking for inspiration? You can focus your trip on what’s important to you—food and drink, say, or adventure—and choose from nine customized driving itineraries developed by the nonprofit, with varying lengths. (Note: Only some, available in full, are free.)
The North Coast 500 website promises “fairy-tale castles, beaches, and ruins,” and deliver it does. South of Brora you’ll find Dunrobin Castle, a French-style chateau inhabited since the 1300s, which served as a hospital during WWI. Near Durness, white-sand Balnakeil Beach looks like it belongs on a Caribbean postcard; the 200, 4,000-year-old stones at Hill O' Many Stanes near Lybster, Caithness, are reminiscent of a mini-Stonehenge. Other things not promised that you’ll find, anyway? The 12-mile, single-track Bealach na Bà (Gaelic for "pass of the cattle") route through the mountains to and from the coastal town of Applecross; some of the largest caves in the U.K. at Smoo Cave; award-winning pies from the Lochinver Larder; traditional dancing at Ullapool’s Ceilidh Place; and tipples at distilleries Old Pulteney and Glenmorangie.
Length: Expect to spend a minimum of 5-7 days along the route
Best times to go: May through September
Driving: Some of the roads are not suitable for large vehicles or inexperienced drivers, and many are single-track.
Walking and cycling: Both are popular ways to experience parts (or all) of the North Coast 500.
Where to stay: Most towns along the North Coast 500 are small, so booking in advance is necessary. Worst case scenario, free camping is also legal in Scotland.
This story originally appeared on Conde Nast Traveler.
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