We tested the Volkswagen Touareg SEL for one week and headed to the Scottish Highlands to complete the North Coast 500 road trip. This lasts for 500 miles and passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in Scotland. We set off from Birmingham and travelled for 1,700 miles in total.
What Is The North Coast 500
The North Coast 500 is the name given to a Scottish road trip that takes you on a circuit of the outer coastal roads around the Highlands. It incorporates a mixture of amazing terrain with some of the most picturesque landscapes that you will ever see. If you live in England this road trip has to be on your to-do list.
North Coast 500 Map
Below is the NC500 route that we planned to take with the night time stops plotted out breaking up the route perfectly.
Here are the overnight locations we choose to break the trip up into manageable chunks.
Day 1 – Black Isle Bar – Inverness IV8 8NZ (Map Point A)
Day 2 – The Highland Haven – Mey, Thurso KW14 8XL (Map Point B)
Day 3 – Old School Restaurant and Rooms -Rhiconich, Lairg IV27 4RJ (Map Point C)
Day 4 – Gairloch Hotel – Gairloch IV21 2BL (Map Point D)
Day 5 – Coul House Hotel – Contin Mains Cottages, Contin, Strathpeffer IV14 9ES (Map Point E)
Day 1 – North Coast 500: Birmingham to Inverness
We took an early start at around 5 AM to take on the 480-mile trip up to the South of the NC500, Inverness. We spent around six hours on the motorway just travelling up to Scotland. Without a doubt, the Volkswagen Touareg was a hugely comfortable motorway car. What made the journey so much simpler was the adaptive cruise control. This system will keep a set pace from the vehicle in front of you up to a set speed. This means that if the car in front of you slows down, then the Volkswagen automatically adjusts the speed to keep a safe distance. This makes a huge difference on such a long journey and will give you one less thing to worry about.
Other elements that make this model so comfortable include the suspension and the choice of tyre on the car; they allow it to absorb all the bumps and make little road noise. VW have also managed to create a great sense of isolation from the outside elements when you are inside the car. Sitting on a heated seat kept me cosy the entire time – just what you need for a long journey.
The Scenic Route Up
We chose to take the scenic route into Inverness via Loch Lomond, Glencoe, Fort William (passing Ben Nevis), then travelled up past Loch Ness before arriving at our accommodation for the evening.
It was safe to say that before even starting the North Coast 500 we were blown away by the scenery on the way up alone. Incredible!
It was a long journey using the Touareg V6 and still had fuel left in the tank. It did a great job on the motorway and only cost around £70 in diesel from Birmingham to Inverness.
Overnight Stay – Black Isle Bar
That evening we were stopping in the heart of Inverness at the very modern Black Isle Bar. It is part of the Black Isle Brewery and has plenty of their own beer ready for tasting. Upstairs above the bar was a nice selection of rooms with everything the busy traveller needs at a reasonable price.
We parked the car and tried some of the amazing pizza from the Black Isle Bar. We also tested a few of the local beers, before hitting the sack ready for a long day of driving the following day. The bar itself has a great atmosphere with plenty of people coming and going to talk to. It is in the heart of the city so if you want to get out and about most places are within walking distance.
The rooms are on the small side but have everything you need, including room for three people, an ensuite bathroom, towels and tea making facilities. Read the review of our stay here.
Day 2– North Coast 500 – Inverness to John O’Groats
The following morning we arose at sunrise and repacked the spacious Touareg with our photography gear and clothes, then hit the road to grab a few pictures of the car. Within 15 minutes we were at a remote beach.
Black Isle Brewery Tour
Next up on our agenda was a trip to the Black Isle Brewery. This organic brewery is based around 20 minutes outside of the centre of Inverness.
We took a tour to learn about the beer we were drinking the night before and hear about the organic methods of brewing beers at a professional volume. To learn more about the Brewery, take a look here.
Touring The West Coast
Our journey from Inverness to John O’Groats started slow with a break for car pictures at the start and then the brewery tour. Next up we wanted to get some North Coast 500 miles under our belt and learn what the Volkswagen Touareg SEL was like by exploring the wilderness.
Working our way up the east coast of the country, from our journey so far I had already learnt that Scotland has a lot of castles. There seems to be one at every turn, giving you a great excuse to break off and take pictures. We took the opportunity to stop at any scenic area of the coast we could. We just couldn’t help ourselves!
The further north we went, the better the roads and the scenery got. You can see from the pictures just how impressive even a normal road looks up there. We spent the entire day travelling 30 minutes at a time and then stopping off to look at some of the local towns, beaches, attractions or just some of the scenery along the way. I was very impressed with Scotland and the VW Touareg. It just seems like the perfect model for the job. It is a super comfortable cruiser, with all the boot space we could ask for, plenty of torque for the hills and drives very smoothly on the flowing roads.
Our final attraction for the day was John O’Groats, which I had really been looking forward to visiting as you always hear about people travelling to the end of the country.
I’m glad to say that I have now seen that well-known signpost too! Getting that far up the country always feels like an achievement for some reason.
Overnight Stay – The Highland Haven
Our next stop for the evening was our accommodation and what a nice surprise it was. We stopped at The Highland Haven, and it is what it says on the tin. It is a purpose built lodge just off the NC500. You can see here there is plenty of parking. We unloaded the car and made our way in.
Stepping inside the design was to die for! Once the door shuts you don’t want to leave. It includes a large dining and lounging area that made it the perfect place to hang out.
This place has a homely appeal and you can picture yourself here with your family or friends. Read the review of our stay here.
Day 3 – North Coast 500 John O’Groats to Lairg
At this point in the trip, I was very pleased with how the VW Touareg coped as an exploring SUV. The large boot allowed us to carry all the gear we had with us as we were constantly taking things in and out.
Our first trip of the morning took us over to Dunnett’s Head. Once again is it is an idyllic landscape that allowed us to take some great pictures of the car we were testing.
Exploring this scenery was like visiting another planet. There is nothing all around, just a road straight over the top for visitors.
The day was spent with lots of small stop-offs: visiting ruins and exploring some of the most fantastic beaches you could ever imagine. It was hard to believe you were in the UK to see this landscape, but in most cases, the weather was a giveaway.
Taking this journey, everywhere you looked you found yourself saying “wow”. I couldn’t believe just how incredible the scenery was. Every corner you turned it just got better and better.
At one point fairly early in the day, we got to the top of a succession of hills and you could then see for miles surrounded by mountains. Knowing that we had around 100 miles driving in this terrain, you knew that you were going to be in for a good drive.
I had to pull the car in at the first available point just to step out and have a better look!
That day during our journey somewhere near Ribigill, we took a moment to park the car and take a walk down by the water to enjoy the landscape and look at the mountains in the background. It is safe to say we were taken aback by the scenery and sometimes a moment outside the car is what you need to appreciate it properly.
Of course, getting back to the car we couldn’t help but picture the Touareg next to the same backdrop.
Carrying on the drive around the massive loch, the single track roads were no bother for the Touareg. Most people could see us coming a mile off and often stopped in one of the many passing places to let us by. Having the larger SUV with high profile tyres did give us the confidence to dip into the grass from time to time. Just knowing that we weren’t going to damage the car was great.
Just before heading away from the loch, we noticed there was a nice old jetty that we could drive the car down to capture its modern design in a stunning Scottish landscape with water in the background.
That afternoon we travelled through some of the most scenic areas of the North Coast 500. There is just mile after mile of winding roads that are surrounded by mountains on both sides. In this case here, you can see the clouds even covering the top of the mountains.
The drive was incredible, being protected from the elements while driving along on heated seats and listening to some of our favourite music. It was like a dream!
Overnight Stay – Old School Restaurant and Rooms
Next, we arrived at our accommodation for the evening, the Old School Restaurant and Rooms in Kinlochbervie. This spot is a perfect location just off the North Coast 500. The main building you see here is a classic restaurant with the rooms being in a modern bungalow annexe just to the left of the building. There is also secure parking.
The restaurant catered for both dinner and breakfast. We sampled both and were very impressed with the choice of food for both meals. The rooms are perfect for a long stay if you have more time.
The local area just off the North Coast 500 is also beautiful, with views like this within walking distance from the accommodation. I don’t know how you could ever get bored of these landscapes! Read the review of our stay here.
Day 4 – North Coast 500: Lairg to Gairloch
We got up at dawn to make the most of the soft light as we did most mornings, to try and capture some cool shots of the Touareg. We were blessed with a nice sunrise within 15 miles of the accommodation.
With the vehicle in place, we had around 30 mins of the light changing as the sun came up. With the car still for that long, the local wildlife came over to investigate. I love this picture with the two sheep in, enjoying their morning graze next to the car.
The next part of the journey was probably the most iconic. We came across Kylesku Bridge. This is a distinctive curved concrete bridge in north-west Scotland that crosses the Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin in Sutherland.
It was opened in 1984, but still looks very impressive today. Below you can see us crossing the bridge in the Volkswagen SUV and for me that one picture sums up the trip. Simply beautiful scenery.
Our day couldn’t have started any better. After taking a few moments near the bridge, we were back on the road again and racking up the miles in probably the most remote areas we had seen during the trip. The majority of the journey was done on single-track roads with mountains towering over the valleys. However, occasionally you did come across a nice wide road like this one. Whether you are a petrol head or not, you can imagine opening the car up on these roads and enjoying its performance.
During this section of the trip, it was difficult to even do five miles without stopping and having to get out and take in the scenery. Everywhere you look there are rolling hills, water, greenery, castles and ruins.
The VW Touareg had fully proved itself by this point. I couldn’t imagine doing the trip in anything other than this premium SUV. The car’s 3.0-litre diesel engine and 8-speed gearbox have worked perfectly across all the mixed terrain. It was sure-footed, impressively smooth and so easy to drive. You can spend 10 hours a day in the car for a few days in a row and not feel the pain of driving. This is a sign of an ergonomically-designed car.
Here are some of the beautiful landscapes we saw in this region.
Overnight Stay – Gairloch Hotel
Our rest for the evening was at the Gairloch Hotel. It incorporates traditional Scottish styling and is framed by a beautiful beach that guests can get down to in minutes.
The hotel has plenty of rooms of various sizes and a very nice bar and dining facilities. The location is on route for the North Coast 500 and the hotel embraces the NC500 guests and even sells themed merchandise. Read the review of our stay here.
Day 5 – North Coast 500: Gairloch to Contin
We rose at sunrise again the next morning to check out the landscape and make the most of our journey. It was a bright sunny morning which made for some beautiful pictures and left us amazed with just how good the local area looked.
Once again, we knew we were in for a good day of driving ahead. The weather looked great and we did not have any rain from the moment we set off.
At some points during the trip, you could travel for some time and only see one other car. I felt very isolated, but confident in the VW to get me through this journey successfully and not leave me stranded.
We travelled for hours and hours taking in the scenery all around us and just enjoyed the epic road trip around the Highlands. In some places, the track disappeared so you could be forgiven for thinking you were on another planet. It was unreal!
At one point we came across a herd of Highland cattle, which was a new one for us. Rather than staying in their fields, they wandered into the road. We crept slowly through the pack. We were very conscious of how much damage they could do with those big horns. But they weren’t bothered by the car or people. They were quite the friendly bunch.
Next up we headed onto Applecross. We knew the Applecross Pass was going to be a significant location on the North Coast 500 and it didn’t disappoint. The Touareg’s torque and sure-footed AWD system meant travelling up the steep gradients of the pass were no problem at all.
The road just looks so iconic from the top. It is a single track with a succession of tight bends. As good as it looks to drive on, you need to take it slow and be careful. But a scenic route doesn’t get any better than this!
The pass runs down a steep valley between two imposing mountains. Whilst driving along the road, even in the large Touareg SUV you feel tiny compared to the scenery that you are surrounded by.
Travelling down the rolling road of the pass is just incredible. The pictures speak for themselves. The road is designed for you to enjoy the breath-taking landscape. We did the pass a couple of times for both driving pleasure and to grab some pictures.
There were times during this journey that I questioned why I don’t do this road trip once a year. There were many stunning sights to take in and 95% of them were natural beauty spots that don’t cost a penny (outside of getting there) to visit. For someone who enjoys a good drive, and despite some of the hairy single-track roads, the journey is just incredible.
Overnight Stay – Coul House Hotel
That evening we headed over to Coul House Hotel in Coutin to get some sleep and prepare for the 450-mile trip back to Birmingham the next day. This hotel was the icing on the cake for our journey. Without a doubt, it is one of the most high-quality places to stay in the Scottish Highlands.
This historic building looks and feels like it is out of a classic novel. On the inside, the house is very up to date with premium rooms and great facilities. The gardens and surrounding areas are extremely beautiful and make for a peaceful stay. Read the review of our stay here.
Day 6 – Contin to Birmingham
So we completed the North Coast 500 in just five days and traveled over 700 miles, because we took our own little detours to explore in the Touareg. And nothing phased the car either: every tight bend, bumpy road or even the steepest hills were no match for the VW. We kept topping the fuel up as we went around the NC500, but we still only used around one and a half tanks of fuel. Bearing in mind that the entire North Coast journey has been up and downhill and through tight stop/start bends, as far as economic performance is concerned, this is a great achievement.
We hit the road and returned to Birmingham. This part of the journey took about nine hours, with around three of those working our way out of central Scotland and back to the motorway. Even after all the time we spent in the car, the journey was still very comfortable. Once we arrived back in Birmingham we felt energised and relaxed after taking on such a huge journey, which speaks volumes for the car.
I can’t recommend the North Coast 500 road trip enough and would encourage everyone to give it a go. Even if you don’t fancy doing the whole thing, just give the west coast a try – and if you can do it in a Touareg, so much the better!
North Coast 500 Additional Information & FAQ
How Difficult Is It To Drive In The Highlands?
Just like England, Scotland drive right-hand drive cars and they drive on the left-hand side of the road. Drivers are more likely to use a manual, but hiring an automatic car isn’t uncommon. What surprised me most was the lack of road signs indicating that you’re on the North Coast 500 route. Given how busy this particular route is most of the time, it’s not something I expected.
Luckily, typical tourist information signs which indicate tourist hotspots persist. Beyond that, it’s pretty much the same as driving in most of the UK really. Remember to check your oil, water, and air pressure levels in your tyres. You don’t have to do it every day, but as a complete check of all vital fluids will take you just a couple of minutes, I strongly recommend you do it as frequently as possible.
Petrol stations are available on the NC500, also petrol is more expensive in remote areas of course. However, I suggest you fill up whenever you see a station before you start running relatively low. Most of them are manned, but a lot are self-use ones so make sure you bring your card.
Is Hiring A Car Difficult For The Nc500?
Not particularly, as car hire is available at all main airports and in most cities. Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Inverness, as well as most airports, have hire car pickups. Dundee has decent options too. So where ever you are starting you should be able to find something.
The two important documents you need in order to hire a car in the UK are your driving license and a valid credit card, don’t forget these.
What’s The Best Way To Do The North Coast 500?
This honestly comes down to personal preference. If you’re a whiskey lover, start at the east and hit the many distilleries located along the route (with a designated driver of course). This leaves you with sunnier weather and a beautiful west coast for the second half of the journey. If you, on the other hand, you want the best scenery first, start with the west coast and take on the Bealach na Ba into Applecross first then head up the west coast. This side was my personal favourite.
How Is The North Coast 500 Marked?
While there are some road signs, don’t rely too much on the roadsign network. The signs present don’t mention the NC500 specifically so you’ll need to know what location or road names you’re looking for.
The signs you should be on the lookout for are the general brown tourist information signs. Basically, you are running the coast road around the Highlands so it will be hard to get the route wrong.
Where Does The North Coast 500 Start?
The official start of the NC500 is at Inverness but there are lots of places you can hit up first, such as Glenfinnan (Harry Potter train viaduct), Kyle of Lochalsh (Eilean Donan Castle), and the Cairngorms. Scotland has lots of nice areas worth a visit not just the NC500.
Is Camping Possible On The NC500?
Yes, and that’s the beauty of the NC500. It can be done on a relatively tight budget thanks to cheap-ish hostels and small campsites dotted around the route. You don’t need to shell out a small fortune on expensive hotels.
There are plenty of well-equipped, welcoming campsites scattered around the NC500 route, but for a lot of them you have to be booked well in advance. Many welcome motorhomes and tents, with plenty of them offering electrical outlets for hire too.
Do bear in mind that the majority of NC500 camping grounds have been holiday destinations for families long before the route was popular. If you’re not afraid of a little adventure you can even wild camp on the NC500. There are certain wild camping rules which you have to obey and follow, so look them up before trying it.
Is Taking A Motorhome Advised For The North Coast 500?
Yes, but the locals don’t like them too much and they’re easily annoyed by them. Practice driving your motorhome (whether it’s hire or owned) before you set off to avoid any embarrassing or potentially dangerous situations. Driving some of the smaller tighter roads in a small car is challenging enough as it is, nevermind a large motorhome.
When Is The Ideal Time To Do The NC500?
Scotland’s weather is extremely temperamental as you may know, so finding the perfect opening is somewhat difficult.
Typical spring/summer months (April-July) enjoy a lot more sunshine, but the weather can turn on you in an instant so you still need to be prepared for any weather. Still, if you want to do the NC500, that’s the period to do it in, as the winter months (November-February) are too cold and unpleasant. Some roads might even be unpassable in the snow.
The weather plays a massive role on Scotland’s infrastructure. A-roads become more dangerous and slippery, and ferry routes can be closed down in an instant without warning (If you are visiting elsewhere). Naturally, Scotland sees a lot more daylight during the summer months where you can expect up to 17 hours of visible sunlight, but this can drop down to as low as 6 hours during the winter.
I want to mention the problem of midges. The North Coast 500 has midges and a lot of them. Midges are small flying insects that nip the skin and leave a visible mark.
These bites are often itchy, and some people swell up in reaction to the bites. Most people do not even notice them, but you might not be so lucky. We visited in April and didn’t see a single one. But I have also been in November and seen lots. Do your research on the best time to avoid them.
How Do I Avoid Midges In Scotland?
Thankfully you can avoid areas with known high midge count like still and humid conditions at dusk. They don’t like the wind, so although it may be ruining your hair, it is keeping the mass midge party at bay. They hate hot summers, so the warmer the climate the less midges around.
What People Don’t Talk About With the North Coast 500 – The Negative Points
The NC500 seems to divide people down the middle when it comes to whether it’s a good thing for Scotland.
Many locals feel that the Highlands and its surrounding infrastructure is not set up for this number of family cars, sports cars, and campervans. Some travellers can misuse the beautiful countryside in many ways.
The main issue right now, as agreed by most locals, is a greater need for facilities. If you’re thinking of doing the NC500, please be mindful of the locals and the fact that they have to use those same roads you’re currently enjoying every day, and treat nature with the respect it deserves. Most motorway petrol stations have excellent facilities, so there really is no excuse. Make the most of them for toilet breaks and recycling your rubbish.
Stop Offs long The NC500
Endless Loch Walks
There are virtually endless lochs along the route, and most of them have some of the best views anywhere on Earth. The three-mile Pine Trail running through Balblair Wood on the shore of Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve offers spectacular hilltop views of the gorgeous Kyle of Sutherland. Allow up to two hours for this at least.
Local Crafts and Markets
This is an excellent way to connect with the communities along the route of the NC500. These incredibly charming craft markets are a real sight to behold. You can witness local people showcasing their many talents, including but not limited to horn craft, pottery, home baking, and weaving.
Inspirational gardeners along the magnificent NC500 have not been deterred by the rugged Highland terrain in the slightest. They’ve been creating and building these sanctuary gardens where, amazingly, there are lots of jaw-dropping exotic plants flourishing. The colourful gardens at Inverewe, Attadale and the Castle of Mey are two of my favourites.
Can You Cycle The NC500?
Yes, but it’s not for everyone. You need immense physical and mental stamina, as it’s a gruelling task even for serious riders. Cyclists are urged to plan carefully around roller-coaster elevations and changeable weather. Emergency supplies and mechanical spares are essential, and it’s best advised to do the NC500 by bike in groups and not as a solo expedition.
Is There Any Interesting Wildlife To Spot?
Yes, but you probably already knew that. There is an extraordinary variety of wildlife along the NC500 route. From wild Atlantic salmon leaping through powerful cascades at Rogie Falls, to the pine martens in woodland and wild goats in Dundonnell, there’s a little bit of everything, for everyone. But our trip in April 2019 many saw an array of birds and highland cattle that you can’t miss.