We set off for the next stage of our journey from Rogart. Our next stop, Applecross, was 109 miles away. Travelling non-stop would take the best part of three hours.
After briefly stopping off for breakfast in nearby Dornoch, we headed south on the A9 before cutting across via Strathpeffer. Some of the roads and the accompanying scenery were pretty extraordinary. But nothing would come close to the drama of the final stretch – the pass of the cattle, or bealach na bà.
The pass of the cattle
The Applecross peninsula is rather isolated. This is underlined by the fact that the main access road is one of the most extraordinary and treacherous in the country.
The pass of the cattle boasts the greatest ascent of any road the UK. In about 6 miles, the road rises from sea level to 626 metres. The hill is so steep that at times the road looks like the sort you would see in the Amalfi coast, with hairpin bends doubling back multiple times.
At one point, I turned a corner and was flabbergasted to see a gleaming white McLaren coming in the opposite direction. I could not believe that anyone would bring such a car on a road like this. But then again, if you have a great car, why not take it on an epic road trip like the North Coast 500?
The pass – like many parts of the North Coast 500 – also attracted a great deal of motorcyclists, as well as impressively committed pushbike cyclists and even a few runners.
When you reach the summit of the road, there is a small car park to let you reward yourself with the view. The view isn’t actually that great, but it is still a pretty special place to be. Many people have made little cairns, making it feel like a place of pilgrimage.
Applecross Campsite and Applecross Inn
Before reaching the bottom of the other side, we reached Applecross Campsite, which was to be our base for the next two nights. There was plenty of space in the campsite despite the fact it was August. The facilities were good, with decent showers and washing up space.
In some parts of the campsite, it is possible to get a good view of the sea. On the second night we were treated to a cracking sunset. It was just a shame that the midges were enjoying it too.
A short walk down the hill takes you to the shore where the Applecross Inn is situated. This pub was rammed. But the staff did a very admirable job of ensuring we were well served and comfortable.
We enjoyed our meals at the shore. Alex treated herself to langoustines. That is not an option for me since I developed an allergy to crustaceans, so I settled for lamb (which was very tasty).
As the sun set and the temperature fell, we headed indoors. We struck up a conversation with the people next to us, and it turned out that they live less than a mile away from us in Edinburgh.
We played an incredibly dated game of Trivial Pursuit.
Eilean Donan castle
The next day we braved the pass of the cattle once again and headed south to visit Eilean Donan castle. The scene was suitably evocative when we arrived, with mist surrounding the island.
The castle is beautiful on the outside. But unfortunately both Alex and I found it a bit tacky on the inside.
Worst of all, I didn’t see the BBC One hot air balloon, which was the only reason I went.
From there we went to Plockton. This pretty village is notable for its mild and still microclimate, which allows palm trees to grow there.
Before this trip, I had an image in my head of what the highlands would be like. Lots of drama, yes – but barren landscapes, heather, bracken. In large part that image held true.
But in pockets, if the conditions are right, the landscape bursts with incredible lush greenery. Plockton (and the roads surrounding it) was the first place I experienced how the scenery can change completely as you turn the corner.
Next week I will publish posts about the rest of our North Coast 500 trip, including our next stop — Wester Ross.