Despite only being officially launched 2 months ago, the North Coast 500 has been creating a huge buzz in the global travelsphere and has already been listed as one of the top coastal road-trips in the world by Travel Now magazine and has been dubbed Scotland's own Route 66.
Split into 6 route sections, Torridon SYHA very handily sits midway along the Wester Ross segment and makes an ideal base for those undertaking this breathtaking and adrenaline pumping section, as this part of the route encompasses the notorious Bealach Na Ba (pronounced Bay-Lach-Na-Ba and means Pass of the Cattle).
WHAT TO DO IN TORRIDON
I started my adventure in the pretty little village of Torridon which is dwarfed by some spectacularly huge mountains and sits on the edge of Loch Torridon. It would be easy to drive through thinking that such a small place might not have much to offer but looks can be deceiving and delve a little deeper and you will find plenty to keep you occupied.
The modern community centre has a surprisingly large display of local arts and crafts for sale, in fact it is one of the best ranges of handmade Scottish products that I have found anywhere outside of a craft market and an ideal place to pick up an authentic souvenir of your trip while supporting the local economy.
Torridon sea tours offer a range of excursions from the nearby village of Sheildaig which take you wildlife spotting on half-day trips around the loch or full-day adventures to some of the remote isles.
The nearby Torridon Inn not only serves delicious local produce but offers bike hire and an assortment of outdoor activities including canoeing, archery, rock climbing and gorge scrambling. If that's not enough to keep you busy then the walking options, wildlife watching and dramatic scenery will!
I drove anti-clockwise along the coastal road from Torridon following the breathtaking route to Applecross before negotiating the steep and sharp narrow curves of Bealach Na Ba, an unmissable driving experience although not for the faint-hearted!
My first stop was at the village of Shieldaig which dates back to 1800 and and is mainly comprised of a row of pretty whitewashed cottages sitting on the shore of Loch Shieldaig. A short distance out in the loch rises the distinctive Sheildaig Island, clad in Scots pine trees and home to a pair of nesting sea eagles. A birders paradise, look out for a thoughtful set of binoculars fixed on the shore allowing you to zoom in for a close up.
The best views of the village, island and loch are definitely from further along the road as it rises up the hillside and the little cottages shrink to toy size!
As you travel further along the route look out for the well photographed cottage with the red roof and try not to be too envious of their view!
Despite being one of the most remote peninsulas in the Highlands there are a surprising number of picturesque settlements sporadically dotted along the way. Every bend opens into an another impossibly dramatic and rugged landscape that is crying out to be photographed with sheep and Highland cattle owning stretches of tarmac like Highland mafia. The only way through is with polite but forceful negotiation as they look at you with nonchalance and then disdain as they grudgingly step aside when they realise you are not giving up!
As the road turns south, the Isles of Skye, Raasay and Rona become constant companions across the water and eventually the expansive sands of the beach at Applecross appear before you with a gradual descent into the village.
The Applecross Inn is an obvious stopping off point for lunch and luckily it is famous for it's fantastic food, with local seafood a specialty. After the relatively small amount of traffic and humans you pass on the road to get here from Torridon, you may be confused as to where the throngs of people milling outside the small village Inn have come from. Applecross and it's notable eating establishment happen to be at the end or in this case the beginning of a Scottish road-trip pilgrimage which runs up and over the most notorious mountain pass in the country and one of the most dramatic in the UK and some would say the world!
A single track, steep gradients and hairpin bends lead you on a winding adventure to the 2053 ft summit. Meeting oncoming traffic is interesting to say the least and often involves reversing back round those hairpin bends until you find a passing place. The hardest thing about the whole journey is keeping your eyes on the impossibly narrow road and not the jaw dropping mountain scenery as you climb towards the clouds.
A parking area at the top apparently offers superb views to Skye and the Outer Hebrides although I'm not yet in a position to deny or confirm as this was my view!
I'll admit to being slightly disappointed, however a step outside into the freezing haze and gusty wind left me feeling exhilarated and on top of the world and I really can't complain after being spoiled for views most of the day.
After an equally heart in your mouth descent into Lochcarron it is hard to believe that this historic road was once used by drovers and the only road linking Applecross with the rest of the country until the 20th Century. After an adrenaline fuelled journey, a stop at the Bealach Cafe provides a calming space with a small art gallery attached and relaxed vibe, they also happen to serve excellent coffee and homemade sticky toffee pudding cake!
The North Coast 500 continues to the village of Strathcarron where I had to break off my journey to head to the Isle of Skye, not before a short detour to Strome Castle. Although mostly a ruin, the view from the remaining stones down Loch Carron is impressive.
Built in the 1400s to guard the Strome Narrows and ancient ferry crossing, with a bit of imagination you can visualise how intimidating the castle must have seemed from the water, standing dominantly on it's rocky outcrop. Due to it's strategic position the castle became the focus of clan fighting as it lay between the lands of the MacDonalds of Glengarry and the Mackenzies of Kintail and changed hands several times.
In 1602 the castle was in the possession of the MacDonalds when it was besieged by the Mackenzies who subsequently blew it up and it has been a ruin since.
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