Since watching the classic hippy biker movie Easy Rider three times during my impressionable teenage years, I have always nursed a nagging desire to don a Stars and Stripes bandana and roar across the heart of America on a customised Harley-Davidson.
It has never happened. The closest I got to that rebellious dream was climbing onto a backfiring Lambretta scooter in a fur-fringed ex-Swedish army parka and making bottom-numbing mod revival runs to the Isle of Wight in the 1970s.
So, when I learned of the growing interest in Scotland's North Coast 500, I could not resist the chance of slipping into Peter Fonda mode and donning the Ray-Bans for a burn around a route which promised gripping scenery, classic food, majestic castles and some fascinating Highland characters.
Since the route's launch in March 2015 it has attracted hundreds of thousands of drivers, bikers, cyclists and walkers, some drawn by those nostalgic images of a Route 66/Easy Rider experience (without the marijuana and LSD, of course).
However, before I had even chosen a chopper, my partner, Sue, blanched at the prospect of a week on a rented motorcycle, struggling through skin-ripping Caledonian storms and hairpin bends, in a poor man’s version of those classic southern US highway scenes.
Instead, creaking bones and common sense took over, and we set off from the North Coast 500's start line, Inverness, in a two-berth campervan. Our more sensible conveyance was packed with mod cons, including a fridge, toilet, shower, heating, GPS, reversing camera and even an adjustable dining table. And there wasn't a Stars and Stripes bandana in sight – although, as a concession, I was allowed to belt out the film's throttle-pumping soundtrack, including Steppenwolf's Born to be Wild.
Dramatic west coast
So, how does the trip compare with the movie? Well, that depends on how you do it. Some people drive anti-clockwise, saving the more dramatic west coast scenery till last; others do it, expensively and leisurely, in a fortnight, pampering and gorging themselves at the plentiful luxury hotels and fine dining restaurants; some whizz around on the cheap, sleeping under canvas, in a whistlestop weekend; and a few do it in the blink of an eye, like pro cyclist James McCallum, who pedalled round the full 517 madly undulating miles this summer in 31 hours – spending a blistering 28 hours and 57 minutes in his well-padded saddle.
To me, there is little reward in tickbox sightseeing. It embeds into your brain a kaleidoscope of fleeting images with no lasting memories – or dinner party anecdotes – to show for it.
So, first stop for us in Vinnie the Van was the Glen Ord Distillery, where our opening anecdote emerged from our guide, David, a cheery former beer salesman. He explained how a retired worker on a return as a visitor recently told him how – during the 1970s – he would leave work every evening with one of the copper "dogs", a strength-testing vessel, full of whisky, attached by a string to his belt and hanging inside his trouser leg. "He admitted that he always walked with a pronounced limp," recalled David.
Similar fun can be had throughout this journey, if you look for it. Our next major belly laugh came at Bught Park, in Inverness, where we were lucky enough to join several thousand fans for the annual Scotland v Ireland shinty/hurling match (an absolute first for Sue and I).
A local expert, complete with green tweed plus-fours and matching cap, explained that this hybrid clash of the two sports dates back exactly 200 years to when two London teams first met. This latest meeting involved a dazzling display of energy and skill from both national teams. In fact, Sue and I joined a good-hearted pitch invasion at the end and she photographed me commiserating on Ireland’s 14-5 loss with three green-shirted athletes. “Oh thanks,” replied one of them, “but we’re Scotland players who have just swapped our tops with your lot.”
Cringing, I fired up Vinnie’s 2.3-litre diesel engine and we headed as fast as the speed cameras would allow up the Black Isle (look out for the small brewery of the same name that turns out a full-bodied dark ale). Our target was Dornoch, a charmer of a small town, with its nearby blue flag beach and world-class golf course, where we were served a sumptuous dinner in the Garden Restaurant at the ritzy Castle Hotel.
Wild camping – if you are discreet and inquire politely – is legal and as widely available on the route as it is in rural Ireland, so, after asking nicely, we parked Vinnie in Dornoch's peaceful former marketplace, alongside the cathedral Madonna had her son Rocco christened in 2000.You'll also find a stone that marks the traumatic end of the last alleged witch to be executed in the British Isles – suffering senility, Janet Horne was stripped, smeared with tar and burned alive according to the memorial.
Celebrity-hunting does not particularly float our boat, but we did find one place bristling with them: Poole House, a historic guest house on the shores of Loch Ewe, where the owner reeled off a past visitor list that includes such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Brad Pitt, John Le Carre and Kate Winslet.
If food and drink are your thing, then the trip will do nothing for your waistline. We simply muttered “Oh what the heck” and dived into huge plates of freshly caught haddock and chips while enjoying panoramic loch-side views at both the Ben Loyal Hotel, in Tongue, and the
To prepare for nights dining in on Vinnie the Van’s adjustable table, we visited several artisan food outlets, with some of the best being delicacies found at the Isle of Ewe Smokehouse. These included salmon smoked using whisky barrels and local larch, Highland Black Crowdie cheese and hand-made oatcakes. To wash it down, we had snifters of Dunnet Bay Distillers Rock Rose gin, which is making huge waves with its unusual flavourings using local and traditional berries and herbs.
Of course, autumn on a drive like this has its many advantages: near-empty roads, golden explosions of wilting leaves at every turn, Highland mists around the hills and glens, magical sunrises and big turf fires. There are also none of the nibbling midges that can leave you resembling a measles patient in seconds.
There are accounts of tortuous motorhome convoys and odd driving behaviour along some stretches, around 200 miles of which are single carriageway, with plenty of passing places. These are occasionally blocked by sheep and Highland cattle, but you may also be sharing the asphalt with careless pigs, roaming deer, nosey otters and even the odd red squirrel.
We were lucky to experience four sunny days and only one severe gale, during a walk on a completely empty Balnakeil beach, near Durness, after which we returned to Vinnie sandblasted and drenched.
So, on two nights, we savoured the delights of staying inside actual buildings. First up was the Natural Retreats luxury apartments at John O’Groats, with the sea just a pebble’s throw away from windows that gazed out at mist-shrouded Stromness Island and other nearby Orkneys. Next came a family room at the Torridon Inn, where we avoided such energetic activities as walking, mountaineering, rock climbing and kayaking and, after a steak dinner, simply drifted off for a perfect night’s sleep.
Without the hippy frenzy of Route 66, perhaps the magic of the North Coast 500 is the inner peace bestowed by its tremendous scenery and the old world charm of the Highlanders themselves. We met many of these reserved yet friendly people, who have so many parallels with the Irish. As well as their native Gaelic tongue, traditional dancing and ubiquitous turf fires, there is the shared history of landlord clearances of poor farmers and even the potato blight which swept across the sea from Ireland.
Everywhere we went, we felt a warm greeting and that sense of fun which gave us memories galore. It is best summed up in Robert Burns’s own words:
In Heaven itself I’ll ask no more,
Than just a Highland welcome.
Route markers If you are interested in an North Coast 500 campervan tour, Bunk Campers have a huge fleet of well-equipped vehicles to suit all pockets and needs. They can be booked in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, or taken by ferry from bases in Dublin and Belfast. See bunkcampers.com or call +44 (0)2890 813 057 during office hours.
For planning a trip and suggested itineraries, see northcoast500.com. For a stay at the apartments at John O'Groats visit naturalretreats.com. One-bed studio apartments start at £103 a night. For the Torridon Inn, go to thetorridon.com, where bed and breakfast doubles are £120 a night.