NC500 – Day Six
153.5 miles travelled and 2,283 steps
We woke early and went in search of a place to get a better look at Loch Maree and assess the canoe situation. I had been reading about canoeing to the Loch’s islands and research had indicated this was a full day outing when we had a lot of driving ahead of us to get to Skye that evening. We’re not experienced canoeists having only been out on our local river a couple of times and the research also said we needed to check with the Scottish National Nature Reserves before heading out to ensure protected birds aren’t disturbed during breeding season. There were two car park choices to check out the Loch: the main Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve car park and a small car park at Slattadaleso we opted for the latter as it was closer but slightly back on ourselves from our sleeping point. The views of the Loch were breath-taking from Slattadale and a few motorhomes had chosen to disregard the signs and spend the night there. Although it would have been a beautiful place to fall asleep hearing the waves lap the shore; I am glad we didn’t flout the rules and opted for our forest view of the Loch instead. We drank our morning coffee and ate our porridge by the shore of the Loch before paddling in the clear cold waters and deciding the canoe would be an adventure too far on this particular day. Another pin and another planned return as we watched a couple of more experienced and braver adventurers take to the water. We had nearly four hours of driving ahead of us before we reached Skye (including the infamous Bealach Na Ba) and it was time to start it.
The night before in Gairloch I had booked us into lunch at The Applecross Inn, which had come highly recommended, and I was lucky to get what appeared to be one of the last two tables. After setting off from Loch Maree, we stopped first at Torridon to capture the views of the hills, the Beinn mountains, and the Loch. I also bought JD some Scotch Bonnet flavoured crisps to cheer him up and a tea towel for myself to remember my adventures. We made another photo stop at Loch Sheildaig and another pin went in my map. This area is greener and somehow softer than the weathered, splintered rock faces of Sutherland; but no less immense in its beauty. My brother, who had lived in Elgin for a number of years, always told me how beautiful the West Highland Coast was and urged me to visit. I now saw what he did and knew I would carry the beauty of this land with me always.
My brother had also praised Applecross but it doesn’t get a pin for me. The views of the Cuillin of Skye and the island of Raasay across the Inner Sound are spectacular, and it looked like a great place to camp and to paddleboard; but, like Ullapool, it was slightly too touristy. The food at The Inn itself was mixed. My prawn starter was
disappointing and lacking flavour, although JD’s haggis was delicious. The mains fared better with both my scallops and JD’s crab being very tasty and well-constructed in complementary flavours. But the service lacked the Scottish warmth we had come to expect from places like The Union Tavern in Fortrose; Mackays in Wick; and Gairloch’s Myrtle Bay Hotel, and so I won’t rush to re-visit. Applecross is worth a stop to soak in the views as you pass through, and you might need a break to pluck up your courage for the Bealach Na Ba. Remember to take the scenic route from Torridon too else the Sat Nav will try to take you on more direct roads (if you are coming East to West) and you’ll miss out on the forests, pastures, hills, and stunning coastline views. Our journey also came with a face to face encounter with a herd of Highland cows who seemed delighted to see us stop the car to photograph them!
Upon leaving Applecross you soon encounter the infamous Bealach Na Ba, also known as theworst road in Scotland. It gets its reputation due to the narrow single track with steep gradients and tight hairpin bends. Luckily for me I’d had two glasses of wine with lunch, so it was JD’s turn to drive. However, I think this road might be worse as a nervous passenger! I gripped tight to the handle above my door like my Grannie used to when we took on the steep descent that felt more like a rollercoaster drop than a road. And we added to the drama when we encountered a car halfway down which had clearly overheated on its way up. Already a single track road, people had simply parked where they were causing traffic jams in both directions! Luckily we were close to a good wide passing spot on one of the hairpins and managed to get past fairly quickly, but it meant JD taking the sharp hairpin close to the drop and not wide as it should be taken. When we stopped for petrol half an hour or so later, my legs were still shaking. Thank goodness for JD being the calm, confident driver that he is. I am glad we shared the North Coast 500 driving as it’s most definitely part of the experience; but the Bealach Na Ba is a road I am happy to continue to let him navigate!
After Applecross and petrol, we drove down to the Kyle of Lochalsh which is where we left the North Coast 500 official route and went further west to Skye. The plan had been to arrive in Skye early enough to check in and travel to a sight or two but our eta was just after 5pm and we both fancied getting out of the car and enjoying a leisurely evening. The journey to Portree saw lots more scenic photo opportunities including the Cuillin mountain back-drop; some spectacular bridges and hints of the waterfalls that awaited us at the Fairy Pools. We checked in at a busy Portree Hotel and managed to squeeze in a table for dinner at 8.30pm so we went to get showered and try another bar for drinks. A beautiful sunny day on Skye (and a day when the rest of the UK was basking in record heat!) turned into a wet evening as we queued outside The Isles Inn for a table. Because we weren’t eating, we managed to secure a ledge and two bar stools within 15 minutes of waiting in the rain, which we were both incredibly grateful for! We worked our way through the whisky menu from Speyside to the Highlands to the Isles using the smell and taste to guess where each one was from out of the three.
We got pretty good after whisky number four or five! There remains something special about drinking the whisky of the town you are in so Talisker Portree was my favourite (for this evening at least!) After we drank the bar dry (hic!), it was back to The Portree for dinner. I was somewhat disappointed we weren’t in the lively restaurant downstairs and instead our table was on the First Floor in the Lounge Room. I had a delicious salmon starter which left me too full for my Highland Beef main, although JD enjoyed his Smoked Haddock chowder followed by pork loin. We went down to the bar for one more whisky before I dragged a reluctant JD off to bed. I wanted to make an early start at the Fairy Pools and we’d booked a 7am breakfast but the bar we were leaving certainly had atmosphere and it was somewhat novel being back where people were again.