Best for: Hidden beaches, great golf and lost monsters
First things first, get there: fly into Inverness with British Airways. This pretty inlet city acts as the gateway to the highlands – and the sea: it has a pod of resident bottlenose dolphins. Inverness is a good place to take stock and prepare for outdoor adventures. Buy supplies here, or simply check your coat’s waterproofing ability. From the city, you can take the famous North Coast 500, a 500-mile driving loop that takes in northern Scotland’s highlights.
For a minor deviation from the North Coast route, follow the River Ness inland just half an hour to reach Loch Ness, Inverness’s famous neighbour. This quiet, deep gorge has a suspiciously calm surface and a 13th Century history on its bank: the atmospheric Urquhart Castle. If you don’t see the legendary Loch Ness monster, the scenery more than makes up for any disappointment. Walkers can join the Great Glen Way from Inverness. This 79-mile route to Fort William takes in the sight of big Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain.
Tiny Ullapool runs ferries to the Outer Hebrides and boats to the Summer Isles.£62 returnBook flights
Strike up a conversation about golf in an Inverness bar, and you’ll swiftly discover that the Scots invented the sport. Golfers head straight out of Inverness and on to Dornoch, home to the country’s most atmospheric courses. The famous Scottish golf courses are all here, set around gorgeous manor houses and castles. These courses (including Royal Dornoch Golf Club, Tain Golf Club, Golspie Golf Club, Bonar Bridge) are referred to as ‘links’ – the Old Scots term for a course.
From Dornoch, the North Coast 500 route begins in earnest, taking in the ragged coast of Sutherland. This is area is both beautiful and remote – it was, after all, the last place wolves were found in the British Isles. Driving around here is notoriously tricky. The main road, the A9, takes you along the coast with fiendish dips and bends and leads to John O’Groats, the northernmost tip of mainland Scotland.
The northern edge of mainland Scotland contains some of the area’s best beaches. Drive along the A387 to reach the scenic Achmelvich beach (accessible only by single track road) and Oldshoremore beach (only accessible by hikers). The cute little coastal town of Ullapool serves as a hiking base, and many visitors take a windswept climb up Quinag – a forbidding three-peaked mountain. Inland roads lead to Ribigill and the foothills of Ben Loyal, the lonely ‘Queen of Scottish Mountains’.
Where to stay
Crerar Ben Wyvis Hotel is a Victorian hotel north of Inverness with a cinema for rainy days.
Mansfield Castle, which looks more like a manor, sits near the golf greens in Dornoch. This panelled and primped ‘country house castle’ is haunted by Mrs Fowler, who specifically likes to visit the Tower Suite. This ghost is generally good-natured – so, ask for tips to improve your handicap.