East Coast Spotlight
Traveller’s tales from Thomas Telford’s historic home to a self-catering sanctuary at the end of the road…
With two spectacular retreats along the North Coast 500 route, join Natural Retreats as we take the unforgettable journey from the iconic Dunolly Cottage in Inverness, along the breath-taking East Coast, to our luxury lodges and colourful tofts in John O’Groats.
If you’re planning to travel this 120-mile stretch of the NC500, rest assured that any itinerary can be crammed with adventure, new discoveries and breath-taking scenery. Whether roaming off the beaten-path, hunting for hidden beaches and the eastern-seaboard villages or lining up the best eateries for the ultimate foodie trail, explorers can find hidden gems aplenty when using the fantastic SEE & DO tool.
Ready to plan? Check out the INTERACTIVE MAP for our top recommendations.
However, if you want to skip the research and head straight to the highlights, check out our Natural Retreats whistle-stop tour of the NC500 East Coast below…
STAGE ONE | BEGIN IN INVERNESS
After a peaceful night’s sleep tucked up in Dunolly Cottage’s four-poster bed, rustle up a traditional Scottish breakfast in the self-catering kitchen whilst reading up on the 19th century tales of what was once the resting place of Thomas Telford (famous for the construction of the Caledonian Canal that connected the Highland’s most spectacular lochs along the Great Glen fault line from East to West!).
As the start and ending point for the North Coast 500 route, the compact yet cosmopolitan Inverness offers everything from battlefields, castles and cairns to cathedrals and art galleries. There is much to explore (on two feet or two wheels) with epic food, drink and music scenes for those wanting an authentic taste of Highland life.
OUR HIDDEN GEM: Following the Caledonian Canal to the mysterious Loch Ness
Photos: Dunolly House by ©Peter Sandground
STAGE TWO | FINDHORN VALLEY
Before setting your compass for the main route, head slightly off-course to the Findhorn Valley – packed with adrenaline-pumping adventure including the UK’s best spot for white-water rafting with Ace Adventures & Hideaways! There’s also canoeing, river tubing, canyoning and disc golf to get stuck into, or for those looking to reconnect with nature, their yoga retreat is perfectly zen.
OUR HIDDEN GEM: Ancient legends at Randolph’s Leap
STAGE THREE | THE BLACK ISLE
Less than a five-minute drive across the Kessock Bridge in Inverness is another short detour that is well worth pencilling in to your travel diary. Ever had the urge to see dolphins, porpoises and seals up close? Visit Chanonry Point in Fortrose or keep it cosy in the North Kessock Hotel – both have great vantage points of these beautiful marine creatures and are perfect for photo opps! For those with great sea-legs, EcoVentures in Cromarty offer world-class boat trips with even better views from the waves. Home of the Singleton – visit Glen Ord Distillery in Muir of Ord for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour and a wee dram of one of Scotland’s most iconic whiskies.
Ready to plan? Check out the ‘Finding The Universe’ guide to the Black Isle.
OUR HIDDEN GEM: Spot Ben Nevis from The Eathie Road
STAGE FOUR | EVANTON & ALNESS
Within just a few miles of the Cromarty Firth these villages are steeped in history, with their origins said to date back to at least 1810. On the outskirts of riverside Evanton, explorers can trek to the impressive Fyrish Monument for spectacular views from the Indian-esque structures from times gone by.
In contrast, Alness is consistently one of the floral champions in the UK, scooping gold numerous times in the RHS Britain in Bloom competition and now residing in the ‘Champion of Champions’ category!. For those who’ve snuck their clubs into the boot, 9 holes at Alness Golf Club, surrounded by the rolling hills, will be one to remember.
OUR HIDDEN GEM: Recreate iconic Harry Potter scenes at the Black Rock Gorge
STAGE FIVE | INVERGORDON
Welcoming approximately 100,000 cruise passengers and crew members per year (check the timetables here), this picturesque port is further north within the romantic Easter Ross region. The iconic double-width High Street is unique for it’s incredibly wide parking spaces, where cars pull up, two or three deep!
OUR HIDDEN GEM: Symbol spotting on the Pictish Trail
STAGE SIX | PORTMAHOMACK
This picturesque village is located on the Tarbat Peninsula and is the perfect starting point for completing the Tarbat Ness Walk (a coastal circuit of the headland with views of both the Dornoch and Moray Firth and the iconic Tarbat Ness Lighthouse – one of the UK mainland’s tallest lighthouses!) – we heartily recommend exploring this beautiful trail on foot, so don’t forget to pack your walking boots!
If you’re travelling with little ones, make sure to stop and scour the Portmahomack beach’s rock pools for sea creatures, before tucking into treats at Rockfield where you can pick up Pimms Preserve or Seaweed Pickle!
OUR HIDDEN GEM: Home-made Ice Cream from ‘Seaweed n’ Stuff’
STAGE SEVEN | SEABOARD VILLAGES OF HILTON, BALLINTORE & SHANDWICK
Framed by rich, red sandstone cliffs, and flocked by majestic colonies of seabirds, these three ancient fishing communities were once prosperous settlements of the great Caithness herring industry. The golden expanse of shandwick beach is home to extensive coastal paths where explorers can enjoy a tranquil walk along the shoreline of the Moray Firth.
After a bracing walk, cosy up in the Seaboard Centre where you can enjoy a piping-hot cappuccino or one of their speciality hot chocolates, before tucking into their famous homemade soup and crusty bread – delicious!
OUR HIDDEN GEM: Follow the sculpture trail to the ‘Mermaid of the North’
STAGE EIGHT | TAIN & DORNOCH
Famous for the iconic Glenmorangie Distillery, Tain is nestled by the peaceful shores of the Dornoch Firth, amidst the golden barley fields of Ross-shire. The distillery itself offers a range of tours where you can experience all stages of the whisky making process (including a dram!) and leave with a wonderful memento or two.
Whilst in Dornoch, set your taste buds on an adventure of their own by popping into the internationally renowned ‘Cocoa Mountain’, ran by expert chocolatiers Paul and James. Their exceptional hand-made treats once featured on Dragon’s Den and are a must for those heading up the East Coast.
STAGE NINE | EXPLORE THE HEART OF SUTHERLAND
Driving into this incredible county, take complete advantage of Sutherland’s borders of the East, West and North coasts by setting up base camp and heading straight for the great outdoors.
Heading off the A9, venture inland to Bonar Bridge (once another signpost of the incredible works of Thomas Telford) before continuing up the east coast on to fairy-tale castles, award-winning golf courses, archaeological wonders and quaint harbours.
OUR HIDDEN GEM: Watch Salmon leap at the Falls of Shin
STAGE TEN | GOLSPIE & BRORA
Famous for the chateau-esque Dunrobin Castle, Golspie is home to more than just turrets, towers and spectacular gardens. The 16km of wildcat mountain bike trails take those on two wheels along the UK’s longest single track descent, with epic viewpoints to stop and picnic. For those who love to nature-watch, cycle the leisurely three miles inland to Loch Fleet, where otters playfully slip in and out of the waters.
For a more laid-back afternoon, the Golspie Gallery offers a gorgeous stopping point with a variety of print-making and jewellery workshops, as well as the incredible exhibitions and events. With some of the cleanest sand in the region (and very welcoming to four-legged friends), Golspie South Beach is ideal for whiling away an afternoon overlooking the Moray Firth.
Neighbouring Brora is another stop that keen golfers and whisky enthusiasts need to take note of. This championship links course boasts unforgettable views of the sea, bordered by beach sand and framed by beautiful yellow gorse. Skip the clubhouse post your 18 holes and head on to the Clynelish Distillery for a nip of their famous single malt.
Ready to lace up your walking boots? Take on the Golspie to Brora trail.
OUR HIDDEN GEM: Gorge-walking at the Big Burn Golspie
STAGE ELEVEN | HELMSDALE
Synonymous with salmon fishing, Helmsdale offers the perfect, scenic stop for the next stage of your East Coast adventure. The Timespan Heritage and Arts Centre takes visitors on a colourful journey (with an epic virtual reality room!) of the history of the area. Their River Café is a great spot to refuel, where their handcrafted dishes use ingredients sourced from the local villages and their cream-tea from the in-house bakery is legendary (there’s also free Wi-Fi for you to upload your #NC500 snaps!).
OUR HIDDEN GEM: Gold Panning on Kildonan River
STAGE TWELVE | BERRIEDALE, DUNBEATH & LATHERON
Travelling up along the coast, turn off the A9 to the dramatic Berriedale Beach, overlooked by the ruins of the once imposing Berriedale Castle. After a bracing walk spotting the nesting seabirds, turn your sights to the unique Patricia Niemann Studio, where you can find her beautiful, sculptural jewellery and other fascinating pieces.
A little further on, the quaint village of Dunbeath offers visitors an oasis amidst the rolling landscape in the form of the Dunbeath Castle Gardens – possibly the finest walled gardens in the Highlands! The rich archaeological history of Dunbeath is evident in the remains of the Iron Age brochs close by, which are well worth a look.
Even further North, the small village of Latheron is home to the fantastic ‘Forse of Nature’ – café come craft centre that’s open all year round and offers over 40 different crafty stalls (including Highland fudges, soaps, clocks and needlework) and tasty, sustainable treats (we heartily recommend their freshly baked scones and cupcakes!). Perfect for breaking up your journey.
OUR HIDDEN GEM: The spectacular, sea front Dunbeath Castle Gardens
STAGE THIRTEEN | LYBSTER
As hosts of the ‘World Championships of Knotty’, Lybster is a little village with a big history. With roots that date all the way back to Norwegian Earls, who once controlled the North of Scotland for centuries, this charming little fishing port is a wonderful stopping point to explore and enjoy.
OUR HIDDEN GEM: Bobbing fishing boats at the scenic Lybster Harbour
STAGE FOURTEEN | WICK
Nearing the end of our journey, Wick forms the last main town before we reach John O’Groats. This ancient Viking settlement is not only a great place to stock up on supplies before your final self-catering stay, but is also home to some fantastic restaurants, historic artefacts and a truly picturesque white-sand beach at Sinclair Bay.
Stretch your legs by taking on the cliff top walk via Noss Head Lighthouse to the ruins of the Sinclair and Girnigoe Castles, which teeters on a tiny promontory overlooking the sea. Keep your eyes peeled for plump puffins, or take on the waves with a power hour of windsurfing or sand yachting. For a final taste of Highland Whisky, the Old Pulteney Distillery Tour is also renowned for it’s maritime malts!
OUR HIDDEN GEM: Historical Highlights at the Wick Heritage Museum
STAGE FIFTEEN | ARRIVE AT JOHN O’GROATS
Riding up over the horizon as you take the coastal road towards the sea, Natural Retreats John O’Groats offers spectacular, self-catering sanctuary at the end of the road. Whether choosing to cuddle up in front of the wood-burning stove in one of our open-plan, luxury lodges with picture-perfect views of the Pentland Firth or opting for an overnight stay in our contemporary, coloured tofts, a sumptuous bed and exceptional service await.
Hop aboard the John O’Groats ferry to conquer the Orkney Isles, beach-hop your way up to Dunnet Head Lighthouse, dodging sleepy seals that bask on sand, before returning back to the Natural Retreats Storehouse for Starbucks coffee, freshly baked scones and mouth-watering takeout pizza to hustle back to your Natural Retreats hideaway.
OUR HIDDEN GEM: The freestanding copper bathtub in our Jan De Groot Penthouse
Photos: Natural Retreats John o’Groats by Elly Ball