Scotlands NC500 Best Coastal Views & Beaches
The best thing about driving along Scotland’s North Coast 500 route is the beautiful scenery. It’s not all rolling hills and craggy mountains, but also beautiful beaches and jaw dropping cliffs. Some of the beaches you’d find it hard to believe you’re even in Scotland. On a still day with calm waters, they can be just as tranquil as abroad. Looking out across the water to the likes of Orkney and Shetland, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were on your own tropical island.
Often uninhabited, especially out of season in the autumn and winter months, the beaches can be the perfect place to sit and enjoy the waves come rolling in. Of course, if you’re brave enough you can take a tip in the icy waters, but I’ll leave that one to Luke.
The small coastal village of Bettyhill is just 32 miles west of Thurso, and 12 miles from Tongue. At one of the most northern peaks of Scotland, it’s wonderfully isolated yet homely feeling all at the same time. We actually ended up on the beach here by accident. Following a popped tyre incident on a single track road in the middle of nowhere, we managed to stop a passing by local who got us onto a toe truck from the nearest garage in the next village, Bettyhill. With some time to pass whilst we waited for our repairs to take place, we took a stroll around the village and found a totally empty gorgeous beach, perfect for a dip to pass the time.
Dunnet Head is the most northern point of mainland UK. Commonly assumed this is John O’ Groats, however Dunnet Head is actually 2.35 miles higher and proudly stakes it’s claim. Surrounded by beautiful sea cliffs and grassland, it’s home to puffins and several other sea birds. It’s main focal point beyond the lighthouse is the dramatic drop over the edge of mainland UK. There’s also a free car park here maintained by the RSPB, and several old military bases up on the hill to explore. In the distance you’ll see across to the island of Orkney on a clear day, only 6 miles into the distance.
The road up to and through Durness was one of the most beautiful along the whole of the NC500 route. With dramatic changing landscape around every bend of the single track road, we found ourself in awe of it’s beauty. The most north westerly village on the UK mainland, it has a rocky coastline, pristine beaches and the most amazing turquoise beaches. You could very easily believe yourself to be on a tropical island here, I couldn’t believe my eyes for how blue the water was! It’s a perfect place to escape from all the hustle and bustle, and a haven for hillwalkers and mountain climbers alike.
Sango Bay, Durness
Sango Bay was the most amazing beach we came across in Durness. Surrounded by sandy coves and grassy hill tops, it’s also home to the elusive Smoo Cave. A giant gaping hole in the heart of a limestone cliff over the sea, with a hidden dramatic waterfall inside. When the tide is low you can enter into the cave by boat. There are boat trips that leave from here daily dependent on weather and tide levels. You can buy tickets for this from a small boat shack at the base of the steps down towards the entrance of Smoo cave. Even if the trips aren’t running, you can still access the entrance to the cave and take a peek at the waterfall.
Terribly millennial of me, I know, but after seeing the ‘sea window’ of Holborn Head on Instagram and knew it was something we had to take a trip to witness for ourselves. Just up from Scrabster Harbour, it’s more of a hike than we anticipated, so if you’re intent on going, make sure to allow yourself time. Park at the ferry terminal and there’s a small signpost up the hill towards the light house. Once you reach the lighthouse, you can begin your hike over the hill.
Passing over farmers fields, getting increasingly higher on the cliff, this isn’t one for the faint hearted. At the very end of the cliff you’ll be even more aware of the sheer drop off the edge of the cliff, especially on a windy day! We were there to see the ‘sea window’ but to witness it involved getting on a very narrow point of the path overhanging the edge, and for me it was a step too far. However at the top of the cliff you’ll also get the most amazing views down over the edge to the beautiful turquoise water below. Just make sure to watch your step, I’ve never been so glad to get back on solid ground…
We stayed in the gorgeously tranquil East May for a night on a crofters field, just a short distance from John O’ Groats. In my opinion, May is a much better location to stay, as we found John O’ Groats to be incredibly tacky and it’s a shame to see it just as a bit of a tourist trap with a caravan park on it. The views from East May were amazing, and I’ve never woken up somewhere feeling so peaceful before. You’ll also find Mey castle just down the road, commonly visited in the past by The Queen Mother.
Whaligoe Steps, Whaligoe
A short distance on from where we stayed in East Mey, Whaligoe is a small port and fishing village just south of Wick. It’s main attraction is the Whaligoe Steps, which go down towards the base of the harbour. Originally built by the fisherman’s wives, the 330 steps descend down a cliff face with vertical drops into the sea. Dating back to 1792, the steps do have wear to them, but they are maintained and safe to walk down. Just be sure to take things slowly and mind your step!
It took us a while to find the steps, as they aren’t at all signposted. Instead keep a watch for a crossroads with a sign pointing inland to the Historic Environment Scotland Carin o’ Get monument. Take the road opposite this, past a row of fisherman’s cottages, where you’ll find a small tarmac parking area to park. There’s a cafe for the steps just behind here, which marks the start of your descent onto the steps.
What are your favourite coastal areas around Scotland?
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