If you haven’t ridden the NC500 loop around the north of Scotland, do so immediately. The scenery is stunning, the roads glorious although single-track in parts, and the locals friendly – unless you’re in a motorhome
North Coast 500
I’ve ridden some great roads in my life, including the Pan-American Highway, Route 66, Highway One around Australia, and most fearsome of all, the M25 in rush hour.
And now to that pantheon of greats, you can add the NC500 in Scotland,
A 516-mile loop around Scotland starting and finishing in Inverness, it was dreamed up in 2015 in the same way as the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland the previous year as an obvious way to link some great roads into one tourist route.
And no better man to do it with than my biking buddy Peter Murtagh, the witty and erudite former Foreign Editor of the Irish Times.
He’d set out on his BMW GS 1200 to ride from Argentina to Alaska at the start of last year, only to be scuppered by lockdown in Chile and forced to leave the bike there, get the last flight home, and wait to start again next year.
In the meantime, he’d borrowed a friend’s 600cc Honda Shadow, while I was on the 2004 BMW R 850 R which had belonged to my good friend Matt Curry.
After he died of cancer aged only 46, I’d bought it partly because I’d always fancied an old Beemer, and partly to keep it in his circle of friends. I think he would have approved.
And on the subject of old friends, strapped on the back as I packed the night before was the bag I’d bought for $20 in Colombia to replace the one thrashed in a crash on the ride from Chile to Alaska for the book The Road to Gobblers Knob, and on the tank was the even older Oxford tank bag from the Delhi to Belfast ride in 1998 for the book Way to Go. When Oxford says a lifetime guarantee, it means it.
After a dawn start for an early sailing from Belfast to Cairnryan on the Stena Line ferry which had a healthy 20 motorbikes on board, we had a leisurely ride to Inverness for the start next day.
And what a lovely spot it is, with fine old honey sandstone houses lining the river in the autumn sun, including a former doctor’s residence tastefuly transformed into the Ness Walk hotel, whose concierge Mark and receptionist Grace made us feel so at home with a friendly welcome and glass of champagne that I wanted them to adopt us so we could move in permanently.
Sadly, we were men of steel whose destiny was the road, so after a dinner as classical and flawless as the hotel itself and a good snooze, we set off west the next morning for Gairloch.
Most people do the NC500 anti-clockwise, leaving the most scenic west coast to last, but due to staycationers, the two words we were to see most over the next few days were “No Vacancies”, and finding somewhere to stay had been so difficult that we had to go the other way.
Still, never mind – the road to Gairloch was a glorious mix of twisties through pine-sweet forests, sweepers past icy lakes and at last a single-track road with passing places.
At one point we stopped to take in the view over Loch Maree and got talking to a local woman who said we were wise to come in the autumn after the plague of staycation campervans had subsided.
“I counted 500 passing one day,” she said.
After tea and buns in the crisply nautical Coast Coffee in Gairloch, we emerged to find a fresh-faced chap called Duncan Soutar admiring the bikes.
Astonishingly, he turned out to be 87, a former military policeman whose wife had died in 2013.
Holidaying in Cuba the year after to mend his heart, he’d sat down at lunch beside a very nice woman from Ottawa called Lucille, and they were now married.
I do like happy endings, I thought, as we checked into the imposing Gairloch Hotel and made our way to dinner in a rather soulless dining room.
The starters, rather idiosyncratically, included poutine, that French heart attack on a plate which consists of chips topped with gravy and cheese curds, in this case with a Scottish twist of haggis.
Much better was Cullen Skink, a sort of Scottish chowder, with a nice crusty bread roll to mop it up.
In the ballroom next door, a musician whose face suggested he’d hoped for something better in life was playing on a fabulously eclectic selection of accordion, guitar, saxophone, oboe, flute and tin whistle a fabulously eclectic range of music from Gershwin to the Drifters via Johnny Cash.
Around the room, the old dears tapped their feet to show they were still alive in case the staff carried them out and threw them into the harbour.
In the corner, the gaming machine flickered and pulsated with the promise of untold riches below a Jack Vettriano print of a couple waltzing on a beach.
We fled before the entertainer got to You were always on my mind, had a wee dram and fell into bed.
* Part II – the dynamic duo head north and east to complete their epic journey.
Good vibes from Oz
For navigation, I was using the clever system by Australian company Quad Lock for attaching my phone to the bars, complete with case, waterproof cover and vibration damper, since as you may remember, Apple pointed out recently that bike vibrations don’t do phones any good.
It worked perfectly. Highly recommended. The UK website is quadlockcase.co.uk
Getting there: We sailed from Belfast to Cairnryan with Stena Line stenaline.co.uk, which has six sailings a day on that route, or four between Holyhead and Dublin.
Fares for one adult and motorbike start at £47 Belfast-Cainryan and €79 Dublin-Holyhead.
Getting around: The NC500 website northcoast500.com, has everything you need to know. You can also download the North Coast 500 app for information on the move as you travel around it.