Coming Soon! The Wild Atlantic Way / Causeway Coast

Wild Atlantic Way (WAW)

With the wet, windy, wildness of our NC500 trip fading to pleasant memories, the time has come to set our sights on a new adventure. Sticking with the “close to home” theme, this summer we will make the short hop across the Irish Sea to travel at least part of the Wild Atlantic Way/Causeway Coast. With “wild” in the title we can hardly go wrong picking this one.  A short search shows some spectacular scenery, wildlife and a huge host of “must do’s”.

Heading the top of our list is the infamous Giant’s Causeway, Cliffs of Moher and “The Dark Hedges” to name a few. Whilst our NC500 holiday was purely about riding, we are hoping to tap into a slightly gentler pace which will allow us to have a go at some of our other hobbies whilst travelling. We are hoping to find some picturesque mountains to amble up and the odd spot for some wild swimming!

Braving the notoriously inclement weather, we are aiming to camp this time round, which will no doubt add more significant challenges such as packing light and cooking on our small (but mighty!) stove.

Planning Time!

So, the next step: Planning. For me, planning is crucial to a trip. I know many travellers who don’t plan, and prefer to “see where the journey takes them”, but when time is critical, planning becomes your friend. Not only does it ensure we hit all the “highlights” it really gets me geared up and excited! Our first step will be to decide which of the ferries we use to get us and the bikes across the sea. With the prices ranging from £50-£150pp each way, the decision will,  in part be based on affordability, but also accessibility (from the terminals to home and to the start of the route!). From there, we will map out a rough day-to-day guide of mileage and key sights to see along the way, leaving a little leeway just in case we want to go where the wind takes us!

I is for Ice Skating

Ice Skating in Leicester’s Jubilee Square

 

When we thought about ice skating, it took us a while to decide where to go. Both the National Ice Centre in Nottingham and the Snowdome in Tamworth off year round public skating sessions for around £9 for two hours. As winter was in full swing, we opted to go for the more festive ice rink in Leicester.  At £9 for a fifty minute slot, is less value-for-money than the other two options, but was much easier to get to. If you are going with a group, there is some discount so make sure you check this out online!

The rink itself is actually covered, so that it remains open whatever the weather. There are lockers available for £2, but being cheapskates we didn’t bother, braving the cold weather in the hope that we’d warm up once skating! Turning up the recommended thirty minutes early meant we had plenty of time to faff with getting the correct size skate. We also got to witness as they “resurfaced” the ice for our session, which actually involved most of the staff members scraping the ice clean of any shavings – no ice machine as Ian was hoping for.

Ready, Steady, Skate!

Skates on, we were ready. The hard plastic skates come as part of the admission fee, and are uncomfortable to say the least. I waited impatiently at the entrance gate, watching my watch tick slowly past our get on time, as they wasted our “precious” time allowance perfecting their ice scraping routine. After what seemed like an age we were let on a few minutes past the hour. Several bambi-esque minutes later and we were skating with all the elegance of Torvill and Dean (or not!).

For those not so comfortable on their feet there was the option of penguins to hold on to – although these are really for children! At Leicester these were apparently £3 a go, but actually seemed freely available on the ice, unlike in Tamworth where they come at an eye-watering price of £6 a go! Also freely available were Seals, allowing child to sit on the aid and be pushed round by a willing parent.

The rink itself is pretty small, and with the maximum 150 people it does get a little crowded. This definitely makes the experience a little more interesting, but does limit the speed you can skate at and reduces the opportunities of any tricks to virtually nil. However, with the Christmas music blaring, you can’t help but have a good time.

Located next to the ring, is Leicester’s big wheel, and having finished skating we hopped on this for £5 each. This bought us three turns round, and a stop at the top on the first go. As a one off this was pretty fun, but a little expensive non the less.

Final Verdict:

Go if: You want some festive fun.

Don’t bother: You wan’t to race your mates, engage in tom foolery, or skate uninterrupted.

Know before You Go:

 Ten Things to Know:

Here is our NC500 top ten tips. Have fun planning and enjoy the ride!

1. Weather

I’m going to go for the stereotypical British thing here and talk about the weather. You can’t predict it, and you can’t control it, so you may as well embrace it. We barely saw the sun for a whole week during our NC500 trip, and although this didn’t make the scenery any less beautiful, it did mean we missed out on a lot of opportunities!  The photos we did take represent the best weather of the week! Particularly disappointing was the “aurora alerts” that buzzed in our pockets (when we had signal!). The cloud filled sky  sabotaged any of our efforts to glimpse the northern lights or take any stunning sunset, sunrise or starry night shots! The wind, which wouldn’t necessarily affect car drivers, meant that we were often riding at an angle just to continue in a straight line! You can read and watch about our windy Balach na Ba experience here. Our advice would be; go prepared and invest in good quality, warm, waterproof clothing!

2. The Roads

Okay, so this wasn’t too much of an issue for us, having holidayed and journeyed around the UK enough to experience our fair share of country roads. If you are new to single track roads then please try and stick to the etiquette that others follow – use the passing places! If you can see something coming either pull in. When the passing place is on the opposite side of the road wait for the other vehicle to get to you and pull into it. When you are going around particularly tight corners, it can be worth a quick beep of the horn and driving as far to the left as is safe to do so – to avoid any collisions with any on coming traffic.

Also common in Scotland are herds of sheep/cattle that freely roam the countryside (and roads). Make sure you approach slowly, and give them plenty of room – if it means waiting for a minute or two whilst they stare you out so be it! Cows particularly, enjoy ambling along just ahead of your vehicle instead of escaping onto the nearest verge.

We drive on the ‘right’ side of the road….that is to say the left!

NC500 Day 4

3. Petrol

Don’t expect any large filling stations or supermarket prices for the majority of the trip. Most forecourts we filled up had only one or two pumps available. We would recommend filling up regularly, especially if you are planning on any diversions! This is probably more pertinent to motorcycles and  vehicles who have a smaller range than an economical car! We did spot a fair few electronic charging points too if this is something that floats your boat.

 

4. Wildlife

Okay, so we didn’t actually see too much wildlife on our trip – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there! Mainly, we were there at the wrong time and didn’t look hard enough. Many points along the NC500 are excellent places to see marine wildlife, and if you go during the summer season there are plenty of trips offering a good chance of seeing cetaceans. There is also a fantastic array of land based creatures to see from otters, to ted Squirrels to (if you are very lucky!) the scottish wild cat. Of course, it wouldn’t be a trip to Scotland without the famous highland coo!

If you visit in the warmer months, beware of the Scottish Midge! These fearsome creatures fly in swarms with one goal in mind; sucking human blood! Invest in some good insect repellent – Avon Skin So Soft is fast becoming an unlikely favourite in repellent creams!

5. Accommodation and Dining

We hit the NC500 right at the end of the season and found that many places were fully booked or closing for the year. The NC500 has sparked an enormous amount of interest in Northern Scotland and this has resulted in a spike in prices! If you are looking to do the NC500 on the cheap we would recommend staying at bunkhouses, hostels, campsites and bothies. If you are happy paying mid range, then Airbnb is your friend. Finally, if it is luxury you are after there is no shortage of lodges, hotels and castles which offer glorious views and fine dining.

We found that most places tend to shut fairly early, often by eight or nine on an evening. So however pretty the views may be, don’t plan on getting into your accommodation at ten each night if you also want an evening meal out. That being said, every place we ate was simply delicious!

It is also worth noting that currently a lot of Scotland simply “shuts” over the winter. Tourist operations shut down as cafe’s, restaurants and B&B providers take the winter months off. We hit the North Coast during the first week in October and found that many things had already closed.

6. Time

You can spend two days on the route, or you can take two months – however much time you have, it is not going to be enough. This was one of the first holidays we did, where I didn’t meticulously plan our adventures – I booked the accommodation each night and that was it. We were on bikes, and our adventure was all about the journey; i.e. riding the roads.

We saw so many things that we would like to have done – walking to a beautiful view, visiting distilleries, spend an hour in a wildlife hide, go on a whale watching boat, etc. etc. etc. I still feel like we would have benefited from a little more planning and foresight – but I am a bit of a control freak! The official “NC500” page does have some good guides which are tailored to the kind of trip you are after, but this does require you to purchase a membership from them.

7. NC500 Membership

The Official NC500 website has varying levels of membership you can purchase from them, which is renewed annually. At the introductory level you get access to the route planners, a map, a certificate and a membership card. I’ll be honest, the only thing we found useful was the map (which you can pick up from any tourist information shop en-route).

The certificate required getting “stamps” from various places, counties or regions. Quite how they decided what should make it onto this elusive list we’ve no idea! Some are counties, others are sub sections of counties, some are parishes or even a village. For example “Achiltibuie” is a village in Ross & Cromatry – which itself is split into Easter Ross and Wester Ross. Then again there is also Assynt, which is a region within Wester Ross, and the Black Isle, which is a region within Sutherland. To make it even more confusing, some areas such as Achiltibuie aren’t even on the official NC500 route! However, should you be dying to complete your “set” most places who have a stamp are more than keen to use it more than once, if you get our drift! By the end, our wet, tattered and torn “certificate” was more fit for the bin than a frame!

If you wish, you can hand over more money for further “benefits” such as the “Rough Guide to” and personalised route planning. You can also buy the “Rough Guide” separately, but I wouldn’t bother – I found more useful information on blogs. We didn’t use our membership card at all – either because the places didn’t take it or we forgot to ask!

You can also purchase merchandise from their online shop. However, I’d be inclined to wait and see what you find on the road. We found a gorgeous NC500 tea towel made by a local school in Sheildaig which was £5 well spent!

8. Phone signal

Don’t expect a great deal of reception for most of the journey. Embrace the freedom of technology, and enjoy the views.

9. The West is Best

As far as fun roads and beautiful scenery goes, the West Coast is above and beyond the rest. Unless you make some interesting diversions/stops between John O’Groats and Inverness, this stretch can realistically be done in a day.

10. Make the Adventure you own!

The NC500 is so versatile, you can make a trip into something that suits you.  Steeped in history, the Scottish Highlands are simply stunning and lend themselves to a wide range of activities and pastimes. And you can’t drive more than thirty miles without coming across some form of brewery! Have fun!

Applecross

The road out of Applecross.

NC500 Day Six: Helmsdale to Inverness

Day Six: Helmsdale – Inverness

Route: Helmsdale – Inverness (via Inland route)

Distance: 163 Miles

Weather: Overcast with rain

Drop Counter: Jenny 0 (6) Ian 2 (4)

Another Detour

Today we planned to leave the A9 for a more exciting route! As we were low on fuel, we dropped down to Brora because the petrol station in Helmsdale wasn’t open. From Brora, we intended to ride all the way back to Helmsdale before cutting inland, but Sat Nav had different ideas! It took us on some even smaller roads than we had intended – so unused that grass was growing up the middle. A word of warning if you follow our route: the only other vehicles we saw were 4×4’s.

We follow Sat Nav, and found ourselves on numerous logging roads, which were for the main deserted of traffic. Plenty of work was going into the upkeep of the roads – possibly to ensure the logging trucks could access the remote forests. The inland route was beautiful, and much preferable to the monotony of the A9. Sadly, somewhere along this route, the one remaining screw holding my lights in was lost – thank goodness for duck tape!

Motorbike Women – Witch Way Round

I was taking part in Motorbike Women’s “treasure hunt” which gives various points around the U.K. (and Australia

Tarbat Ness Lighthouse

Tarbat Ness Lighthouse

!) to visit. As a result we made a fleeting visit to the Jane Horne Witch Memorial in Dornoch and the Mermaid of the North in Baltimore. In Dornoch, we also found a wonderful Whisky Cellar in the Carnegie Courthouse. We were able to try several tiny tastes of a few varieties and left with another two bottles to boost our dwindling collection! Atholl Brose a whisky based honey liquor and Glengoyne, a ten year single malt, were our two favourites. We also made a side trip to visit yet another lighthouse at Tarbat Ness!

 

Rather Unmagical

With the miles clocking up, we were soon back within a stones throw of Inverness. Having researched this area a tiny bit, I wanted to visit The Clootie Well and the Fairy Glen, however the rain caused these to be a bit of a wash out. Given that I also hadn’t fully researched either, we never made it to the waterfalls of the Fairy Glen, as the rain was making the walk particularly miserable. We also failed to make it to the actual “well”,  being put off by the bedraggled “cloots” hanging from the trees.

Note to self: Either plan well, or don’t do at all! I had been expecting both places to be magical and so was a little disappointed! We stopped in Fortrose for a quick wander around the ruined cathedral. Only part of the once magnificent cathedral still stands, but the area it used to stand on is marked on the floor. The part that remains is magnificent in itself, one can only imagine the grandeur of the place in it’s heyday.

The End of the Beginning

And so, with the light fading and the storm clouds rolling in, we rode back to where it all began – Inverness Castle. Covering just over 1000 miles in our six day trip we more than exceeded the official “500” quota! Our riding skills, (despite managing to drop the bikes a considerable number of times) had improved no end. We’d conquered wind, rain, more wind and more rain, and experienced the odd glimmer of sunshine along the way. We spent a wonderful Saturday celebrating the wedding of our friends – the initial reason for our trip – before we sadly pointed the bikes south for the 500 mile journey home.  All in all, we rode over 2000 miles, and more impressively, still standing! Time to plan the next adventure!

Final Film

NC500 Day Five: East Mey – Helmsdale (Orkney)

Day Five

Route: East Mey – Helmsdale (Via Orkney)

NC500 Day Five

NC500 Day Five

Distance: 172 miles (842)

Weather: Very Windy, Overcast, Showers.

Drops: Jenny 0 (8) Ian 2 (4)

Orkney

With little interesting riding to be found heading between Mey and Helmsdale, we opted for a day visit to Orkney. Whilst this is a rather expensive option, costing us £128 for the return trip, it did give us a fascinating insight into Neolithic history and an opportunity to experience riding in some staggering wind conditions! Had we visited in the right season, we would also been able to visit more puffin colonies!

During the summer months it is possible to get a passenger ferry straight from John O’ Groats, this is often combined with a day tour bus trip on Orkney. At £64 per person (Summer 2017) this may well be worth it depending on the vehicle you are travelling in. If you are set on visiting and driving yourself, the options catch the Scabaster-Stromness ferry or the Gills Bay-St. Margaret’s Hope. The latter is cheaper, and with a approximate sailing time of one hour is also a half hour quicker than the former option. We managed to get tickets simply by turning up on the day, but in high season advanced booking is required to guarantee a trip. We payed £16 per bike, plus £16 per person each way. Continue reading

NC500 Day Three: Badrallach – Kinlochbervie

Day Three

Route: Badrallach – KinlochbervieNC500 - Day Three

Distance:  171 Miles (524)

Weather: Windy, overcast with showers

Drop Counter: Jenny 3 (6) Ian 0 (2)

Today, although still windy, was finally dry with a few rain spells, which made a difference to the overall feel of the day. Our waterproofs didn’t become heavy with moisture and my hands and feet stayed mainly warm. We added in an extra loop, so we could ride the the road between Drumrunie and Lochinver, without missing any of the sights on the main stretch. Our first stop was Ullapool, where we chatted to John, an incredibly friendly man in the tourist information centre. After a good natter, which included swapping tales of travelling in New Zealand, we headed next door to the West Coast Deli for a second breakfast! We both tried their interesting take on sausage rolls eating a black pudding roll and a thai curry one! We also bought sandwiches here for lunch on the road. Continue reading

NC500 Day Four: Kinlochbervie – Mey (John O’Groats)

Day Four

NC500 - Day Four

NC500 – Day Four

Route: Kinlochbervie – Mey (John o’Groats)

Distance Travelled: 146 miles (670 )

Weather: Mainly dry with heavy showers, and high winds

Drop Counter: Jenny 2 (8) Ian 0 (2)

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave Waterfall

Smoo Cave – so much water!

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NC 500 Day Two: Dornie to Badrallach (The Isle of Skye)

Day Two

NC500 Day Two Isle of Skye

NC500 Day Two

Route: Dornie – Badrallach, via The Isle of Skye

Weather: Overcast with heavy showers

Distance: 184 miles (353)

Drop Counter: Jenny 1 (3) / Ian 0 (2)

The Isle of Skye

Another day of grey skies, high winds and heavy rain. Fortunately the morning stayed dry for our foray onto Skye. Taking a turn at random on Skye, we ended up on the A851 which leads down to Armadale. We stopped a little way down this road at The Gaelic Whiskies and had a wander round a local gallery before trying a very wee dram of a few whiskies.

Local artist Derek Robertson showed us his current field study drawings of an otter and let us use his telescope to see some porpoises he’d seen across the bay. His artwork was stunning, although sadly we could only afford to take a few cards home with us. The whiskies we tried were all very tasty, and not being connoisseurs couldn’t taste the difference in quality between the single malt and the blended. So, naturally, we bought the cheapest, “Té Bheag”, which according to the label is pronounced chey vek and is the affectionate term for a wee dram! Continue reading

NC500 Day One – Inverness to Dornie (Bealach na Bà)

Day One

NC500 - Day One

NC500 – Day One

Route: Inverness Castle – Dornie

Distance: 169 miles

“Drop” Counter: Jenny – 2 / Ian – 2

Our first day of travelling the NC500 ended in a quaint “bothy” listening to the rain lash against the tin roof. Occasionally a particularly heavy lashing caused a light mist to rain down on us as the weather found gaps to push through. Doing the NC500 whilst the tail end of three hurricanes battered the U.K. was perhaps poor timing, but now we were here we were going to make the most of it!

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Kielder Forest Drive

Kielder Forest Drive

We explored this little route on our way up to do the NC500. The weather, forecast to rain all week was kind to us, and stayed dry, with a few sunny spells throughout the drive.

The route starts at Kielder Castle and finishes on the A68 near Otterburn, a few miles from the Scottish border.  There is a small £3 levy, which you pay via a machine at the Kielder end. It only accepts change, although if you are caught short, the bike centre opposite were very accommodating in changing a note for us.

Kielder Forest Drive

Jenny on the Forest Drive

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