At the start of 2017 we sat down and thought about the next adventure we could plan, last year we completed the rally from Land's End to Lowestoft and the buzz was so infectious we just had to do something else, make something happen. Hardeep's idea of the NC500 fitted the bill perfectly; we did the most southern part of Britain, let's do the most northern part of Britain - especially when there is the actually NC500 to be driving through.

The NC500 - The North Coast 500: Scotland's answer to Route 66. Let's do this!

Image: Brigid Benson

Our planning began with the cars and the drivers/co-drivers. 5 cars, 500 miles, superb smiles per gallon. Geographically, Callum based in Dundee was our answer to anything Scottish, clearly this was the most logical way of thinking... We didn't realise Callum has never done the NC500 until we completed it, but more on that later. He was tasked with the accommodation, the girls were tasked with any specific areas of interest, and everyone chipped in with the route (even though the NC500 is kind of laid out for us already). Our duration? 3 days to do the whole NC500.

Fast forward some time and we were around 2 weeks until the drive up to Scotland, where we were hit with news that Callum and Matt had to pull out of the road trip. We were down to 3 cars and felt more determined to complete the trip!

And so the time finally came to make the drive up to Inverness, Scotland. Our checkpoints would be for myself to meet Jonny at Toddington Services on the M1, then over to Stoke to meet Hardeep. Jonny parks up next to us at Toddington in his Audi A6 Estate, a 3.0 litre turbo diesel power house, with the S-Line and Black Edition trim making his car super subtle - until you hear the custom EMP exhaust. He brings his custom decals ready apply to each car.
Wolfed down some breakfast and we were on our way to Stoke. Why Stoke, you ask? Hardeep discovered the Staffordshire Oatcake, or 'Stokey Oatcake' as he prefers saying. And why not - it's a road trip, so we set our cars' sat navs and cruised there. Hardeep had bought a car just for this trip, a Honda Integra Type R DC2, with the B18C VTEC engine, a fantastic engine even to this day.

Hardeep phones in saying he is running 10-20 minutes behind, and as we arrived in Stoke and were seconds from the destination, we decided to go to an ASDA supermarket, in fear that this will be the last bit of normal civilisation we will see before we make our way up in to the Highlands. After stocking up on energy drinks and snacks, we we informed Hardeep has parked up so we drove over. The pitstop - JJ's Oatcakes.
We left Toddington in the lovely Home Counties sunshine and Stoke was rainy. Suitably refuelled/overfulled from the breakfast, we planned find a Shell petrol station as again, we feared we may not have access to the more luxurious and well known fuel once we are up there - and this prompted us to begin our first Top Gear-esqe challenge: Who can go the furthest. Clearly this was a contest aimed at the Integra and the GT86, as Jonny's A6 certainly wouldn't have an issue with range. 
Before we left, the lovely people at JJ's Oatcakes gave us some freshly made oatcakes with a target for us to get a photo of the oatcakes up in the Highlands. Thank you!

With our cars refuelled, we set up the comms in each car and tested the radios. Once it was all working, this was it - the drive to Inverness.
Would the GT86 make it to Inverness in one tank? A car full of gear - and I mean FULL; It's packed like we were going away for the Summer. Will Hardeep's DC2 make it there in one tank? He packed nothing. Literally nothing. Here goes nothing!
We pulled in to a service station in Glasgow to stretch our legs and for a toilet/coffee break.
The final stint to Inverness began, and we were welcomed by the most gorgeous scenery we have ever encountered. If this was already so beautiful, boy were we in for a treat when we're up and in the scenic route of the NC500!
And after an excruciatingly long drive, we made it to our hotel, the pentahotel in Inverness. We found that the hotel had no parking spaces so we had to park in a multi storey which was a minute away which was £7 for 24 hours. At the time of arrival, we calculated we would leave the car park within 12 hours, which meant we would have saved £1 as up to 12 hours was £6. #bargain

It was also worth mentioning that Hardeep had to top up with fuel (and oil for that matter, thirsty VTEC) and the GT86 made it from Stoke to Inverness in one tank! Integra loses! Granted, the fuel light did light up as I parked the car, but I won't let that take it away from the fact that the car had surprised me so much. Back at home the GT86 would do around 250 miles in one tank. Long live the cruise control!
Once parked, we headed over to the hotel to check in and check out the place. A nice bar on the ground floor, free-to-use Playstation 4 and free-to-use pool table. We then decided we should have some dinner, and that we should play it safe after such a long drive. Thankfully down the road was a Pizza Express which was perfect as there was a 2 course offer on. As we walked over we noticed a Filling Station, a restaurant serving American food with an interesting menu - including a breakfast menu. We decided in the morning we would go here before we started the NC500 as breakfast at the pentahotel was £15 each! Now, I'm still not sure if it was out of pure exhaustion, but we felt that the standard of the food in this particular Pizza Express was excellent!
After dinner we returned to the hotel to get a few rounds of pool and drinks in before the first true NC500 stint the very next day. A nice easy to play pool table if you exclude the random bookshelf which meant we couldn't cue from that corner well. The PS4 received some attention too.
So the next morning we did go to the Filling Station. What a huge anti-climax that was. Lackadaisical staff with no manners, cups/glasses with dust and the odd hair, food was bland and something one could have done at home. Nothing felt American about it, unless American diners were supposed to be this bad? The only thing that made it feel American was the pancakes with the breakfast, instead of toast - and I would of preferred toast! Safe to say - if you're in the area, stay clear.
Back to the car park where we made some last minute checks over the cars before we headed out. Straight to the Shell we passed on the way in to brim the cars up and AWAY WE GO!
The sights improved, the scenery became even more stunning. Jaw dropping views which were 360 degrees - it was unbelievable, unreal. The first point of interest on our list was Rogie Falls and this did not disappoint!
We were beginning to experience the NC500 weather everyone had mentioned. Some witnessed all the seasons within a day of the Highlands! Moving back to the roads, we headed onward to the next destination. The roads where a culture shock but we soon got used to it - so many single track roads and not many people driving. The roads were SO QUIET!
We approached the turning on the A896 towards Tornapress, with the left turn going up a mountain. This is the historic Bealach na Bà - as Wikipedia puts it: Bealach na Bà is a historic pass through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula, in Wester Ross in the Scottish Highlands—and the name of a famous twisting, single-track mountain road through the pass and mountains. This looked to be an absolutely amazing road, and this road sign guaranteed it:


And as soon as you pass this you are in for this road:

Image: Alan

After a few hundred metres we pulled over to get the first lot of photos underway.
We headed off again, to some more single track roads!! We even found a hand cyclist out here! A hand cyclist that simply did not give an ounce of care about Passing Places and who decided to do her own thing. Evasive action required!
We finally made our way to the Bealach na Bà viewpoint, or quite simply, the coldest place in the world! Trying to sight-see in what makes no difference to a tornado really wasn't great. We got out to take some photos and to sample one of JJ's oatcakes out in the Highlands, but the weather almost froze my fking face off. Oddly enough the team found that hilarious.
Anyway, we carried on driving until we got to Applecross, which was such a pretty place to be. I grabbed one of the GoPros to take a few shots and videos and we explored the area and went in to the Applecross Inn where we were greeted with incredibly hospitable staff and a great menu. After a lovely fish and chips we proceeded with our drive to our final stop for the day - the Loch Maree hotel in Gairloch, Ross-shire. This made for a shorter trip on day 1 to get used to the NC500, but it meant that day 2 would be a brutal 260 miles to the next hotel. While that doesn't sound too much, 260 miles through the mountain passes with all the twisty sections it can take hours to achieve that distance!
I was still recovering from being so cold at the Bealach na Bà viewpoint that I decided to take photos from the car, a wise choice.
That was enough cowing around, back on to the drive to the Loch Maree. We continued driving and stopped at another stunning viewpoint to get some more photos. I'll let the photos do the talking.
We were all surprised that our cars were still pretty clean!
We finally made it to the Loch Maree Hotel, it really was in the middle of nowhere! Had we have continued at our pace we would have easily passed it. The initial impression of the hotel was that it was more of a big house, and that we didn't expect much. To an extent, we were correct to do so. The reception seemed to have doubled up as a bar, the staff were super quiet. Once checked in we grabbed our bags and checked our rooms out. As we thought, it wasn't great. Superbly old fashioned, but what could we have expected from a place high up in the Highlands and in the middle of nowhere? You know if the place is old fashioned if they greet you with Werther's Originals! The water from the taps were brown too, though after reading the note on the board in our room that the water comes direct from the waterfall and the water is tanned, but the peats. No idea what it means, but it's basically not stained toilet water. Apparently.

Image: My Muse's Musings

Were we in for a troubled night's sleep? The double bed seemed a little small, the WiFi was non-existent, the TV had 4 channels, and one of them was stuck/frozen, so we were down to 3. The bathroom was old fashioned, but functioned as it should. We all met up downstairs to discuss what we could have for dinner - and as it turns out we would have to trek far out just to get some food, so we settled on booking a table at the hotel for some dinner, hoping it was passable. We decided to book a table for later on, and we went out to get some photos done and explore the waterfall which was nearby.
An extraordinary yet beautiful place, so calming and also lovely to see and understand the source of the water. We then headed back to the hotel for dinner - and it was at this point when our perception of the place changed. The food was actually very nice! I opted for roast lamb with a poached pear - and it certainly didn't disappoint. It was there where we realised it's not so bad out here, yes half the things we expected was of a much lower standard - but that was only because of what we had taken for granted back at home. We shouldn't be moaning about the lack of Internet or TV channels, we are out in the Highlands after all! However, a nice clean comfy bed should be mandatory. Dinner, nothing else but dinner with friends - made everything better.
We ended the night with some drinks and a natter down in the lobby before we all went up to sleep. The next morning we had a nice breakfast and loaded up the cars for what would be the longest amount of driving within our NC500 road trip. The drive kicked off with some amazing scenery to get us in the mood to prepare for a long drive, but we planned our stoppages with various points of interests so with enough breaks in the driving we should be fine. Our destination at the end of the day was a little town called Thurso, the furthest town up north the historical area of Caithness in Scotland. Cue more photos of us driving and seeing cool things!
Discovering all the hidden places in the Highlands, like the extraordinary Achmelvich Beach.


We then stopped off at a cute little food shop called Flossie's Beach Store where we go out to stretch our legs and get some hot food. Here they had sandwiches, cakes, hot and cold drinks, pasties and also the ability to make some hot food such as a bacon roll, sausage rolls, haggis and black pudding... rolls, come to think of it, lots of rolls. It was a tiny little shack, a shed would've been better described, but boy it was great to have - and they were busy! With cars pulling over to queue up and people walking over from God knows where to get their food. You can see us having an amazing time waiting for our food in the freezing cold winds as I munch on a packet of crisps.
Suitably refuelled, we headed back on the road while we were greeted with more wildlife. Seeing all these animals out in the wild makes the adventure even more spectacular! And these road, WOW. THESE ROADS.
Staying on the A894 passing through Ullapool to get some much needed fuel, we came to the iconic Kylesku Bridge where the curved bridge provided a magnificent view of the Sutherland scenery. The bridge crosses Loch a' Chàirn Bhàin and the view was just so breathtaking we pulled over to a large empty lay-by just to take it all in.

Image: Dronestagram

I figured it may have been the right time to leave our mark here at the Kylesku Bridge for the NC500 trip... literally.
"I dunno how they got there."
We then left quite promptly. And going further north we fell in love with more of these mountain roads, despite the ever changing weather.
Passing through a little remote village called Drumbeg, we pulled over for a toilet break before we commenced our last stint towards Thurso.
During this last stint towards Thurso it became apparent that there was an issue with the GT86's traction, or lack of. The front tyres were down to 2mm and has most likely 'cliffed' as the feedback in to the steering deteriorated, my approach speed become dramatically lower than Hardeep's DC2 and Jonny's A6. Confidence was dwindling, and I ended up drifting quite far behind as the others raced ahead to fully enjoy these fantastic North Coast roads. My traction control light was kicking in (with all driving aids left on) with an approach speed of 45mph or more. I said to myself 'as soon as I'm back home I'm buying new tyres'!

And so, we made it to Thurso. Civilisation, finally. And what looked to be a busy place, so we initially thought this could be a decent area for some food and drink, so we headed to the hotel, which is the Royal Hotel, a hotel from the Bespoke Hotels group. HOWEVER, our initial thoughts could not be more incorrect. We parked up at the 'car park'. This was the car park, and this is how we had to park to avoid the bins/litter/broken glass/the 3 other cars which were in this car park.
What an uninviting hole.

We entered the Royal Hotel and once again, it was like we entered a parallel universe. The hotel was dirty, yet busy like it was the best thing around. We didn't get it. Once we checked in we found our rooms and discovered just how bad they were. It was so bad we didn't even take any photos to show you. The bed was dusty, pillows stank, there were stains on the duvet and mattress covers. The shower was incredibly bi-polar, carpet was horrifically dirty. The windows had little/no curtains and the windows were paper thin. In fact, the walls and everything else was paper thin, so we could hear absolutely everything outside. We could also hear next door, and upstairs, and downstairs...

It was horrific, an absolute nightmare. None of us could deal with it, so we decided to dump our stuff and just leave. Find a place to have dinner, go somewhere else, anywhere else. Go and get drunk. Get so drunk that all we can do is go back to our rooms and sleep. Get up the next morning and check out as fast as we can. So while walking around Thurso we came across the Y-Not Bar & Grill. After quickly checking them out on TripAdvisor, this is rated the #1 restaurant in Thurso, and the name was rather ironic so why not.

We were greeted by friendly staff however the positive feedback ended there. While they had tables free, because we didn't book we had a 45 minute wait. But noone walked in for the past half an hour! They screwed up the message of 'yes we will wait for the table' and made it out like it was our fault. We finally got seated and we placed our order - another 40 minutes went by and it seemed like everyone else's food but ours were served. When complaining they didn't apologise and felt that 40 minutes was a fair waiting time. I really didn't know what to think. We were tired, we were at an obscene level of hangry, and fearful of what will happen that evening. Will we even make it out of this place?

Our food FINALLY arrived, and it was below mediocre. 40 minutes for this? My university meals were of better quality and took less time. Probably costed less as too. Oh well, we resorted to getting drunk here before leaving.
We left Thurso's best restaurant and decided to find a place, any place but our hotel, to drink some more. We found another hotel and decided to go there for some more alcoholic beverages to try and soften up our view on the Royal Hotel. On our walk over we discovered that Thurso must run a Ford Fiesta owners club of some sort, as everywhere we went there were at least 7 there. Later on in the night we found a blue Vauxhall Astra with orange wheels driving up and down the high street, revving his car for no reason.

We finally decided enough was enough and went back to the hotel to sleep but our paper thin walls and shoddy windows allowed everything outside to be on loudspeaker in our rooms, hearing everything from arguments, fights and traffic lights to that fkface of an Astra driving up and down the road. Around 3am he discovered he had speakers. Coupled with his exhaust, he performed a chavvy duet with his speakers and decided to parade the only high street in Thurso until 5am like an absolute fknugget. I must of passed out in angst as I woke up at 8am and it was time to #GTFO.

'Breakfast for 9am' Jonny said.

'Hit the road for 10am' Hardeep said.

This plan was woeful. It was like we know this hotel is poor, but our booking included breakfast so we would bravely try it. Of course, this was a mistake. Every table was dirty, had dirty cutlery, dirty cups and plates. And these were the tables ready for serving! We couldn't distinguish who worked there, so we weren't sure what to do. Thankfully a waiter walked by so I asked him 'could I possibly grab an extra seat to make this table of 4 seat 5 please?' I didn't think it was that much of an ask. The guy responded with 'YOU CAN HOWEVER IF YOU GET HIT THEN IT'S NOT MY FAULT'. Ok mate.

Another 10 minutes went by, we still didn't know what to do. The table was outrageously filthy, had dead flies, it was just all kinds of wrong. I've had street food in Hong Kong and I thought that was dirty, but this was next level. Then suddenly, a waiter walks over. His shirt is oversized and his waistcoat not done up. His shirt had a blood stain by the collar and he looked like a guy who's been by the bar all night who then walked outside to shout at pigeons. 'Youse here for breakfast?', he asked.

OMG. No we're not here for your breakfast it's only 9:00am we just wanted to walk in to your dining hall, sit down and just discuss how foul this place is before we set off(!) Yes we want breakfast you moron, although perhaps even that was a mistake. 5 cooked breakfasts came out, they were a mixture of microwaved products, along with overcooked eggs, haggis and some other unrecognisable bits. I walked over to get some juice, as surely they couldn't of ruined that too, right? I sat back at the table and wondered where the toast was. I asked the waiter for toast. He came back with some toast, but didn't allow us to make space on the table for him to put it down, so he threw it on to the table. Yes, you read correctly, HE JUST THREW IT.

That's it. We're out of here.

We checked out and within 5 minutes we engaged launch control and headed out of Thurso. On our way our we spotted a Lidl, immediately parked there and went to their bakery.
So this is day #3 of our epic NC500 road trip, and we've left the awful Thurso and we were on our final drive back to Inverness and thankfully, the pentahotel.

While we were on our way to the famous John O'Groats post, we stopped off at some more breathtaking scenery. Last year we did our rally beginning at Land's End, so it felt amazing to think that last year we were at the most southern point of Great Britain, and now we were heading to the most northern point.
And then we finally made it to John O'Groats and the famous signpost!
We made sure our cars made it to the signpost too, which meant waiting for the tourists to leave, then carefully navigating the cars up the slope to park there. I'm not entirely sure if we were allowed to do that but you know, #YOLO.
Shortly after and with half of John O'Groats looking at us, we decided to leave. Quickly.
And finally - we made it back to the pentahotel in Inverness! Arriving back at Inverness means that we have completed the 500 miles of the North Coast in 3 days. An amazing personal achievement as I've never driven that much in the GT86, yet alone with worn fronts.

We check in at the pentahotel, unpack our bags in our rooms and met up downstairs in the lobby where we were greeted by a familiar face. Callum, who was originally going to do this epic road trip with us unfortunately couldn't go, drove from Dundee to Inverness to meet up with us - amazing! We had a few drinks in the hotel to catch up, then went out for some dinner. After experiencing the palava back at Thurso we were so glad to have come back to Inverness and know that anything here would be better (anything but the Filling Station). We arrived at The White House on Union Street, a short walk from the hotel. It looked like a very modern and stylish restaurant/bar, the service was great and the food was superb! Seared tuna on a bed of risotto and a gammon roast as an example here:
As boys do, we didn't think to digest before going for a drive - so we walked back to the cars and decided to head over to Loch Ness - we can't say we've been to Inverness without going to see Loch Ness right? Driving over, we kept a look out for a good area to park up and get some drone footage. In fact, what we discovered wasn't just a fantastic drone area - but pretty much the race track of Loch Ness! The roads were absolutely superb, we couldn't of expected such a pleasant surprise after all the amazing roads we had driven through on the NC500.
At the top of the mountain the roads were freshly laid tarmac, which made for the exceptional driving. We finally parked up after behaving like utter hoonigans and the views rendered us speechless.
And with that, we called it a day and went back to the hotel. Callum went back to Dundee that evening - what a trooper! It would be funny to mention earlier in the drive around Loch Ness we all had to do an emergency stop as Hardeep saw a duck in the road, and couldn't avoid it. RIP ducky! The next morning we had breakfast at a nearby Wetherspoons (The Kings Highway, Church Street) before we packed our bags, checked out and began our journey home.

We finally stopped off at the first Shell petrol station we went to when we arrived in Inverness to refuel and also to briefly clean the cars. In Hardeep's case, to clear the evidence.
The journey home was extremely difficult, we were all tired and couldn't concentrate. We took regular breaks and even played games via our comms to ensure our brains were still active and to pass the time.
It's easy to forget just how long the drive back down from Scotland actually was, but took all day and well into the night before Jonny and I managed to get home. The final shot of our cars together at a service station draws the NC500 adventure to a conclusion.
So what have we learnt about the trip?

We took a FWD, RWD and 4WD and conquered the Scottish mountains up in the Highlands. The North Coast is glorious and our cars felt supreme out there. Without a shadow of a doubt, Jonny's A6 ticked every single box on this trip; Economy, comfort, performance, practicality.

Hardeep's DC2, the oldest car of the group performed amazingly - that aggressive B18C engine along with the HKS Super Power Flow air filter made such a ferocious sound, and the Integra proves to us why it still wears the crown when it comes to FWD handling - it really is astounding.

The GT86? Well, it was one of the loudest, most attention grabbing/seeking, playful cars out there to do the NC500 in. In hindsight I should have checked and replaced my tyres before going, but that didn't stop us from having such an amazing time out there. With the breathtaking views, stunning scenery and challenging roads this road trip really was a dream come true.

Nae bother.
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