Cape Wrath & Durness: May 2017

Cape Wrath? That’s the bit of Scotland’s mainland that’s right up in the top left hand corner. Unless attempting the pathless and boggy trek from Sandwood Bay through the Ministry of Defence’s firing range, the only (and strongly recommended) route to the Cape is via the seasonal ferry service across the Kyle of Durness. We took time out to enjoy the journey across Scotland’s Highlands to discover the remote and stunning beauty of Durness, Balnakeil, Smoo and a handful of other destinations on and off the North Coast 500 …

Friday 6pm: if you are heading to any area of Scotland that’s north of Inverness, the chances are – you’ll head up the A9 and across the Moray Firth & Black Isle. Aviemore was our stopping point on the A9 to refuel in more ways than one. We’ve passed La Taverna Ristorante on many Speyside visits over the years. This time we stopped on friends’ recommendation and were not disappointed. Their pizzas are superb – authentic and very tasty. Best to book (as we did) on 01479 810683. By the time we left, they were queuing out of the door. If you are passing earlier in the day, a short distance off the same roundabout as the Taverna you’ll find The Druie (open daily 9.30am – 5.00pm) for breakfasts, tasty lunches, locally roasted coffee and homemade cakes. Alongside it is the Rothiemurchus farm shop – a perfect place to gather some delicious provisions.

 

7.30pm – back on the A9 …

It was a stunning evening. The Cairngorms National Park stood out as we climbed from Aviemore – over the Slochd summit and down to Inverness. The views stretching out to the west before us were breathtaking. Inverness is the official start and end point for the North Coast 500 – and you can choose to head clockwise or anticlockwise on what many have described as the world’s greatest road trip. Conscious that some ignore the 20,000 square miles within the 516 mile route, we deliberately drove straight across. This took us off the A9 north of Inverness onto the Struie Road crossing high hills before dropping to the Dornoch Firth. One of many photo opportunities to capture the view …

 

 

The drive took us through Bonar Bridge and we detoured to walk our 4 legged friend at the Falls of Shin. The old visitor centre was destroyed by fire in 2013. Four years on, an extraordinary community project has been delivered with a combination of time, resource and funding from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, The Highland Council Forestry Commission Scotland, VisitScotland, Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust and SSE Achany Community Funds.

We planned to visit on our return to experience it when open.

9pm …

Still light (you have to love driving in Scotland in mid summer), through Lairg and onto single track roads for most of the rest of the drive to Durness – along the shores of Loch Shin and Allt Ceann Locha. We’ll let the photos tell the story …

 

We arrived in Durness just before 11pm, staying in one of numerous self catering properties: ours (Craigmor) not only slept 8 but was also dog friendly, an easy walk to all you needed in the village and had a garden with picnic tables. G&T, chat, laughter – and an alarm call set for tomorrow morning’s ferry across the Kyle of Durness.

 

Saturday – 0830 …

Ever since we’d visited Durness on a whistle-stop trip in 2016 (our NC500 inauguration), we’d pledged to return – to ‘do’ Cape Wrath. What you need to know when planning your trip is that the ferry is one part – be on time at the ferry slipway and pay the ferryman – to get across the water.

Then you need to pay the minibus driver for the tour that takes you to Cape Wrath and back. You can walk it (its a long way) or cycle (its very bumpy – the guy with us took a tumble) – so the minibus got our vote and money.

 

0930 …

The ferry only takes 12 people. There are two mini buses that each take 16 – so some have to wait a wee while for the ferry to play catch up. We didn’t have to wait and our driver, Alan, had us boarded and ready for the hour’s bumpy ride along the road – officially classed as the U70. His banter was great – joking with passengers and keeping the children entertained with increasingly unlikely tales but with enough facts and figures to more than pass the time. Bite sized history delivered, questions answered, jokes shared and a few stops on the way for the ever-important snaps: this is looking back across the Kyle of Durness to the Sutherland hills in the distance …

 

1030 …

We counted down the milestones – all 12 of them! What greeted us at the Cape blew us away …

 

The tour gives you about an hour at the Cape. There’s the UK’s most remote cafe – Ozone – where the owner, John (who lives and runs the cafe for 12 months of the year), serves up a selection of hot and cold drinks as well as snacks.

We took a walk to the foghorn and were blessed with a pod of bottle-nose dolphins that swam in and performed for us. The pictures aren’t great (we were on top of the 600ft cliffs) – but they created a never-to-be-forgotten memory for those who witnessed the show.

 

On our return to the ferry, we stopped to take photos of Kearvaig. The picturesque bay is home to Kearvaig House which the Mountain Bothies Association have converted into a bothy – enabling those walking and cycling the Cape to stay for the night. The day we visited, Andy Lawson (outdoors, wildlife & travel enthusiast) stayed there. You can follow Andy on Twitter to see his travels.

 

1230 … for the rest of the day …

We were back on the Durness side of the water by lunchtime – lazing the day away exploring Durness: walking just over a mile to check out the local golf club to plan a round and visiting Balnakeil with its incredible beach … and unique and eclectic Craft Village. In the ’70s, it was converted from a disused military camp to a community of artists and crafts folk. Today, it welcomes more than 25,000 visitors – many on the NC500. One of the busiest and most popular draws is the Cocoa Mountain – an innovative chocolatier renowned for its range of freshly made truffles and ‘the best’ hot choc. You will also find artists working in glassware, textiles, ceramics, metal and woodwork as well as painters and sculptors.

 

Lazy Sunday …

Nothing happens fast in and around Durness. We packed a late picnic (there’s a Spar in the middle of the village) and set off to walk to Faraid Head. The footpaths are clearly waymarked – and the walk was fantastic … across farmers’ fields (remember to keep dogs on leads as there are a lot of sheep and – at this time of year – lambs) – and to close gates behind you.

Amazing dunes, views and the freshest sea air …

 

As the Cocoa Mountain cafe was on our route home, a return visit seemed only right! For golfers, courses on the northern section of the NC500 are few and far between – but there are gems. None more so that the spectacularly positioned 9 hole (18 tee) Durness Golf Club.

 

6pm …

We played it on Sunday evening (just £10 for a post 5pm tee time) paid into their honesty box. It is a lovely course with panoramic views over the hills and sea. A fun and perfect challenge for grownups and kids …

 

8pm …

A BBQ in our garden ended the night. Drinks poured – with OS maps pored over to plan the next day’s adventures.

Monday … 9am …

We’d planned a long weekend: you need time in these parts and the traveling isn’t fast! Heading south – with picnic – we planned to climb Stac Pollaidh, one of the best known and most popular wee mountains in Scotland. It is signed off the Durness to Ullapool road and there’s free parking by the loch before you begin the climb. As with Cape Wrath, the photos say it all …

 

There can’t be many better views where you can enjoy a picnic … anywhere.

2pm … 6pm

We dropped one of our group down to Ullapool – a bus needed to connect for a train in Inverness as work called – and headed back to Durness along the Rock Route. This is UNESCO Geopark country – among the oldest landscapes on our planet. We stopped at Knockan Crag NNR and read about the story of Scotland’s ancient oceans, vast deserts and ice sheets, colliding continents and how the country has traveled from pole to pole. The route then takes you north – passing Elphin, the Bone Caves, the Inchnadamph Hotel, Loch Assynt and Unapool – with a variety of pull offs and information displays continuing the fascinating history, heritage and archaeology …

 

7pm … home cooked chicken curry followed by Black Jack. The bank won. More drinks and planning for the day ahead. In came the rain …

Tuesday …

Lazy start. Still pouring – the first real downpour of the weekend. Waterproofs on – and a walk to Smoo Cave on the east side of Durness. This is an incredible place – another archeological discovery that all ages loved. There’s a cave tour that includes a wee boat ride underground before you explore the ancient history of this site …

 

The rest of the day was a washout. Only one thing for it: Cocoa Mountain cafe.

8pm … final night. Home made fish pie, fizz and laughter – and planning the homeward bound trek.

Wednesday …

The saying goes that if you don’t like the British weather, wait a minute. Our final morning was sunny. Cleared and packed up – and on the road.

10am …

We drove back a different route – at least to start. Heading east on the NC500, then south from Tongue …

 

You head through the Sutherland hills – a wide open and stunning landscape dotted with mountains, lochs and forests – all the way to Lairg and our promised return to the Falls of Shin.

1pm … we were not disappointed …

The falls are fab – and the new Falls of Shin Visitor Attraction (that combines a cafe/restaurant and shop) is brilliant: we enjoyed a slow lunch overlooking the landscaped grounds. The meals are prepared to order – so don’t expect to rush through – but they were very generous portions and each dish was delicious. The centre also includes Forestry Commission Scotland trails to be enjoyed and a large outdoor play area for young ones.

2pm … we were back on the road. A 4hr+ journey ahead of us – already discussing returning to this incredible part of Scotland.

 

Looking to visit?

There are links within the Blog to take you to a variety of web pages for more information on features businesses and places. Below, we’d like to share a few more links you may find useful …

Cape Wrath is so worth discovering, but you need to plan. Visit their Facebook page via this link for further information. For the adventurous (and fit) type, there’s the Cape Wrath challenge – a week long festival of running in Durness. This is an active holiday with a difference. Each day (with the exception of Friday) there’s a choice of runs including a measured Half Marathon and 10km, 5 and 10 mile trail runs, beach run and the classic Cape Wrath Challenge Marathon and Team event. Follow this link if your are interested in next year’s events.

Stac Pollaidh is well worth climbing: plan your day to make sure you get the views. It is not a long or difficult climb, but there are parts that you have to scramble and (as we found out) if you struggle with heights, the vertigo can kick in! For much more on this – and other walks and climbs in the area, check out Walk Highlands.

Fancy fishing? We know many love to try their hand at fishing and we can recommend a great base – off the beaten track. Syre Fishing & Lodges – on the north shore of Loch Naver – has catered and self catering lodges set in stunning scenery. One lodge can sleep up to 10 – the other up to 8 – so a great place for a gathering of family and friends. They’re a relatively short drive from the picturesque Bettyhill (on the NC500).

 

Off the Lairg to Ullapool road – not far from Oykel Bridge – is Drumvaich Cottage. It is on the banks of the River Mulzie with gorgeous views where deer can often be seen roaming. The self-catered Cottage and annexe comfortably sleeps 10. Those renting Drumvaich Cottage are able to enjoy excellent salmon and trout fishing on the River Rappach and, as fishing is reserved for only those staying in the Cottage, you’ll be completely undisturbed. Close by, there is also Corriemulzie Lodge – a self-catered, crofter’s bungalow. This sleeps 13 and enjoys superb salmon and trout fishing on the Rivers Mulzie and Einig as well as on six hill lochs. Just follow the property links for more.

A family gathering? As we discovered, there is a huge amount to explore and enjoy in this area. On our journey home, we found Lairg Self Catering – positioned high on the hill looking south over the small town. There’s a choice of the main Lodge, Reid’s Cottage and the eco-friendly Phil’s House …

You’re a short drive from the Falls of Shin – and the choice of destinations to explore on the west and east coasts are numerous.

 

Thanks for reading!