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Aberdeen & NC 500

My wife and I are planning a road trip to Scotland followed by a train trip (to?) and around London. I can't find information in Rick Steves' materials about Aberdeen and the North Coast 500. Could someone comment? Is Aberdeen itself of interest? We love hiking in spite of our ages. Is the NC 500 just a touristy thing, or would we love the adventure?

We plan to fly to Edinburgh and return from Heathrow. I'll be 77. Will I have trouble renting a car in Edinburgh because of my age? We have spent a few days in Edinburgh, St Andrews and on Skye, so this time we thought we'd drive to Aberdeen, across to Inverness, and then on the NC 500. We would take a different route back to Edinburgh to return the car and travel to London. My wife thinks flying to London from Edinburgh is best; I like trains.

We have a skeleton plan right now. Any comments of any type would be helpful. We were thinking 3 weeks in Scotland followed by 3 weeks in London.

Posted by
1819 posts

The NC 500 is a marketing strategy designed to encourage people to visit what was previously a less visited part of Scotland. Tourists didn't get to the far north - it is a long way - preferring to head for Glencoe, Fort William and Isle of Skye. The NC 500 has altered all that and now the tourists arrive in their masses to drive the route. Unfortunately it has also become popular with motor homes and caravans...

It is a wonderful part of the country with stunning scenery. There are few settlements along the route, so you need to plan and book accommodation well in advance.

There's lots of information about the route on the internet. Have a read of this article which has a lot of useful tips. Allow plenty of time for the drive. Some people do it in 2-3 days and end up missing so much. Allow at least 5 days!

Rather than fly to Edinburgh, have you thought about flying into Aberdeen or Inverness and hiring a car from there? Aberdeen was a large and important city once a major port and centre for oil extraction in the North Sea. It has a university founded in the C15th and cathedral. The Old Town has a lot of character. Aberdeenshire has a lot of castles as well as distilleries.

If you haven't found the Undiscovered Scotland website, then definitely bookmark it. It is the best source of ideas and things to do and way, way better than any guide book. I use it to plan all my trips to Scotland. Start with the relevant map and click on the links for text pages with lots of pictures and information.

The best website for walking is Walk Highlands. It has everything from easay, short walks to the real 'head banger' stuf. There is a good map and description for each walk . As well as giving the distance and time there is a boot code and bog factor - all useful information.

Arnold Clarke is the recommended car hire for Scotland. Book through Celtic Legend from the States as this often gives a slightly better rate. You will need to check if there are any age restrictions.

Posted by
5633 posts

The NC500 is touristy to the extent that it was created to increase tourist numbers in that remote part of Scotland. It has succeeded in that aim, and at times suffers from too many people. However the roads themselves are authentic, you pass through lots of tremendous scenery and the towns and villages are quite authentic.
The deer, the other wildlife and raptors you will see are authentic. As well as being co driver your wife will also be wildlife spotter in chief. You will make many unexpected stops for that wildlife.
The often quite skinny roads can get pretty busy, especially with the camper vans.
You will love the adventure.
When you get to Durness do not miss the chance to go to Cape Wrath- the north westerly corner of Scotland. You can't drive there, you leave your car at a ferry landing 2 miles south of Durness, take a foot ferry over then an 11 mile minibus ride to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath.
Read up before hand on the sights to see like Balnakiel Craft Village and Smoo Cave at Durness (two different attractions), but many more.
If you haven't seen it before study this website-
Accommodation is limited due to the nature of the area, so you need to book up in plenty of time, and have realistic journey lengths each day. This is a once only thing so slower is always better, so as not to miss things.
There are lots of options for detours- like to the site of cleared villages in the Highland Clearances and the Duke of Sutherland's memorial at Golspie (one of the biggest of the men behind the Clearances, a very controversial man up there).
And you will see some just breath taking beaches which could be in the Carribbean, and are almost always deserted.
Although it'd be overdoing things on this trip you may also like to be aware of it's younger cousin- the NE250 which is on your way between Aberdeen and Inverness-

If you flew up to Edinburgh why not LNER or Lumo train back in 4 1/2 hours- then you are both happy.

Posted by
596 posts

Unless you have other destinations besides those you mention, 3 weeks seems like overkill. You don't mention if you've been before.

For example, we're doing our third trip, also doing three weeks, and are flying into Aberdeen for three nights, down the east coast to Astruther to go to the Isle of May, then Culross to Tarbert to get us to Islay for a couple of nights, then up to Ft. William, then Ullapool, Durness, Wick, Inverness, then fly to Shetland (Unst and Lerwick) for five nights, then fly to Edinburgh for the last two nights. We skipped Applecross because we're been before and my wife has ancestors in Shetland (and Aberdeen). We travel very light and don't mind one night stays. Some would find our vacation style exhausting, but then I'm only 73 and a little OCD :-)

Agree with Arnold Clark car choice, and big fans of LoganAir. Our plan is for May, so I'm hoping the NC500 isn't too busy yet.

Posted by
9540 posts

There's absolutely gorgeous stuff around Aberdeen — Dunnottar castle, Craigievar castle, the countryside along the rivers Dee and Don (and the old bridges). You can easily fill some days there.

Posted by
1376 posts

Hi, Floyd,

This is me waving across the river to you! First of all, your car rental company may add a surcharge because of your age. The best thing to do is not say anything about your age when you pick up the car. The rental agents rarely look closely at your driving licence.

I haven't driven the NC500 since it became the NC500. Who knew? I've driven all of it over several holidays in Scotland, but only once did I make the entire circuit. The scenery is magnificent, especially along the West Coast.

One more thing to look for in Durness - there is a memorial garden to John Lennon. His family used to spend summers there during his childhood.

If you have the opportunity, there is a boat trip out to Handa Island from the tiny hamlet of Tarbet, which is just north of Scourie. There is a bird sanctuary there. Last time we were there, there was a great skua (bonxie) nesting, as well as puffins out on the stack. There is also the Shorehouse Seafood Restaurant by the ferry pier in Tarbet, which serves locally caught seafood from Easter through September. Very highly recommended. Also, since you enjoy hiking, there is a wonderful hike out to Sandwood Bay from Oldshoremore, which is just west of Kinlochbervie. Sandwood Bay is one of the most beautiful beaches on mainland Britain.

Unfortunately, Rick Steves has bypassed just about the entire Northeast of Scotland, which is a pity, because it contains some of the best scenery Scotland has to offer. Buy or borrow a copy of the Rough Guide to Scotland, which contains a lot of useful information. Also check out Steve Marsh's video of the NE250 on YouTube. Actually, check out all of Steve Marsh's Scottish videos. Very entertaining and helpful.

I have an affinity for Aberdeen, so I certainly think that it's worth visiting. Central Aberdeen, especially along Union Street, its main thoroughfare, has seen better days. There are lots of closed businesses and litter. Once you get outside the town centre, however, you'll find some beautiful parks, a classic old university, and a part of the city which looks as though it should still be in the 19th. Century.

Outside of town there are many castles, some of which have been mentioned above. My personal favourite is Fyvie Castle and Gardens; however, there are Crathes, Craigievar, and Drum Castles, plus the magnificent Haddo House. Those are just the castles that are staffed and open to the public. Slains Castle, just north of Aberdeen, and Dunnottar Castle, just south of Stonehaven, are ruins in spectacular settings.

Just south of Slains Castle is the beach at Newburgh, which is home to a large seal colony. Just south of Dunnottar Castle is the Foulsheugh Wildlife Sanctuary, which is home to over 100,000 seabirds, including puffins.

There are excellent hikes at Glen Tanar, near Aboyne, and Loch Muick, near Ballater. Also, the hike up Bennachie, near Inverurie, is a rite of passage for Aberdonians of all ages.

Aberdeen has what I believe is the longest beach esplande in Scotland, although the water is rarely warm enough to swim without a wetsuit. Billy Connolly has said that the beach at Aberdeen is proof that God has a sense of humour. You may see surfers at the top end, near where the River Don flows into the North Sea. Duthie Park, along the River Dee, has a beautiful Winter Garden, which is a misnomer, as it's in bloom year round. The cacti display is the best I've seen outside of Longwood Gardens.

Can you tell I like Aberdeen? One more thing - if you get down to the beach, get ice cream from the Inversnecky Cafe, along the beachfront. Try a single nougat, with one scoop of vanilla, and one scoop of Scottish Tablet. Absolute heaven, but if you sit outside, watch out for marauding seagulls!

Have a wonderful time on your holiday!

Mike (Auchterless)

Posted by
5633 posts

This is Steve Marsh's video of the NE250.
I am another big fan of his!

One of my favourite places in Aberdeen is Footdee (pronounced 'Fittie')- a former fishing village at the northern harbour mouth, at the southern end of the above mentioned esplanade.

Posted by
6269 posts

Although it'd be overdoing things on this trip you may also like to be aware of it's younger cousin- the NE250 which is on your way between Aberdeen and Inverness-

That's the one I am doing, at least most of it. I'm starting from Inverness, heading up to Nairn, Elgin and on to Fochabers then up to the coastline and will continue that all the way down to Aberdeen, where I will head off to Edinburgh. I can't wait! And @isn31c, thank you for the NE250 link! I had found it some months ago and forgot to bookmark it, then couldn't remember what it was called. So now I have it saved. :)

And I will definitely be watching that Steve Marsh video!

Posted by
1817 posts

We are about your age and have visited the UK many times. Our most recent trip was June, 2022. We rented from Arnold Clark at the Edinburgh airport. They are OK with your age - I asked the agent when we rented about the cut off age. She said if you are 80 or older they will still rent to you if you have a letter from your doctor that says you are fit to drive. If you are not yet 80 there are no restrictions. Our rental was quite reasonable, included complete coverage, and the GPS was included. We returned the car with a damaged mirror and they were OK with that.

We did the NC500 on our 2015 trip. It was OK but not as scenic as the Torridon - Skye - Glencoe area. At that time, there were minimal amenities on the route. Few cafes, petrol stations, or restrooms. If you decide to do it, you can take the Northlink ferry to Orkney - it leaves from Scrabster. If you don't want to include Orkney (many neolithic sites), I would use your time for other parts of Scotland. The drive Skye Bridge - Duirinish (coos) - Plockton - Shieldaig - Torridon is very scenic.

Lots of ruined castles between Aberdeen and Inverness and many ruined abbeys in the Borders region south east of Edinburgh.

The train between Edinburgh and London Kings Cross is pleasant but not super scenic. It takes about the same time to take the train or to fly. We did both on our last trip. Edinburgh airport was a PITA to fly out of.