SINCE its official inception by the North Highland Tourism Project in 2015, the North Coast 500 has been tackled by tourists, travel journalists and bloggers aplenty. But while there’s lots of advice out there for two-legged travellers, what about those bringing along a four-legged companion?

Well, like thousands of others across the country, I invested in a lockdown puppy last year and he has already experienced his fair share of trips to dog-friendly pubs. But with Paddy the sproodle (springer spaniel/poodle cross) only turning one in March, it was the first time that we brought him on a serious road trip– with no idea whether the North Coast 500 would turn out to be pooch-perfect or a bit of a dog’s dinner.

I didn’t fancy driving for the best part of five hours from the outskirts of Glasgow to our starting point, Ullapool, so the first port of call was the train to Inverness. From there, we were picked up by a shuttle bus from Arnold Clark Car Hire, taking us to the firm’s showroom and and a waiting Vauxhall Corsa. Having never hired a car before I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but the lovely James made the process worry-free, even pre-fitting the back seat with a dog cover for Paddy. 

It takes just over an hour to drive from Inverness to Corrieshalloch Gorge, a National Trust Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Ullapool, where the River Droma cascades through a dramatic milelong canyon. The walk down to the gorge takes less than five minutes, but it took both Paddy and me a further five to work up the courage to cross the Victorian suspension bridge that stretches over the canyon. Definitely not one for those with a fear of heights.

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Arriving in the charming port town of Ullapool, we checked into the Old Surgery, a family-run B&B which offered us a room with our own private entrance to make things easier with the dog. With the earlier rain having cleared away in favour of some spectacular sunshine, we decided to make the most of the weather by taking a hike up Stac Pollaidh. This spectacular mountain, around 30 minutes’ drive from Ullapool, is an unrelentingly steep climb (with some scrambly terrain), but the views at the top were some of the most awe-inspiring I’ve ever encountered.

We returned to Ullapool for a bite to eat and a drink at the Arch Inn, sitting outside in its waterfront beer garden, letting Paddy run along the beach as we ambled back to the B&B. Knockan Crag, part of the North West Highlands Geopark, was our first port of call after leaving Ullapool the following morning. There are helpful information points for those not well versed in the geological significance of the area, as well as a short, steep walk up to the Moine Thrust and a viewpoint over the landscape. We were aiming for Durness, our next home for the night, but decided to take two further diversions on the road up the west coast.

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The first was to Lochinver and its famous pie shop, where we swiftly demolished chicken and mushroom and venison and cranberry pies while enjoying the view out over the village. Then it was on to the famous beach at Achmelvich Bay. With pure white sands, crystal-clear blue water and a merciful lack of tourists, this beach wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean – though the thick cloud and piercing wind reminded us we were, in fact, in Scotland. Paddy, of course, was delighted to frolic around in the waves and dig in the sand, making me particularly grateful for the protective seat cover in the car.

We arrived in Durness, the most north-westerly village on the British mainland, in the middle of gale-force winds and a torrential rainstorm. The refuge of Mackay’s Bothan – a luxury cabin situated on the edge of Sango Sands beach – was therefore much welcome. We whacked up the heating and huddled down to watch a film, looking out at the tents flapping around in the wind and feeling rather smug not to be in one. The next morning brought more joy for Paddy and his newfound digging obsession as he had the expanse of the famous Sango Sands beach almost entirely to himself.

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We then warmed up with a hot chocolate from the Cocoa Mountain Café in Balnakeil before embarking on the short drive to Smoo Cave, just past Durness. It has one of the largest entrances to any sea cave in Britain, at 50 feet high, with spotlights illuminating its caverns inside. Boat trips are available into the cave but they aren’t dog-friendly, meaning we had to miss out.

We had planned to climb Ben Hope, the most northerly Munro in the country, but with weather conditions more akin to November than May we abandoned it in favour of a drink in the Altnaharra Hotel, our base for the next two nights. With stags roaming the grounds and barely any civilisation for miles around, the Altnaharra is a magical escape for anyone more accustomed to urban living. The team did a wonderful job of making us feel at home and the gourmet food was the perfect end to a day of exploring.

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The exploring continued at pace the next day, with a drive of nearly two hours from the hotel to Dunnet Head lighthouse, the most northerly point in Britain. Since the sun was shining, we couldn’t resist a detour to John O’Groats and a quick selfie at its famous sign, before heading to the otherworldly Duncansby Stacks. The true north-eastern tip of the Scottish mainland, Duncansby Head lighthouse is the best place to view these magnificent, jagged sea stacks. We kept Paddy on a tight leash in case he got any ideas about jumping in for a swim.

We returned to the Altnaharra via the beautiful Dunnet Bay beach (cue more digging from Paddy) and a quick bite to eat at the Holborn Hotel in Thurso. After another great dinner in the Altnaharra, it was off to bed, ready to drive back to Inverness the next day. On the way to Inverness we planned a short stop en-route at Dunrobin Castle, with its chateau-style conical turrets and enviable position overlooking the sea. Dogs aren’t allowed in the castle or its walled grounds, but we managed to stroll right around its circumference on a looping woodland walk.

Back in Inverness, we returned the car and made use of the free shuttle service to get to our final stop, the Kingsmills Hotel. A luxury hotel with an attached spa, I had a swim in the heated pool while Paddy reclined in our dog-friendly garden room. We then wandered into town for pizza and beer at the Black Isle Bar, on Church Street, where Paddy got plenty of dog treats from the staff and we toasted the end of a wonderful trip.

It was certainly a lot to pack into five days and we didn’t even complete the full route. But with outstanding scenery, delicious food and a warm welcome for us (and Paddy) wherever we went, the North Coast 500 proved to be a “pawfect” place to have a break away with a dog.

A double room at the Altnaharra Hotel starts from £120 per night. Find out more at www.altnaharra.com. Other accommodation included the Kingsmills Hotel (www.kingsmillshotel.com), Bothan @ Mackays (www.visitdurness.com) and The Old Surgery (http://www.oldsurgery.co.uk/)