Chasing myself around the Berriedale Braes, my weekend is off to a bad start.
The windy A9 Inverness to Latheron road feels no place for a clueless overtake, so we join the Dutch touring convoy as the minutes drag on.
The motorbikes and support cars tootle through the bends, their registration plates burning into my brain.
But they can’t be blamed for taking time along the dramatic east coastline as, miles away, our distillery tour sets off.
We veer off to salvage something from the first stint off our journey north.
As a novice on Highland roads I learn a valuable lesson: Google Maps know nothing.
NC500 road trip: Tongue Hotel
But admitting defeat on the gin tour allowed us – my girlfriend, my dog and I – a detour to one of the best-known sights along the famous North Coast 500.
After a photoshoot and a wander at John o’ Groats, it’s back in the car to make Tongue in time for dinner.
The more empty September roads allow plenty of stopping to “ooh” at the stunning scenery.
But we don’t want pause for too long, as our mouths water at the thought of our tea.
Originally built as a hunting lodge for the Dukes of Sutherland, Tongue Hotel is a welcome sight as we roll down the hill.
Every bit a classic tartan-carpeted Scottish country inn, the large warm bedrooms offer plenty space to rest after the day’s rushing and exploring – and for a case of the zoomies.
Dog safely deposited, we head to the hotel’s Varrich restaurant, which takes its name from the castle on a nearby hill.
A feast fit for a chief
Castle Varrich is thought to be 1,000 years old and was the ancient seat of the Clan Mackay.
And the feast of local game championed by our hosts Highland Coast Hotels is certainly fit for a chief.
Highlights include thick, creamy Cullen skink, scallops with Stornoway black pudding and gorgeous Argday venison.
Well fed and cosy, it’s a comfortable night’s sleep.
Our dog-friendly room is right next to a fire exit, offering easy (unalarmed, we were assured) backdoor access.
But those out for a midnight toilet trip, beware. The garden, adjacent to the A838 road west, could be more enclosed.
Castle Varrich and Coldbackie beach make the trip to Tongue
We race the sun up the hill to Castle Varrich in the morning.
The amble up a gradual incline takes about 30 minutes, at least with a dog snoofling around in the bog.
There’s a metal viewing platform offering vistas of Kyle of Tongue and the surrounding hills, including Ben Loyal and most northerly Munro Ben Hope, too.
A full Scottish breakfast sets up the day as we leave, going back on ourselves to nearby Coldbackie beach.
Beneath a crofting township, the sands are a long enclosed runway to let the dog loose.
It’s a blustery walk on a September day, but worth it for views, the caves and little waterfall at its western end.
White horses and rain chase us as we are blown back up the slope to the car, just as the weather turns.
Plockton: The jewel of the Highlands
The downpour is such that we forego adding miles onto the journey to have lunch at the boutique Kylesku Hotel.
A quick chips stop in Ullapool breaks up the drive, as we race the worst of the rain south west towards Plockton.
The meandering road into the village, about six miles from the Skye bridge, feels tropical as the barrage of rain batters the leafy canopy above.
Mist and rain up the valley makes the palm tree lined Loch Carron below seem a remote lagoon, en route to the Plockton Inn.
Our modern, nautical-themed room is in a cottage annexed to the main hotel, restaurant and bar across the road.
Community spirit for breakfast
But within minutes of sitting down to eat in the cosy bar, a very apologetic member of staff tells us the deluge outside has even shut the kitchen.
Emergency sandwiches and wine are sent up to the rooms, as managers scramble to find a plumber ASAP.
But you can tell a lot about a business, and a place, by what they do in times of crisis.
The aptly named Haven Guest House welcomes all in for breakfast the next day as work starts to get next door’s kitchen back up and running.
Magnus, too, is full of praise. A welcome bundle of treats, a blanket and tennis ball – rarely out his mouth weeks on – make the Plockton Inn feel more dog-friendly than the also accommodating Tongue Hotel.
Breathtaking scenery around Plockton
Accepting we’ll be drenched on the long drive home, we start the day with a walk to the little island just off the pier, only accessible when the tide is out.
The Coral Beach is another gem at Plockton, rightly known as the jewel of the Highlands.
A secluded little crescent, where the sandy cove meets lush green surroundings, it’s about a 20-minute walk from the car park at the top of the village.
It just emerges out of the trees as we walk down a small waterfall, which is probably usually just stone steps.
My route planning was awful. And the west coast rain is everything I’d heard.
There’s no doubt we three will be back again for a much longer trip.
But maybe next time we’ll sign up for one of Highland Coast Hotels’ suggested itineraries and leave the planning to the experts…
- Tongue Hotel – tonguehotel.co.uk
- Kylesku Hotel – kyleskuhotel.co.uk
- Plockton Inn – plocktoninn.co.uk
- Haven Guest House – thehavenplockton.co.uk