Northern Nights looking at the Northern Lights

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned my bucket list… Our time at John O’Groats managed to tick off two wishes.

Not bad going for a town with a population of only about 300.

The drive from Skye was a looonggg one. I think it took about 7/8 hours? There is a slightly shorter route, but we took the Highland Tourist road which is incredibly scenic and pretty damn epic. It’s single track most of the way, which means it can be a little bit hairy, but the roads are fairly empty aside from the odd sheep. Well actually, many sheep. And some caravans.

At one point we were stuck by a bridge (It’s always the bridges for us) for a good 5 minutes whilst a caravan crossed. Not because it was having trouble, but because a woman got out and was taking a million pictures of her partner driving across it. How some people are so inconsiderate and oblivious is beyond me. They better have at least got a good photo.

Aside from the sheep and inconsiderate elderly people, the journey was good. There are lots of abandoned castles and buildings to look at, and lots of little tourist stops such as beaches, lakes and view points if you want to take a break. We only made two stops, one to get petrol – there aren’t that many places to get petrol, and it’s incredibly high up and I imagine quite hard to get stuff to so there aren’t many big petrol stations either, where we stopped there was just a man and a single petrol pump like from the past. He was very nice.

The second stop was at Smoo, near Durness at another pinterest/tumblr find – Smoo Cave. It’s free entrance as it’s a natural attraction and a beautiful stop off. You can walk right inside the cave across a little wooden platform, and walk around the sea inlet/cliff area which has amazing views. There was a man offering tours via a boat inside the cave, but we didn’t really have time.

From what I could see there wasn’t that much else in Smoo, but there is a hotel, a tea room and some other bits and bobs, so if you wanted to stay the night it’s definitely an option. There may even have been a hostel, but I might be being optimistic.

We stayed at ‘Natural Retreats’ John O’Groats which was beaut. The company has a few different locations around the country, but this was our first experience with them.

There used to be John O’Groats hotel, but it got incredibly run down and as it’s right near the sign and edge of the country, it didn’t look great. They bought and upgraded it, and it looks fantastic. It sort of looks how I imagined everything up there would look. There are a few different options for accommodation – staying inside the main building at the front, or in the smaller individual lodges. I’d recommend staying in the main building as you have a great, unrestricted view over the ocean and the other facilities in the building. Also, the lodges are glass so you can look out, but I can’t help but feeling you can just see the back of the other ones, which isn’t really what you go to John O’Groats for.

Our apartment was lovingly and thoughtfully decorated, and the building had two libraries inside and a clean, Scandinavian style interior decor. We had two nights there, and it was the perfect place really. It was off season and so there weren’t that many people there. It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. I even went to the library and sat with a blanket, beer and book one night in a little window seat overlooking the John O’Groats sign, with the whole room to myself.

The only thing was that there aren’t many places to eat – there’s a storehouse which serves pizza and cafe style food, and a restaurant at the hotel up the road, so you have to travel to get a meal really. It is designed as self catering accommodation though, so I shouldn’t have been surprised!

I don’t know what the locals think of it, from the people we spoke to they were happy that something had been done with the building, but it looks a lot different to the rest of the town. Most of the buildings were pre fab which I didn’t expect, but then again I suppose it’s difficult building anything up there and up keeping it. For example, I saw a lot of articles in local papers about the extortionate amounts people living in the Scottish Highlands are charged to have anything delivered.

I can see why you would want to live up there, as it’s beautiful and wild – definitely an escape. It would definitely suit a writer or artist, I think. I can’t help but think it would drive me a bit insane having to make such an effort to get hold of anything and it must be pretty damn bleak in winter.

Lots of people visit John O’Groats, often once they’ve completed the journey all the way from Lands End (The most Southern Part of the UK), in a manner of different ways. The lady in the cafe said she spoke to the Father of two boys that managed to skateboard the journey. Apparently they managed to go through a lot of shoes. But only right ones.

There are lots of different things to do once you’re there, especially if you like whiskey.

We had one full day there, which we thought of as a relaxing day really – we did do a couple of things though. Like we went to one of the Late Queen Mother’s Holiday Residences, The Castle of Mey, which I really enjoyed; on a previous trip to Scotland we’d gone to her childhood home, Glamis Castle and this one was incredibly different. It was more like a house. There were lots of her knick knacks dotted around, and the staff seemed to love talking about it. They had millions of fun little stories, about how her dogs used to run rampage and she didn’t like it when they decided to put a rail up (She was quite proud, it seems). It’s not really how I would consider a castle, but I think that’s what I liked about it.

After this, we drove to the Old Pulteney Distillery (Whiskey) in Wick for a tour and even a few drams… The normal tour was full, so they put on a special one with one of the guys that work there and he absolutely made our visit. Apparently they used to be allowed to drink the whiskey… While they were working. Surprisingly it didn’t always turn out too well.

That doesn’t happen any more, but there were still lots of other things to see and learn. I’ve been on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail before, to the High Heavens distillery, but I was under 21 at the time so never got to try any! It’s a small world though, as I was enlightened to the fact that they only ever use a barrel once in America, so once they’re finished with them they send them to Scotland and other places in the world… And by sheer coincident they reuse the High Heavens barrels in Pulteney!

We got to have a dram of the Old Pulteney at the end of our tour and my god it puts hairs on your chest. I can still feel the burn now.

I can see why you’d drink that in the winter.

It only costs £6 for a normal tour, and a little bit more for more in depth ones, and they are every day at 11am and 2pm, though I’d ring in advance to check there isn’t anything special happening.

After this, we had something to eat and then went back to our apartment for our final night there. I’d looked online at Aurora reports and it seemed likely that we would be seeing one that night as it was fairly clear, but I didn’t actually expect us to be that lucky. We met people that had lived there for years and never seen the Northern Lights, though in fairness I don’t know how hard they were looking.

Once it got dark, we went outside and let our eyes adjust, and could see a faint green streak across the sky. The longer we stayed out there, the better it got. It was breathtaking, and I couldn’t believe we got to see it. Two things on my bucket list we ticked off were seeing the Northern Lights, and visiting the John O’Groats sign / getting to the famous Northern point. Not things everyone gets to say they’ve done, I don’t think.

I stupidly forgot to bring my tripod on the trip, so I used a variety of random objects such as benches and window sills to take some long exposure pictures of the Aurora. They weren’t too shabby in the circumstances, even if I say so myself.

I still genuinely cannot believe we got to see the Aurora Borealis, and there isn’t that much to say about it other than I guess we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time. If you’re looking for them, check the aurora and weather reports (Twitter is helpful in this), then if it says it’s likely, wait until night fall, go outside and make sure to let your eyes adjust, then watch the show. It wasn’t the brightest of showings when we were there, but it was more than I ever thought I’d get to see. Also, a long exposure on a camera shows you a lot more than the naked eye.

Once our fingers were completely frozen, we came back inside and turned all the lights off, and could still see them from the window. Not your average view! That was the last night in John O’Groats and I couldn’t have had a better experience! I can’t see any reason I would have to go back to John O’Groats, unless I was taking part in some kind of challenge to  John O’Groats – that’s definitely going on my bucket list, but it’s definitely worth the trip.

There’s more to do, such as going to the Orkneys for the day, more alcohol tasting, fishing, hiking – you could easily stay a week, I’d say. The Late Queen Mother seemed to like it, so I see no reason you shouldn’t.

My next and final post on the trip will be out tomorrow, when we head to Bonnie Edinburgh, our last destination.

This post was quite long, so if you’ve made it this far, thanks ever so much for reading! If you just looked at the pictures, I don’t blame you.

Abi

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@travelteatv

@abipageaustin

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