The final part of our road trip landed us literally, at the end of the road. John O’Groats is the most Northernly inhabited place in the UK/Scotland and we stayed there for our two last nights before returning to London.
We drove up to John O’Groats from our little cottage just outside Inverness, stopping for lunch and a walk on the way in Lairg, a village in Sunderland that was en route. We parked at the Ferrycroft Visitor Centre and went in to ask about which walks they recommended – they pointed us behind the building to a walk that went through the windows and round by the lake.
It wasn’t too long a walk but it was just right for us to get out and stretch our legs after being in the car for a bit. We were a bit hungry by this point and could see our next destination: The Pier cafe, where we were headed for lunch, so we got back in the car and drove over to there.
It’s a beautiful cafe and the food is incredible – we got there just amid the lunchtime rush and so didn’t manage to get a seat inside which was a bit of a shame as it wasn’t that warm but saying that, the view was beautiful so that made up for it a fair bit.
Once our stomachs were full we got back on the road and drove the last 2 hours of the journey up to John O’Groats. We took a beautiful scenic route and it was really lovely seeing all of the autumnal trees/scenery.
I hadn’t really thought about the fact that it would be fall when we went – we chose to go in October in an attempt to avoid the crowds and to be honest, I think we made a pretty good choice (even if part of it was a fluke). A common topic of conversation between us was how we couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be enjoying the beautiful roads, with no one else on them!
I’d been to John O’Groats once before on a road trip with my family (post here) and had a great time. We went to Wick (a nearby town) and tasted whisky at a distillery, visited the Castle of Mey and generally relaxed in our apartment, after a busy trip with a lot of stops.
The apartment was something I’ve always remembered fondly and hoped to return to, so when we started planning a trip to Scotland it was somewhere I suggested and I was very excited to return to it.
I emailed ahead to ‘Together Travel’ who run the accommodation we stayed in and they were very helpful with getting our apartment sorted for us. It’s situated in the old Inn, which they redeveloped a few years ago into luxury accommodation. As well as the old Inn, there are also individual apartments behind the building but I wanted to stay in the building as my family and I had done before.
What I like about the building is that they’ve kept the old characteristics of the Inn and managed to modernise it in a way that still very much fits in with the landscape. It’s cool staying somewhere that is such a landmark in its own way; I mean it’s right next to the John O’Groats sign! Plus, the inside is thoughtfully decorated and planned with lots of shared spaces including two libraries for guests to use.
Our apartment had a living room with separate bedroom, which overlooked the sea, so we spent our time going between our apartment and the libraries – the manager very kindly asked us if we were likely to go into the library, as if so he would start up the fire in there for us and leave us some wood to keep it going for the evening.
I have really positive memories of the last trip there – sitting in the library looking out at the stormy sea one night and the next, seeing the Northern Lights (something I’ll never forget). We weren’t lucky enough to see the aurora this time but we did get to drink whisky by the fire while looking out at the sea, which I really can’t complain about.
Now, I’m still very positive about this place and would definitely recommend it but I do feel I should point out that it has its drawbacks – we got quite a good deal but it is still quite expensive. Yes, its a luxury place and very unique but there isn’t much else going on.
Compared to where we had just stayed near Inverness, which had so many facilities on offer (games room/free bike hire etc), to be completely honest we got a little bit bored. I had already been whisky tasting and it would have been a bit of a pain to go again as there were only two of us, and I would have had to drive, so only my boyfriend would have been able to actually do the tastings! Plus, on that same note, there aren’t really any pubs nearby or at least, not ones that looked like they would welcome locals.
In all honesty, the area as a whole is quite depressing. It’s definitely nice to go there as a bit of a retreat and to go for walks/see the wildlife nearby, but that’s all we really did. Ok, I can’t deny that drinking whisky by the fire, sitting on the beach under a blanket and going for coastal walks wasn’t lovely but we were there for two nights and really at a bit of a loss as to what to do with our time.
There are two towns nearby – Thurso and Wick, so if you fancied exploring those then that would be an option. We were quite content staying outside of towns for this part of the trip and so tried to make the most of the countryside as best as we could.
Personally, I think it’s a great place to stop if you are doing the Lands End to John O’Groats challenge (in any form) or doing the North Coast 500 drive around Scotland (which I would highly recommend). But to make the journey all the way up there for any other reason isn’t really necessary.
I enjoyed myself both times but I don’t think there’s any reason I can see myself returning.
Dunnet Head is a nature reserve famous for it’s wildlife and stunning cliffs, not far from John O’Groats. I won’t lie, we saw some birds but not quite the ‘array’ of wildlife we were hoping for! The cliffs and scenery were nice though!
It was super windy so we only spent about 30 minutes there but I still enjoyed it. There are no toilets/places to get a tea etc on site, so if you’re planning on going be aware that you’ll need to bring your own food/drink. Also, just a heads up – the roads are fairly narrow, so be cautious when driving down them.
As well as Dunnet Head, another short drive from John O’Groats is Duncansby Head – the physical most North Eastern tip of Scotland. The rugged landscape of the Scottish coast is especially prevalent in this area and it really is a stunning view of the ‘sea stacks’. There’s also a lighthouse here, though it’s not too much to look at.
Again, we spent no more than 30 minutes here, wandering and looking out at the view but it was quite windy and a bit rainy, and I wasn’t desperate to get blown off a cliff.
CASTLE SINCLAIR GIRNIGOE
On our way out of John O’Groats, as we headed back down to Inverness to catch the flight home, we stopped at not one but two castles. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe just outside Wick, is an incredible place to stop – thought to have been built in the 1100s most of it is a ruin now although a fair amount of it has been repaired and you’re actually allowed to walk around inside it.
It’s free to access and makes for a lovely walk down to it, then in/around the castle – it’s not often you get to stand inside a ruined castle looking out over the sea. We went down there first thing in the morning and so it wasn’t too busy but it may get a bit busier as the day goes on.
Another place I would definitely recommend stopping if you’re going this way, is Dunrobin Castle. Dating back to the 1300s, it’s not quite as old as the ruined castle we visited first but this one is in a much, much better condition – the Earl of Sutherland still lives in it.
It’s a beautiful building (designed by Charles Barry, who also designed the Houses of Parliament in London) with very well kept gardens that has had a variety of uses in its time, including a boys boarding school and a hospital (during the war).
You do have to pay to go into this castle (£12.50 each) but I would say it’s worth it, as you’re able to spend a fair chunk of time here looking around all the well preserved rooms and talking to the staff, who are all full of information and fun facts about the castle.
BUSINESS CLASS FLIGHT
And that was our final stop on the road trip, before heading back down to London – we dropped our hire car back and then (this is the first time I’m ever being able to say this), went to the lounge – I collect avios points (for flights, using my credit card) and got a bonus from the scheme, offering me 2 free upgraded seats on a flight of my choice.
These upgrades had been burning a hole in my pocket for a little while and ran out at the end of the year, but I didn’t have that many points to make use of. You can of course just use the points for part of the cost and then pay the rest in cash but in all honesty, with the extra price you often end up paying, you may as well just go with a cheaper airline. Hence how we settled on a trip to Scotland – I had enough points to get us there and back, plus on the return journey we got to experience our very first business class flight!
The flight itself is only 1 hour 30, so it was a short time to enjoy all the perks you might get on a longer flight but honestly, we had such a great time. It was actually a fair bit different to economy than I thought it would be, just in terms of seating and food etc.
Firstly, we got to sit in the lounge where there are beers, wine, soft drinks and crisps/snacks available for free. Personally I wouldn’t choose to pay extra for this lounge in particular at Inverness Airport (it was very small) but I can imagine if you’re travelling from Heathrow or Edinburgh (both larger airports), then it would be worth it.
Then, on the flight itself there are lots of little things that made a big difference – it was a very short flight but we were given a proper meal, with real knives and forks. This might seem like a simple thing for people who travel business class/above regularly but for someone who had never done that before, it was very exciting!
Also, the seats themselves aren’t larger but there is more leg room and then block out the middle seat, meaning in general you get a fair amount more space. We only used the space in between us to play cards but I’m sure real business travellers use it for something much more productive!
I don’t know when (if ever) we’ll get to travel business class again but I’m very appreciative it was something we ever got to try out. Of course I would love to do it again but it isn’t something that is generally within my means.
And that was our trip to Scotland! My previous Scottish Road Trip posts can be seen here, but if you’re still looking for any further information then leave me a comment and I might be able to help!