A car-free trip in the Scottish Highlands: I’d have missed so much if I’d driven

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A popular circuit round Scotland’s wild north coast draws thousands of drivers – but there’s so much more to experience by public transport and on foot

There’s a party atmosphere round the lighthouse on Chanonry Point near Inverness, the UK’s best place to see dolphins from land. It’s an hour after low tide and there are pipers, picnics and kids running barefoot over long, evening sands. Already in late spring, the sun barely seems to set in the Highlands. The kelp-strewn pebbles are glowing as I walk from the bus stop near Fortrose cathedral (bus 26/26A from Inverness) along one side of the promontory. The dolphins don’t show up. But, somehow, it’s fine – the first of many reasons to return. It’s still light as I walk back along the beach for a 9pm bus, past wild lupins and views of Fort George and pink clouds over the Moray Firth. I’m in Inverness at the start of a week exploring Scotland’s wild north coast by train and bus.

The North Coast 500 is a victim of its own success. Devised in 2015, in the style of America’s Route 66, this 516-mile circular road trip round northern Scotland draws thousands of drivers and motor homers every year to narrow roads with bottleneck passing places. Locals complain that the route’s popularity has driven up house prices and talk in terms of pre- and post-NC500. A few cyclists cover all or part of the route by bike. I’m exploring some of it by public transport and on foot. It takes a bit of planning. I’m used to the mild frustration of missing an hourly bus; missing a weekly one is another matter. But first, there’s an epic railway journey to enjoy.

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