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Driving the North Coast 500

View of a ferry in Ullapool in the Scottish Highlands. Darran Rees / Getty Images.

As I roll down the car window, the music of bleating sheep fills the air, and soft white lambs frolic after their mothers, spilling over the sides of the road like milk from an overfull pitcher. These sheep traffic jams slow us down considerably, but we are grateful for the lack of traffic. When driving on single-lane roads full of hairpin turns and blind summits, every encounter with an oncoming car feels like a head-on collision in the making. As my husband and I make cautious progress along the North Coast 500—the 500-plus-mile coastal route beginning in Inverness and wrapping around the northern tip of Scotland—I am awed by the remote windswept beauty of the North Highlands.

For as many years as I’ve been smitten by the country’s crumbling castles, misty lochs and mournful bagpipe music, I’ve been a fan of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel On the Road. When I heard there was a new Scottish version of Route 66, my husband and I packed our bags and flew to Edinburgh (you can also fly into Glasgow), where we rented a car for the drive.

By the time we arrive in Ullapool, I’m ready for a small sampling of civilization. Following an evening stroll along the picturesque harbor, I sip on a Braveheart cocktail while listening to a traditional Scottish trio play live music in the pub of our hotel.

In the morning, we embark on what turns out to be the most surprising, stunning and colorful stretch of the NC500: the 67-mile road from Ullapool to Durness. Anticipating a picnic lunch by the sea, we stop at Lochinver Larder, a bistro selling every kind of pie imaginable, and order a chestnut, mushroom and red wine pie to go. As we resume our journey, the predictably pastoral scene morphs into a tableau more suited to the Caribbean. When we realize this isn’t a mirage, we hurry down to Clachtoll Beach, with its shockingly white sand and turquoise water. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic.

Once we’re back on the road, my heart leaps at the sight of Heilan coos serenely grazing on grass. I insist my husband stop the car so I can snap pictures of Scotland’s famous shaggy cows.

When we finally reach the village of John o’Groats near Scotland’s northernmost tip, we spot the famous sign welcoming hikers and bikers who’ve just completed the 800-some-mile trip from Land’s End in Cornwall, England. After a chilly, windy walk along the coast, we welcome the warmth of Ackergill Tower, a 15th-century castle perched on the edge of the North Sea in the town of North Wick, where we linger like landed gentry in plush sitting rooms full of antique furniture and grand fireplaces.

The next morning, my husband spots an otter swimming in the sea behind the castle. I run down to the shore, eager to catch sight of this magical creature. Standing alone on the edge of the North Sea, I watch the otter frolic in somersault fashion—seeming as wild, free and alive as this four-day road trip has made me feel. The sight fills me with delight and, at last, I feel I’ve experienced enough on this exhilarating yet peaceful journey to return home.

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