Author Topic: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.  (Read 1161 times)

RonS

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Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« on: January 02, 2024, 08:13:55 pm »
As alluded to in my Japan 2023 post I do have another trip in mind and here it is. The Outer Hebrides, Skye, and part of the North Coast 500.

Here's the idea. Starting in Inverness, I would cycle to Oban where my daughter would meet me. We would then cycle the Hebridian Way and across Skye. It looks like my daughter could make her way back to London via bus from Portree to Inverness and then train,  or by train from Mallaig.  I would then continue on solo, joining the North Coast 500 at Lochcarron.

Timing. These are the possibilities for dates of the trip that coincide with availability of my daughter:
 I can start the trip in Inverness about April 25, or about May 6.
 I can start the trip anytime in Autumn.

Now that you know the plan I have some questions for my Scottish friends.  Matt, I saw your Outer Hebrides journal on CrazyGuy, so I expect you can be of valuable assistance. (And youíve met Mark Beaumont. How cool is that?)
Weather. Which time of year do you think would be better? Just looking at the climate stats it seems as though September and May have approximately the same daytime average high with nighttime lows being a bit warmer in September. Are the dreaded midges still a problem in September?

Traffic. My daughter has some cycling friends who are convinced that riding the North Coast 500 any time between May and September would be suicidal due to the tourists in caravans and camper vans. They have, however not ridden it themselves and admit that they are relying on second and third hand knowledge. Whatís your opinion? I donít have to follow the ďofficialĒ route. Iím happy to take a different route to avoid traffic.

That's all the questions I have for now. This plan is still in its infancy. There is nothing that cannot be changed at this time so any opinions are welcome.

Thank you all, and happy new year

Ron

B cereus

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #1 on: January 03, 2024, 11:07:07 pm »
What sort of schedule are you planning in terms of daily mileage and number of days.

Were you planning to cycle the NC500 anticlockwise from Lochcarron back to Inverness?

Fine weather can never be guaranteed in Scotland but I've had some good experiences in late May and early June. Accommodation is often easier to find at this time of year and there's the added bonus of long daylight hours. Weather wise the main problem on the islands is  wind rather than rain. I once had three consecutive days on Barra when it was too dangerous to cycle and  I've been blown off the road on the Isle of Lewis. At least the wind keeps the midges away.

I wouldn't say that cycling the NC500 is suicidal but it has certainly generated a lot more motorised traffic, caravans and motorhomes are a particular problem. You'd  be well to heed the warnings. I've cycled most of the route at  various times but only have limited recent experience. The NC500 has also put a significant strain on accommodation in the immediate area which adds further complication.

I'd also have similar reservations about traffic on Skye. In June 2015  after two weeks cycling in the Outer Hebrides I caught the ferry from Tarbert and cycled across Skye to the Armadale ferry. I was surprised by the increase in traffic on Skye since my previous visit some 10 year previously. The main road from Portree was particularly unpleasant. A good alternative would be the ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool. The Citylink 961 bus service from Ullapool to Inverness does carry bicycles and might suit your daughter. Alternatively its only a half day's cycle ride to the train station at Garve. 

Andre Jute

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #2 on: January 04, 2024, 05:05:14 pm »
Ron, as a credit card tourer (my painting gear takes up all the luggage allowance on even my most capable bike), I don't have any advice for the tour. But I've been on that overnight Inverness to London train, just once, which was a painful enough experience, and after that I went there and returned strictly Dan-Air, which always gave me a brilliant meal and hot and cold running drinks. First, as far as I can tell, the train was just about totally empty, and deservedly so. My ticket was on some kind of a special deal, and that caused the conductor to shout at me that if he wanted to he'd put someone in the compartment with me. I went looking for a drink and there was none. Secondly, you need to prebook your dinner on that train, or you will go hungry. Most important, don't book the lobster as whoever at my client who made my arrangements did for me; I considered myself lucky not to die of salmonella. It had been standing somewhere unrefrigerated for long enough to wilt the lettuce, which was all else on the plate. Hey, it was better than the "distressed" lettuce I once carelessly ordered at the Dublin Showgrounds restaurant, and put in my mouth without inspection: it turned out to be literally rotten lettuce on the menu for models to order as a very strong inducement to eat none of it. Back to the train: Even with the cheese plate (a charged optional extra) the miserably undersized lobster was hardly a snack for a midget, never mind dinner for someone my size. I gave the cheese -- processed, curled and suspicious -- and biscuits to a woman with small children whom the three dining car staff refused to serve any food because they hadn't booked.Thirdly, bring biscuits and a teabag for breakfast, a mug too, because they don't serve any breakfast whatsoever. Finally, make absolutely sure your daughter has queried carrying a bike on that train, and received a reply in writing (do it by email) about carrying the bike, and brings a printed copy, or obstreperous staff could easily simply refuse to open the door of the luggage compartment.

I turned my scathing report on that journey to my client (who was new to the North of Scotland), who afterwards carefully avoided that train, into an op-ed for one of the Sunday papers, and the editor made me wonder where he was educated by saying he loved the satire...

A wretched train line. (Try it with a hard Australian pronunciation: rat-sh!t.)

RonS

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #3 on: January 04, 2024, 07:49:06 pm »
 Thanks for the replies

What sort of schedule are you planning in terms of daily mileage and number of days.
Were you planning to cycle the NC500 anticlockwise from Lochcarron back to Inverness?

My plan is to spend about three to four weeks on the trip. My daughter can join me for about 8 days, which we would spend on the Hebrides. I would then continue on the NC500.  I would like to keep daily distance under 50mi and enjoy the sights.
The plan is to camp in commercial sites where available. I know I can camp almost anywhere in Scotland, but after a day on the bike I enjoy a hot shower.
The plan is to go clockwise from Lochcarron.

The suggestion to take the ferry to Ullapool sounds good. Skye traffic was a concern. I was there last May when my wife and I took a tour of the highlands on a small 13 seat coach. The traffic was quite heavy at times. It's just so beautiful I wanted to go back.

 Andre, I plan on flying to  Inverness from Vancouver, so no worries about being poisoned by the lobster on the train :)
My daughter has been in the UK for 2 years and has more knowledge than I of the rail system, so I will leave her end of the voyage to her. I will alert her to check out procedures for bike transport.

Ron


B cereus

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #4 on: January 06, 2024, 10:33:35 am »
Here are some thoughts on the Hebridean section of your  tour:

The Hebridean Way is a good introduction to the outer islands  and an 8 day schedule should allow enough time to explore one or two  of the side roads that lead to more isolated locations. The road out to Husinis is an obvious example and is an excellent Choice, as is the road to Rheinigidale. There's wild camping at Husinis with access to public toilets and showers. The Hebridean Way goes up the west coast of Harris I believe, it's justifiably   famous for its glorious white sandy beaches but you might also consider the east coast, the so called Golden Road, the rocky coastline and distant views of the Isle of Skye are a marked contrast to landscape in the west, but are no less spectacular. It's a tough choice and a circular tour would mean doing one of them twice. I'm also tempted to recommend the out and back route to Mealasta on the south west coast of Lewis  but its quite a stretch and  I  think it would be too much on an 8 day schedule. For more inspiration I'd recommend the Cicerone guide book Cycling the Hebrides by Richard Barret. 

https://www.cicerone.co.uk/cycling-in-the-hebrides-2

Accommodation:

Upon arrival at Castlebay there's a small campsite a couple of miles away at Borve on the west coast of Barra but it's very exposed to westerly winds. A  better alternative is Croft 183 on the east coast about 5 miles beyond Castlebay. They have an excellent campers kitchen and there's also very comfortable hostel type accommodation if the weather really turns nasty. There's more camping out by the ď AirportĒ  but I've no personal experience. There's also wild camping on Vatersay, next to the community hall, with 24hr toilet facilities.

If you want recommendations for accommodation further north, then just ask when you better know your itinerary . But in the meantime one  campsite that I've used and would recommend is at the RSPB Balranald Nature Reserve at Hougharry on the west coast of North Uist. Bring some lightweight binoculars if you're interested in birdlife. Finally I'll mention the Gatliffe Trust Hostels. They're quite basic but in stunning locations and well worth a visit, there's one ar Rheinigidale, mentioned above. They're more akin to Bothies in so far as there's no booking, its first come first served. The good news is you can camp and use the hostel facilities.

B cereus

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #5 on: January 06, 2024, 11:11:27 am »
Some further thoughts on your NC 500 trip.

If you opt for the the Stornoway ferry you could join the NC 500 at Ullapool but that would miss much of the west coast highlights. A better option would be for both you and your daughter to cycle to the station at Garve, a distance of around 30 miles, she could catch a train to Inverness and you could catch a train in the opposite direction to Strathcarran.

On the west coast section of the NC 500 there are opportunities to more closely follow the coastline on single track roads that discourage some of the larger vehicles. I'd definitely recommend the road to Applecross via the Bealach na Bŗ and there are similar single track excursions between Drumrunie and  Lochinver and between Lochinver and Unapool. The downside is that they not only add distance but can be surprisingly undulating. The coastal route between Lochinver and Unapool is particularly challenging, and I found the road onwards from Applecross to Shieldaig tougher than the road in via the Bealach na Bŗ climb.

At Durness if you have time I'd recommend a trip out to Cape Wrath. It involves a ferry across the Kyle of Durness which is weather dependant but it's possible to take your bicycles and the road out to Cape Wrath is doable even on 28mm tyres. There are a couple of hostels in Durness which are handy if you want to leave your luggage behind. There's even  a minibus out to the lighthouse that connects with the ferry if you'd rather leave your bicycle behind.  :)

John o' Groats is a dismal place and unless you're desperate to visit I would avoid that section and the east coast route entirely, in particular the A9. There are a number of opportunities to depart the NC500 along the north coast and make your way south to Inverness. The route from Tongue via Altnaharra, Lairg and Invershin is excellent as is the route from Bettyhill via Strathnaver. The Crask Inn, south of Altnaharra, changed hands a few years back but by all accounts it's still possible to camp there. It's a unique experience if you get the chance.

I hope this helps, if you want more information just ask.
 :)

PH

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #6 on: January 06, 2024, 04:11:09 pm »
Some good advice already, I'd agree with most of what B cereus has said, I don't have much to add which isn't more of the same. I've done most of the NC500 roads, but before it was so well publicised. It includes some of the best of Scotland, but other sections could be missed or improved upon. For large sections, there are no alternative routes, if it's busy, you're stuck with it. The Eastern section, from John O Groats to Inverness I'd skip, take B cereus's advice to retrace to Bettyhill and south via Lairg, or jump on the train.  I've ridden worse than that section, just IMO it's two or three days that could be better spent elsewhere.
I love touring in Scotland, just the feeling of space and how quickly the scenery changes.  I usually go May or September, it's a gamble on the weather but there's been more glorious than terrible and I've been quite lucky at avoiding midges. In eight tours, about 20 weeks, I've only had one where the weather was foul for more than three consecutive days.
You're not going to see it all, so there's a choice to be made whether to cover a lot of Scotland or see more of a smaller area. I think the Hebridean Way is around 200 miles, but IMO a better tour of the Hebrides would be twice that. If you're going to cover more of Scotland, I'd include a trip out to Ardnamurchan, the most Westerly point on the British Mainland, you can drop on to Mull with a short ferry from there and a short ride and another short ferry back to Oban.
I hope you've not been put off the train, there's some great Scottish journeys, irrespective of conductors and lettuce. There's a bonkers line from Glasgow to Fort William, that only exists so the gentry could go hunting, over Rannoch Moor and Glencoe, familiar to those who've watched James Bond Skyfall, then on to Mallaig on the Jacobean line which might be familiar to Harry Potter fans. I think all, or most, Scotrail journeys require a bike reservation, but I've always found them easy to obtain. I have no qualms about mixing the train/bus and cycling if I'm touring, rather than a challenge ride.
Whatever you do, you'll have a great tour, for myself, starting in Inverness, I'd follow the Loch to Fort William and stay West of there till heading home.
« Last Edit: January 06, 2024, 04:21:30 pm by PH »

JohnR

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #7 on: January 06, 2024, 05:38:14 pm »
I've only traversed the NC500 by car (by bike is still on the bucket list) but would opt for late August/early September when it's likely to be warmer than May although the days are shorter and many of the tourists have gone home. I last drove that way in June 2022 and remember there was one section (near the NW corner IIRC) that was definite single track but elsewhere there's often enough width for a vehicle to pass a bike. Many of the A roads in NW Scotland are single track with passing places (usually indicated by a sign). As I understand it a fair number of the tourists are from Europe and their holiday season starts and finishes earlier than UK. This place is worth stopping at https://www.nwhgeopark.com/the-rock-stop-north-west-highlands-geopark-visitor-centre-and-coffee-shop/ if you are remotely interested in the geological history of the area.

I agree about considering missing out John O' Groats in order to take advantage of one of the quieter roads southwards. My LEJOG used the road north from Lairg and it was very pleasant cycling.

Many of the Scottish trains have good provision for bicycles https://www.scotrail.co.uk/plan-your-journey/cycling/bikes-trains. Much better than south of the border where it's often a matter of hanging a bike by one wheel on a hook in a small cupboard.

RonS

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #8 on: January 08, 2024, 01:59:11 am »
Wow. Just another reason to love this forum. So much help from a fine group.

B, I will be researching all of your suggestions. I do think the idea of the train from Garve to Inverness- Strathcarron is excellent.
I have already acquired the Offcomers  cycle guide to the Outer Hebrides, and the Sustrans map NC78- Oban to Inverness. Cicerone has an updated cycle guide to the NC500 available Jan 15. I will be ordering . I believe it includes an alternate route that avoids the A9.

Paul, Iím a see more of a smaller area type of tourist, so Iíll check out your suggested side trip. Also, being from Canada, Iím not put off by your rail system. At least you have one. :) Besides, where else could I visit where the fare is refunded if the train is an hour late? It actually happened on our trip last May on our Edinburgh to London train.

John, I will definitely check out the Rock Stop.
As for going in September, that is a possibility. In Canada and the US almost all the schools are out of session from mid to late June until Labour Day, which is the first Monday in September. Tourist traffic drops right off when  everyone returns to class. I donít know if theres a similar date in the UK where that happens. My daughter might have fewer time constraints then and be able to join me for a longer period as well.

Thanks to everyone who has offered advice here and by PM. It is much appreciated. Iíll let you know how the plan progresses.

Ron

RonS

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #9 on: January 25, 2024, 07:22:54 pm »
Hi, all.

Just thought I'd update you on the tour planning.

My daughter and I have decided to do the trip in September, as she will have a more open schedule to join me then. This has the benefit of more available time to plan. If I have more questions I'll be sure to ask.

Where will you go in the spring? Glad you asked.  Anyone who has been looking at flight prices have probably noticed how high they've gotten. Flights from Vancouver have been about 50% higher than last year, and double the rewards points. On a lark, last weekend I went on my credit card rewards site and plugged in a request for a flight to Japan in April. Buried way down on page three of all the expensive flights with horrible routing (Vancouver to Tokyo via Frankfurt? Seriously?) was a business class ticket, Vancouver to Fukuoka, via Seoul. Total cash price? Zero! And less points than last summer! Even the economy seat on the same route would have cost $300 in excess baggage fees.
 Needless to say, I jumped on it before they changed their minds  (discovered their mistake?).

So, stay tuned for the next cycle tour: Four weeks on the island of Kyushu! That'll be on its own thread, though.

in4

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #10 on: January 26, 2024, 08:37:43 am »
Japan and at that price. Wow! Have a super time.
Re Hebrides: Just be mindful of the shortening daylight. That said youíll have more space to yourselves as peak season will have passed.
What a great year in prospect. 😊 🚲

JohnR

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #11 on: January 26, 2024, 04:51:01 pm »
Re Hebrides: Just be mindful of the shortening daylight. That said youíll have more space to yourselves as peak season will have passed.
And the sea will have warmed up a few degrees compared with May which reduces the risk of some horribly cold weather. There might, however, be loads of rain.

Matt2matt2002

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #12 on: January 27, 2024, 08:36:13 am »
Re Hebrides: Just be mindful of the shortening daylight. That said youíll have more space to yourselves as peak season will have passed.
And the sea will have warmed up a few degrees compared with May which reduces the risk of some horribly cold weather. There might, however, be loads of rain.
Check out: time and date .com
Stornoway last September was, err.... not dry.
Never drink and drive. You may hit a bump  and spill your drink

RonS

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #13 on: January 27, 2024, 11:20:45 pm »
Re Hebrides: Just be mindful of the shortening daylight.

Looks like I'll start with just shy of 14 hours of daylight and end with just shy of 12, according to timeanddate.com.  Not the 17 hours in late May, but still doable.

There might, however, be loads of rain.
Stornoway last September was, err.... not dry.

Matt, I've used timeanddate for sunrise/sunset times, but I never knew about the meteorological  rabbit hole one could go down. Looking back at the previous 3 Septembers in Stornoway, the first half of the month has appeared to be "relatively" dry, and warmer than the first half of May. I am aware that, like the financial adverts say, " past performance does not guarantee future returns" :)
Also, It's Scotland. I believe the term "four seasons in one day" has been mentioned. Hence, I will have a plan B up my sleeve.

In Canada, 100 years is a long time. In the UK, 100 miles is a long way.
If the weather really goes sour, there are just so many places that your awesome-to-a-Canadian rail system could take me in a day. Eastern Scotland, the Cotswolds(where my daughter lives), Wales, the UK is my oyster.....

What a great year in prospect. 😊 🚲
Yes, Ian, I feel very fortunate to have the means and the health to do this. My wife said "Do it while you still can"

Thanks again everyone for the advice.
« Last Edit: January 27, 2024, 11:32:10 pm by RonS »

John Saxby

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Re: Outer Hebrides and North Coast 500. Looking for advice.
« Reply #14 on: January 28, 2024, 04:05:15 pm »
Y'know, Ron, you could just plan for October in Vancouver, or anytime of year in Halifax, and you'd be fine.

In 2008, my wife and I were visiting the isles of Mull and Iona in mid-June.  On Iona, the rain was coming in horizontally, driven by a fierce westerly. Marcia said to me, "John, this is like visiting Meg in Halifax."  Sez I, "Well, sweetie, Nova Scotia was named 'New Scotland' for a reason."

Your Plan B in the Cotswolds sounds pretty good, too, expanded to stop in at SJS Cycles in Somerset, and a trip to my home turf of Dorset nearby. ;)

Cheers,  John