Updated: Nov 4, 2022
Rain or shine (and both in one day, as is common), it was beyond worth it to visit the Applecross Peninsula on our 2nd trip to Scotland. The country offers so much, from the highlands to the lowlands, from small cities like Stirling to larger ones like Edinburgh and Glasgow, and islands like the Inner and Outer Hebrides.
Applecross Peninsula is easy to miss when you are trying to see it all in a limited time, yet it is quintessential Scotland to its core. It's part of the iconic North Coast 500 route, a 516-mile road trip that takes one through six regions of the Highlands, covering both coasts. The www.visitscotland.com tourism site recommends 5-7 days. If you have limited time in Scotland as we did (both trips were about two weeks each time) or (also as we did) prefer not to travel via car (or bicycle or hiking) and want to hit some other areas, you can still see significant portions of the route in a short tour.
We opted for a 1-day Rabbie's tour, which began in Inverness and covered the southwest portion of the North Coast 500. We've been on several Rabbie's tours and prefer them for the knowledgeable and friendly tour guides/drivers and small size of the group (generally a 16-seat mini coach). Our guide for this tour was Shauna, a native of Inverness with a family legacy of mountain climbing and rich knowledge of history and geology. She timed stops perfectly, giving us enough time to explore, take photos, or eat, as appropriate to the stops.
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Other reasons to take a tour like Rabbies: you need not worry about driving on the one-track roads that predominate the Applecross Peninsula, or sampling of whiskey on your lunch stop. Rest stops (let's be real and call them potty stops) were at regular intervals.
Our trip out of Inverness started with a steady drizzle of rain, but it did not
dampen our day. The first brief stop was to take in a long view of Loch Maree. Surrounded by gorgeous mountains, the Loch is the fourth largest in Scotland. It is said that Queen Victoria thought the Loch was the most beautiful in the country and this is evidenced by the fact she took the time to sketch and paint it on her visit in 1877, shown here at the Royal Collection Trust. This song was inspired by the islands on Loch Maree (there are 66). We didn't get down to the Loch itself on this tour, but I think that must happen on a future trip.
After a quick "rest stop" in Kinlochewe (thank you, community of Kinlochewe for the maintenance of your lovely community toilets), we took the A896 to skirt the edge of the Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve.
Shauna's knowledge of natural history, flora, and fauna enhanced this section of the tour, as we took in the scenery, did numerous stops, and learned about Scotland's struggle with the deer population and efforts to regrow forests. A quick stop showed us the end of the protected forest, with a fence to keep out deer, and one could clearly see the difference in growth on either side. It was also at this point I was very content to not be driving, as she negotiated the pullovers that allowed two-way traffic on an otherwise narrow roadway.
As we drove through the Torridon Hills, it became clear that when your tour is led by a local, you're certain to stop places you'd miss if driving on your own. We stopped at one pullover where we met Tommy, an aged buck probably with one more rutting season in him, who now goes for the "easy" life by trying to mooch off of humans.
Despite the clouds (or perhaps because of the drama of the cloud cover), the two stops that enabled us to look down on Upper Loch Torridon were both soothing and inspiring.
Shieldaig village, our next stop, made some of us yearn to book a rental home and come back for a spell. While it was raining, we could envision the watersports, laid back lifestyle, and nature exploration that would ensue. Our small group had a chance to walk the length of the village and explore the waterfront. Shauna informed us of the old growth forest on the island we could see in Loch Shieldaig.
From here, the road began to twist as it followed the coastline of the Applecross Peninsula, first west than south, where the coastline faces the Isle of Raasay and then Skye. Again, I was glad I wasn't driving although at one of our stops, I had a chat with two older gentlemen taking a break during their motorcycle excursion which made me reconsider the appeal of driving.
By now we were getting hungry and trying to make up time to get to a reservation Rabbie's had made at the Applecross Inn. The food and service were great, but there's no denying the company of our fellow travelers was also a highlight. In fact, we were almost late getting on our minibus because we were so engrossed in conversation. I'd been trying to eat haggis everyday (yes, I'm a bit weird but certainly not iron-deficient) so when I ordered the lobster thermidor I was glad to see my husband order a haggis meal (yes, I grabbed some of his). The Applecross Inn has a focus on seafood, but enough variety for any taste. And where else will you find a starter of haggis flambéed in Drambuie? The inn also has a good whiskey menu. Travel tip: When in a remote area like the Applecross peninsula, planning ahead for a meal is wise. If you are not taking a tour that has already made meal arrangements, you should make a reservation or plan to eat before or after prime time to maximize your chance of getting a table.
After lunch, we cut across the peninsula eastward, which had us continuing to follow the North Coast 500 route. We paused at more beautiful viewpoints, but nothing would compare to the view as we reached the top of the Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) and made our way down. The sun had pushed its way through the clouds; what we saw took our breath away. I did actually gasp aloud.
The remainder of our tour had us heading back toward Inverness, checking out some key sites along the way. Shauna made a determined effort to find us a spot to get up close to some hairy coos (Highland cows) who were decidely absent in the usual places this day. She finally did achieve her goal, much to the delight of our small group.
Travel tip: You can drive the Applecross Peninsula clockwise or counter-clockwise. Our tour went counter-clockwise which had us traversing the Bealach na Ba from top to bottom--a stunning view. Yet, others prefer to drive it from the bottom to the top, to get an equally good view of the mountains. We stopped enough times on the way down that I could turn and look back, but it's a matter of preference.
Eilean Donan Castle -- This castle is probably one of the most photo
graphed in Scotland and rightly so. It is strategically situated where three lochs meet--Loch Alsh, Loch Duich, and Loch Long and is operated by the Clan MacCrae Society. The tour did not include the entrance fee but the stop here routinely allows more than enough time for those who wanted to see the inside of the castle and provides an excellent gift shop plus an outdoor coffee shop that also sells ice cream. We opted for walking the area and perusing the gift shop. While the tide was out and sun backlighting the castle (but I welcomed the late afternoon sun even if it was making photography difficult), the views lived up to the hype.
The final leg was our return to Inverness, which brought us by the Five Sisters of Kintail Mountain range then Loch Ness and more. As I noted earlier, our guide Shauna has a family history of mountain climbing. Her father has done all 282 of the "Munro" peaks in Scotland, I believe several times over. Munros are peaks over 3,000 ft. (914.4 m), named after the man who began the catalogue of them, Sir Hugh T. Munro. Shauna is also on the exclusive list of "compleatists" having "bagged" all the Munros and has some harrowing stories we heard along the way along with funny and romantic stories (her dad took her mom on their first date up a Munro, figuring if she couldn't hack it, she was likely not for him).
We briefly stopped by Loch Ness, walking from the parking lot of the Urquhart Castle visitor center (it was after hours at this point, around 5:00 PM) to a viewpoint looking down on the castle ruins. If you haven't been to the Loch Ness area and you want to explore more, you'll want to come back a different time and way. I'd suggest doing what we did on our first visit--taking a boat from the shores of Loch Ness such as these by Loch Ness by Jacobite. There are many options available. Ours dropped us off to visit Urquhart Castle, which involves a short uphill jaunt from the boat launch.
Travel tip: If you have mobility problems, you can take their Inspiration cruise which will give you an outstanding view of the castle (which is in ruins anyway).
This tour is what finally convinced me to become an affiliate of Rabbie's. We have been on numerous tours of theirs and found consistently high quality with outstanding tour guides. The pace allows a mix of stops from brief photo opportunities to full-on tours of key sites (which we buy tickets for ourselves) to meal stops to bathroom breaks. We kept our own pace at the sites. Our style of travel is to plan our own trips, usually using trains as the mode of transportation between cities. We have yet to rent a car, instead finding day trips such as those with Rabbies offering the right balance of convenience and thoroughness in exploration
If you choose to drive yourself around the Applecross Peninsula and the Inverness area, remember to check the hours of the sites and restaurants you want to visit.
Other Scotland experiences you might be interested in:
Kenmore, Scotland -- The Crannog-The Ancient Life of Scotland
Stirling, Scotland -- Notes from the road at a local, woman-owned whiskey bar
Skye, Scotland -- Notes from the road, dealing with midges