A colleague emailed over his thoughts. "John o' Groats," he wrote, "makes Loch Ness look tasteful. Avoid." Ah, but Loch Ness isn't that bad, I thought. Fresh air. Shortbread. Plastic dinosaurs. I turned to page 235 of the Lonely Planet guide to Scotland's Highlands and Islands for a second opinion. "A car park surrounded by tourist shops," it proclaimed, "John o' Groats offers little beyond a means to get across to Orkney; even the pub has been shut for a while now."
I deleted the email. I carefully removed page 235 from my copy of the Lonely Planet. I'd already booked my family in for a long weekend, so there was no turning back now. And it would spoil the surprise.
Until last month, the surprise about John o' Groats was just why it was so well-known. Celebrated as one end of the UK's longest cross-country walk – ramblers regularly commit two or three months of their lives to complete the 876-mile trek between it and Land's End in Cornwall – it isn't in fact the most northerly point on the British mainland. That honour belongs to Dunnet Head, marked by a lighthouse, 11 miles to the west.
Nevertheless, coachloads of tourists still arrive each day, ticking an end-of-the-road icon off their list. And now, after a £6.5m investment (£4.7m from Natural Retreats and the rest from Highlands and Islands Enterprise) a tranche of 23 luxury self-catering properties has been built, part of an attempt to transform a village (population 310) that was in dire need of a facelift.
Named after Jan de Groote, a 15th-century Dutch entrepreneur who started a ferry from here to the Orkney Islands, John o' Groats does have some spectacularly rugged scenery on its side. Get past the grim car park, walk eastwards along the coastal path and before you know it you've reached a shell-strewn beach washed by the seething Pentland Firth. The island of Stroma looks close enough to swim to (but isn't). Beyond lies South Ronaldsay, Orkney's closest isle.
In summer the days seem to stretch for ever around here; sunsets are full of greens and oranges. In winter, of course, the weather is likely to be correspondingly grim. The wind, when we visited, was a constant presence: hammering, urgent, relentless.
Natural Retreats has previous form in exploiting the regenerative power of stylish self-catering accommodation. These "residences" are similar to those at the company's Yorkshire Dales property, where they seem to fit snugly into the landscape. Here they're slightly incongruous, jutting from a field that slopes down behind the John o' Groats Hotel (also being renovated by Natural Retreats and due to reopen next year). Each has a mono-pitch roof and wood-lined exterior, with floor-to-ceiling glass frontages that give epic views of the coast.
Inside, the sound of silence is all about energy efficiency: the weather stays sealed outside, while you warm up next to the wood-burner. Having said that, there's nothing particularly cosy about the décor. Three stark double bedrooms (one an en suite) lead off the main living area, which is decorated in inoffensive whites and greys. The spec is impressive: plenty of Neff and Dualit in the kitchen; a PlayStation and Apple TV next to the flat-screen TV. It took a while before I grasped the reason behind the "JOG" motif on the plywood coat hangers – Was it an order? A reminder of some kind? – but I got there in the end.
Out and about
The A9 north of Inverness is full of startling coastal vistas. Beyond, as as you hit the A99 and carve through Caithness, the land flattens out, with lonely farmsteads sprouting here and there. John o' Groats may be all about the journey, but Natural Retreats is making a valiant attempt to ensure that its guests don't see it as the end of the road. Bikes can be hired from the Outfitters building down at the shore, where the helpful staff will also rent you GPS units (£10 per day) for Geocaching adventures. A 12-seater boat is available for whale-spotting excursions (£25 per person). The best short walk is the two-hour stroll east to the dramatic sea stacks of Duncansby Head. Day trips covering Orkney's greatest hits are also available via local foot ferry, booked at the harbour (from £48).
The food and drink
We made use of almost everything in the welcome hamper (coffee, tea, oatcakes, toffee, bread, butter, a nice bottle of wine) but drew the line at the "Sporran Splitter" hot chilli sauce. The on-site Store House was still being built when we visited, but is now open for business, serving cooked breakfast, pizzas and local produce. Alternatively there are Tesco supermarkets in Wick (16 miles south) and in Thurso (19 miles west).
Natural Retreats, John o' Groats, Caithness KW1 4YR (0844 384 316; naturalretreats.com). Three-night stays for up to six guests start at £249; week-long stays from £499.