Stay the Night: Natural Retreats, John o' Groats

New self-catering properties in John o' Groats have added much-needed appeal to this Scottish outpost, says Ben Ross

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.

The rooms

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).

The essentials

Natural Retreats, John o' Groats, Caithness KW1 4YR (0844 384 316; Three-night stays for up to six guests start at £249; week-long stays from £499.

Life and Style
Could you tell the difference between this and an organic alternative?
food + drink

Culinary experts in The Netherlands thought it was 'fresh' and 'tasty'

Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
Life and Style

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Arts and Entertainment

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?