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The UK’s best road trips, from the North Coast 500 to the Atlantic Highway

Hit the open road on a four-wheeled adventure to experience some of the British Isles’ most dramatic and charming vistas, advises Mike MacEacheran

Monday 26 February 2024 19:09 GMT
Kylesku Bridge along the NC500 in Northern Scotland
Kylesku Bridge along the NC500 in Northern Scotland (Getty Images)

Going on a road trip these days isn’t all about opening yourself up to the freedom of the highway. It’s equally about doing things differently: from choosing flexibility to minimising your holiday carbon footprint and reducing emissions by opting not to fly. Especially if you’re going electric.

And make no mistake: the UK might not have the checklist desert-scapes and nostalgia-adorned highways of the US, or the wide open spaces and wonders of Australia, but it’s uniformly thrilling for road trip itineraries.

The Highlands instils a sense of adventure, while Yorkshire is terrific at any time of year – and nobody bats an eyelid in Devon or Cornwall when a top-down coupe rolls into town.

Here are our favourite road trips that, in effect, double as a guide to exploring some of the most beautiful parts of the UK.

Read more on UK travel:

The North Coast 500, Highlands

The North Coast 500 showcases the Highlands’ scenery
The North Coast 500 showcases the Highlands’ scenery (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The precursor to so many newfangled UK road trips, the North Coast 500 overwrites any Route 66 image with mighty glens, mountains and moorlands, beating rains and coastal splendour. The 516-mile super-loop from Inverness through Caithness, Sutherland, and Ross and Cromarty is now overly popular from May to September, but it still holds its own in winter or spring for its bumper-to-bumper sights. Highlights abound, but include Dunrobin Castle, Smoo Cave in Durness, and a hike up sugarloaf-like Suilven.

Best hotel

The Torridon is a fantasy Brigadoon castle hemmed in by dragon-scale mountains and a monstrous sea loch. Inside, the story is of sumptuous rooms, a whisky bar, a Michelin-worthy restaurant, and all the tartan trim you could wish for.

Doubles from £299 a night.

Best thing to do

The detour to Applecross along the roller coaster Bealach na Bà single track.

Best restaurant

Ullapool’s Seafood Shack has gone from word-of-mouth foodie destination to bestselling cookbook success. Open from April to October, it serves creel-caught langoustines, scallops, mussels and more.

The Atlantic Highway, Devon and Cornwall

Get your beach fix at Bude
Get your beach fix at Bude (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Cutting through a spectacular chunk of England’s southwest along the A39, this coastline-hugging drive remains a rock pool of beach tradition: there are fishing towns chock-a-block with breeze-swayed boats, squeaky sands leading to fish and chip shops, bracing clifftop walks and surfing adventures. Beyond that, the road leads to the somehow semi-imaginary, yet not-so-distant Land’s End.

An easy 70 miles from Barnstaple to Newquay, this trip is best taken in almost slow-motion, not driven in only a few hours. Your first stops should be beachy Bude then Tintagel, where the legends of King Arthur are remembered thanks to the remains of a castle raised above the nibbled shorefront. Otherwise, you’ll want to shuck saintly seafood in Padstow from town pin-up Rick Stein, then it’s surf’s up in Newquay only 17 miles away. No stag or hen dos, please.

Best hotel

Overlooking Fistral Beach, The Headland Hotel is a classic – come for the wind-whipped cottages and surf views, stay for the spa and swanky Aqua Club retreat.

Best thing to do

Widemouth Bay, a beachfront invaded by locals and droves of out-of-towners any time there’s blue sky.

Best restaurant

Outlaw’s New Road in Port Isaac, run by Rick Stein protege and multiple Michelin-star winner Nathan Outlaw.

The Yorkshire Dales, Yorkshire

Venture through the rolling Yorkshire Dales
Venture through the rolling Yorkshire Dales (Getty/iStock)

Not always on the move like Essex, or as traffic jammed as the Lake District, the roads around the heart of God’s Own County are more of the comforting sort, curving through stone-walled farmlands, prickly hills, forested dales, and steepled market towns.

So set off from Harrogate towards historic Grassington before motoring on from Wensleydale to Swaledale. It offers comfort to the core: Wallace and Gromit-approved cheese in Hawes, plus all-weather yomps to the spritzing Aysgarth Falls. You’ve also come for the thrill of driving over Buttertubs Pass, the high road through Yorkshire Dales National Park, and for War of the Roses history of the sort that causes ripples of excitement. On that front, how about time-stopped Middleham Castle or Jervaulx Abbey, two ghostly relics adrift in the moors?

Otherwise, if sea views and mussed-up hair are more your thing, then – as luck would have it – there’s the Route YC along the Yorkshire Coast. Pick from six themed itineraries between Whitby and Withernsea.

Best hotel

Country house hotel Simonstone Hall in Hawes is a rambly, murder mystery sort of place, as much for city slickers as humble road trippers.

Best thing to do

Stock up your car boot with world-class cheese at the Wensleydale Creamery Visitor Centre.

Best restaurant

The Black Sheep Brewery, where a pint of cask-conditioned ale is always welcome. There’s a brilliant bar kitchen and brewery tours too.

Causeway Coastal Route, Antrim and Derry

The Causeway Coastal Route mixes history with stunning scenery
The Causeway Coastal Route mixes history with stunning scenery (Getty/iStock)

The jigsaw piece steps of the Giant’s Causeway at the halfway point of this 130-mile stunner are 60 million years old – so it fits that there’s often a sense that time has stopped. Start in Belfast beside Titanic’s Dock & Pump House, where the ocean liner was conceived in the early 1900s, then shift up a gear for the Gobbins Cliff Path – this sucker-punch of a cliff face walk was carved out of basalt rock at the end of the 19th century.

Journey’s end is the walled city of Derry, but before that there’s Glenarm Castle and the jewelled greens of the Glens of Antrim, and, perhaps, a boat trip detour across the Sea of Moyle to Rathin Island. You’ll be in the company of puffins and seals if you do. Back on the main road west, it’s onwards to Dunluce Castle and Portrush for championship golf.

Best hotel

In the thick of the action, near the Giant’s Causeway, The Bushmills Inn is a coaching inn from the 1600s – now it’s the coast’s loveliest boutique.

Best thing to do

Old Bushmills Distillery, for a tot of Irish whiskey for whoever’s not driving.

Best restaurant

Low-key Harry’s Shack in Port Stewart serves up high-class seafood dishes like lobster and local crab.

The Road to the Isles, Highlands

The Road to the Isles finishes up at Skye
The Road to the Isles finishes up at Skye (Getty/iStock)

In the past few years, road trips have popped up around Scotland as often as umbrellas do on a summer’s day. Some include: the North East 250 in Aberdeenshire, The Kintyre 66 in Kintyre, The Coig in Ayrshire, and the Southwest 300 around Dumfries and Galloway.

The Road to the Isles is arguably the original, as it can trace its history back to the days of Bonnie Prince Charlie. There’s only one road to follow – the A830 – and it swallows up 45 miles from Fort William to the end of the tarmac in the ferry port of Mallaig. Justifiably, it also claims to be the true heart of Jacobite Scotland, so linger at glorious Glenfinnan, where the Jacobite rising started in 1745, then hike the hills around Loch Shiel and Glenfinnan Viaduct (the train line made famous in the Harry Potter films).

Then it’s onto Arisaig, Mallaig, and the unspoiled Silver Sands of Morar, a pearly string of blue-on-gold beaches as tremendous as any in the UK. Perhaps, though, the ultimate reward is what awaits at road’s end: the spine-winding sight of the Small Isles of Eigg and Rhum, then their Hebridean sister Skye, which broods darkly on the horizon.

Best hotel

The Sleeping Car at Glenfinnan Station Museum is a sidetracked railway coach turned 10-bed bunkhouse.

Bunks from £90pp for a two-night stay.

Best thing to do

Follow the Alternative Coastal Route along the B8007 for direct access to secluded bay after bay.

Best restaurant

Overlooking Mallaig Harbour, The Bakehouse and Crannog Pizzeria is for watching the bobbing fishing fleet and chasing off scrap-chasing seagulls.

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