Back in the summer of 2019, we were delighted to be awarded with a top star rating by Visit Scotland at the first time of being assessed. This occurs when a ‘mystery shopper’ visitor books and take a tour just like any other guest. Then, at the end of the tour, you are told that it was your Visit Scotland Quality Assessment, and the ‘guest’ provides feedback on their encounter – from initial booking through to the end of the experience. A nerve-wracking affair!
However, it was reassuring to receive some of the following feedback as a result:
“The whole tour was professionally run from the original booking right through to the conclusion”.
“The amount of time and effort you invested in setting up the tour and creating the bespoke itinerary was very impressive. It was good to see all the technology that you use to enhance the overall experience for your customers. The live feed flying camera was especially good”.
“From an orientation point of view, it could not have been better. You showed me both the route and the main things we would see on an iPad [using the iE² App]. This is a great piece of technology which allows you to easily pinpoint any one of 2500 specific sites and places of interest”.
“It was good to get out of the vehicle so many times and be able to explore properly. I also like the props that you had to help bring some of the history to life”.
“It was an enjoyable day.”
“I am pleased to confirm that a five-star award has been achieved. There is very little improvement advice I can give as all the scores were either 9/10 (excellent) or 10/10 (outstanding)!”
It is a shame that businesses are unable to be reassessed at present due to the current COVID restrictions in place. However, we are thankful that Visit Scotland has decided to ‘carry forward’ our current award through into 2022. In return, we were able to reassure them that we are continuing to develop our offer through both the enhanced knowledge Robert is gaining in his degree studies (History, Heritage & Culture of the North Highlands) and practically with the purchase of a 270° awning which attaches to our vehicle providing additional protection from some of the ‘occasional’ inclement weather we may experience while out on tour!
11th January 2020
“Quality is not an act, it is a habit.” (Aristotle, Greek Philosopher)
If you are in any doubt as to whether it’s worth travelling to the far north to visit the beautiful North Highlands or, indeed, if it is worth investing in a private tour guide to show you around, can we recommend that you read the latest article appearing on the website of Scottish Field Magazine!
Early in October, we were delighted to welcome Stephanie from Scottish Field who journeyed with us over four days to discover what the far north east corner of Scotland has to offer. Focussing on the area of Caithness, part of the now famous North Coast 500 route, as well venturing inland to experience the true ‘Heart of the North Highlands’, Stephanie shares her experiences in this latest article.
From historical sights and distilleries to meeting some of the locals, you will see that she describes the opportunity of ‘treading new paths as a privilege’ and recognises ‘there are things I would never have seen or been aware of without the help of Rob and Sally-Ann’.
Many of us have, this year by luck, discovered more of our national country than we may have done previously. Perhaps it is now time to discover the ‘far north’ and as Stephanie did ‘sit back and relax right from the word go’.
23rd October 2020
‘The far north continues to showcase Highland hospitality at its best.’ (Stephanie Abbot, Scottish Field)
We are delighted to announce that following the latest Covid-19 government guidance, comprehensive risk assessments and full consideration to the safety of our guests, we are ‘Ready to go!’
Your experience has always been our top priority, be it the places you visit, the subjects we focus on or your utmost safety. With this mind we have a number of new measures in place to ensure your safety at this time – without comprising your trip of a lifetime.
Including a ‘sneeze screen’ in our luxury 4×4, hand sanitiser in every door pocket and your own personal North Coast Explorer masks, we hope to make your journey with us a positive experience whilst leaving you with an abundance of memories and knowledge from the stunning North Highlands to last beyond your holiday.
In addition, we are accredited with the UK-wide Tourism Industry Standard and Consumer Mark – ‘We’re Good to Go’. This represents the fact that we are adhering to the Government and Public Health safety guidelines and have successfully completed a Covid-19 Risk Assessment to confirm that everything is in place for us to conduct our tours safely.
From one day tours of Caithness to multi-day tours across the North Highlands and North Coast 500, we would like to welcome you back to our beautiful area and invite your enquiries now.
To discuss your potential plans and get advice on any trip you are considering, call us on +44 1847 851852 or email us on email@example.com for further information and we will respond as soon as possible.
We look forward to sharing a fabulous journey with you very soon!
1st August 2020
‘Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.
(Pat Conroy, American Author)
When planning a bespoke itinerary for our guests the first thing we ask is ‘what sort of things are you interested in?’ This is because one could spend a month on the North Coast 500 and probably not see it all.
Therefore, when seeing the ‘what are the must-sees’ question on social media, we think your preferences are key to the answer! Do you like scenery? Castles? Waterfalls? Beaches? Wildlife? Secluded spots? Distilleries? Or ‘Attractions’? (If it’s this latter one you’re probably heading to the wrong place!)
Having said this, we understand that many of you just want a ‘general feel’ for the area to include a variety of the things noted above. So, we have considered the experiences and reactions which our own tour guests have had and come up with a short list of places about which our guests have consistently said ‘that was great’ and we think are ‘must-sees’! Heading round on our favoured east to west journey:
Black Rock Gorge – close to Evanton, just north of Inverness, this deep narrow cleft in the rock provides drama visually, and in literature being subject to a local Gaelic myth involving a local noblewoman and mysterious man, and appearing in the film of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!
Camster Cairns – you don’t have to go to Orkney to see a fully formed burial tomb, look no further than here, and crawl in to these 4000 year old examples – if you dare – for free!
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe – just north of Wick and one of many ruined castles on the route but iconic in its location on the cliff edge and with plenty of stories and legends surrounding it.
Duncansby Stacks – impressive sandstone sea stacks just round the corner from John O’Groats, with opportunities to see plenty of bird life on the cliffs including puffins in-season. Or take part in ‘Orca Watch’ at the end of May each year.
Brough Harbour – this little known and often missed bay on the way out to Dunnet Head has its own natural rock sea stacks and seals can often be found basking or swimming there.
Torrisdale Bay – as you head from east to west along the north coast, this is one of the first ‘wow’ moment beach views with its wind sept dunes, at Bettyhill.
Balnakiel Beach and ruined church – our personal favourite place in the North Highlands and what brought us here from the South of England – a fabulous long sandy beach and ruinous 16th century church from which we have watched many a sunset!
Wailing Widow Falls – just south of Unapool, this lesser known and visited 15m waterfall is fed from Loch na Gainmhich and guests love it.
Corrieshalloch Gorge – known as ‘Ugly Hollow’ in Gaelic (though ugly it is not!), this stunning gorge and waterfall is one of the best in Scotland, though may test your head for heights as you cross the suspension bridge over the gorge.
Bealach Na Ba – ‘The Pass of the Cattle’ – and more suited to cattle than campervans it certainly is! However, if the weather is with you (it is Scotland!), the views are spectacular over to Plockton in one direction and Skye and the Inner Hebrides in the other. But please respect other travellers and be aware of the challenging driving environment!
Of course, these sites skim the surface of what is out there and just seeing a view won’t necessarily tell you all there is to know. But don’t stress, just take time to stop when you see something interesting, ask the locals for the best spots for photos, wildlife spotting or that unusual, out of the way, hidden gem. And, naturally, if you want to learn more, give us a call! That’s why we provide private guided tours!
20th February 2020
‘It might be worth a quick look’ the B&B owner had said (about Corrieshalloch Gorge).’ (Francisca Kellet, House & Garden magazine)
The roads of the North Coast 500 have been in existence for years – in fact we travelled them long before they were marketed as such. But today those same roads are described as ‘The Ultimate Road Trip. The new scenic route showcasing fairy-tale castles, white sand beaches and historical ruins’.
A grand job has been done of sharing this with the world over the last few years and bringing folk to it. But what do people expect when they say “how many days do I need to travel it?”
In simple terms the route is 516 miles. At an average of 60 mph, it will take you just over 8/1/2 hours. But let’s be realistic, with single track roads to negotiate complete with tractors doing their daily work, motor homes being driven by folk unsure of how to drive them or which side of the road to be on and sheep traffic jams, a more realistic 40 mph average is likely – taking you almost 13 hours – with no stops!
Yes, it is possible to cover the route in 2 or 3 days but in truth you’ll be doing it just for ‘the drive’ – and bearing in mind that the roads vary from decent single carriageway roads to single track roads with passing places, blind summits and maybe even grass, then a smooth, flowing drive with the wind in your hair is unlikely to be what you find.
If you have 4 to 5 days, this is do-able. You will get a flavour of what the North Highlands has to offer but you will also miss out on so much. Skimming the surface with a few pertinent stops will surely leave you wanting more.
Allowing 6 to 7 days for your journey (or even longer if time will allow) will unquestionably provide you a more complete experience – having time to take in the views and the fresh air, discovering more of the (often unmarked) sites just off the beaten track and generally giving the North Coast 500 the chance to ‘fill your soul’!
Many people would instantly say that it is a waste of time, and money, to travel this route in less than 5 days. But, for many in our busy world, we recognise that time is precious and not always easy to come by. So plan carefully, think about why you are doing it and what you want to achieve.
And bear in mind one final thing – travelling from October to March, a beautiful time of year in its own right, will bring much shorter days than the height of the summer, with less daylight driving time but probably quieter roads. Worth a thought!
31st January 2020
Remember ‘it’s a route, not a race’. (PJ, Facebook)
If you read the social media forums, you are pretty much guaranteed to come across this question at least every couple of months. Marketed as a circular route to drive or cycle or walk round, is it hardly surprising?
Being a circular route, when it was first marketed the tendency was to go with the clockwise option. Perhaps this was because, in several psychological studies of why people move in a particular way, there is a natural instinct to go clockwise or to ‘turn left’. Especially in the UK where we drive on the left!
However several other topics also now tend to get mentioned in most discussions which take place.
Driver confidence – If you are a slightly less confident driver or have hired an unfamiliar vehicle, then you may prefer NOT to tackle the Bealach na Ba pass to Applecross on the first day! (Clockwise option.) A steep incline on a single track road combined with several hairpin bends – in who knows what sort of weather – is not for the faint-hearted!
The weather – If you have chosen not to book your accommodation in advance or are wild camping, then you may have the benefit of being able to check the weather and decide on impulse which direction looks most favourable. However admittedly for many this will not be the case.
Passenger views – It is often said that as the passenger (in a right-hand drive vehicle) will be sitting on the left, it is better to travel clockwise so that they can see the coastal views. In reality, there are so many views from so many sides, this argument is often quickly dispelled.
And to our thoughts?
From many years of driving the North Coast 500, we would recommend going anti-clockwise (& on the forums this tends to be the preferred choice too). Why? Well, in simple terms the journey and your experience on the road itself builds to a crescendo as you head from east to west. This is NOT however to the detriment of the east!
To fully experience and appreciate the North Coast 500 you must realise it is not all the same. The east coast is full of history, heritage, castles (both functioning and in ruins!) and distilleries – together with a curvature of coastline which affords numerous fishing villages and harbours all with their own unique charm and story. But much of this is off the main road and must be ‘discovered’, often by stepping outside of your vehicle.
Then yes, as you head along the north coast and down the west, the views do ‘get bigger’, with sandy beaches in abundance and looming mountains to take your breath away. The west is indeed stunningly beautiful and has numerous amazing vistas – if the weather is with you.
So – our answer to the frequently asked question? Anti-clockwise is best for that single trip. And for the full North Coast 500 experience, remember, every section has its merits.
However, one final thought – don’t be satisfied with one trip (you won’t see it all however hard you try!), come back and this time tackle it the other way round! You won’t be the first and they’ll always be something new to enjoy – even if it’s the weather or a new time of year!
24th January 2020
‘Take the High Road – raise a glass to this unforgettable road trip.’ (Visit Britain magazine Jan/Feb 2020)
We first visited the North Highlands back in 2004 and travelled the North Coast 500 – except it wasn’t marketed as the NC500 back then. We scoured out guidebooks and planned our route, driving round and skimming the surface of what lay before us. Beautiful yes, but did we understand what we were seeing – resoundingly NO!
Move forward 15 years – and after numerous visits to the area resulting in a final move – we have visited, revisited, interviewed local people and formally studied this beautiful unspoilt area and can now pull back the different layers of the vista, and explain what we see in front of us.
So, what is the value of a tour guide?
The benefit of someone who can explain what you see, who can bring to life the history of where you are standing and who can take you off the beaten track and uncover spots which other tourists will probably never see!
Admittedly tour guides will vary – and we have experienced that ourselves. Even one of our guests told us “I had been to the NC500 previously, on a shorter non-personalised tour with another company, but I felt like I discovered a whole new part of Scotland (when doing the same route with Robert).”
Any guide worth their merit will have studied, read, visited, experienced and will continuously update their knowledge base of the area. The skill of a guide is that they can then build a story from the views, stories and information they share – even about a ‘pile of old stones’! In short, they can transform a visit and make an area ‘come alive’.
The narrative experience is key and North Coast Explorer has created its own database of over 2500 sites complete with explanations and historic photographs to ensure you learn as much as possible about the lives, culture and landscape of the North Highlands – both past and current.
Mean while we also recognise how the little details are appreciated by guests too – such as handling our historic replica axes or enjoying our drink tastings of traditional Scottish beverages.
If you want to really know a place – the first step should be to enjoy the journey with a guide and only then return to take in the parts you liked best – full of knowledge, understanding and intention.
14th November 2019
‘Travelling with a guide can help you get more from your trip!’ (Scotland’s Best 2020)
We were faced with a challenge – how do we show as much of the North Highlands to our guests as possible when time is limited, the region is so vast and much of the terrain is inaccessible?
Firstly, we chose to operate our tours using a luxury 4×4 which enables us to travel on roads inaccessible to general tour operators. This of course gets our guests closer to the action, in less time and with less effort.
Not satisfied with this, we chose to adopt modern flying camera technology – our Sky Explorer. Now, the end of the road no longer means the end of the adventure. The Sky Explorer gets airborne and transmits live feed images in full 4k colour to a pair of viewing goggles worn by our guests. What the camera sees, you see.
Now, it is possible to see the Highlands from an entirely different perspective*. See cliffs and headlands as the birds see them, explore previously inaccessible waterfalls plunging into steep ravines from the comfort of a chair or fly to the top of a mountain to admire the views without breaking a sweat!
Of course, it’s not just about seeing amazing places effortlessly, it’s also about making a North Coast Explorer tour accessible for guests with restricted mobility too.
* weather conditions and location permitting
The Sky Explorer, another innovation from North Coast Explorer.
The North Highlands is vast – over 5000 square miles of land, lochs and mountains with a coastline that stretches for over 1000 miles. How is it possible to know everything about everywhere?
Fifteen years of exploring the North Highlands, 3 years of professional study and countless enjoyable hours in the company of Highland Folk has amassed a wealth of knowledge. But the challenge was, how do we turn this ‘information’ into something manageable and meaningful to use?
Our search for a solution led us to create something truly unique. We condensed everything we know about the North Highlands and created an amazing App that we call iE².
iE² (inform, inspire, educate and entertain) graphically pinpoints over 2500 sites of potential interest right across the region. Each of the sites has its own information page and by using some clever filtering, we can select locations from the database that match your preferred interests and thus create an itinerary that is unique to you.
Don’t just take our word for it, try a sample of iE² for yourself. Follow this link and enjoy the journey!
Do you know someone who is holidaying in the Highlands? Struggling to find the right present for that special celebration? A North Coast Explorer Tour could be just the answer – providing a memorable experience tailor-made for the person or couple in question. We aim to make all our tours enjoyable, insightful and a day to remember.
And we have now made it easy for you to share a ‘North Coast Explorer Tour’ with others by offering gift vouchers, in a range of denominations, for the perfect treat.
Vouchers can be purchased to a value of £10, £25 or £50, or any combination of these. Vouchers are valid for one year from the date printed on the voucher at the time of purchase and can be redeemed against any tour with North Coast Explorer.
Your gift voucher(s) can be sent direct to the recipient or, if you prefer, to yourself first. They will need to quote their voucher reference number at the time of making their booking. Please note tours are subject to availability and North Coast Explorer usually runs tours from March to October (please check with us before ordering a voucher if you have a specific date in mind).
To purchase North Coast Explorer Gift Vouchers, please give us a call on 01847 851852.
We are keen to share our love of the Scottish Highlands with you, whether you are able to take a tour with us or not. So if you love the views and essence of what you see on our website, then join us on Facebook or Twitter to follow our daily activity and learn more about the Highlands and its history, sights and culture. The area has so much to offer and not just what you can see through your car window.
It’s so hard to convey exactly what you will experience on one of our tours just via a website, but by following our daily updates, we hope it will start to bring our tours to life for you – with insights into our daily adventures, learning about lesser-known facts, sharing tales of culture and folklore and providing awareness of festivals and events.