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Once around the block

The combination of stunning scenery and a brilliant car makes for a memorable drive around the north coast of Scotland aboard the New Insignia Grand Sport.

 

Stepping off the plane at Inverness Airport is a restorative experience. Whereas the air when I got on the aircraft down south was thick with pollution, up here it has a refreshing purity. It is sharp and clear, because it blows in from the mountains and the sea.

 

I’m driving from Inverness to John O’Groats, then along the top of Scotland before turning left down the west coast to Applecross and hopping over the mountains back to Inverness. And I’m doing it in Vauxhall’s new New Insignia Grand Sport, which is the ideal car for a 516-mile road trip along some of the UK’s finest driving roads.

 

The route I’m following is the North Coast 500 (NC500). It’s been developed by the Scottish Tourist Board to attract more visitors to the country. As well as being very well signposted, that means it is adorned with attractions, but on this journey, my attention will be fixed firmly on the drive. The next few days are about me, the car, and the open road.

 

The Insignia Grand Sport

Inverness to Castletown, via John O'Groats: The Journey Begins

The environs of Inverness airport contain glimpses of glory. Through breaks in trees I glimpse a distant peak, or see the shimmer of water in the weak sunshine. But this is a working landscape, blending industry and agriculture to create a feeling of utility that belies the beauty of the coastline to come.
Meanwhile, I can enjoy getting acquainted with the New Insignia. It’s a smart car, with a real sense of poise, sleek and coupé-like in profile, with acres of space for gear and an interior that is by turns elegant, well finished and eminently usable.

 

Much of what you find behind the wheel has been designed to make lengthy tours of the sort I’m undertaking as easy as a trip around the block. Features like steering-wheel-mounted audio and phone controls ensure your attention is on the road, while the Navi 900 IntelliLink sat nav with its eight-inch touchscreen also brings peace of mind, especially when you’re driving on unfamiliar roads. And thanks to Bluetooth connectivity, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as an optional wireless phone charger, toggling your tech is straightforward.

 

The Insignia Grand Sport cabin and steering wheel

There is a unique barrenness to this part of the world that takes some getting used to, even for a seasoned country dweller like me. But there’s respite on the horizon, in the form of Ackergill Tower, just north of Wick on the road to John O’Groats. A neat stretch of coastal plain spreads fore and aft, making for a thrilling approach. And there the ancient folly is, clinging limpet-like to the cliff edge as it has done for the last 600 years.

 

I haven’t got long to linger, but it seems rude not to take advantage of Ackergill’s status as one of the NC500’s standout restaurants and hotels. So I gladly tuck into plates of smoked salmon and crab salad, fillet of local beef, and Eton mess in the timber-clad dining room.

 

After supper, I head north to John O’Groats, and as the sun slips from view, it’s now that I appreciate the IntelliLux LED Matrix headlights fitted as standard on my Elite-spec car. Each one features 16 individual LED lights, and the beam adjusts automatically so as not to dazzle oncoming traffic. The result is a crystal-clear view of the gloomy lanes, making the drive a thousand times more comfortable as I finally make it to Castletown.

 

The Insignia Grand Sport cabin and steering wheel

Castletown to Ullapool: Beauty Beyond Measure

It’s a soupy morning as I settle behind the New Insignia’s wheel and head west then south to the port of Ullapool. Bright yellow gorse flashes by as I surge along coastal roads that swoop up and down to the sea. Everywhere I look there’s yet more beauty, from hidden bays to twinkling lochs, lush green copses to heather-clad moorland. But oh, the roads. They flow along the north of Scotland, east to west, like waves. And at every turn, the New Insignia sings for joy, its 20-inch twin-spoke alloys glinting in the emerging sunlight.


I stop briefly to admire the ruined Ardvreck Castle on the banks of Loch Assynt and commune with the magnificent deer sipping water on the shoreline before continuing south to Ullapool.

Ullapool to Applecross, then Inverness: In the Slow Lane

I leave the fishing boats bobbing alongside Ullapool’s pontoons and head out of town, along mostly single-track roads to Applecross.


More a collection of settlements than a town, Applecross is the sort of place where you expect to find wizened fishermen and horny-handed crofters in every nook and cranny. But they’re obviously too busy being wizened and horny-handed today, because the place I stop at is instead full of Lycra-clad cyclists, preparing for their ascent of the Applecross Pass.

 

This is an astonishingly-steep road that connects the Applecross Peninsula with the main road back to Inverness, full of switchbacks and epic climbs. So it is with mixed feelings that I steer the New Insignia along it, stopping frequently to drink in the view, take deep gulps of the cool, crisp air, and enjoy my final hours behind the wheel of a car that has delighted at every turn.


Before long, I’ll be queuing for my flight out of Inverness Airport, regretting the speed with which the last few days have passed, and snatching one last soulful look at the glorious northern horizon.