We’re taking a spin on the wild side with a post-lockdown road trip across the Highlands, skipping Scotland’s more obvious destinations in favour of mountain hikes, swims in lochs and discovering the island locals want to keep a secret – and thanks to the low-emission Volvo XC90 Recharge Plug-in Hybrid, we’re bringing the family along for the ride.
A miscellany of mountains, forests and rivers, the Scottish Highlands is a playground for the young and the young-at-heart – a canvas for an immersive, something-for-everyone road trip that embraces the great outdoors. After months of lockdown, we want to feel the wind whip through our hair as we free-wheel along cycling trails, to swim in glistening lochs and gather around campfires with smiles as wide and wild as the moors.
With that in mind, we’re trading in four walls for a seven-seat SUV that’s family-friendly without being frumpy. Our ride? The Volvo XC90 Recharge, a plug-in hybrid designed for journeys best shared. On this turf, the car is in its element. Intelligent driver-assist technology – think real-time traffic information and run-off-road mitigation – keep you on track (and avoid mishaps with wandering Highland coos). Better yet, Pack and Load accessories – from practical dirt covers to protective pet gates and carriers for bikes, skis and canoes – help you prepare for an adventure of a lifetime.
We’ve frolicked with free-roaming reindeer, navigated the UK’s most dramatic road and found the best spot to watch the Northern Lights to curate this itinerary. Now all you need to do is get your bags packed and curate a song list – Bowers & Wilkins speakers make sure there’ll be no “turn it up, we can’t hear in the back” on this drive. It’s playtime.
Day One: The Cairngorms
From its thick forests to the alpine plateau, wee Highland settlements to wide-open, wildlife-rich spaces, the Cairngorms National Park inspires adventure. Better yet, wild camping gets the thumbs up here, so you’re not tied to areas where accommodation is plentiful – the XC90 has ample space for loading up with outdoor gear. Simply familiarise yourself with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code before setting off.
When it comes to honing in on regions to visit, the options are as abundant. Aviemore is a good place to start. See the free-roaming Cairngorm Reindeer Herd before driving south to Rothiemurchus. Crowned by a 13th-century castle, the estate is a one-stop for family-friendly Highland activities, no soft play necessary. Embark on a Highland cow safari, hone outdoor survival skills or try your hand at quad trekking, river tubing or osprey photography before lunching on produce from Scotland’s natural larder at the Old Bridge Inn – muddy boots are welcome and Cullen skink goes down very well. The XC90’s integrated wifi supports up to eight devices, so there will be no missed opportunities to share your new family memories on social.
From here, embark on a section of the Speyside Way, through heather heathland and birch forest, to the Boat of Garten – go by foot or get the adrenaline pumping by following the off-road mountain-bike trail. The Volvo Recharge can carry several sets of pedals. Need to recuperate? Tuck into a gourmet Scottish-beef patty from the Spey Burger Restaurant and opt for a comfortable night in Pityoulish Steading, a secluded restored farmhouse with a bubbling hot tub, outdoor fire pit and glass-clad balconies for undisrupted valley views.
Day Two: The North Coast 500
Set the XC90’s integrated sat nav for Inverness Castle, the start and endpoint of the North Coast 500. Cutting through John O’Groats and Ullapool, this 830km circuit is to Scotland what Route 66 is to the US. The whole NC500 takes five days minimum, so we’re sticking to a southern stretch lined with the North Highlands’ most dramatic scenery, as well as a spot of culture and history.
From Inverness, head west through Beauly and Muir of Ord, stopping at Glen Ord Distillery to stock up on its sweetly spiced malt whisky. A little farther along, park up at the spectacular Rogie Falls to stretch your legs on a circular woodland walk along the Blackwater River – depending on the time of year, you can forage for wild blueberries or spot salmon leaping upstream. Onwards, skirting past Loch Garve and through the whitewashed village of Lochcarron (photographers: stop here), you’ll approach Bealach na Bà, a twisting, single-track, 626m climb with the kind of hairpin bends you’d expect in the Alps and a reputation as one of the UK’s most treacherous roads. The XC90’s windscreen display lets you monitor speed, follow navigation and more without taking your eyes off what’s in front.
Refuel with a fresh-from-the-bay seafood lunch at the Applecross Inn or grab cured sea trout and cheeses from the artisan Applecross Smokehouse for a shoreside picnic. Connect deeply with the surrounds by checking in to Eagle Rocks, a sanctuary-like cottage crafted from local larch and powered by solar panels. From here, take a dip at Coillegille, an under-radar coralline beach, then drive to the Kyle of Lochalsh where the 13th-century Eilean Donan castle wouldn’t look out of place in the Game of Thrones. Alternatively, head north to The Torridon for hearty Highland fare with a fine-dining spin. The best way to end the day? Spotting the Northern Lights from your private deck at Eagle Rocks.
Day Three: Lismore
Wake early and switch on the Volvo’s Power mode to tackle the undulating west coast down through Glencoe to Oban where you can avail of the charging point before boarding a car ferry to the Isle of Lismore – or Lios Mòr, meaning “great garden” in Gaelic. Tourists gravitate toward Skye or Iona; this Inner Hebrides island is visited only by in-the-know travellers. Less than 20km long and just over two at its widest point, Lismore has a population that lingers around 180, meaning nature takes the reins here. Wildflowers thrive between the Castle Coeffin ruins and the Pictish settlement of Tirfuir Broch. Use the XC90’s open-and-tilt panoramic roof to make the most of vast skies and Atlantic-fresh air as you explore and stumble upon weatherbeaten coves – the twin engine makes sure you’ll get around with maximum efficiency, minimum emissions.
Lismore Stores is the only shop you’ll find on the island, and there’s a snack-sized café at the Ionad Naomh Moluag heritage centre, but in truth, this is a place to which you’ll want to arrive with provisions for picnics – so fill up the XC90’s cubby holes and try not to get sticky fingers on the car seats, please.
Base options are limited in quantity but not quality. Try Port Moluag House where off-grid isolation meets on-point, sustainable design. Sleeping seven, Port Ramsay Cottage is suited to bigger groups and those who love spotting otters and seals in Loch Linnhe. We like the back-to-nature ethos at the eco-friendly Lismore Bunkhouse and Campsite, where mornings start with wild swims in a natural pool and dinners are made from pick-your-own organic veg. Family dorms are available.
Our favourite spot on Lismore? The summit of Barr Mor, the island’s highest point with a panorama that takes in Ben Nevis, the Firth of Lorn and the mountains of Morvern. When the weather turns damp and cold (this is Scotland, after all) use the Volvo On-Call app to preheat the car for a welcome return after your climb down – getting back to nature needn’t mean forgoing modern comforts, after all.
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