NC500 Part 4: Misty beaches and Smoo Cave (or) Talmine to Polbain

No, this isn’t a still from a post-apocalyptic dystopian film, this is a little taste of the magic that followed us from Talmine to our next stop in Polbain for the fourth leg of our NC500 trip. Read on for the kind of whimsy you can only find in the far north of the Scottish Highlands with misty beaches and Smoo Cave, where vikings used to fix their ships. Also, please excuse my low resolution iphone photos. I’m sure you can take better ones. If you go… 


After spending a ridiculously restful night in our Airbnb in Talmine, we hit the road again to explore more of the far north coast. This leg involved a lot of spontaneous getting out of the car and wandering through spectacular and unexpected places. Because of this (and my natural reticence with organising or recording anything at all) I don’t have specific directions or locations for some of these stops, but I hope that they will inspire you to take your own journey and find something that nobody else will. The photo above was taken on a beach somewhere to the West of Talmine, but before you hit Smoo Cave (i’ll tell you a bit more about that soon!). We rounded a bend and the coast opened up to us revealing a sandy beach awash with fog. Firstly, I couldn’t believe that I was seeing golden sand similar to beaches back home, and secondly, I couldn’t believe the thickness of the fog. I took this photo of my husband who was walking no more than fifty metres behind me and soon after taking it, the mist swallowed him up completely.

When I was walking from the hills down to the beach, the fog was so thick that I couldn’t see the water. When I reached the water and looked behind me, the fog was so thick that I could no longer see the hills. It was curious and surreal and I felt as thought I had wandered through a diaphanous curtain and into another world. We must have spent an hour exploring this dream beach before reality nudged us and we had to return to the car. If you come from a country that is land locked, expect to be constantly getting out of your car to explore the varied and beautiful beaches in Scotland. If you come form a country like Australia, where beautiful beaches are the norm, you should still expect to be constantly getting our of your car to appreciate these empty and pristine stretches. Looking back at the map, this one may have been the beach at Rispond, but is also may not have been. It’s all part of the adventure, right?


After driving around Loch Eriboll, we made it to the next “ooooooh aaaaaah” destination – Smoo Cave. Briefly, Smoo Cave (near Durness) is a huge series of caves that open onto a rocky inlet. It is special for three reasons:

1. Smoo Cave is undeniably amazing to look at and explore
2. Smoo Cave has geological significance
3. Smoo Cave has historical significance

After parking in the carpark at the top of the cliff, you will need to walk down a hundred or so shallow stairs to reach the water level entrance to Smoo Cave. I didn’t find these steps onerous at all but I am relatively fit and if you have issues with your knees or with mobility in general, it might be difficult for you (particularly the steps back up). But, all that aside, can we agree with point number 1 – that this is a pretty beautiful and unusual looking place? When we arrived in Spring, it was relatively quiet and we only saw a smattering of other tourists there. As you walk into the first cave, you are struck by the coolness and the darkness. For a cave with a relatively large mouth, it sucks light like a black hole. It’s geological significance comes from the fact that the first chamber was hollowed out by the hungry sea, whereas the second chamber, accessible by the footbridge in the picture above, was formed by freshwater and rainwater passages. It’s a double cave!

IMG_8183This is a view of the inner cave that is lined by a glassy lake.

If you want to fully explore the inner cave, there are official guides available that will take you on a tour of Smoo Cave. You will have to climb down into an inflatable boat but these guys looked like they knew what they were doing. We would have gone on a tour except that we had a long way still to drive before our stop for the night. So we explored for a little while, and imagined ourselves face to face with the vikings who used to hide out here while they fixed their ships. That’s the historical part I was talking about earlier! Can you imagine Ragnar and Floki discussing ship designs in this rugged place? I can! Still, the magic had to end as again, reality nudged us back to the car.

We were a little bit peckish after our cave exploring so stopped a little further on at Balnakeil Craft village. The village looks a little bit strange because it’s not quite a village in the traditional sense. It’s a collection of flat, concrete buildings that were built in the 1950s as as part of an early warning system in case of a nuclear attack. However, it was never commissioned and was abandoned soon after. It was later adopted by a collection of artists and crafters and became what it is today.


The siren call came from Cocoa Mountain Cafe and Chocolaterie which was really the last kind of shop I expected to find here. While the weather was still chilly, we ate outside, warmed by the delicious and decadent hot chocolate adorned by generous drizzles of melted milk and white chocolate.


You can also choose fair trade tea or coffee if you’re some sort of mutant and chocolate doesn’t appeal to you  you would prefer. All the chocolates themselves are handmade and free of gluten and artificial flavouring. I can’t remember exactly what selection we made but I do remember that they were smooth, rich, and delicious! It was difficult not to buy one of everything and I had to settle for a resolution that we would come back another time to sample a few more.

So, even though this leg of the trip wasn’t quite finished at Balnakeil, I will finish this post here and continue the journey in the next one. When I do this again, I think I would try to stay overnight, or for a couple of nights, nearby. It was a truly lovely spot.

As always, if you have any questions, leave them in the comments below! I’ll leave you with one more photo of the walk down to that fabulous dream beach from the beginning of the post. Just because it’s my blog, and I can.


By Katie

What can I say? I love sweets, in all shapes and sizes! You only live once, so why not indulge once in a while? Or, in my case, most of the time...

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