Fearsome and beautiful, the landscapes of northern Scotland are best experienced on a road trip through its mysterious beaches, fresh seafood and isolated wildlife.

The landscapes of northern Scotland are at once fearsome and beautiful. A road trip is the best way to experience the region’s mysterious and secluded beaches, freshly caught seafood, isolated wildlife and a castle made famous by Monty Python.

North West Highlands Geopark: Best for scenic drives
Like the golden eagles that sometimes soar overhead, the road from the coastal village of Durness winds its way south with great swoops and dives. The 68-mile route to the fishing town of Ullapool is a relatively recent addition to a landscape forged in the Ice Age, when melting glaciers gouged its long, deep valleys and seawater-filled lochs and fjords. With every rollercoasterlike dip in the tarmac, the windscreen frames another cinematic view – from the jagged peak of Suilven, rising almost vertically from moorland and bogs, to a red telephone box on the roadside, surrounded by nothing but heather.

There’s good reason why Scotland doesn’t look like anywhere else in Britain: 200 million years ago it was still part of the continent of North America – the join is roughly where Hadrian’s Wall is now. ‘It’s the geological building blocks that make this landscape so unique,’ says geologist Donald Fisher. Using a small hammer, he gesticulates enthusiastically over the U-shaped valley of Strath Dionard, which is empty but for a single gamekeeper’s cottage. ‘My work has taken me to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon in the US, and Uluru in Australia, but the physical features of the North West Highlands are as good as it gets.’

The area’s outstanding geology has earned it Unesco Geopark status. The Geopark extends roughly from Durness to Ullapool, and the landscape it contains has inspired many who have explored its 480 square miles of mountains, peatland, beaches, forest and coast. One story of which locals are particularly proud involves a community landmark immortalised by Hollywood. It is said that a holidaying movie executive liked the look of Ben Stack’s shapely peak so much that it inspired the logo of his company – Paramount Pictures’ now-iconic pointed, snow-capped mountain encircled by stars. And in the 1950s, a teenage John Lennon spent a summer holiday in a remote croft overlooking Durness’s Sango Bay, an experience that spurred him to write In My Life with Paul McCartney in 1965: the Beatles song was part-inspired by a poem about the area that Lennon wrote during his time there.

Little-changed since Lennon’s visits, the North West Highlands has the lowest population density in all of Europe – an encounter with a stubborn, shaggy-coated cow is still a more likely cause of delay than traffic. Such terrain makes the lure of the open road irresistible, even to keen walkers like Donald. When he’s not guiding visitors through the Geopark, he likes to take his bright-yellow Harley Davidson Fatboy motorcycle for a spin. His favourite spot is the hairpin bend at the foot of the Quinag mountain range. ‘It’s an incredible feeling, roaring around these curved roads,’ he says, his sensible scientist’s face momentarily lit up with an impish grin. ‘And the view here epitomises the geology and the pre-history of the area. This land is special – this is the land that time forgot.’

Where to eat
The best local option for dinner is Mackay’s, but Cocoa Mountain is a welcoming place to retreat to for a hot chocolate after a day spent exploring the Geopark. Situated in the Balnakeil Craft Village a mile outside of Durness, this café-cum-chocolatier sells handmade treats such as white chocolate, coconut, chilli and lemongrass truffles (boxes of truffles from £12).

Where to stay
Built 150 years ago by local merchant Richard Mackay, Mackay’s, a flint-walled cottage in Durness, is now a hotel and restaurant run by his great-grandson Robbie and wife Fiona. Each of the seven rooms is individually designed using local textiles, and it also offers bunkhouse beds and two self-catering, eco-friendly coastal crofts (rooms from £125; open Easter to Oct).

Sandwood Bay: Best for beach
Don O’Driscoll drops to his knees to pull a small bouquet of bog myrtle from the sandy grassland underfoot. He breaks a few of its green leaves, and a basil-like scent mixes with the faint smell of sea salt. To Don – a ranger for the John Muir Trust, a charity dedicated to the protection of wild land – no detail of the natural world that surrounds him passes by unnoticed. During the four-mile walk that is the only means of accessing the isolated Sandwood Bay, considered by many who have seen it to be Britain’s most beautiful beach, he reveals more of its treasures: an emerald-green tiger beetle racing through long grass, a tiny rabbit’s skull and pieces of tree bark curled naturally into tiny scrolls. With his handsome, tanned face, curly black hair and single gold-hoop earring, he has the appearance of a friendly pirate searching for treasure. ‘I’m a bit of a magpie,’ he confesses, ‘always picking things up’.

As we near the shore of the freshwater Sandwood Loch, Don abandons the path and heads up a green slope, his black and chocolate-coloured labradors Charlie and Molly scampering at his side with tongues lolling. At the crest of the hill, Sandwood Bay reveals itself – a mile-long sweep of golden sand backed by tall dunes. ‘What do you think?’ asks Don with almost paternal pride. ‘Is a paradise found a paradise lost?’ Not in this case – the beach looks to have been transplanted here from the Caribbean. ‘It’s the clarity of water and lightness of the sand give it that aquamarine colour,’ Don explains. ‘The Viking name for this place is Sandvatn, meaning sandwater.’

Clambering down a grassy crevice over sun-warmed rock pools and on to the beach, Don ducks and begins sifting through the sand to reveal empty razor clams, queeniescallop shells and shiny scraps of mother of pearl. ‘It’s the small things that make me happy,’ he says. ‘There are new discoveries every day.’ At the back of the beach, Don points out the engine of a Spitfire – partly submerged by sand – which crash-landed here towards the end of WWII.

Sandwood also has a rich folkloric history, born in part by its comparative isolation. ‘There’s supposed to be mermaids and ghosts here,’ says a sceptical Don. ‘I think some people aren’t used to being in such wide, open spaces, so their minds work overtime.’ Behind the dunes are the ruins of a 19th-century farmhouse called Sandwood Lodge. Said to be haunted by the ghost of a 16th-century sailor shipwrecked from the Spanish Armada or a victim from a Polish vessel that sank on the bay, in truth it is nature that claimed this building – removing its roof, carpeting the floor with grass, and leaving its windows open to the fearsome winds blowing off the sea.

Where to eat
Old School Restaurant & Rooms near Loch Inchard, six miles south of Sandwood Loch, occupies a former primary school and specialises in venison, steaks and seafood (mains from £12).

Where to stay
Situated in Ullapool, 40 miles from Sandwood Loch, The Ceilidh Place is one of the most characterful places to stay in the Highlands. En suite rooms come with a small library of books, eclectic artworks and hot-water bottles. There’s also a pantry for hot drinks and an honesty bar, plus a spacious café-bar – the best place to eat locally – downstairs (rooms from £100).

Kyleskyu To Lochinver: Best for food
‘If a customer wants to know how fresh the mussels are, I can point out of the window at the boat about to dock,’ says Sonia Virechauveix, chef-owner of lochside Kylesku Hotel. Sonia is justifiably proud of what she and partner and co-owner Tanja Lister have achieved in the three years since they took over this restaurant with rooms on Loch Glendhu. The day after the couple moved in to this higgledy-piggledy inn, a group of fishermen arrived with a bucket of langoustine as a welcome gift. ‘It made me think “Yes, this is where I want to be”.’

Now, local seafood is at the heart of their business. At lunch, its waterside picnicstyle tables are filled with customers watching seals frolic in the shallows of Loch Glendhu while eating crab, battered haddock or sole. When the sun slips behind the surrounding hills, they retreat inside to sink drams of whisky by the wood-burning fire. ‘I am passionate about food and, being from France, I did have the impression that the UK didn’t really have a clue about it,’ Sonia admits. ‘But when I came here I was blown away by the quality. It’s inspiring.’

Kylesku, and the nearby fishing port village of Lochinver, have made this nook of Scotland a place of pilgrimage for food lovers. Lochinver is also home to two of Scotland’s finest restaurants: the Michelinstarred Albannach and Chez Roux, an Albert Roux-run kitchen at Inver Lodge Hotel. However, the place that many locals like to eat at is Lochinver Larder.

The restaurant’s exterior – an unlovely conservatory on the front of a late-Victorian cottage – is almost irrelevant: people come here for the pies. Some fillings, like roast butternut squash and goat’s cheese or chorizo and chicken, are less traditional; others are more faithful to Scotland’s heritage: haggis, neeps and tatties, venison and cranberry. I opt for the latter: its pastry is crisp and buttery, the contents a perfect mix of gamey meat and a sweet-sharp berry tang. These are pies to fall in love with: it’s no wonder that Lochinver Larder does a roaring trade selling them by post.

Where to stay
Inver Lodge’s exterior is unprepossessing, but the use of tartan and taxidermy plus a log fire make communal rooms endlessly inviting. Rooms are tastefully decorated and spacious, with countryside views. Don’t miss the excellent restaurant run by Albert Roux (rooms from £215).

Knoydart Peninsula: Best for wilderness
The ferry leaves the small port of Mallaig and begins its gentle chug towards Inverie, Knoydart’s only village. Within minutes, the calm of Loch Nevis is broken by a long grey nose, then another, then two more, until as far as the eye can see are dolphins – a great pod, surging in and out of the waves in a joyous, playful dance. Then they are gone, and the boat docks at Inverie’s jetty without its cavalcade of sea creatures.

Knoydart is the most remote place on mainland Britain, reachable only by boat or a 16-mile trek over tough Highland terrain. In 1999, the people of Knoydart paid £850,000 to buy their home from absent feudal landlords. ‘We were one of the first community buy-outs,’ explains Tommy McManmon, a ranger for the Knoydart Foundation, which administers the peninsula on behalf of residents. ‘Before, Knoydart was owned by people who did not care about the land. But those who live here now are all incomers – we chose to be here. Most of us were drawn to its wildness. That’s what we want to preserve.’

Stray a mile or two in any direction from the whitewashed cottages of Inverie, and Knoydart’s quiet beauty reveals itself. Pine martens live in the shady woods behind the village, while a watchful hour at Long Beach often reveals oystercatchers and herons – sometimes even otters. In higher ground there are wild roe and red deer, which Tommy is expert at tracking down.

‘Photostalking’ is popular among visitors. ‘The principles of stalking and photostalking are the same: stay low, and downwind. A deer can smell you a mile off.’

In khaki coveralls, we set off into Knoydart’s rough terrain; Tommy has had word of a hind (female deer) with twins roaming the hills. He pauses to look for clues: small cloven hoofprints, fresh droppings, nibbled foliage. We make the last part of our approach on hands and knees and are rewarded for this caution by a sighting of the trio: unaware of our presence, they graze as we watch in rapt silence.

Knoydart provides ample scope for solitude, but when people want company they head to The Old Forge. This is where Knoydart’s growing number of babies are bounced from knee to knee, and gossip is passed on over pints of Corncrake ale, brewed on the nearby Isle of Skye, and bowls of fish pie. Stay late and a ceilidh band usually starts up, filling mainland Britain’s most remote pub with the sound of accordions, fiddles and bagpipes.

Where to eat
At Inverie’s Knoydart Tea Rooms & Pottery, browse a collection of pottery, books and craftworks before tucking into haggis and cheese, and slices of cake (lunch mains £3.20; closed Sun; 01687 460191).

Where to stay
Set among shady woodland in an alpine-style timber cabin, bedrooms in Knoydart Lodge have en suite wetrooms and French windows opening on to a sunny patio. For breakfast, try egg baked in a cheese soufflé in the communal dining room before spending the day exploring the nearby community garden and pretty Long Beach (rooms from £90).

Appin: Best for castles
Surrounded by rolling Argyll countryside and situated on a tidal islet in Loch Laich, Stalker is one of Scotland’s most photographed castles. Yet it is also known by another name – the Castle Aaargh of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

When King Arthur chances upon the 16th-century tower house in the film’s final scenes, he is met with a bombardment that includes a dead sheep. ‘The production team apparently intended to use a fake,’ Ross Allward, Castle Stalker’s owner, tells me with a laugh. ‘But on the drive up from London they found a dead sheep by the road – apparently the actors weren’t too happy about being hit with a corpse!’ These days, retired lawyer Ross offers guests a much warmer welcome: though used as his family’s holiday home, Stalker is open for a limited number of tours each year.

Ross’s father bought the castle in 1965. ‘It was a ruin, with no roof. The family spent 10 years restoring it on a shoestring budget.’ Castle Stalker isn’t like a National Trust property: you arrive on the small family vessel kept in a boathouse at nearby Appin, and once inside the castle’s thick walls there are no information boards or roped-off areas. The sandstone floor, huge open fire and oak table in the Great Hall suggest medieval Scotland; the stereo and books in the corner, less so. ‘It’s not a museum,’ says Ross. ‘It’s lived in as a family home’.

Castle Stalker was probably built as a hunting lodge, and has received illustrious guests including King James IV of Scotland. ‘It’s unusually well-appointed in the toilet department,’ says Ross, ‘and above the entrance is a weathered stone plaque with a – possibly royal – coat of arms. This place was built for someone fairly important.’

Now the Allwards are busy filling Castle Stalker with their own memories. For Ross’s 21st birthday celebrations, guests were forced to sleep on the battlements for want of room. ‘Castle Stalker,’ Ross tells me, ‘is a place where it’s possible to feel totally cut off from the world.’

Where to eat
A five-minute drive from Barcaldine Castle, Hawthorn Restaurant serves classics such as prime sirloin of Scottish beef with vine tomatoes, mushrooms, onion marmalade and chips (mains from £9).

Where to stay
A former military outpost, Barcaldine Castle, near the village of Benderloch, retains many of its features. After a Scottish breakfast in the Great Hall, look at spooky portraits of its Victorian occupants and search for hidden panels leading to secret passageways. On the ground floor, ponder the fate of prisoners kept in its dungeon, before seeking shortbread from the kitchen (from £115).

The article 'The perfect trip: The Scottish Highlands' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.