6 of the best road trips in the UK

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Mike MacEacheran
10/20/2020

There is something about a road trip that creates a state of heightened excitement. No matter the destination, a road trip unfolds at the same, ascending rhythm. Back roads are followed (whenever possible), motorway service stations are avoided (at all costs) and the countryside flies by with the same tempo as a rock song (cue Status Quo). If you’ve got wheels – be it a car, bike or camper – here are 6 great road trips in the UK to try. Whether it's an Easter break or your summer holiday, none of these routes will disappoint. For everything from car hire to the best routes to take, we can help! No time to plan and book yourself? Try our tailor-made travel service and our local experts will create an itinerary according to your preferences, ready to book, like The Great British Road Trip.

Prepping for your trip

It's important to prepare carefully for a road trip – it's no fun being stuck roadside because you've run out of fuel, or getting a puncture with no spare wheel. If you've not got a banger of your own, that's no problem: there are plenty of rental companies offering competitive deals. Better still, hire an electric car and help protect the pristine landscapes you're driving through. Be sure to check charging points along your route, or – if you're car isn't electric – fill up the tank before you leave.

If you're taking your own car, it's worth a trip to the garage before you leave to check it's in good shape. Make sure you've got all your car documents on hand, as well as a spare tyre in the boot. It also pays to pack a first-aid kit and some non-perishable snacks, just in case. Take out breakdown cover and keep the emergency number handy.

1. North Coast 500, Scotland

This circular route is a greatest hits of Scottish icons, stretching across 805 km of back roads. Skirting the coast from Inverness and the Black Isle, past the seaboard crags of Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross, it offers up gothic ruins, rugged fairways, historic castles, shingle-sand beaches, tiny fishing hamlets and peaty whisky distilleries. Even the name is a doff of the cap to The Proclaimers.

Along the way, the road becomes a symphony, building note after note, bend by bend, from its rallying start through the east coast villages of Dornoch and Wick to Aultbea, Poolewe and Gairloch on the savage west coast. Here, it reaches a crescendo below the impregnable peaks of Loch Maree.

Finally, the road reaches the brilliant Bealach na Bà, which loops up and over the Applecross Peninsula like a piece of gigantic spaghetti. It could scarcely be more isolated or awe-inspiring.

Best for: Escaping urban life and enjoying unexpected traffic jams, courtesy of wayward Highland cows and stags.

Duration: 4-7 days.

Need to know: Accommodation options are few and far between, so book in advance. Outside of summer, you’ll have the route to yourself, when even a witches’ brew of winter clouds couldn’t dampen the drama or Highland spirit.

Where to stay: Straddling the banks of the River Ness, Inverness is the hub of the Highlands. You'll find plenty of accommodation options here, but for sprawling grounds, airy rooms and a luxury spa, treat yourself at Kingsmills Hotel before your road trip. Once you're on the road, sea-view Harbour Quay in Wick (private accommodation) and the Shiskine Pod (think: cute wooden chalet with blow-away views) in Gairloch are good bets.

The Scottish Highlands offer magnificent scenery © Mountaintreks/Shutterstock

2. A Yorkshire circuit, England

In Yorkshire, the roads move from moor to dale through centuries of dark medieval history, once a backdrop to the War of the Roses, the bloody struggle between the royal houses of Lancaster and York.

Here the mix of A- and B-roads create a daisy-chain link between some of the most beautiful villages, waterfalls and rolling backdrops in northern England. When heading through fields of summer grasses over the Buttertubs Pass from Wensleydale to Swaledale, the road twists and turns like a thrashing snake.

Set off on the A59 from Harrogate towards the historic market town of Grassington before boomeranging back to Aysgarth Falls, a wide, multi-tiered falls that’s perfect for a hazy summer ramble.

Next, putter along the valley floor to the Wensleydale Creamery Visitor Centre at Hawes to stock up on Wallace and Gromit’s favourite cheese, before plunging over into Reeth and looping back to your start point via Jervaulx Abbey. A spooky Cistercian monastery in the moors, the abbey also has an excellent tea room if you need a pitstop.

At the end of a long day’s drive, there’s nothing more satisfying than the promise of a pint of Black Sheep ale from Masham Brewery. The welcome here is warm, the people friendly, the surrounding landscapes wild, and the beer strong. It's undoubtedly one of the best road trips in the UK.

Best for: Ale drinkers and cheese lovers.

Duration: 3 days.

Need to know: The Yorkshire Dales are a magnet for tour buses and parking can cause major headaches.

Where to stay: The starting point of Harrogate – a gorgeous, historic spa town with more tea rooms than you can shake a spoon at – has plenty of places to stay. The DoubleTree by Hilton, occupying a 19th-century beauty, has all the facilities you'd expect, as well as 12 acres of lovely gardens – perfect for stretching the legs. For something a little less imposing, try the friendly Franklin Mount Boutique Guesthouse. Over in Grassington, meanwhile, plump for The Clarendon Country Pub with Rooms – the bedrooms are all super cozy, and you can wind the day up with a hearty meal and pint at the pub downstairs.

The Yorkshire Dales in the evening light © BerndBrueggemann/Shutterstock

3. The Atlantic Highway, England

A storied ribbon of tarmac and maritime history, this 275 km road has the wild beauty that has become the hallmark of southwest England: it’s all about the big views.

Sandwiched between barley fields and a succession of bays and beach breaks, the A39 from Bridgewater to Bude is a magical concertina that creases and folds along the Devon and Cornwall coasts. Beyond the roadside hedgerows, the windswept dunes become the territory of shaggy-haired surfers, where foaming waves beat the shoreline.

Stop off at Exmoor National Park for hikes across the hilly moors, before driving south from Barnstaple through the salt-tanged seaside towns of Bude (for surfing), Padstow (for seafood) and Newquay (for weekend partying). Then it’s onwards to Land’s End – the place Cornish residents once thought was the end of the world.

Best for: Surfers and wannabe hippies.

Duration: 4-5 days.

Need to know: The name is a bit of a cheat. The route travels inland for much of Cornwall, eventually feeding onto the shoreline at Newquay. The only way to do this trip is in a VW camper van with a board tied to the roof.

Where to stay: At the edge of Exmoor National Park, overlooking pretty Lynmouth Bay, the Rising Sun Hotel will charm your socks off with its thatched roof, crooked stairways and wooden beams. In Padstow, make for St Petroc's B&B, with stylish rooms and a charming garden. And while there's a whole raft of accommodation to choose from in Newquay, if you're after some of your own space, try Porth Cottage Studio, which has its own kitchen facilities – though full breakfasts can be provided, too.

Newquay's golden sands © Lukasz Pajor/Shutterstock

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4. Coastal Circuit, Northern Ireland

Plan a journey around the knuckle-shaped fist of the Northern Irish coast and you won't regret it. There’s a hypnotic quality to this 195 km route from Belfast to Derry/Londonderry, one that can see you detour off the road to find smaller villages. It's one of the most varied road trips in the UK in our list.

First, head for the Gobbins Cliff Path, an ambitious walkway chiselled out of basalt rock with hammers and rudimentary tools. North of Belfast, it carves a path through caves, over bridges and gantries, and down steep drops. Following a £7.5 million investment, the path reopened in 2015 for the first time in more than 65 years.

As the journey continues, stories, both ancient and modern, will pull you over. Detour to Antrim to see the Dark Hedges, a tree-lined road used in Game of Thrones, while making sure to stop at Ballintoy harbour (also another GoT location).

Stare in awe at the 40,000 jigsaw pieces of the Giant’s Causeway, then pop into the Old Bushmills Distillery for a refresher of Irish whiskey.

Freedom on a road trip like this is only limited by how far your imagination takes you. After Londonderry, the road keeps going south into Ireland, to Sligo and Galway or Dublin. Simply roll down the window and keep on driving.

Best for: Story-lovers and stargazers

Duration: 3-5 days.

Need to know: Rathlin, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshore island, sits around halfway along the route and is home to an RSPB reserve. Its resident guillemots, razorbills and puffins are a must-see for birdwatchers.

Where to stay: You won't be pressed to find a fabulous place to stay along this route. Belfast and Londonderry are buzzing cities full of options, though our picks are Maranatha House in Belfast – famed for the chef's Ulster Breakfast – and the 4-star Beech Hill Hotel near Derry, a country house just outside the city set in glorious scenery. While on the road in Antrim, meanwhile, try Crockatinney Guest House: stock up on supplies and use the BBQ facilities in the garden.

The Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland © Jon Chica/Shutterstock

5. Ben Nevis to the Isle of Skye, Scotland

This 74 km scenic drive route from Fort William to Mallaig has an antique weirdness, like stepping back in time. Every mountain and loch tells a story and the ghosts of the Jacobite and Victorian eras are never far away.

At Fort William flows the Caledonian Canal, first built for trade and commerce; past Loch Eil stands the Glenfinnan Monument, where Bonnie Prince Charlie kicked off his bid for the crown in 1745; then comes the glorious West Highland Line, one of the great railway journeys of the world.

Start in the shadows of the UK’s most alluring peak, Ben Nevis, before tracing your route like a squiggly marker pen across a fold-out map from its namesake whisky distillery onto the A830. Venture westwards and you’ll pass a series of stand-out movie locations – the Glenfinnan Viaduct, famous for its starring role in the Harry Potter films; then Camusdarach Beach at Arisaig, where Bill Forsyth’s classic Local Hero was filmed.

Near the journey’s end, Loch Morar, the deepest freshwater lake in the UK, will fill your windows with stunning views. From here you can stop and enjoy the surroundings, or continue across to the Isle of Skye.

Best for: Historians and Harry Potter fans.

Duration: 2-3 days.

Need to know: Like Loch Ness, Loch Morar has a storybook monster of its own; Nessie’s cryptid cousin, Morag.

Where to stay: Gateway to the Highlands, the main draw of Fort William is its location – including its proximity to Ben Nevis – but it's as good a base as any, and it's not short on places to stay, either. On the Caledonian Canal you'll find the Moorings Hotel, housed in a funky building with some brilliantly garish interiors and stellar views. In Arisaig, Brae Hoose is a holiday home with a smart TV, surround-sound bar and an excellent hygiene rating. In Mallaig, after your long drive, bed down at the West Highland Hotel – be sure to dine at its fantastic Terrace restaurant, with fresher-than-fresh fish, panoramic views and a wood-burning stove. End-of-the-road meals don't get any better than this.

Camusdarach beach, Arisaig © alan92 todd/Shutterstock

6. The Black Mountain Pass, Wales

The shortest road trip of the bunch, this epic mountain road more than makes up for it with spectacular Brecon Beacons scenery, unrivalled views of the Tywi Valley and the kind of hairpin bends and switchbacks that’d bring a Swiss Alpine engineer out in hives.

It rolls between Llandovery in the north, crossing the dragon’s humps of Pont Aber and Herbert’s Pass past jaw-dropping viewpoints, before sinking low and cascading down to the village of Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen. Along the way, you’ll be met by rustic farmhouses, ruddy-faced farmers, wayward sheep and perhaps the odd motoring journalist. Thanks to ex-BBC host Jeremy Clarkson, it’s also known as the Top Gear road and is enduringly popular with test drivers.

Best for: Driving enthusiasts.

How long: One day, though it’s far better to extend your trip and stay in the Brecon Beacons area for at least 48 hours. The A470 running through the park’s east is also highly recommended.

Need to know: Make sure to tackle the route north to south.

Where to stay: For a Welsh cottage experience, look no further than Merlin Cottages or The Byre. Both are excellent options near Llandovery, with stone walls, original features and plenty of country charm.

The Brecon Beacons National Park © antb/Shutterstock

Well, what are you waiting for? Get your car in gear and take to the open road.

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