Whisky, history and plenty of food on day 3 of our trip
After day two of our trip north, we began our third day of our NC500 to Helmsdale, checking out of the NC500 Pods, with our hosts again transporting us to our next stop, Clynelish Distillery (pronounced Klein-leash). The distillery is a mere 5-minute drive, or 30-min walk from the pods, heading back towards the village of Brora.
Clynelish is one of the four whiskies that go towards making Johnnie Walker and there is a choice of daily tours at the new distillery visitor centre (yes, even on Sundays).
Our tour was the Clynelish Flavour Journey Tour, which costs £19 and takes just under 2 hours. It’s similar in style to the Johnnie Walker experience in Edinburgh, so not your typical distillery experience as it has interactive elements to learn the story behind Clynelish.
The tour concludes with a guided whisky tasting of drams, a highball and some delicious Highland Chocolatier chocolates to pair with the whisky. If you are time-constrained they also have a 45-minute express tasting for £15. To book a space on either tour click here.
Note that the original Clynelish distillery is now the Brora distillery next door and they also do tours. If you are seriously into whisky then you could also embark on a tour there. They run less frequently, with smaller groups, and are 3 – 5 hours long, costing £300 – £600 per person which includes lunch.
We were then off again car-free NC500 to Helmsdale. If, like us, you’d like to embark on a sustainable journey to this part of Scotland then pay very close attention to the timetables as there are only four trains in each direction on weekdays, three on Saturdays and only one on Sundays. The Scotrail timetable will also be updated again on 11th December. For buses, there are four 62s on weekdays but none run as far as Helmsdale on weekends. There are only two x99 buses in either direction Monday – Saturday and only one on Sundays. Both are operated by Stagecoach and the timetables are valid until the end of June 2023.
If times don’t suit you or you are travelling on a Sunday then you can always book a cab, such as Charlie’s Taxi, which is based in nearby Golspie on 01408 633763 / 0790 006 1947. The fare from Brora to Helmsdale is £25.
NC500 Accommodation in Helmsdale
Our home for the night was The Bridge Hotel, where we were greeted, on arrival, by a roaring fire. Our room had a prime view over the old bridge in Helmsdale, a huge bath and lots of space.
Things to do in Helmsdale
If you have time and are physically fit then there is a hill you can walk up just behind the town. You can access it from the west from Golf Course Lane, the turn-off for Helmsdale golf course – just keep walking up the hill and stick to the desire path on the left. Or, from the east access is via the path on Clashnarrow Road, just off the A9.
Timespan (28th March – 1st November, Mon – Sun 10:00 – 17:00) is a museum and arts centre located beside the picturesque river Helmsdale. They have a small history museum (£4/ £3 concession/ £2 under 16/ £10 family), shop, and gallery/exhibition space upstairs (free entry). The museum has a video showing what life would have been like in the days of the booming herring, and also has information on the Highland clearances, the 1869 gold rush, the burning of the last witch in Sutherland, a recreation of the last wolf shot in Sutherland and mock-ups of what traditional buildings would have looked like inside.
In the town itself, there is also a War memorial, a memorial for those who were forced to emigrate from Sutherland, some historical info at the train station, and a plaque marking the site of Helmsdale castle, the ruins of which were demolished so that the road bridge for the A9 could be built.
Food in Helmsdale
After perusing the exhibits at Timespan we headed to their cafe for lunch. Jam Fire Deli serves up Jamaican-inspired food within Timespan (you don’t need to enter the museum to eat or drink here). We enjoyed a Honolulu halloumi bun and a smoked haddock wrap with a side of fried plantain. Now that’s not something we expected to see in Helmsdale!
La Mirage was our dining destination and thankfully, with the weather getting chilly, it was just a minute’s walk from the hotel. La Mirage has an interesting history. The author Barbara Cartland used to dine here regularly when she would come to the area on holiday. She built up a friendship with the owner, at the time, Nancy Sinclair. If you notice the photograph on the wall of Nancy and Barbara, you’ll see that from a distance they look very similar, perhaps that is how they bonded? La Mirage was once a temple to pink, but now with Baran at the helm, it’s more subdued but still maintains enough quirky elements as a homage to its previous incarnation. The menu sticks to what they know they are good at – fish and seafood. We didn’t know about their seafood platter before, but will certainly be ordering one before visiting next time (needs to be requested 24 hours in advance).
The portions are large, tasty and well worth stopping in Helmsdale for.
Breakfast at the hotel
The following morning, a surprisingly large array of breakfast goodies met us at the self-service, retro dining room at The Bridge Inn.
Fully filled to the brim we headed to Helmsdale Railway station, a five-minute walk away, to catch the 9:43 to Wick for our final full day of the trip.