ARCTIC Ocean surf crashes into the sand. The stiff north-easterly feels as cold as the grey-green waves. Signs of the old MoD presence are scattered across the landscape, and homes totter above clifftops rather than nestling in bays. Scotland’s north coast is very different to the west, even in geology, with a rare outcropping of limestone giving patches of bright-green turf.

I have been travelling for four days on the North Coast 500, trying to get an idea of the economic and social impact of the driving route launched in May 2015. It has since taken off at rocket pace to become known as “Scotland’s answer to Route 66”, a driving “must” touted in international glossy magazines.

I’m at Durness, where the road turns east for Thurso. Balnakeil craft village at Durness is a former military base, now home to artists and small business owners who have transformed functional 1950s buildings into a cosy clutter. It’s a place selling mainly to visitors, where I would expect folk to be delighted with the NC500.

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But Anita Wilson, of Cast-Off Crafts, says: “They’re not staying long, they want to be served a bit quicker, there’s less time for our pace of life and the talking. This place has its own rhythm and it’s disrupted.”

NC500 does bring business so she doesn’t want to sound churlish, but like many residents complains about poor driving by NC500ers. And a busy day sees the local shop stripped by 3pm: “It’s like the locusts have been.”

The paintings of her neighbour Ishbel MacDonald show local scenes in soft colours. Her customers usually roam the area for a few days, then buy pictures that reflect the scenery they enjoy.

Not the NC500ers: “It’s quite superficial,” she says. “Because people are zooming through they don’t get to know the landscape, and the pictures don’t mean so much to them. I’m not sure the NC500 helps me.”

Just outside Durness is a cluster of camper vans, a chance to ask if the folk in the big white boxes are rushing round the road. A sign on Ron and Joan Wood’s van says: Adventure Before Dementia. “We want to do the NC500 because we might not get another chance,” laughs Joan, from Yorkshire.

They are taking several weeks on the trip, as are their neighbours, fellow retirees Nigel and Lisa Simmons from South Wales. Nigel speaks for all four when he says. “We can stop where we like, for as long as we like in places. Taking our time: it’s definitely the best way to do it.”

Just east of Durness I walk a superb beach enclosed in gnarly gneiss cliffs with perfect green turf at the back for camping, and feel a twinge of envy for the time-rich pensioners: I must be in Wick that night.

At Bettyhill the scenery becomes duller, the rolling Caithness country, but the road gets wider, and you can quickly pass the moors and the ugliness of Dounreay.

I’m aiming for Dunnet Bay Distillers, between Thurso and John O’Groats. It was started in 2014 with a plan for owner Martin Murray to build it up for three years between stints offshore in the oil industry, then go full time.

But Murray and wife Claire hadn’t reckoned with the NC500 plus a sudden growth in the popularity of artisan gins such as theirs.

In their first year they sold four times more than expected of their Rock Rose Gin. “After six months I went full time – we went from a team of two and a one-eyed dog to a team of 12 including three full-time,” says Murray.

Murray thought he would struggle with on-site sales, but says the NC500 brought a surge. “We now typically sell in two days the amount that I had expected in the business plan to sell from the shop in a month.”

Beyond here is John O’Groats. I arrive well primed to be disappointed, but I still am. There are dull-looking shops, a chippy van, and a vast empty car park before the famous finger-post. A shop assistant says the NC500 has boosted sales hugely; and weirdly an all-year-round Christmas shop, selling all things Yuletide, does well.

Next morning in Wick I seek non-tourist business to see what they make of NC500, but it’s hard to escape. At an ironmongers they say there’s more caravan and campervan users than ever coming in for ropes, spades... At the Blythwood Charity shop assistant manager Lorraine Mailey says: “All the tourists off the North Coast 500 love to come in for a good rummage.”

And at Jack’s Flooring emporium Graeme Bain swears the new route has had no effect – “They’re no’ taking laminate floors home as souvenirs” – then shows me a website for a holiday cottage heavily marketed to NC500 travellers, for which he just supplied £1000-worth of carpet.

The A9 south is dull but dotted with brown signs advertising tourist attractions, which must, I think, be switched on to the new wave of all-season visitors. I see a poster from the road declaring a clan museum open but when I pull in I see the subscript: June to September. It’s May.

An elderly NC500 traveller and clan member getting back into his car points to the other part of the sign inviting us to “step back in time.”

“It’d be useful if we could step back in time to when it was open,” he says drily.

South again the landscape lifts, with huge drifts of glowing gorse streaming down the hillsides. Despite sunshine, the sea at Brora is colder than the west coast for a swim, and I reach my last stop, Dornoch.

It’s the Highlands, Jim, but not as we know it: the north and west Sutherland that I know is barren, often sodden, and insect-ridden. Its capital has some of the lowest rainfall in the UK; no midges; solid, two-storey stone houses; a cathedral; and an air of wealth.

As well as prosperity Dornoch seems better-prepared for NC500 than elsewhere. The town has already found ways of squeezing cash from cruise passengers bussed in from the port of Invergordon for a 40-minute stop, so boosting the local economy with overnight stayers should be easy.

Retired engineer Joan Bishop chairs Dornoch Area Community Interest Company (DACIC), a voluntary group promoting tourism. “It worried us when we realised we were a couple of miles off the NC500 because we thought we might miss out,” says Bishop. “But in fact people want to come off it and explore and have their cups of tea and possibly stay, and we’re quite accessible.”

The large brown signs DACIC campaigned for pointing to local attractions from the A9 have helped, and the team assiduously promotes Dornoch’s place on food and drink “trails.”

NC500 has coincided with other tourism initiatives, but since its inception traffic through Dornoch visitor centre has risen 33%.

“From being worried that we would miss out, everyone is very pleased and grateful. Over the last 18 months there have been about 30 jobs created related to tourism. It’s not all just the NC500 – but it has been a big help.”

The success of the NC500 brand led to the creation, by not-for-profit founder North Highlands Initiative, of the promotional business North Coast 500, based in Inverness where my trip started and now ends.

NHI’s Tom Campbell, who first thought of a touring route around the north, now heads NC500 as managing director.

It has to fund itself through members’ fees – a big hotel can pay £1500 a year – and activities such as merchandise sales. Does that include the garish T-shirts on sale on the route emblazoned with rally-style designs and the words NC500, which shops and hotels say sell well?

They’re not the official merchandise and are in breach of copyright, says Campbell. He hopes businesses will stock instead his classier offerings, launched last month, but he will take legal action over illicit shirts if needed.

For the future he talks of electric cars, providing charging points; encouraging people to explore the inland areas; and makes the shortage of beds a virtue as it makes the route more “exclusive”.

He is aware of concern about the growing number of vehicles on the road, but turns talk of the 12 per cent increase in traffic last season, measured by Highland Council, immediately to increases in business turnover ranging from 10 per cent to 240 per cent.

“It’s extending the season to the end of November, starting again in February: nine-month hotels are becoming 12-month hotels and that’s underpinning sustainability and jobs,” he says.

A survey of tourist businesses on the route got replies from only a third, but those planned to create 200 new jobs this summer. Campbell says: “Two hundred is a great number but you could extrapolate to a much higher one.”

All around the NC500 there are complaints about crumbling roads, but Tracey Urry, highways boss at Highlands Council, says a study of the economic benefits of the route will underpin a bid for extra funding.

Urry, Campbell and others believe this could turn out to be a huge opportunity for road improvement, which could boost areas of the economy other than tourism.

And Campbell knows that for the NC500 to grow, that narrow, sometimes crumbling strip of tarmac that is at the heart of the NC500 has to be maintained and improved.

“Of course,” he says. “The last thing anyone wants is to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Part 1 of our North Coast 500 focus is at

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/transport/15368788.On_the_road__Has_the_North_Coast_500_been_a_blessing_or_a_curse_/