To mark 50 years of the 911, Ginny Weeks follows in Bond’s footsteps on a UK odyssey. (Published on MSN Cars Dec 2013)
It was early on a Monday morning and watching the Porsche 911 being lowered slowly off the delivery truck, my heart fluttered with excitement. Every so often I see a car that makes me stop and stare – and this was one of those moments. The 911’s iconic curved bonnet and sloping oval lights were dramatically revealed and stood before me was a bright yellow Carrera 4S. It’s a shape that has evolved over time, at once classic and contemporary. I was so engrossed that I hadn’t even noticed the mini crowd of schoolboys who were standing next to me, admiring the car and taking pictures.
Parked outside my flat alongside the usual gathering of Skodas and people carriers, the 911 looked fierce, but not ridiculous. Once the schoolboys had dispersed, I had a chance to have a good poke around our 911. For a minute, I was slightly intimidated; the 4S is a startling looking thing in bright yellow – all huge tyres, wide rear end and brutish attitude. But somehow it’s dainty and feminine at the same time: those famously compact dimensions, elegant lines and simple profile instantly reminded me of its predecessor, the 356. I left it for a minute, went inside, made a coffee and stared at it for a bit through the window, trying not to worry as my neighbours nervously parked alongside.
Looking back, I first fell in love with Porsche cars when I was 11 years old and completely obsessed over the PlayStation game Porsche Challenge. Since then I’ve been really keen to try all the Porsche models, but particularly the 911. With the 50th birthday celebrations fresh in our memory from the Frankfurt Motor Show, now was the perfect time to hold a proper road trip to mark the silver anniversary.
But first, practical matters: do I pretend that I ‘can’t’ get my boyfriend/photographer on the insurance? How do I pack so lightly that I can fit all of my belongings in the 911’s modest front boot? Where would we stay? After all, if we were going to Orkney in a £100k Porsche, we needed to up our game hotel-wise.
All things considered, boyfriend on the insurance (I can’t be that mean) and the day was set. We packed our (small) bags and we were ready to start our epic journey to Orkney.
Porsche 911 road trip: London to Edinburgh
Shunning the horribly dull M1 we instead took the A1, the backbone of Britain. This winding, historic road would give us an opportunity to test the car with never-ending roundabouts, twists and turns and potholes – as well as give us a more scenic view. According to Google Maps, the journey would take eight hours. It took us six-and-a-half, such is the 911’s mile-munching ability. I sat in the passenger seat during this section because secretly I knew it would mean I would get the better drives further north. Also I wanted to test how comfortable the seats were (verdict: very). It turned out that actually there were some glorious fast stretches on the top coastal section of the A1 between Amble and Edinburgh – perfect times to switch into Sport mode and enjoy the C4S’s exhaust noise. Damn.
Arriving in Edinburgh, we parked the 911 outside the ultra glamorous Hotel Missoni (http://www.hotelmissoni.com). As I gave the keys to the valet I’m sure I clocked him smile as he spotted the 911-shaped Porsche key. We checked into our room which being on the corner of the hotel, had the most incredible view of Edinburgh Castle through its floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The chic room was kitted out with an array of Missoni striped items from artwork to the dressing gowns. It’s all very Italian… I loved it.
After a delicious Bento box at Japanese restaurant Tang’s (try the king prawn tempura), we had an early night in preparation for another long day of driving.
Edinburgh to Inverness: Finding the James Bond Skyfall road
We’ve all seen that clip in Skyfall where Bond drives through the Highlands in his Aston Martin DB5…well I wanted to find the exact road where this was filmed. This turned out to be easier said than done. After a few hours’ drive northwest from Edinburgh along the A84 and A82, the landscape transformed from English-looking country fields to huge heather-clad mountains and stunning peaks. The roads morphed from standard A-roads to snake-like single lanes with the occasional passing place for overtaking, usually not far from a blind bend and a coach coming the other way. It’s times like this when the 911’s prodigous poke and great traction come in handy.
We arrived in Glencoe and after a fair bit of research and asking around we had whittled down ‘where to find Bond’ to a few basic directions. So, rather dubiously, we headed out early the next morning, holding out a small amount of hope. It was freezing cold and the thick, dark mist threw weird shadows on the road making it eerie but very exciting. The Highland valley was empty except for the gorgeous metallic clatter of the 911, twisting and turning with ferocious pace around every bend. It felt like perfect 911 country.
Somehow we found the Bond turning but were immediately put off by a large dead end sign. We carried on and actually there were in fact miles of windy single lane track to explore. This was the road. As the morning mist started to rise we saw the huge snow peaked mountains which hid the beautiful valley of Glen Etive, just like in the Bond film. The rich colours of the heather and crystal clear blue river looked stunning. We parked the car in the exact same spot as the DB5 had been in the film, took in the amazing view and decided that our mission was complete.
We’re not sure that Bond should switch from Anglophile Aston to Teutonic Porsche, but we appreciated the four-wheel drive traction and easy visibility on offer in the 911, as we threaded the C4S back to base.
The road to Inverness
The A82 provided a fantastic drive all the way to Inverness where we checked into the Loch Ness Lodge (http://www.loch-ness-lodge.com), a luxury B&B with probably one of the best views in Scotland – Loch Ness. The yellow Porsche sat perfectly with the plush surroundings, although it did look slightly footballer’s wife sat outside the chic elegance of the hotel. Don’t forget 911s are available in subtler hues.
After a treatment in the spa and a hugely indulgent afternoon tea, we pulled ourselves away from our gorgeous room and ventured into Inverness for dinner. The night drive back to the hotel was a real highlight. The empty, twisting road with mountains on one side and Loch Ness on the other is mind-blowing when empty of tourist traffic. This was one of those moments when I really noticed how perfectly balanced the 911 is – it’s a completely addictive drive. The brakes and the manual seven-speed gearbox make cornering so solid and satisfying, but fun too.
Inverness to Thurso: Bealach na Ba and Kylesku
Instead of travelling straight up the A9 to Thurso to get the ferry to Orkney we chose the long way around the West Coast of Scotland and headed along the A835 to Ullapool and then across the coastal road to Kylesku for one night. As the scenery gets more and more dramatic, the road offers some much needed long stretches, devoid of any traffic and where I feel my driving licence begin to burn through my pocket. How incredibly beautiful Scotland is in all its autumnal blazing colour.
The A835, A837 and A894 are the stuff petrolheads’ driving dreams are made of. A-roads in Scotland are nothing like those in England; often they are single tracks, along the sides of mountains or lochs with only passing places for traffic coming the other way. They are bumpy, hilly, twisting and unforgiving, but also exhilarating. The 911 was born for these roads. Any other car with even a slight twitchiness or lack of confidence wouldn’t pass the test.
We made one detour on the way to drive across the Bealach na Ba. The ‘only Alpine pass in Britain’ with the greatest ascent of any road climb in the UK, the Bealach na Ba (otherwise known as the Pass of the Cattle) is a must for keen drivers: all blind bends, sheer drops, steep slow inclines and no space to turn around, let alone let people pass. Along the way you have to stop to admire the incredible view. Climbing slowly up the mountain you can see out for miles and miles over Wester Ross, Skye, the Islands of Rum and the Outer Hebrides. Once you’re on you’re committed until you come out the other side where you reach the village of Applecross. This is about 30 minutes away.
Our reward was the Applecross Inn, a joy of a pub serving award-winning seafood and looking out over the turquoise waters of Applecross Bay and on to Skye. Parked right outside the pub, the car got its fair share of attention but even it was overshadowed by the scenery. A dozen crayfish and a portion of cod and chips later, we were ready to head on our final leg to Orkney.
The further north we went, the worse the weather got. Before we knew it we had 90 miles to do on a single track in torrential rain with terrible visibility. The risk of running over a sheep or possibly worse, careering off a cliff, was high. With any other car I would have been petrified; with the 911 my confidence grew – I was amazed at how good the grip was. This is really where the intelligent four-wheel drive came into its own. Porsche has offered the Carrera 4 since the 964 generation and we can see why it’s proved popular ever since with those living in slipperier climes.
We finally arrived at Kylesku, exhausted, for a night at the hugely welcoming Kylesku Hotel (http://www.kyleskuhotel.co.uk). It’s the sort of place locals come from miles around to have a pint with their dogs and warm up by the fire. The food was excellent – we devoured a seafood tasting menu with the contents caught in the neighbouring loch. In the morning we had breakfast whilst watching the seals splash about in the loch below. It was hard to leave.
We darted across the north coast towards Thurso where we would catch our ferry to Stromness in Orkney. On the way we detoured slightly to the picture-perfect Sango beach, near to the village of Durness and not far from Cape Wrath. We had seen a fair few gorgeous beaches on our trip so far but this one was special. With floury golden sand, a turquoise sea and jade green dunes it looked more like Thailand than Scotland.
Orkney in a Porsche 911
Finally in Orkney and we hit an horrendous storm. Going out to the car the following morning was like it had become a huge flytrap. Our bright yellow car was like a magnet – there were thousands of the flies all over it – every inch. We got into the car and drove as quickly as possible to blow them off and thankfully it didn’t happen again.
Surprisingly there were a few good stretches of Orkney road where you could get up some speed, but inevitably you ran out of land after a while and had to turn back. The place is full of fascinating history and has so much to see. We visited the Churchill Barriers (built in World War II by Winston Churchill to protect the islands from German attack), the Italian Chapel built by Italian POWs, the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, the Standing Stones of Stenness and the quaint village atmosphere of Kirkwall and Stromness, but really you could stay there for weeks and still have more to see.
After five days of drinking our fair share of local whisky and eating far too much Orkney crab, we were off again – this time back to London, with just a one-night stop in the Highland village of Killiecrankie, staying at the Killiecrankie Hotel. Blasting down the A9 we switched between the very economical, overdriven seventh gear and Sports Plus mode where you could listen to the glorious exhaust sound through the gears. Even though we’d had the car for a while at this point we still weren’t tired of that noise. I’m not sure you ever would be.
The Killiecrankie Hotel (http://www.killiecrankiehotel.co.uk) is the sort of place you wish you could own, too. It’s located in the picturesque Pass of Killiecrankie and surrounded by acres of big-tree woodland. The house itself is warm and welcoming with a fantastic restaurant – try the venison steak, cooked to perfection by chef Mark Easton. The bedrooms have the sort of beds that only great hotels seem to have – big and luxuriously comfortable with crisp white Egyptian cotton sheets. And to top it off there’s a cute resident Spaniel called Beanie.
And so began our sad trip back to London, taking eight hours this time, as we hit terrible traffic. Two weeks and 2,000 miles later, we’d spent £450 on fuel – not a bad sum considering our ‘spirited’ driving and classy mode of transport.
I was growing more and more fond of the 911 and couldn’t shake that back-to-school feeling, knowing I had to return it the next day. The following morning when the driver drove the car away I felt sad indeed. Would I have one? Yes, without a doubt.
Miles travelled: 2,030
Cost of fuel: £450.53
Driving hours: 52
Percy Pigs consumed: 30
Other 911s spotted en route: 3
Lochs visited: 23
Things we didn’t like: sat-nav has issues with pointing north, you can hear the petrol tank sloshing around when you brake.