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You Want to Visit These Stunning Islands, Whether You Know It or Not
The world is a vast, beautiful place. Regardless of how well-traveled you are, there are undoubtedly places throughout the world that you have never heard of yet would immediately put on your travel bucket list if you become aware of their existence.
Get ready for a list of exactly those places. After all, who doesn’t love a scenic beach, temperate water and an abundance of shady trees?
Peru: Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru, two countries located in South America. The lake itself lies within the Andes Mountains, which provide stunning views and help feed the lake through streams and rivers.
Within Lake Titicaca is a series of 70 man-made islands, properly known as the Uros Islands. They were constructed with totora, a subspecies of the giant bulrush sedge plant found prevalent in the region. The Uros tribe lives on the floating islands, and you are in for quite a visit if you get the chance to see them.
Canary Islands: Graciosa
Graciosa is a sun-baked island in the Canary Islands of Spain. It is a volcanic island, which is part of the reason why it is less populous than many of the other Canary Islands more prone to tourist invasion. The relative lack of dense people makes it an ideal destination for a vacation escape.
As of 2018, Graciosa (or La Graciosa, as it is called in Spanish) had just 721 residents, and it only recently became an official member of the Canary Islands. Its beaches are beautiful and virtually empty, so get it while the getting is good!
American Samoa is a U.S. territory that spans seven islands in the South Pacific Ocean, and it is a bastion of wildlife and culture. With tropical weather and cool Pacific seas, it’s a dream vacation spot.
The United States maintains a national park in the island chain, and there is plenty to do and see if you choose to visit. There are beaches, rainforests and reefs galore and no shortage of opportunities to explore them. Most Samoans are also fluent in English.
Montenegro: Aman Sveti Stefan Island
Most Americans do not consider the Balkan nations to be bucket-list-level travel destinations, but perhaps Aman Sveti Stefan Island in Montenegro could change that perception. Montenegro borders the Adriatic Sea, a body of water that is home to the stunning Aman Sveti Stefan Island.
The beaches are made of pink sand, and awe-inducing mountain views. Aman Sveti Stefan Island is an 80-acre estate connected to the mainland by a short bridge. The island is private, so you’ll have to book a reservation, but the cliff-top pool and abundance of secret coves may just be worth the money.
Australia: Lord Howe Island
Lord Howe Island is an oasis of beauty that lies within the Tasman Sea and is owned by Australia. It’s known for subtropical forests that are home to a vast array of wildlife as well as sandy beaches and astoundingly clear waters.
If you’re willing to brave the travel halfway across the world, then Lord Howe Island is guaranteed to leave a lifelong impression on you. Ned’s Beach on the north side of the island offers coral reefs rich with marine life, while the island itself is bursting with first-class views.
Fiji is one of those islands in the South Pacific that people know is a popular travel destination without really knowing much about it — maybe because of the water brand of the same name. Here’s why you want to visit Fiji, and especially the island of Laucala: coral reefs, crystal-clear lagoons, an abundance of wildlife and a first-class resort.
Laucala is special in that it harnesses the natural beauty of Fiji and combines it with modern amenities. Australian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, who co-founded Red Bull, bought the island in 2003, and the private island is now an unforgettable resort.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines: Mustique Island
St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a multi-island nation in the Caribbean, and it includes Mustique Island, one of the most scenic destinations in the world. Mustique Island is private, so you’ll have to book a reservation if you hope to gain entry, but there’s a reason why people pay to go.
It’s home to several beaches, including Macaroni Beach, Pasture Bay Beach and Endeavour Bay Beach. Each one has pillow-soft white sand, an abundance of marine life and seabirds and temperate waters. Shops and trails round out the vacation experience.
Dominica is one of the islands that make up the Lesser Antilles, the same island chain that includes St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It’s characterized by mountainous (but not rugged) terrain, natural hot springs and wildlife-rich tropical rainforests. The volcanically-warmed waters of Boiling Lake in Morne Trois Pitons National Park are a unique experience for visitors and just one of the attractive features of Dominica.
You can also take the trip to Dominica’s capital, Roseau, where they have botanical gardens and colorfully-painted houses from the colonial era. Consider Dominica if you’re looking for an island getaway without being surrounded by tons of tourists.
Palau lies in the western Pacific Ocean. Depending on which islands in Palau that you choose to visit, you’ll be treated to soft sandy beaches, various mountains that you can hike through to find stunning views and an abundance of wildlife, much of which is unique to the islands.
The archipelago of Palau contains approximately 340 islands, some of which are larger than others. Koror is the island’s commercial center and is a logical launching point for those looking to go island hopping.
The Solomon Islands played a critical role in the Pacific battles of World War II and present a unique combination of tropical beauty and history as a result. For history buffs looking to go on a tropical island vacation, you can do no better than a jaunt to the Solomon Islands.
Guadalcanal is an island in the Solomon Islands and is home to the country’s capital, Honiara. You can find a memorial to fallen Allied soldiers on Guadalcanal as well as world-class scuba diving sites where you can view two sunken Japanese vessels at Bonegi Beach.
Micronesia, known more formally as the Federated States of Micronesia, is a nation in the Pacific that is comprised of more than 600 individual islands. The good news is that should you choose to take a vacation to Micronesia, you’ve got options.
The nation is made up of four states: Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk, and Yap. Each one has its fair share of idyllic, palm-tree-lined beaches where you can wedge your toes into the sand, break out the novel you’ve been waiting to start, take a sip of a daiquiri (assuming they serve them) and relax in paradise for a while.
Tuvalu is an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean that is technically part of the British Commonwealth. It’s composed of nine islands, and it’s known for reef islands and atolls that are prime for snorkeling and scuba diving. The capital of Tuvalu, Funafuti, also contains the Funafuti Conservation Area, where visitors can view stunning wildlife.
Tuvalu also played a role in the WWII battles in the Pacific, and if you visit Tuvalu, you can visit various WWII sites should you so choose. Tuvalu: sun, sand and history. What’s not to love?
Kiribati: South Tarawa
Kiribati is an island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The majority of Kiribati’s residents live on the Tarawa atoll. South Tarawa is the capital and hub of Kiribati, and it’s also underappreciated as a travel destination for those looking for an island trip that isn’t a tourist trap.
South Tarawa is composed of a string of islets located between Tarawa Lagoon to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Within these islets, there is plenty of tropical beauty.
Thailand: Ko Lipe
Thailand is a place of natural beauty and elephants. It’s also home to postcard-grade beaches that will leave you fantasizing about returning long after your vacation ends. Ko Lipe is home to many of those beaches
Ko Lipe lies within Tarutao National Marine Park and is composed of several small islands surrounded by waters rich in coral and marine life. The Pattaya and Hat Chao Le beaches are two standouts, but there is no shortage of beautiful sandy resting spots on Ko Lipe.
New Zealand: Stewart Island
New Zealand is known for its rolling hills, abundant sheep and as the land where Lord of the Rings was filmed. However, New Zealand offers a diverse array of climates and ecosystems, and Stewart Island one tropical site that is worth exploring.
Known as Rakiura to the Maori, Stewart Island is the third-largest island in all of New Zealand. However, as of 2013, Stewart Island had a population of only 381 people, so expect a fair amount of privacy if you venture there. It’s also a bird watcher’s paradise.
Chile: Navarino Island
Chile may not be the first nation that comes to mind when you begin thinking of island vacation destinations, and that is why Navarino Island is a hidden gem. The island sits between the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego to the north and Cape Horn to the south.
Those who enjoy sea kayaking and experiencing a diverse population of native birds will be thoroughly satisfied by a trip to Navarino Island. The temperature at Navarino Island rarely breaks 50 degrees Fahrenheit, however, so it’s better for those who don’t mind cool weather.
Cambodia: Six Senses Krabey Island
Six Senses Krabey Island is a private island in Cambodia where you can enjoy a Pacific paradise. The resort was skillfully constructed amid Cambodia’s considerable natural beauty, so much so that you will have difficulty finding where nature ends and the resort begins.
The island lies within the Gulf of Thailand and is only three miles from Ream National Park. There is plenty to do and plenty to see, but the Krabey Island experience is certainly not cheap, so keep that in mind before putting this on your to-visit list.
Martinique is an island nation in the Caribbean that is part of the Lesser Antilles archipelago. Martinique is an overseas department of France, and it is accordingly imbued with French culture, from the language to the architecture and beyond.
It’s not the most remote of islands on this list, but its interesting blend of cultures make it a truly unique experience. One area of the island, La Savane, also boasts a fantastic garden park for Monty Don enthusiasts as well as tropical rainforests and beaches.
Palawan is a province in the Philippines that is composed of a number of islands interspersed among crystal-clear water ripe for snorkeling, trolling lazily in a boat or just kicking back on the beach. It also boasts several wildlife sanctuaries for the ecologically inclined.
Palawan is truly for water lovers, as getting to most places involves some measure of water travel. Then again, this list is about the most beautiful islands that you may not be aware of, so odds are that you are fond of water, at least to some extent.
Canary Islands: Lanzarote
Lanzarote is another one of the Canary Islands, which are located off of the western coast of Africa and part of Spain. If you’re looking for a warm-weather paradise, you can’t go wrong with any of the Canary Islands, Lanzarote included. The weather is never anything but warm, and the abundant beaches on Lanzarote aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The landscape has been crafted over the years by volcanoes, which means that visitors can experience lava-formed caverns and other volcanic remnants along with beautiful beaches, sunshine and warm water. What more could you ask for?
Mexico: Isla Holbox
Mexico isn’t exactly a well-kept secret when it comes to vacation time. Because of its proximity to the United States and relative affordability even when travel expenses are considered, tourism hot spots like Cabo San Lucas and Cancun fill up quickly and can become madhouses when vacation seasons roll around.
Isla Holbox, on the other hand, receives less attention, and that’s a good thing for vacationers who want to truly relax. Located north of the Yucatan Peninsula, Isla Holbox is part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve and borders the Yalahau Lagoon. That spells beaches and marine life.
Portugal: The Azores
The Azores are an autonomous archipelago owned by Portugal, and boy are they scenic. Located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the Azores are a mix of beautiful lakes, stunning and plentiful marine life and outstanding weather. If you get a chance to visit the Azores, you won’t soon forget it.
On your checklist of things to do should be a visit to the Gorreana Tea Plantation and the vineyards of Mt. Pico. No matter where you go in the Azores, however, you’ll find postcard views, abundant wildlife and perfect swimming holes.
Hawaii is arguably the most beautiful part of the United States. It’s also located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which gives it a landscape that is unlike any other state in the union. Kauai is just one of Hawaii’s islands, and it earned the nickname “The Garden Isle” because of its immense natural beauty and vegetation.
The cliffs of the Na Pali Coast are a sight to behold, and odds are you’ve seen them in a movie or two filmed in Hawaii. Beaches abound, and nature-induced relaxation is easy to find.
France: Reunion Island
Reunion Island is another overseas French department. It’s located in the Indian Ocean, and its immense beauty — including striking peaks and overwhelmingly green vegetation — can make you feel like you’ve walked into a prehistoric land.
If you are into untouched natural beauty, then Reunion Island should be on your travel bucket list. It has an extinct volcano), as well as reefs, rainforests and plenty of beaches. Reunion Island packs a lot onto a single rock, and it all comes together quite beautifully.
Denmark: Faroe Islands
The Faroe Islands are a territory of Denmark composed of 18 volcanic islands. Located in the North Atlantic between Norway and Iceland, the Faroe Islands aren’t a warm environment that many island hoppers seek, but they are majestic nonetheless.
Ferries, tunnels and bridges connect the islands, showing the ingenuity of Danish engineering while making for one heck of a scenic journey as you visit different islands. You can enjoy an exotic mix of birdlife as you take in the humbling landscapes, including majestic cliffs, vast valleys and massive pastures.
Pantelleria is a tiny volcanic island located in the Strait of Sicily within the Meditteranean Sea. It has a small population, making it an attractive travel destination for those who truly want to get away.
Though it has a rocky terrain and no true beaches, Pantelleria offers some stunning natural gems, including a lake in the middle of a volcanic crater. Fed by hot springs, the lake is filled with mud thought to have a therapeutic effect. Plus, it’s Italy, so the food isn’t bad, either.
While vacation spots in Greece such as Mykonos get most of the love from travelers, Ikaria is an island worth adding to your itinerary. Just take one look at the stunning blue water and white sand and tell yourself that you don’t want to visit Ikaria. You can’t do it.
Sometimes spelled Icaria, the island is located in the Aegean Sea. The story of one man who moved home to Icaria after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in his mid-60s and may have lived into his 100s (records differ) testifies to Icaria’s life-giving properties.
United Kingdom: The Isles of Scilly
Envision the island vacation of your dreams. Does it involve the United Kingdom? For most, the answer is probably not, but consider what the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago located off the Coast of Cornwall in southwest England, have to offer visitors and residents.
You’ve got beautiful sandy beaches, a range of beautiful plants and wildlife and even a Valhalla Museum where remnants of shipwrecked boats from ages past are displayed. It really is a cool place and is far from the cliche island vacations that everybody else has done before.
Don’t let the name fool you, because the island of Sylt in Germany is way more than just silt. Located within the Frisian archipelago in the North Sea, Sylt has lots to offer travelers. In addition to beautiful beaches and European culture and amenities, it also has its share of history.
The Old Frisian House is set up to show travelers what life on Sylt was like before the 1900s. (Spoiler: it wasn’t a picnic). If you visit, you’ll also want to check out Denghoog, a passage from the neolithic age.
Croatia is another surprising Balkan paradise. Yes, Croatia is one of the most visually stunning places you can visit, so much so that Dubrovnik, Croatia, was the main filming site for King’s Landing in Game of Thrones.
Vis is a Croatian island located in the Adriatic Sea. There you can view the remains of ancient city walls as well as Levaman Fortress and exhibits displaying artifacts from the fourth century, B.C. Oh yeah, and Vis is also beautiful.
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10 Fun Facts About the Hawaiian Islands
Hawaii may be a state, but it’s one of the most isolated from the rest of the country. For that reason, people may not get to visit, and many more don’t know too much about it beyond the fact that it’s a gorgeous paradise and beautiful place for a vacation. With that in mind, here are 10 fun and interesting facts about the Hawaiian Islands.
Most people know that Hawaii is made up of eight main islands: Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, Lanai, Kauai, Moloaki, Kahoolawe and Niihau. But what you may not realize is that it’s actually a cluster of approximately 137 islands, notes Matador Network. Many are much smaller, including some made out of coral reef.
Hawaii often feels like it’s isolated from the rest of the United States because it’s the only state you can’t get to by land. That’s because it’s actually one of the most isolated places in the world. The closest land to the island chain is 2,000 miles away. So, when it feels like you’re a world away, you almost are.
If you have a fear of snakes, you may want to consider relocating to Hawaii. Snakes are not native to any of the islands. And don’t even think about trying to bring one to the state. It could cost you over $200,000 in fines and several years in jail, notes Matador Network.
Snakes aren’t native to Hawaii and neither are wallabies. However, you can find some of these Australian creatures living in the wilds of Oahu. Legend has it they escaped from the Honolulu Zoo and started a colony of their own.
Hawaii vs. Key West
If you ask most people where the southernmost point of the United States is located, they’ll probably point you to Key West in south Florida. That’s actually the southernmost point in the continental U.S. Hawaii is farther south.
Think all coffee comes from countries outside the United States? Think again. Hawaii grows everyone’s favorite caffeinated beverage. Hawaiian coffee has a strong flavor and is typically a bit higher-priced than most other kinds.
Surfing is popular in coastal spots all over the world, including Hawaii. But few people know the islands are actually where it originated. The first recorded info about surfing is from 1779, though many believe it may date all the way back to the year 4 A.D., notes Discover Oahu.
Next time you visit Hawaii, skip the postcards and send your friends back home some coconuts. The island actually mails them out. You can even decorate them how you want.
The state flower of Hawaii is the yellow hibiscus. It thrives in the state’s warm climate. However, each of the main Hawaiian islands has its own official flower and color.
If you’re planning to come to Hawaii, don’t expect to hop on a boat or plane with your furry friend. Hawaii is a rabies-free state, and in an effort to keep it that way, the government has many rules and regulations about bringing dogs and other pets here.
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A Guide to Vacationing on the Orkney Islands
Quintessentially Scottish coastlines, whiskey distilleries, and Stone Age remains are just a ferry ride away.
In the North Sea just beyond the tip of Scotland, the Orkney Islands often fail to register with tourists. Almost never are they included on any list of Europe's highlights , but why? Because, despite their "island" title, they don't offer white-sand, umbrella-clad beaches, or a balmy Mediterranean climate à la Greece and Spain?
Instead, this scattered archipelago of 70 islands — two thirds of which are uninhabited — has a time-worn, slightly mystical charm of its own. On the Orkney Islands, visitors are rewarded with storm-battered cliffs, ancient stone circles, and ominous-looking "sea stacks" rising from the churning blue water like swords.
Though the Orkney Islands are just 10 miles off the mainland and entirely accessible by ferry from the northern coast, including from Gills Bay and John O'Groats, or by plane from Aberdeen and major U.K. cities, getting there typically requires a few hours and multiple modes of transportation. The farthest-north ferry terminals (i.e., the ones that offer 40- to 60-minute rides) are at least a 2.5-hour drive from Inverness, and the perhaps more-convenient ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall takes six hours. The quickest way to travel to the islands is via a 45-minute flight from Inverness to Kirkwall.
Rest assured, the journey is worth it. On Orkney, you'll find a thriving capital with shops and tour operators, frequent ferry service connecting the islands, and one of Europe's highest concentrations of ancient Neolithic sites , all of which are open to visitors. So, ready to plan a trip? Here's everything you need to know before traveling to the Orkney Islands.
Visit an ancient site.
Mainland (the largest of the Orkney Islands) is packed with prehistoric treasures and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Start off with a visit to the Ring of Brodgar , a stone circle that, at an estimated 4,500 years old, is similar in age to Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Somehow, 27 of its original 60 stones remain standing after all this time, and the experience of walking around these ancient monuments is nothing short of breathtaking.
Nearby Skara Brae is a preserved Stone Age settlement that was uncovered in 1850 when a particularly violent storm blew away all the sand that had concealed it for centuries. Here, you can make out walls and furnishings that were hand-laid by humans more than 5,000 years ago. And if you like the idea of sleeping alongside the prehistoric ruins, it's possible to rent an apartment inside Skaill House , a lovely 17th-century farm manor that sits 600 feet from the archeological site.
Go for a coastal hike.
With the raging North Sea beneath you and a particularly vibrant wildflower display occurring each spring, the Orkney Islands make for very memorable hiking. On western Mainland, you can walk the rugged coastline on a 10-mile path that takes you right to the edge of the cliffs. It offers fantastic views of the sea stacks, those teetering rock formations hewn from the island by the waves.
For something more guided, book a tour with the private company Orkney Uncovered , which offers themed expeditions all over the islands.
Take the world's shortest flight.
Once you've made it to the Orkney Islands from mainland Scotland, there are plenty of ways to get around. Travelers can jump on a bus, catch additional ferries, or head off in a rental car. But much like in the Faroe Islands to the north, there are also inter-island flights, these ones operated by a Scottish airline called Loganair . Among the destinations (like Eday, North Ronaldsay, Sanday, and Stronsay) is a 1.7-mile route that connects Westray to Papa Westray. At just under two minutes, it's officially the world's shortest flight .
Spend the night in Kirkwall.
The capital of Orkney, Kirkwall, is a city rich with culture and history. Records show it was an important trade center as early as the 11th century. Today, it's a bustling commercial hub, with restaurants, bars, theaters, and a nice mix of shops selling locally designed jewelry, crafts, and apparel. At St. Magnus Cathedral , a Viking-era sandstone cathedral dating back to 1137, visitors who sign up for a guided tour are permitted to climb the bell tower. Among Kirkwall's many lodging options are the family-run Ayre Hotel and the Victorian-themed Kirkwall Hotel , which both overlook the marina.
Beyond Kirkwall, it's also worth making the 20-minute drive to Stromness, the second most-populated town in Orkney. With its rows of tiny, centuries-old stone houses set against the water, it boasts one of the dreamiest harbor views in all of Europe.
Go camping in the summer.
With so much open space, it's unsurprising that many travelers want to sleep under the stars during the warmer months. Book a glamping pod or campsite at Wheems Organic Farm , an eco-lodge on a 200-year-old working farm. The property faces the sea on the island South Ronaldsay, offering unparalleled views of the surrounding cliffs and, depending on the time of year, the Northern Lights . While the property's winning feature is its remoteness, a causeway connects South Ronaldsay to Mainland, so you're never more than a half-hour drive back to Kirkwall.
Drink Scottish whiskey.
In true Scottish fashion, there are several whiskey distilleries on the Orkney Islands. Most famous of them is Highland Park , which until recently was the U.K.'s northernmost distillery. ( Kimbland Distillery , on the Orkney island of Sanday, is about 20 miles further north.) Highland Park's single malt has won numerous awards and accolades — and, because it's been making the stuff since 1798, no one is really questioning the distillery's expertise. During a tour of the facilities, visitors learn all about how the barley is steeped in water fresh from a nearby creek, then aged in Spanish oak casks seasoned with sherry. And yes, the tour ends with a tasting.
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Scotland’s finest: island-hopping in Orkney
Orkney – just voted Scotland’s ‘best island’ – is home to archaeological riches, lunar landscapes and silver-white sands. It’s a place to get away from it all – even if you live there
T his morning, before breakfast, I was out on the water: silk-smooth in front, and streaming away behind, the ferry cutting a path from the island of Hoy, via the island of Graemsay, to the island where I live, confusingly called Mainland.
Though this name creates some conversational ambiguity (are they referring to mainland Orkney, or the Scottish mainland, seven miles to the south across the Pentland Firth?), I’ve always admired the way it subtly shifts the centre of gravity closer to home. By considering all else relative to our own largest island, it resets the dial on what it means to be remote. Remote, us? Hardly. We’re at the heart of the action.
Thus Orkney Mainland – with its gently rolling hills, inland lochs and lush pasture – represents the bustling metropolis, and Hoy the holiday destination: a place we mainlanders might retreat to when we tire of life in inner-city Kirkwall (pop. 9,200) or Stromness (pop. 2,200). When I arrived on Hoy last night, the sun was sinking behind the hills to the west. The sky luminescent, opalescent – as if inlaid with mother of pearl – and the red sandstone cliffs set aglow like the embers of an enormous fire.
With travel having been so difficult over the past year, more of us have been turning eyes afresh upon our local areas. Here, travel between the islands resumed long before the route to mainland Scotland, and so it was with a novel sense of freedom that we began to explore new lands close to home. Now, with domestic travel opening up, the Orkney Islands are available to other Britons seeking adventure, without taking a risk on the ever-shifting red-amber-green lists. And, after being voted “best Scottish island” in a Which? survey, they’re likely to get even more attention this summer.
To get to Rackwick , Orkney’s most iconic beach, from the pier, we had to cut across Hoy, through an empty glen of heather and moss, marked with the linear scars of centuries of peat cutting. (We hitched a ride with friends, although keen hikers can take the scenic route, following a four-mile track between smooth, curvaceous hills and past a small upland loch of still, black water.) White-tailed sea eagles nest there, and from their perch, high on the crags, they look out across a raw, almost lunar landscape, scattered with vast, erratic boulders.
A single-track road trickles through the bottom of the valley like a stream, and emerges in a huddle of houses that overlook the beach. We paused long enough for a glass of wine, brought over in our backpacks, before dashing down onto the sand, shedding our clothes and wading into the water, naked. The sea, as ever, was gasping-cold. As we struck out, parallel with the beach, a seal bobbed up and swam alongside us, with a curious, almost canine, manner.
We stayed in a house overlooking the bay, arriving just before sunset and leaving not long after dawn. One night is all you need sometimes; afterwards, you return to “real life” sharper and re-energised. Nothing is more effective at marking this time apart than a boat journey, no matter how long – from Stromness to north Hoy takes 30 minutes: the effort of getting there, in my opinion, is what makes islands so singularly restorative. And there are plenty of islands in Orkney: around 70, depending on how you choose to define them, 20 of them inhabited. Each has its own identity: Rousay , the “Egypt of the north”, with its wealth of archaeological riches; Sanday , with its expanses of silver-white sand, its turquoise waters, its wind-whipped dunes; Shapinsay , with its perfect patchwork squares of field. Each one deserving of special attention.
The last time I took an inter-island trip, I travelled to North Ronaldsay , Orkney’s most northerly outpost, with my parents and partner Rich. It’s 30 miles, or a three-hour ferry, from Kirkwall. That’s a wild and wonderful journey, which you must take if you have the time. As we were day-tripping we flew in one of Loganair’s dinky, eight-seater planes instead. The flight alone is worth a day-trip in itself: a low-altitude journey with million-dollar views, as the little propeller plane skips from island to island, dropping off post and picking up passengers.
As with most of the smaller islands, the North Ronaldsay airport is a simple affair: a cruciform landing strip, a ragged windsock, a utilitarian waiting room. Airport staff work part time, interrupting their day on the farm or in the shop to man the airfield.
North Ronaldsay is most famous for its seaweed-eating sheep, and sure enough we found them wandering the rocky strand: tawny and tan and mahogany brown. They live confined to the shore by way of a dry-stone wall, which skirts the island’s perimeter and must be repaired and rebuilt each summer by the local sheep dyke warden, Sian Tarrant, and a team of volunteers.
We struggled through hail across a gleaming beach, past a dozen basking, brindled seals, to an iron age broch standing sentry on a rocky headland, and stared out across the waves. That day was dark and foreboding, a wintry wind bundling in over the North Sea, and we stood there considering the depths for a few minutes, before turning back and retreating to the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory – which also serves as a local cafe, bar, campsite and guesthouse – to warm up with tea and mutton broth (all the better for being seaweed fed).
But if one is going to island-hop by plane, however, the highlight must surely be the world’s shortest scheduled passenger flight, between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray. From take off to landing is 1.7 miles, shorter than the length of the runways at Heathrow, and takes around 90 seconds by my watch. Papa Westray (known as “Papay”) is the “island off an island off an island” that stole the show in Amy Liptrot’s stunning sobriety memoir The Outrun , and it’s an utter delight. Being four miles by one mile, you could walk round it in a day, if you kept a move on, but despite its small size it has a vibrant, artsy community, with a well-known annual festival and a heritage/craft centre in the old kelp store .
We wandered the Knap o’ Howar , a Neolithic stone dwelling which is the oldest of its kind in northern Europe, before picking our way back to the airfield: its boundaries marked, rather charmingly, by painted drystone walls. And then, down came the little plane, and out came the folding step, and in we hopped – and we trundled back down the runway towards Mainland, back to the centre of the known world.
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Hoping you can help! Thanks.
Hoy, Sanday and Stronsay are worth visiting....
I'd second Hoy and Sanday. If you haven't been to Hoy it probably has the most to offer after the mainland in terms of things to visit, walks and the scenery is fantastic, especially down to the Southern point of the Island. Sanday is really nice with the beaches and a reasonable sized area to explore. I do like Shapinsay but it is very small and while there are things to see if you want to spend a day there it is probably best to plan a walk around part of the coast to fill the day. My favourite island is North Ronaldsay, it feels remote and it has plenty of wildlife and good beaches.
I'd agree with Alex's suggestion of Hoy.It also has a real 'Highland' look about it and Rackwick Bay is a superb sight.
The walk out to the Old Man of Hoy is well worth considering too.
The only pair of sea-eagles are on Hoy (or have been for the last 2 years or so).
We spent two nights on Papa Westray, and since you will be on Westray you could take a trip there. We flew from Kirkwall but I think they have a ferry you can take from Westray. We spent a day walking around the north end of the island stopping at the Knap of Howar at the end. If you will be around on a Saturday night they have live music at the Beltane House Pub. We planned our trip so that we could be there on a Saturday night and really enjoyed it. We have also been on Rousay, just driving around and stopping at all the archeological sites. Our Rousay trip only took one long day. Julie
Thanks everyone. I forgot to say that we had also stayed on Hoy, but having read all the recommendations, I'm tempted to go again! Cougfan, we took the ferry to Papa Westray while staying at Westray last time, and had a wonderful walk right round the island before having to run back to catch the ferry!
Right, I'm off to do some more research into Hoy and North Ronaldsay :-)
Our favourites are also Hoy and Sanday, but I've not yet been to Stronsay which is on my list for the next Orkney trip.
The current BBC programme about neolithic Orkney said last week there are 160 registered monuments on Rousay. If you've not been watching it'll be on iplayer - 'Britain's Ancient Capital.' Mid Howe on Rousay is well worth a visit but it's a bit of a scramble down from the road.
There are also alternatives to taking your own car over to Sanday or Eday as there are local rangers who can guide you and you can arrange to be met off the ferry by the Sanday bus. All the details you need are on the really helpful Orkney Ferries brochure at http://www.orkneyferries.co.uk/pdfs/brochures/orkney_isles_brochure_2016.pdf. Have you had a good browse through that? It also shows you the ferry routes - most are out to an island and back, except that sailings between Sanday might also go to Eday as do Stronsay sailings. I doubt the timings or options in summer 2017 will be that different from last year.
We also did a trip to Papa Westray - we flew via Westray from Kirkwall in the morning and then walked to the pier for the Westray lunchtime ferry. I remember the panic that we wouldn't get there on time or the sailing wouldn't arrive, as there wasn't another soul in sight until 5 minutes before the ferry arrived!
Thanks for all the helpful suggestions. I'd never thought of flying to North Ronaldsay, but it's remarkably cheap and looks like a really good idea, so I've added that to the list! Also keen on the passenger ferry to Hoy - would love to see the sea eagles if they come back...
This has been great as we are trying to plan a week in the Orkney Islands for later in the year.Thanks
I loved North Ronaldsay. You can spend more than half a day there & explore it in depth. Don't forget the island history museum in one of the churches by the main road, surprisingly big and interesting. And the lighthouse area, of course. Accommodation options are few, the bird observatory a good base, has cafe and shop.
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Orkney Islands Hotels and Places to Stay
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I am interested in doing a short tour of the Orkneys --it looks to be at least 3 hrs from Inverness. We will probably fly into Edinburgh and spend a couple days then go to the Inverness area--hopefully find a place to stay that we can explore around the area for several days. Also may want to visit the Cairengorms. I saw some all day tours of Orkney covering the places I want to see. Where would be a good time to fit this into our visit and where to stay--in the John o groats area or in Orkney? Thanks for any information!
We stayed in Kirkwall, Orkney, but were there for 3 nights. Even if you’re just there for a day tour, being in Orkney at the start of that day saves you having to get there before your tour begins. At the end, we left Orkney by flying from Kirkwall to Inverness - far less than a 3 hour flight - to see other parts of Scotland.
The three hours + from Inverness is by road, then either Pentland Ferries or Northlink to Orkney. If you take the Northlink boat from Scrabster (Thurso) it arrives into Stromness (Orkney's 2nd biggest town) at after 8pm. I suggest staying there if you've taken that route. Orkney mainland is quite small, so Stromness is a totally feasible base. The Pentland ferry docks in St Margaret's Hope and is half an hour or so into Kirkwall across the famous Churchill Barriers (WW2). There is a good flight service up to Orkney (Kirkwall) from Inverness. If you have the time I recommend taking at least 1 flight on the Loganir Orkney Inter-Island Air service. It's an aerial bus service, but round trip sightseers are welcome. You fly low on tiny planes into landing strips which are just that (not remotely airports), a superb sightseeing experience on a good day. Any route will do although the legendary Westray to Papa Westray 90 second hop (shortest flight in the world) is the most famous. Whatever you do -do not leave Orkney on your last or next to last day, do it at start or middle of your itinerary. These are islands in the North Atlantic. Both air and sea travel do get disrupted by poor weather. There is also a Northlink ferry from Aberdeen 3 days a week- leaves at 1700, arrives Kirkwall at 2300, southbound leaves Kirkwall at 2345, arrives Aberdeen 0700. Many people find that useful. You can day trip from the mainland on any of the three sea routes (includes the John O'Groats foot ferry) or even air, but it's a long day and if the weather turns you get stranded there.
Do try and stay on Orkney rather than try and do it as a day trip.
I'm a great believer in the ferry from Aberdeen, if the days work for you. It is the most effective use of time. Don't be put off by the late arrival in Kirkwall . Accommodation providers are well used to people arriving off the ferry at that time of night. It also gives a full day on Orkney before catching the overnight boat back to Aberdeen. Make sure you book a cabin if you want to sleep!
Hire a car on Orkney to get around the island. It also gives flexibility so you can avoid the main sites when the tourist buses arrive. Aim to be at Skara Brae when it opens or later in the afternoon.
As advised by isn31c, plan this for the middle of the holiday. You won't need a car in Edinburgh and catch the train to Aberdeen. After Orkney, if you are wanting to see the Cairngorms, here a car in Aberdeen and then plan to stay say Aviemore/Grantown on Spey area rather than Invernessa itself.
Thank you for your replies--some great information!
I flew from Inverness to Kirkwall on Loganair. Since they use smaller turboprops and fly lower, the views approaching Kirkwall were good. My return flight to the mainland was to Aberdeen.
If you do fly, and need a taxi upon arrival, book one ahead of time.
I've flown Loganair numerous times and all the flights have been fine.
So now second question---is it really worth going to the Orkney islands? i was also looking at the Kilmartin Glen area for prehistoric interest--for those who have been to both do you have a preference?
I would say absolutely yes Orkney is worthwhile for some of the best preserved archaeology you'll find (as well as other history like the Hudson's Bay Company, for example). But I have never been to Kilmartin. I've passed there several times on the way from Oban to Islay or Gigha and Oban to Arran via Claonaig but never called in. So I can't compare the two. Kilmartin is a diversion on the way from Edinburgh to Inverness, but not impossible, with an overnight stop in Oban, assuming you are in the car. Maybe 4 hours from Edinburgh, beyond Glasgow a very scenic run. Without a car forget it- the bus service is rudimentary. In fact there's a Hotel in Kilmartin (the Kilmartin Hotel)- you could stop there then continue to Inverness next day.
Absolutely worth it, and stay for awhile!
We went for three nights to please our traveling companions who are Highland Park (whisky) aficionados. Turned out to be the best part of our Scotland trip.
We returned a rental car in Edinburgh, and flew from there after a few days. We had a car in Orkney and I recommend that. We then flew to Aberdeen, picked up a new car, and continued the holiday.
Here's a link to my report (can't believe it was that long ago!)
Definitely! There asre so many prehistoric remains on Orkney. The day tours don't even begin to scratch the surface. Rousay, a short ferry ride, is well worth a visit too with its four chambered cairns (all very different and including a two storey one) and Midhowe broch.
Andrea's very good trip report adds what none of us did, as of course the Viking history is very much to the fore everywhere you go, and there is a lot of WW2 history as well. And the distillery! So many aspects of history. There is nothing wrong with the airport- it is just a small island airport fitted into a restricted space. Quite exciting maybe for a first timer used to landing at bigger airports surrounded by land. There are many, especially in the Carribean which are much more exciting, and remember the old Kai Tak at Hong Kong. The terminals at the island airstrips are certainly sheds that you could put on the back of a big truck! Kirkwall is a wee bit bigger than that.
There are also any number of artisan food producers on the islands-cheese, fudge, oatcakes (a must if you've never had them), jams fish (of course) and much more. Afterwards you can order hampers by mail.
Each of the islands is very individual- you would need at least a week to do the northern islands alone, and at least two days for Hoy south of Scapa Flow. You won't have time but the northenmost island (North Ronaldsay) is worth a visit for more prehistory, a wonderful lighthouse, it's own breed of sheep and it's unique and amazing dry stane wall which circles the island to keep the sheep where they are meant to be. It's an adventure getting there and a truly unique place to visit.
Forgive me if this sounds like a post from the Orkney Tourist Board.
Having been to both Kilmartin and Okney, there's no comparison. Orkney is far more interesting, although there are similarities. We flew to Kirkwall from/to Edinburgh, although Loganair doesn't price round trips differently than one-ways, so flying from Inverness, Aberdeen, or anywhere else is equally easy. You need to balance drop-off fees, having two rental cars at once, or dovetailing Orkney into the beginning or end of the trip.
We toured all over Scotland and visited most every corner (except the Outer Hebrides) and the place that touched my heart the most was our day and a half on the Orkney's. Absolutely loved the history, the fun of the cairns, the beauty of the island, it was wonderful. Really wished we'd stayed longer.
You folks have been so helpful! Wondering what you think of this plan? My husband found on Kayak you can book multi cities option for no more than round trip and we were surprised to see that Inverness was not much more than Edinburgh--so fly into Inverness and have a home base rental for about a week and do day trips to the areas around there I want to see, drive to John O Groats and go across to Orkney and stay at least 2 nights, get back to mainland and drive to Cairngorms park and stay 2 nights, drive to Edinburgh and stay 2 nights and fly home from there. Also, do all car rental companies allow you to take the car across on the ferries? I know this is really early but I am a planner and very excited about doing this next year--probably middle of May, 2024. I am a US citizen and never been anywhere out of my country other than brief trips to Canada and Mexico back before we needed passports! It will be my husband and I's anniversary--25 years of being together/married and I have been wanting to go to Scotland for a long time. We can take at least two weeks off for this--maybe a bit longer.
When going to Orkney please be aware that the Pentland ferries route is currently suspended. You may have to use Northlink from Scrabster instead depending on your date of travel, and how soon the problems are resolved.
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Best things to do in Orkney
Saturday June 4 2022, 06:07am
Orkney is an archipelago of about 70 islands — 16 of them inhabited — off the north coast of Scotland . It’s famed for its natural beauty, archaeological sites and its First and Second World War heritage. Many of Orkney’s attractions are outdoor, and you need prepare for anything weather-wise — from glorious sun to driving wind and rain. There’s an enormous pay-off for those prepared to brave all that the weather gods of the Northern Isles have to throw at them. Your own transport is a necessity; Kirkwall, the capital, is a charming town, but to get a real sense of all Orkney has to offer you’ll need to get out and about — and ideally onto some of the outlying islands.
Main photo: Rackwick Beach, Hoy (Alamy)
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1. Step into the past at Skara Brae
This prehistoric settlement on mainland Orkney’s wild west coast was discovered in 1850 when freak waves ripped a sand dune apart to reveal a number of ancient houses hidden inside, each dating back 5,000 years. Skara Brae is open to the public; there are nine surviving houses, an informative visitor centre and a replica house illustrating how the village’s original residents may have lived. Skara Brae is recognised as part of Unesco’s Heart of Neolithic Orkney world heritage site, along with the Ring of Brodgar, Stenness Stones and Maeshowe chambered tomb.
2. Cross the Churchill Barriers
Built during the Second World War as naval defences, the Churchill Barriers now serve as a series of causeways linking four of the smaller, southerly islands to mainland Orkney by road. They’re impressive enough to merit a road trip in themselves — offering spectacular views of rusting shipwrecks and the Scapa Flow — and also helpfully lead you past the turn-off to the Italian Chapel on tiny Lamb Holm. Make sure you stop for a walk at the wide sandy beach that has formed up against the fourth barrier, between Burray and South Ronaldsay.
3. Climb the Old Man of Hoy
This 450ft needle of red sandstone is the tallest sea stack in the UK, and certainly its most dramatic. First summited in 1966, it’s now a bucket-list destination among rock climbers. There are seven routes up the stack, ranging in difficulty from E1 to E6. A number of specialist outfits offer guided climbs, including Abacus Mountain Guides and the Mountain Guiding Company. Take note, this is for aficionados only. Others may enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the stack from the cliffs above via a circular path from Rackwick Bay.
4. Dive the Scapa Flow
The seabed of the Scapa Flow, Orkney’s huge natural harbour, is littered with shipwrecks — most notably the German fleet scuttled in 1919 to stop it falling into the hands of the British. Though some were later salvaged, a number remain in situ and have been transformed into rich natural reefs, crowded with anemones, starfish, urchins and crabs. It’s now considered one of Europe’s premier wreck-diving sites. Local scuba school Kraken Diving offers guided dives from £170, or snorkel safaris around the more easily accessible sites.
5. Celebrate solstice at Maeshowe
Orkney’s chambered cairns date from Neolithic times. Maeshowe is the most extraordinary of them all: a true masterpiece of ancient engineering. During the winter and summer solstice, the setting sun aligns perfectly with the entrance passageway and illuminates the back wall with a pure, golden light. Look out for the runic graffiti left by a band of Viking warriors while they sheltered from a snowstorm. Advance bookings via Historic Scotland. A group called Spiritual Orkney holds regular ceremonies near by to mark solstice and other key dates in the pagan calendar.
6. Catch the world’s shortest passenger flight
The Loganair flight from the island of Westray to its sister island, Papa Westray, takes only 90 seconds in one of its eight-seater Britten Norman Islander planes — and less when the wind is behind you. (The shortest hop between the islands has been recorded at 53 seconds.) Both islands are worth a visit in any case: among other things, Westray is home to beautiful beaches and the 16th-century fortress Noltland Castle; Papa Westray has the Knap of Howar, a pair of stone houses dating from 3,500BC.
7. Kayak the Orkney coastline
Kristian Cooper of Sea Kayak 59° North offers kayaking tuition and guided kayak tours of Orkney’s most spectacular stretches of coastline, including around the scenic Deerness peninsula. Paddle into the Gloup, a collapsed sea cave whose walls are now often crowded with nesting seabirds, or take a trip over to the uninhabited island of Copinsay. The island is a RSPB bird reserve and seal colony, but careful visitors are welcome. Half and full-day tours available and all levels of experience are catered for.
8. Visit the standing stones
There are two main stone circles on Orkney: the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. The former is the larger of the pair, with a diameter of about 100m. Of the 60 original stones, 36 survive, ranging up to 4.7m in height. It’s extremely impressive. About a mile to the southeast, the Stenness Stones feature four massive uprights, up to 6m tall, of an original 12. They’re neighboured by the remains of the Barnhouse Neolithic settlement. All three of these attractions are open access.
9. Go birdspotting on North Ronaldsay
Twitchers will be in heaven on Orkney’s most northerly island. Its remote location makes it an excellent stopping-off point for migrant birds on their seasonal journeys across oceans, and the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory has a strong record in rare, “vagrant” birds seen well beyond their normal range. Past avian celebrities including a Cretzschmar’s bunting and a possible Pallas’s rosefinch have drawn huge crowds; it’s also known for lesser rarities such as Arctic redpoll and the Blyth’s reed warbler. Accommodation and food are available at the observatory at very affordable rates.
10. Admire the Italian Chapel
Hundreds of Italian prisoners of war were held on Lamb Holm and Burray during the Second World War. Among them was an artist, Domenico Chiocchetti, who was given the task of transforming two Nissen huts into a Catholic chapel. Now one of the quirkiest and most popular sites in Orkney, the Italian Chapel — whose modest interior has been painted to resemble vaulted ceilings and buttresses, and bears accomplished frescoes of angels and the Madonna and child — attracts about 100,000 visitors a year for a small admission fee (children free).
11. Take an audio tour of Hoy
Hoy is Orkney’s second-largest island and home to some of the most impressive scenery. The Hoy Heritage Centre has produced a podcast-cum-audio guide full of local voices that leads listeners from the pier at Moaness along the old road “between the hills” to the famous beach at Rackwick and back, stopping off at Second World War gun emplacements, an ancient woodland, the (still-used) peat cuttings and the Dwarfie Stane, a prehistoric chambered tomb hollowed out of a massive block of sandstone. See the website for an interactive map.
12. Visit a whisky distillery
Orkney’s biggest and best-known distillery is Highland Park on the outskirts of Kirkwall. It offers a range of tasting tours from the basic to the deluxe. Its two traditional pagoda-topped kilns are fired by hand-cut local peat from Hobbister Moor; clearly the effort pays off as Highland Park whisky has three times been declared the best spirit in the world. Also notable is the Scapa Distillery, overlooking the beach of the same name, which produces an artisanal single malt. Tours cost £25 and last 50 minutes.
13. Go puffin watching
Puffins , known as “tammie norries” in the local dialect, are regular visitors to the Orkney Islands and can be seen at a number of locations, although you’re best off heading to Westray where a sea stack called the Castle o’Burrian plays host to up to 300 puffins at a time during the breeding season (April-August). Other known puffin hangouts include Marwick Head on the west mainland, where they intermingle with guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars, and at the cliffs on Burgh Head on Stronsay. The Orkney Pocket Book of Puffins has tips.
14. Visit the abandoned island of Eynhallow
Once a year the Orkney Heritage Society organises a trip to Eynhallow, a low-lying island 500m off mainland Orkney which has been uninhabited since a plague epidemic in the 1850s, after which the laird burnt the houses to “disinfect” the land and prevent residents from returning. After the conflagration, the remaining ruinous stone walls were revealed to be that of a 12th-century kirk, which may have formed part of an early Christian monastery. Once said to have been wrested from the shapeshifting “fin folk”, it seems they — and the birds — have reclaimed it.
15. Browse the Pier Arts Centre
This excellent small gallery in Stromness punches way above its weight, thanks to its well-regarded collection of British modernist art, including work by Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham and Eduardo Paolozzi, as collected by the philanthropist Margaret Gardiner and held in trust for the people of Orkney. More recent acquisitions include artworks by Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor. The Pier Arts Centre gallery — a contemporary redevelopment of a historic waterfront building — was declared the best new building in Scotland in 2007 by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.
16. Follow the Westness Heritage Trail
Rousay, a small island accessed by ferry from Tingwall, is known as the “Egypt of the north” thanks to its archaeological riches. The most impressive can be viewed from a rough coastal path along the west coast, which has been dubbed “the most important archaeological mile in Scotland”. The trail begins at the Midhowe Cairn, the largest of its kind in Orkney, where the remains of 25 people were found crouched inside during excavations in the 1930s. It then winds past the Midhowe Broch (an Iron Age fort) and the ruins of a 15th-century church.
17. Take a boat trip
Life in an archipelago is necessarily amphibious, and you may find yourself hopping on and off ferries on your way from place to place throughout your stay. But why not make a day of it? Pettlandssker Boat Trips run from May to August, leaving from Burwick Harbour at the southern tip of South Ronaldsay. The powerful boat will speed you to the Pentland Skerries or past the abandoned island of Swona to see seals, terns, gannets, puffins, and much more. Northerly Marine Services, based in Tankerness, also offer wildlife tours and boat charters by arrangement.
18. Circumnavigate the Brough of Birsay
This tidal island off the northwest coast of mainland Orkney is accessible on foot by causeway for about two hours either side of low tide. It’s home to the ruins of a Pictish settlement, and some later structures including a Viking church that was a place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. Follow the cliff path around the island’s perimeter, passing a small lighthouse — looking out for puffin burrows — but make sure to cross back over before the waves cut off your escape route.
19. Find stillness in St Magnus Cathedral
Founded in 1137 by the Viking earl Rognvald, this Romanesque cathedral was built of local red and yellow sandstone over a period of 300 years and remains at the heart of spiritual and cultural life in Orkney. Services are held at 11.15am each Sunday (although Covid measures entail advance booking). Outside of that time, access is free and guided tours of the upper levels are available on request. The cathedral is also a key venue for the renowned St Magnus International Festival, a midsummer arts celebration featuring live orchestral, folk and operatic performances.
20. Visit the Tomb of the Eagles
This celebrated Neolithic tomb perched on the cliffs near Isbister, South Ronaldsay, was discovered by chance by local farmer Ronnie Simison in the 1950s. Later excavations found partial remains of about 300 humans, as well as the bones and talons of sea eagles. Visitors navigate the low entryway by lying on a wheeled trolley. Until recently, the Simison family has run an on-site visitor centre; this has now closed, although access to the tomb is reportedly to be maintained by the local council. Check for new developments before travelling to the site.
21. Take a cold-water dip
The clear, clean waters of the Orkney Islands are a great favourite among wild swimmers and there’s a thriving local community of “polar bear” dippers who swim in the sea all year round. Popular spots include the shallow turquoise waters of Waulkmill Bay (best visited at low tide) and the beach at Inganess, where bathers can easily swim out to the wreck of the Juniata. The island of Sanday has arguably the most spectacular beaches on Orkney — and often you’ll have those white sands all to yourself. Just don’t stay in too long.
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Travel to and around Orkney
Getting to orkney, getting around orkney.
There are three ferry routes, with several daily sailings. Pentland Ferries from Gill's Bay to St Margaret's Hope, Orkney (one hour) is the quickest sailing, and the most environmentally-friendly passenger ferry of its type in Scotland, thanks to the new purpose-built catamaran MV Alfred.
You can also sail with NorthLink Ferries for 1.5 hours from Scrabster to Stromness in Orkney, or from Aberdeen to Kirkwall, Orkney for 7 hours and onto Lerwick in Shetland.
During the summer, there is a fourth ferry route for foot passengers from John O’Groats to Burwick .
You can take public transport up north to the Orkney islands – you can travel to Aberdeen and Thurso by Scotrail train. You can then catch the ferry over to the islands.
Planes also fly direct to Kirkwall from Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness with Loganair , with flights lasting up to one hour. There are connections from Birmingham, Belfast City, Bristol, Exeter, Heathrow, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich and Teesside.
Many people arrive in Orkney in their own car or hired vehicle. Orkney has quiet roads and an excellent inter-island ferry service. Electric vehicle drivers will find multiple public charging points across the islands . You can find petrol stations in Kirkwall, Stromness and Dounby as well as petrol pumps on some of the outer islands.
There are several car-hire firms and taxi services on Orkney if you don't have a vehicle.
Bike hire is widely available in Orkney. Bicycles can be hired in both Kirkwall and Stromness and outer islands such as North Ronaldsay and Stronsay.
Bus and coach
Prefer to travel by bus? Orkney's local bus services will help you reach most corners of the Orkney mainland. The network can be used to visit iconic sites such as the Ring of Brodgar and Italian Chapel. The outer islands often have local bus services too.
Looking to hop around several islands? Check out services from Orkney Ferries which are accessible from four ports on the Orkney mainland.
For an exciting sightseeing adventure, you could even hop onboard an inter-island flight with Loganair . These flights reach six islands from Kirkwall Airport, including the shortest scheduled flight in the world, between Westray and Papa Westray.
What's on in Orkney
There are plenty of events and festivals taking place on the island. It's a great way to get to know the community and experience life as a local in Orkney.
Events in Orkney
An up to date calendar of events in the Orkney islands.
Orkney Christmas Fayre
Creative Orkney & Taste of Orkney Christmas Fayre.
Places to Eat in Orkney
Birsay Tea Room
© VisitScotland / Paul Tomkins
Food & Drink
Orkney is full of exciting food & drink destinations. Why not sample a tipple or brew or take a look at our list of island restuarants to try?
A tip from your local expert
Skara brae, part of the heart of neolithic orkney world heritage site
Step back 5000 years with a visit to western Europe’s best preserved prehistoric village. Skara Brae is older than Stonehenge and gives you a true insight into the lives of people who are long gone.
Assistant iCentre Manager, Kirkwall
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The Ultimate Orkney Islands Travel Guide
Discover amazing things to do in orkney islands, where to stay, and how to explore these mystical northern isles brimming with millennia-deep history, unique heritage, and out-of-this-world scenery..
There is more to Scotland than Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and the Scottish Highlands. Tucked away in the North Sea lie the Orkney Islands, a magical archipelago offering incredible scenery, wildlife walks, and adrenaline-inducing activities like diving among World War II shipwrecks and sea kayaking.
Giving off a distinctly Nordic vibe yet still unmistakably Scottish, the Orkney Islands are a treasure trove for outdoors enthusiasts, history buffs, and families looking for active holidays.
Visit Orkney to explore the UK’s Viking past and see the Neolithic stone monuments rivalling Stonehenge, enjoy walks along the rugged coastline, spot the red-legged puffins and seal pups frolicking on sandy beaches, and enjoy Orkney’s famed seafood restaurants and Highland Park whiskey distilled here since the mid-1700s.
If you’re looking to plan a Scottish trip with a difference, this guide will help kick off your Orkney Islands adventure in style.
Best Time to Visit the Orkney Islands
Although boasting several pristine-white sand beaches and turquoise waters, the Orkney Islands aren’t a tropical paradise. The best time to visit the Orkney Islands is between late May and early September.
Don’t forget to layer up though! Even in the summer months, the Orkney weather can be chilly, and you might experience some rain.
How to Get To The Orkney Islands
The Orkney Islands may feel like a remote, far-flung corner of the UK, but getting here is surprisingly easy. You can either take a ferry from Aberdeen, Scrabster, or John O’Groats, or hop on a flight to Kirkwall from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Inverness, or Glasgow.
If you’re driving, your best bet is the Aberdeen ferry to Kirkwall (6 hours) or, if you prefer a shorter crossing, Scrabster to Stromness (1.5 hours).
For more information on how to reach the islands, check out our guide to how to get to Orkney .
Top Things to Do in Orkney
With stunning highland scenery, pretty harbour towns, and the largest concentration of Neolithic sites in Europe, there’s no shortage of things to do in Orkney.
The capital of Orkney, Kirkwall is an excellent place to start exploring the islands. Start off by taking a walk in the historic centre of Kirkwall and visit the incredible 12 th century St Magnus Cathedral. Next, stop by the small but fascinating Orkney Museum where you can find out more about the history of the islands, from the Viking period all the way to present day.
For a hearty lunch, grab a bite at Helgi’s , a cosy place serving up tasty comfort food on Harbour Street. There’s a quirky Viking-style interior and great seafood (vegetarian and vegan options are also available).
While shopping may not be high on your list of things to do in Orkney, Kirkwall has lots of amazing Nordic-inspired jewellery and crafts places that are ideal for gifts… for friends and family, or as a souvenir of your adventure!
Spend a day in Stromness
When visiting Orkney, a day in Stromness is a must. For one, this town boasts one of the most picturesque harbours in Europe (think Lofoten Islands in Norway!)
For another, Stromness has a charming old town with ancient stone houses lining the water. After a walking tour of central Stromness, try out the best seafood in Orkney at Hamnavoe Restaurant on Graham Place – the salmon here is especially delicious! If you’re looking for more active things to do in Orkney, Stromness is also a great place for diving, sea kayaking and nature walks.
Explore the Ring of Brodgar
Predating both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids, the Ring of Brodgar is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the Orkney Islands. A mysterious circle of 27 standing stones built around 2500 BC, the Ring of Brodgar continues to puzzle the archaeologists of today as no one knows the exact purpose of this ancient monument.
If you have all day, be sure to visit the nearby Stones of Stenness Circle and Henge , another breath-taking site of standing monoliths, some of them towering at over 16 feet.
Visit the Stone Age village of Skara Brae
Located near the Ring of Bordgar, Skara Brae is a Stone Age village dating back over 5,000 years. The prehistoric ruins tell a tale of an ancient society, long gone, but not forgotten.
You can still make out the remnants of walls and furnishings at the site, and it‘s worth spending an hour or two exploring on foot. After visiting Skara Brae, take a walk on the beach of Skaill, one of the most beautiful wild beaches in Orkney boasting white sands and tranquil blue waters.
Visit Churchill Barriers Church
If you‘re looking for more things to do in Orkney Islands, stop to admire the Churchill Barriers church built by Italian prisoners of war who were held in Orkney in the 1940s. The Italian prisoners convinced their camp command to let them build a chapel, and astonishingly, what they created with meagre means is nothing short of a work of art.
The church features an elaborate facade and special interior paintings created by Domenico Chiocchetti.
See the ancient tomb of Maeshowe
Another gem of prehistoric Orkney heritage, Maeshowe is an ancient tomb built around 5,000 years ago. Appearing like a grass-covered hill, Maeshowe is a chamber featuring ancient Viking runes on the walls and surrounded by myth and legend.
On winter solstice, the rays of the rising sun hit the entry of Maeshowe in such an angle that it illuminates the entire chamber, hinting at the ingenuity of the ancient builders’. Located just off Stoneyhill Road near Stenness, Maeshowe is one of the top things to do in Orkney.
Take a trip to the Isle of Hoy
As well as history, a visit to Orkney is all about scenery and nature. If you love hiking and wildlife, take a short ferry from Stromness and visit the Isle of Hoy, one of the most spectacular islands in the archipelago.
The Isle of Hoy is famous for its 450-feet tall sandstone rock rising from the sea. It resembles the profile of a face looking out to sea, so the rock has been nicknamed the Old Man of Hoy.
One of the most spectacular things to do in Orkney, is hike around the Isle of Hoy. There’s a narrow footpath which circles along the shore, and the rewards are big! The views are immense, with jagged cliffs, beaches, and turbulent waters below.
Scuba diving in Orkney
Because of the islands’ northern location, diving probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you’re looking for cool things to do in Orkney. And yet, Orkney is one of the best dive locations in the world because of the presence of sunken World War II ships littering the seabed in Scapa Flow. In fact, it’s one of our 20 trips that show the best of Britain.
52 ships sank near Orkney during the war, and seven can be explored on a diving expedition just off the coast. The diving season in Orkney runs between April and November.
Where to stay in Orkney
Highland park house, kirkwall.
If you plan to visit Orkney and spend some of your stay in Kirkwall, Highland Park House is a great place to stay.
A stunning Victorian mansion, Highland Park is just ten minutes’ drive from the town centre and twenty minutes’ drive from Ring of Brodgar and other Orkney attractions.
You can check prices and availability at the Gilpin Hotel here.
Ferry Inn, Stromness
Looking for country charm and family fun? The Ferry Inn is a small but charming hotel situated in the dreamy harbour of Stromness, perfect for solo travellers and couples alike.
We hope this guide to visiting Orkney helps you plan your trip. Don’t forget to take a look at our guide to how to get to the Orkney Islands too.
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- Italian Chapel, Orkney - image by Colin Keldie
- Eight favourite things to do in Orkney
- What's New
We often get asked for our top tips on what to see and do in Orkney and it’s always a difficult question to answer - there are so many options right across the islands.
But we know some of you will be visiting Orkney for the first time over the coming weeks and months, so we’ve put together a guide to just some of our favourite things here that you simply don’t want to miss.
Walk the wild Atlantic coast of Orkney’s West Mainland
With craggy cliffs, sea stacks , wonderful nature and wildlife , and incredible scenery, there’s nowhere else quite like this stretch of coastline. From Costa Head in the north, all the way to Stromness in the south, this is one of the best places in Orkney to experience the elements.
Visit the UNESCO Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site
Explore more than five thousand years of history in our World Heritage Site , including the Neolithic village of Skara Brae , the ancient stone circles at the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness , and the fascinating chambered cairn at Maeshowe . You can even visit the sprawling excavations at the Ness of Brodgar too.
Enjoy Orkney’s amazing locally produced food and drink
Orkney’s larder is full of some of the finest food and drink to be found anywhere, while local cafes and restaurants have menus packed with Orcadian ingredients. You can also get a taste of Orkney in our local shops . Make sure you pay a visit to our producers too, with tours and tastings available on the Taste of Orkney Food & Drink Trail .
Watch Orkney’s finest craftspeople at work on the Creative Trail
It’s not just our food and drink producers that get creative in Orkney. From jewellery to furniture, and pottery to painting, our Creative Trail gives you the chance to see Orkney at its best and meet our makers, as well as an opportunity to take a special hand-crafted souvenir home with you.
Step back in time to the Viking era with a visit to St Magnus Cathedral
The magnificent 12 th century St Magnus Cathedral sits in the heart of Kirkwall , with its red sandstone glowing in the summer sunshine. Take a walk around its grounds and head inside to explore Orkney’s Norse heritage .
Experience wild Orkney
The islands are a wildlife lover’s paradise with a fantastic array of species to spot. Look out for seals, whales and otters , or take in the abundant birdlife of Orkney’s many nature reserves .
Go island hopping
Orkney is made up of around 70 islands, making it the perfect place for an island-hopping adventure. Highlights include a walk to the Old Man of Hoy sea stack in Hoy , the ancient tombs of the island of Rousay (known as the Egypt of the North), the white sandy beaches of Sanday , and the seaweed-eating sheep of Orkney’s most northerly island, North Ronaldsay . Or why not book a seat on the shortest scheduled flight in the world, a 90 second jaunt between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray ?
Explore our wartime stories
Did you know that Orkney played a vital role in two World Wars? There is a rich wartime heritage to uncover here, including the iconic Italian Chapel , built by Italian prisoners during WWII. Travel across the wartime era Churchill Barriers , created to protect the naval anchorage of Scapa Flow, or walk the Flotta Trail to see the remains of some fascinating military buildings. The newly refurbished Scapa Flow Museum also offers a fascinating look into Orkney's wartime past.
These are just some of our top tips to get you started. Visit our things to see and do section for more ideas, and take a look at some of our blogs on our Inspiration page .
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Stunning Places You Must See in Orkney, Scotland
The Orkney Islands are full of unspeakable beauty and achingly stunning coastal vistas. Home to areas of great archeological importance, bird sanctuaries perched atop cliffs, secret beaches and frequent visits from the aurora borealis herself, Orkney is a true paradise. Discover the magic with our pick of must-see places.
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Old man of hoy.
Natural Feature At 450ft (137m), the Old Man of Hoy is one of the UK’s tallest sea stacks, and stands surrounded by some of the highest and most dramatic sea cliffs in Britain at St John’s Head. Found ascending from the ocean at Hoy , Orkney’s most hilly island, this red sandstone wonder was once an arch with two prongs for legs until sea and wind erosion took its toll. Although many geologists believe that the Old Man will one day collapse (there’s already a large crack), this magnificent sea stack is a playground for hardcore climbers. The first ascent took place in 1966.
The Italian Chapel
Church This striking holy haven wouldn’t look out of place in Italy. It rises out of Orkney’s wild landscape on the uninhabited island of Lamb Holm. Built by Italian prisoners of war shipped to Orkney during WWII to construct the Churchill Barriers, the chapel is a symbol of hope. Amazingly, it is made from two converted old Nissen huts and scavenged materials.
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Natural Feature An awe-inspiring sight, the RSPB nature reserve at Marwick Head is a bustling metropolis for birds . Set on a clifftop location, this seabird city has outstanding sweeping views, albeit a tad vertigo inducing. Up to 25,000 nesting seabirds come here during the summer, including puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes and razorbills. Lucky bird enthusiasts may even catch a glimpse of Arctic skuas and red-throated divers nestling upon the dramatic sandstone cliff ledges.
Ring of Brodgar
Archaeological site, Ruins
As one of the most iconic symbols of Orkney’s rich prehistoric past, the Ring of Brodgar is one for the bucket list. Covering an area of around 8,500 metres, this archaeological gem is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles, and once had an impressive 60 stones. A natural hill-hugged amphitheatre creates the perfect stage for what is one of the oldest stone circles in existence. Many believe the Ring of Brodgar to be a religious shrine or place of ritual, while others insist it was constructed for astronomical purposes to view the equinox and solstice.
Skara Brae is the star of Orkney’s Neolithic-themed show. Crowned one of the world’s best-preserved Neolithic settlements, this former village is one in a million. Perfectly preserved for centuries until a storm unveiled its contents under a mound, the site still contains its original fixtures, like stone age ‘fitted’ dresser furniture, box beds, the original central hearths, water-tight tanks used for storage and carefully covered passageways that link the dwellings to each other.
Sands of Wright
Hiking Trail Awash with wildflowers and golden sand, the Sands of Wright beach is a true hidden gem. In South Ronaldsay, this scenic bay is surrounded by sparkling turquoise waters. Perfect for wild foraging, there are almost endless varieties of seaweed. Whether a serene stroll or epic expedition, the Sands of Wright is a wee slice of heaven on earth.
St Magnus Cathedral
Cathedral St Magnus Cathedral is one of Orkney’s many Viking marvels. Imposing yet magnetic, the church dates back to 1137, when it was founded by a Viking to honour his uncle St Magnus. Known as the ‘Light of the North’, St Magnus is the most northerly cathedral in the UK, and one of Scotland’s best preserved medieval churches. Graced with spiraling pillars inside, this beauty took over three centuries to build.
Natural Feature Home to an underwater oasis brimming with a vibrant population of sea creatures, Scapa Flow is flooded with history. Sheltered by Orkney’s Mainland and South Isles, this body of water has convenient access to the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea, and was used as a harbour during the Viking age. Over the centuries, Scapa Flow’s prime position has served as a safe port for ships and played an important role in both world wars. Today, the waters are one of the world’s best wreck-diving sites, and an area of great natural, archaeological and cultural interest.
The Standing Stones of Stenness
Measuring up to six metres tall, the four remaining stones that make up the mighty Standing Stones Of Stenness have been around for over 5000 years. These megaliths once encircled a massive hearth forming a ring of 12 guarded by a tall ditch and bank, which over time was ploughed away. As one of the four Heart of Neolithic Orkney sites, this age-old place is thought to have served as an important Neolithic domestic and ritual monument. However, the exact truth as to its purpose is still shrouded in mystery.
Natural Feature When the Vikings landed on Stromness they named it Hamnavoe, or ‘safe haven’. Orkney’s second-largest town–with its winding stone streets, iconic harbour and independent shops selling handmade arts and crafts–is a perpetual source of inspiration for creatives who come to the Mainland. Peppered with terraces of picturesque houses and welcoming faces, the old-timey charm is part of what makes Stromness stand out. With attractions like the world-renowned Pier Arts Centre , a museum and lively pubs, you won’t want to leave.
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The Orkney Islands
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Planning a Trip in The Orkney Islands
Loganair, the airline of Scotland (tel. 0871/700-2000; www.loganair.co.uk), operates service to Kirkwall Airport on Mainland Orkney (the largest Orkney Island) from Glasgow, Inverness, and Aberdeen, with connections via London and Birmingham.
Motorists can visit Orkney with their cars by booking passage on one of the NorthLink Ferries (tel. 0845/600-0449; www.northlinkferries.co.uk). The line offers service from Scrabster (near Thurso), on Scotland's north coast. It's a 2-hour trip made 2 to 3 times Monday to Saturday or twice a day on Sunday. A round-trip ticket, valid for 5 days, is £20 to £34 per person or £90 to £121 per car and driver. If you don't have to transport a car, you can take one of the John O' Groats Ferries (tel. 01955/611-353 ), which operate May to December 2 to 4 times a day, depending on demand (trip time: 40 min.). Round-trip fares are £28 per passenger.
Island-hopping is common in the north of Scotland. Loganair (tel. 1856/872-494; www.loganair.co.uk) operates flights from Kirkwall Airport on Mainland to the isles of Sanday, Stronsay, Westray, Eday, North Ronaldsay, and Papa Westray.
Orkney Ferries Ltd. (tel. 01856/872-044 in Kirkwall; www.orkneyferries.co.uk) operates scheduled service from Kirkwall to Orkney's north and south islands: Eday, Papa Westray, Sanday, Stronsay, Westray, North Ronaldsay, and Shapinsay. From Houton, there's service to the south isles: Flotta, Hoy at Longhope, and Lyness, and from Tingwall to Rousay, Egilsay, and Wyre. There's also a private ferry service to take you to Hoy, departing from Stromness. The tourist office has details on departures.
The Churchill barriers, erected to impede enemy shipping in World War II, have been turned into a road link between the islands of Mainland and South Ronaldsay.
To find out what's going on during your visit, consult the Orcadian, a weekly published since 1854. There are tourist offices in Kirkwall and in Stromness . You can also get information at www.visitorkney.com .
These sparsely populated islands generate quite a bit of cultural activity, especially in celebrating the region's music. A number of festivals draw curious visitors and fans of Scottish music and, more specifically, Orcadian music. Information is available through the Kirkwall tourist office , which publishes the yearly Orkney Diary, listing events and dates.
The season kicks off in February with the Drama Festival, which hosts traveling companies presenting an array of productions in venues spread across the islands. Ticket prices hover around £7 to £12. May finds the Orkney Traditional Folk Festival in full swing. Both feature ceilidhs and concerts of traditional music; tickets to most events are £6 to £10. June brings a change of pace in the form of the St. Magnus Festival, which celebrates classical music and the dramatic arts, as well as music and drama workshops. Tickets average £6 to £20. For more information, check "What's On?" at www.visitorkney.com .
Bus tours operate throughout the year, but with limited schedules in winter. One reliable choice is Wildabout Tours, 5 Clouston Corner, Stenness (tel. 01856/851-011 ). Its full- and half-day minibus tours (maximum 15 passengers) take in prehistoric and Neolithic monuments and local wildlife. Prices are £33 to £49. The tours are popular, particularly in summer, so it's wise to book seats in advance.
Note : This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
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