First things first…you might be thinking, this place is a bit far flung. Worth the effort?
Yes. The Orkney Islands are spell binding. I get it- depending on where you’re starting from, it might be a trek. The journey and destination alike are worth the effort. It is, however, one of those trips you’ll get much more out of it with some pre-departure research.
This post is the cheat sheet, a starting to point for planning that first trip to the Orkney Islands.
Research Your Travel Options
Being an archipelago, you’ve got two options: Fly, or sail.
To fly, you’ll be looking at Logan Air. Flights into Kirkwall are direct from major Scottish cities. From other UK airports, you’ll need to make a connection.
We opted to drive and sail, meaning we could build in seeing some of Scotland along the way. Plus, we’d have the car on the islands. And no luggage allowance- definite bonus! You can rent a car on island or there is public transport, but I think its beneficial to have your own wheels.
We opted to sail with Pentland Ferries . The drive to the port would take us up to the tip of the Scottish Mainland to Gills Bay. The crossing is just sixty minutes, with three crossings daily. That makes it family friendly, dog friendly and budget friendly. Despite the short crossing time, sailing across the Pentland Firth still feels like an adventure. A departure from the everyday.
Alternatively , North Link ferries sail from Aberdeen and Scrabster. With longer crossing times, the ships are designed to create an onboard experience with cabins, entertainment and catering. North Link also offers the opportunity to sail on to the Shetland Islands. Wouldn’t that make for an amazing Scottish Island adventure?
Enjoy The Journey.
A well used phrase, isn’t it? It’s not just the destination and all that. But it’s true, especially in Scotland. There’s loads to see along the way. The stunning landscape of the Highlands makes beautiful views a given. Then there are small towns, historic villages, castles, city break options. It wouldn’t be difficult at all to combine a sailing out to Orkney with a short break in Inverness or Aberdeen, for example. I’m talking myself into my next trip here…
We broke up the drive from the bottom of Scotland to the top with a stop off in Invergordon. Highly recommended.
Wild land, sweeping scenery, big skies… so much open space and natural beauty. But it doesn’t come with much in the way of facilities on the road. Out of the main tourist seasons, places you do find might operate limited hours. You won’t find regular fuel stops, roadside facilities or many of those services with the petrol-fast food-coffee chain combo. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.
Likewise the ferry terminal at Gills Bay. There’s toilets and a small cafe and that’s about it. Small and friendly. If you are heading to Gills Bay, Wick makes a nice stop and has a Lidl and a 24 hour Tesco.
All of this to say, travel prepared. Don’t drive on fumes, keep a few snacks and bottles of water to hand. Ensure you have what you need to make your journey enjoyable.
Get to know them a bit before you arrive. Confusingly, the two main islands go by the names of East Mainland and West Mainland. Not to be confused with the actual mainland of Scotland itself. Then all the other islands with intriguing names like Buray, Eday, Papa Westray, Flotta…
Island hopping is possible via inter island flights or ferries. Check schedules carefully, especially in low season. This isn’t a place where you can be sure to just jump on the next service. That might be some time away.
A tip from experience: Time seems different here, things take a bit longer and it doesn’t matter at all. There’s always a place, or a bay, or a road to catch your attention and divert you. Islanders will chat, especially when they catch a different accent. Go with it. Orkney is an experience, not a checklist.
Home from Home
Accommodation on the islands is mostly a mix of rentals, B & B’s and small hotels. There’s no big chains or resort style lodgings.
If you’re a happy camper and do want a central location with some fun facilities on hand, Orkney Caravan Park is worth a look. Adjacent to the Pickaquoy leisure centre, guests can make use of the swimming, health suite and cinema.
Elsewhere across the islands there’s something to suit just about everyone, from coastal cottages to glamping pods and even apartments in a 17th Century mansion. We stayed in West Shaird on the island of South Ronaldsay, a self catering farmhouse. It ticked everything on our list; close to the port, pretty views, loads of space and a coal fire to come back to every night. The owner left us some groceries and a message that if she couldn’t meet us the key was in the unlocked door and she’d drop in later. Like I said, it’s different. Imagine doing that in central Edinburgh? No, me neither!
Food Glorious Food…And Drink.
You won’t go hungry here, but you won’t find a drive through or a multitude of Just Eat options either. Kirkwall has a good size Lidl and Tesco for a basic shop.
Eating out, there are plenty of options for coffee & cake. When you need something a bit more substantial, have two pieces of cake. Just kidding! There is a strong restaurant scene here with an emphasis on local produce. Locally sourced ingredients from land and sea make for tasty, nourishing food.
Try a few things, buy a few to take home. Chutneys, baked goods, sweets and drinks. Including some fabulous local gins. Go on, have a few. In the name of research and supporting local producers. Even if you have one too many, ten minutes on the beach the next morning will blow the cobwebs away.
The Other Islanders
The wildlife. With coastal, cliff and moorland habitats, if wildlife is your thing this is the place for you. Walking the dog each day from our farmhouse we spotted more birds than I could name, pheasants and rabbits galore. The bay at the end of the road was often home to a seal or two.
Further out in the islands it’s possible to spot dolphins, orca, otters, sea eagles, puffins. Nothing is ever guaranteed. You have to be able to enjoy the process. But when you spot a seal basking on the rocks or a pod of dolphin passing through, that few minutes makes the waiting and wandering all worthwhile.
It’s not an exact science though, so if you’re hoping to make some good sightings I’d recommend keeping an eye on groups like Orkney Cetacean Group. Happy spotting!
I’m craving a return to Orkney Islands at the moment. Travel nostalgia? Maybe. More likely the islands worked their magic on me. I’m sure I will go back. Watch this space.
Meanwhile, tell me about an island location you’ve been to. UK or overseas, a recent trip of from back in the day. Give me some wander lust inspiring reading.
This post was originally published in May 2019 but has been updated and reposted. All links have been checked and some further information included.