WHAT would make the ideal holiday isle? An oasis awash with epic sandy beaches? Or one swimming with historic sites, cute villages and bountiful wildlife?
Maybe world-class local produce and creative arts and crafts? Welcome to Orkney, an oasis that offers all these attractions and more.
Orkney boasts more than 80 islands, but it is the Orkney mainland that offers it all in one place.
With so much to see and do I recommend hiring a motorhome, as I did last time I was there. Kerry, the lovely lady behind Motorhome Hire Orkney (www.motorhomehireorkney.com), organised a mobile home that made an ideal base for exploring.
Visiting the two main settlements of Kirkwall and Stromness is essential. Kirkwall, as the capital, has the biggest buzz, especially now it has emerged as a cruise ship hub. Walk along the main street and you can enjoy all the wee arts and crafts shops that cater for the new ships. I’m a massive fan too of Kirkwall’s glorious architectural trio – the Bishop’s Palace, Earl’s Palace and the remarkable Viking-era St Magnus Cathedral.
Stromness meanwhile is a sleepier oasis, an old fishing village that oozes character from its sturdy stone pores. The main street is ideal for a stroll with its pretty houses and wee galleries – I thoroughly recommend the Pier Arts Centre, with its permanent collection of works by Orcadian artists.
The countryside is dotted with historic sites. Now that the sprawling Ness of Brodgar site is digging up archaeological treasures with startling regularity, the Orkney Mainland has cemented its place as the UK’s most important Neolithic treasure trove.
There are myriad highlights. A visit to the aforementioned Ness of Brodgar is a must. Nearby lies the Ring of Brodgar, a striking stone circle you can get much closer to than Stonehenge. On the other flank of the Ness are the massive Stones of Stenness.
Two other historic attractions stand out. You have to visit the Neolithic village of Skara Brae and see how people eked out a living more than 5,000 years ago on this spectacular spot by a sweeping white sand Atlantic beach. At Maeshowe, you have the chance to burrow down with a Historic Scotland guide deep into a prehistoric burial chamber where you will find graffiti left by the Vikings.
Bringing things bang up to date, Orkney now boasts a gastronomic reputation.
Seafood and Orkney Gold beef are widely acclaimed. My top dining tips include the Ferry Inn in Stromness, whose beef fillet, lobster tail and hot smoked salmon platter is delicious. Then there is the Foveran Hotel, a restaurant with rooms where head chef Paul Doull excels with his take on Kirkwall Bay seafood.
The island has world class Highland Park and Scapa whisky distilleries, with gin now being distilled in Orkney too, and award-winning breweries also making their mark.
I promised you beaches and I can deliver there too. It is easy as there are slips of sand sprinkled all over Orkney – it’s just a case of spotting one for you.
Orkney is an ornithologists’ paradise with everything from Arctic terns and gannets, through to puffins and even mighty sea eagles. On my latest trip I was lucky enough to spot a couple of orcas circling offshore.
It is experiences like these that make Orkney’s mainland the ideal island for a deeply rewarding holiday.
Northlink Ferries northlinkferries.co.uk sail to Orkney from Scrabster and Aberdeen on the mainland, and Shetland.
Cabins are available as is a cinema and an award-winning restaurant.
More information visitscotland.com.