Friday, 20 July 2012

A suggested itinerary for a week in Orkney

We're now back from our very enjoyable holiday on the Orkney islands.  Before I went, I put in a lot of internet research to put together an itinerary that took in all of the major monuments and sights.  It worked well and we saw everything while still coming away feeling relaxed and like we've had a holiday.  So I thought it would be worth capturing the learning in a post, in case anyone Googles for a similar itinerary.

Getting there:  We flew with British Airways from Heathrow to Kirkwall, via Aberdeen, because we couldn't face the long drive.  It cost a bit more, but was so much easier and left more time for the holiday.  We had a two hour layover in Aberdeen each way, and the timing meant this was a supper break - tip: exit the departure lounge for a meal as there are more food choices in the terminal. Going up, we arrived in the evening; and coming back, we left Kirkwall airport at 17:20h and were back in Heathrow for 10pm.

Getting Around: We hired a car from Drive Orkney, who met us at Kirkwall airport and took us into Kirkwall to fill out the paperwork.  We had a Renault Clio which was fine for buzzing around all week, and we didn't even get through a full tank of petrol. We dropped it at the airport when we left, so it was very convenient.  There are public buses but it would be hard to visit everywhere worth seeing just on public transport.  There are also organised coaches, and we saw those people trooping on and off the bus at some of the main monuments, but we prefer to be able to get around on our own schedule. Driving was very easy as there were few cars on the roads except in Kirkwall and Stenness. Locals drive extremely fast, so be prepared to be overtaken, and to watch in amazement as they overtake laden tractors on blind corners and other feats of derring do.

Accommodation: We prefer self-catering, and there is a lot of that on offer on the mainland (main Orkney island). We stayed with Atlantis Lodges in Finstown, in an apartment that looked directly onto the sea and a lovely view (the sea was lapping under our living room window). It was immaculately clean and well kitted out.  Finstown is a small village with a post office, pub and general store which is centrally located for travelling all over the island.  Kirkwall is less than 10 minutes away where there is a Tesco and a Lidl for groceries.  We generally ate breakfast and supper at home, and had lunch out while we were sightseeing.  We did have one deluxe dinner out at the Merkister Hotel - the food was pretty good but also fairly expensive and we weren't that impressed with the service.  I noticed a lot of self catering cottages are located in Stromness, but that's not quite as central plus when we visited we found the main narrow street could get very congested with traffic which would be a pain on a daily basis.

Day One:  Travel to Orkney, collect hire car, check into accommodation, buy groceries.  In the evening, why not visit one of the 24 hour access monuments such as the Cuween Cairn on the hillside above Finstown?  Much more private than the bigger monuments, and there is a torch outside the entrance so you can crawl in and explore the chambered tomb for yourself.

Day Two: Hit all the UNESCO monuments for a great start to the holiday.  Visit Tormiston Mill to get your place on the timed visits to Maeshowe - aim for the 3pm slot say.  Then drive past the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar and head for Skara Brae.  ** major moneysaving tip:  if you are English Heritage members, this gets you in free to all Historic Scotland monuments, saving you £14 for example on two entries to Skara Brae. When you get your Skara Brae ticket, ask for the tide times for the Brough of Birsay so you can check access for your visit later in the week.  Visit Skara Brae and Skail House, then have lunch in the excellent Skara Brae cafe (there are not that many cafes on the island, so bird in the hand...) Head back to the Ring of Brodgar in time for the 1pm guided tour by a Historic Scotland guide, very good and takes about one hour, setting the context for all the monuments in the area including the Ness of Brodgar dig.  Stop at the Stones of Stenness, and walk down the left side to reach the neolithic Barnhouse Village on the shores of the loch (or you can do these after your Maeshowe tour, depending on how you are doing for time).  Pop back to Tormiston Mill to go on the 3pm timed ticket tour of Maeshowe. Be amazed.  If you are still up for archaeology, drive back to the Ness of Brodgar dig (only open for six weeks in the summer) - there are guided tours at 11, 1pm and 3pm but you can also just wander in at other times and stand outside the perimeter rope to watch the diggers, plus there is a small souvenir shop there.

Day three: Explore the south mainland.  Visit the Rennibister Earth House (9:30-6pm daily) and then head south to the Churchill barriers and the Italian Chapel.  We went all the way south to see the Tomb of the Eagles, which had interesting talks about artefacts but the tombs themselves look very careworn from excessive visitors. St. Margaret's Hope is worth a walk around as well. On your way back, visit Mine Howe (11-5pm).  Then if it's nice, we recommend the Mull head nature reserve on Deerness, where there is the impressive Gloup (collapsed sea cave) and a variety of shorter and longer walks where you will see lots of birds.  If you are going to travel to Rousay tomorrow, then you need to book a place for your car on the ferry today.  We drove to Tingwall and booked directly with the ticket office there, but I expect you can do it over the phone as well.

Day Four: - Outing to the island of Rousay.  After the excitement of reversing onto the ferry (the only way to board), drive off at the other end and head to the left to visit the 'Great Ship of Death', the Midhowe Cairn.  This is a long clamber down from the road - not so bad going down, extremely breathless to come back up.  Well worth it though and next to the Cairn is the Midhowe Broch which unlike many brochs is not just a covered mound but an actual ruin you can walk into.  Head back towards the ferry and visit the Taversoe Tuick Cairn, which is near the road.  If you aren't too exhausted, the Blackhammer Cairn is also accessed from the same road, but is much more of a hike up the hill.  We got the 10:20 ferry and were done in time to come back on the 2:20pm ferry, including circumnavigating the island and eating our picnic lunch looking over to Egilsay, but there is a 3:20 sailing which would give you more comfort zone. We only saw one cafe which is by the ferry. Keep an eye out on the water, we saw about 20 seals sunning themselves on a reef. Once back in Tingwall, head north to visit the impressive Broch of Gurness, from which you have good views across to Rousay and to the Midhowe Broch.  If you still have time and energy, drive over to the Corrigall Farm Museum (open until 5pm) to see what it was like inside a farm house in the 19th C.  You can drive over the moor to get there (great views), and visit the Click Mill on the way.

Day five: Explore the north mainland today.  Drive towards Birsay, visiting the Kirbuster Farm Museum on the way.  Time your visit to coincide with the low tide times you looked up earlier at Skara Brae.  We had time to visit the Earl's Palace in Birsay as well as the Barony Mill, before low tide at late morning.  Walk across the newly revealed causeway to the Brough of Birsay to see the Pictish and Norse ruins (there was a very interesting talk by the custodian at 1pm, including replica artefacts to handle).  Head up the island to the top right hand cliffs where we saw nesting puffins, so cute.  The energetic can go and visit the lighthouse.  We had a late lunch in the tea room in Birsay - drive through the village, past the toilets, and keep going until you see greenhouses and the tea room is just the other side.

Day Six:  You could do a visit to the island of Hoy today (book your ferry in advance) and visit the Martello Tower, Dwarfie Staine, the museum and the Old Man of Hoy.  By this point, we were so relaxed that we decided not to do Hoy.  Instead we went into Kirkwall and ended up spending the whole day there.  There is a grey leaflet available with a heritage walk around town, which we followed and found very interesting, and includes the Earl's Palace and Bishop's palace.  There are several gift shops and knitwear shops worth visiting, and we had lunch at the St Magnus cafe in the Town Hall.  The Tankerness Museum is well worth a visit and had a good exhibition on the Ness of Brodgar excavations, which set us up well for our visit the following day. When we visited St Magnus Cathedral, we noticed a tour available of the upper spaces of the cathedral.  You have to pre-book as they only take six people at a time - go to the Custodian's office which is in the South transept to book. It was well worth it, we went up spiral staircases in the walls to look down on the nave, saw the private museum of artefacts, the clock mechanism, the bells, and went right up to the top of the tower (not good if you have a fear of heights!) which had spectacular views.  You can visit the Ortak jewellery showroom and visitor centre to the left of the harbour as well.

Day seven: Today we visited the Ness of Brodgar excavations and had the honour of listening to the Director of the Dig himself, as he had decided to host the first tour of the season.  Very interesting. In the afternoon we  headed down to Orphir and visited the Earl's Bu and watched the video presentation on the Orkneyinga Saga in the Saga Centre next to the Bu (free). We bought a picnic lunch from Tesco and ate it looking over Scapa Flow from the big beachfront near Kirkwall. Then we drove down to visit a display of dollshouses in Littlequoy and on the way back went into Kirkwall to visit the Earth House cairn in the industrial park (key available from Ortak Jewellery) and have another wander around some shops.  I hadn't planned too much for today and tomorrow, because if we had been unlucky with the weather on another day then we would have had these days in reserve.  But as it turned out, it was drier in Orkney than it was down in London.

Day eight:  This was our last day, but we didn't need to be at the airport until 4:30pm.  We started out with a testing walk down to the Wideford Cairn, which is about a mile downhill from the parking at the top of Wideford Hill which had stunning views over Kirkwall and towards Skapa Flow and Finstown. We decided to head back to the Ness of Brodgar dig to see how they had gotten on since yesterday (noticeable progress), and then re-visited Skara Brae to view it with new eyes after a week of visiting neolithic ruins (and free as we are English Heritage members).  We had lunch there again, and pottered around a bit before dropping the car at the airport in time to check in for our flight.

If you do go, have a lovely time and enjoy. We hope to go back again.

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