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Though just a short ferry ride from mainland Scotland, arriving on the Orkney Islands feels like entering a remote and timeless world. A place of Neolithic ruins, shipwrecks, rugged coastal walks, seal colonies and wild birds, Orkney is also home to tight-knit rural communities, who welcome tourists with open arms, inviting them to enjoy the local folk music, fresh seafood and island crafts.

Getting Around the Orkney Islands

The Orkney Islands are accessible by air and sea, with the primary airport being situated in Kirkwall on the Mainland. The islands are served by car ferries, and if you wish to hire a car, the easiest thing to do is to fly into Kirkwall where there are several car rental shops. Kirkwall is the largest town in Orkney, and therefore one of the best places to find accommodation, restaurants, bars and shops. Its crowning glory is the sandstone St. Magnus Cathedral, however it’s also home to an excellent museum and the Highland Park whisky distillery, which is open for tours and tastings.

Mainland Orkney

Once on Mainland Orkney, you should find the driving relatively straightforward and relaxing. Four main roads run out of the centre of Kirkwall. The A960 takes you to the western peninsula of Deerness, home to the Mull Head Nature Reserve and a collapsed sea-cave known as the Gloup. Head out of Kirkwall on the A961 and you’ll move south, to Burray and South Ronaldsay, passing by the curiously ornate Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, which was built in the 1940s by Italian prisoners of war. At the base of South Ronaldsay you’ll find the dramatically named Tomb of the Eagles; the site of a Bronze Age house and some Stone Age human remains.

If you want to head west out of Kirkwall, you can take the A964, which curves south, passing Houton, where you can catch a ferry to Hoy. An alternative driving route winds north from Kirkwall on the A965, then passes Finstown, Loch Harray and Loch Stenness, and finishes in Stromness. This route is recommended if you’re planning on visiting the Ring of Brodgar, situated dramatically between the two huge bodies of water at Harray and Stenness. This vast stone circle is 340 feet in diameter and was likely erected between 2500 and 2000 BC. Other sightseeing spots on the Mainland include the Neotholic settlement at Skara Brae, the stunning cliffs at Yesnaby and the Stone Age sandstone tomb at Maes Howe.

The Northern Islands

If you have the luxury of time, it’s definitely worth exploring the northern islands of Orkney, and in particular Westray (home to a castle, a bird reserve and a puffin colony) and Sanday (famous for its soft, white sand beaches). The most determined of tourists might even want to make their way out to the northernmost outpost of Orkney, North Ronaldsay, an island famous for its unique, seaweed-eating sheep and historic lighthouse. Wherever you choose to go, renting a car will give you the freedom to make your own timetable and explore this wonderful place at your leisure.

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