PEOPLE thought we were crazy going so far north with one-year-old twins in the car. After all, it’s an eight hour drive from Manchester to John O’Groats – and that’s on a great day. But a week in the north turned out to be the ideal vacation with our not-quite-walkers. It is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. We spent days gazing at the ocean from our apartment and exploring the surrounding landscape.
'Thousands of guillemots and shags swarm on the lower ‘steps’ of a cathedral-sized collapsed cave and if you look closely, you’ll see the odd puffin peaking out from disused rabbit holes in the cliff face'
Flocks of kittiwakes and gulls take the place of traffic noise up here. It’s like another world, where animals are king. There is no denying that birds are the main draw, but by some chance we did see plenty of mammals too. Everyone told us that dolphins rarely swim the channel between John O’Groats and Orkney, so we got really lucky on day two when a pod of 40 or so appeared just off the mainland. The sun sank slowly into the ocean, as we watched them cavorting up and down the strait outside for an hour or more.
Another treat was walking straight out the front door to a rock formation called the Stacks. Basically, it looks just like it sounds, all spiky peaks jutting out of the sea and crashing waves. This wild spot harks back to pre-human times with thousands of guillemots and shags swarming on the lower ‘steps’ of a cathedral-sized collapsed cave. Here and there, if you look closely, you’ll see the odd puffin peaking out from disused rabbit holes in the cliff face. Mostly during their breeding season, which lasts from late March until late July.
In terms of accommodation, John O’Groats has everything from hostels to B&B. However, The Natural Retreats complex where we were staying was by far the most stylish. We felt pretty smug about this, but I have to say that even though this was a press trip, I’m sorely tempted to return. With options that include both self-contained chalets and apartments, it’s part of a growing national chain with others in hotspots like Cornwall and south Wales. This has to be their most breathtaking location with wildlife and breathtaking views literally banging on the window.
John O’Groats is a place to get away from it all. Yet despite being located at what, at times, felt like the end of the earth, our two-bed apartment was a city-literate space. Locally woven rugs and blankets in heather tones, make everything feel cosy, and no expense has been spared on fittings. Brewing a Nespresso, with one eye on the flatscreen TV, my boyfriend notes that this is the kind of place that they place Hollywood actors when they are making a movie in Manchester. It comes as little surprise to find that Manc experts, No Chintz, did the interior design.
One of the great things about being so far north is that almost no one else can be bothered to travel so far. Like the wild coastlines of Sweden and Norway, there are very few tourists.
There is no pub by the sea front and no restaurant – although Natural Retreats are planning to open one in the coming months – and, when the coach parties head home for the evening, a sense of peace descends that even gales and fog can’t dislodge.
That’s not to say that there aren’t places to eat, though. The Seaview Hotel in John O’Groats gets good reviews, while the on-site Storehouse café is great for soup, huge scones, and platters of locally smoked salmon. Look out for delicious examples from the smokehouses of Orkney. For something special, head over to The Captain’s Galley in Scrabster for a world-class fish supper that’s mentioned in the Michelin guide.
During our five day break – the perfect duration, I think – we made it to the Castle of Mey and over to Orkney on the ferry to see some prehistoric stuff. Just seven miles from John O’Groats, The Castle of Mey was the Queen Mother’s house, which she ‘rescued’ from ruin and renovated from the 1950s onwards. It’s one of the nearest (and only) attractions to the hotel with walled gardens packed with every kind of rare, local heather and flower. There is even a section devoted to supplying the floral demands of the house.
Tours are by appointment only but sweeping views and a petting farm, complete with more than five varieties of bantams, make the entrance fee of around £7 worthwhile. There is an accessible café, too, serving Scottish favourites like scones, stews, quiches and bacon and lentil soup.
Perhaps more of a destination than John O’Groats, Orkney is crammed with sights, from stone circles such as the Ring of Brodgar and WW2 shipwrecks emerging out of the shallow waters between the islands. It’s a complex of small islands, rather than one big one, as I had previously thought. In fact military history is a theme with the Italian Chapel, built by Italian POWs a must-see.
Long after we drove home, memories of the harbour, the birds and the wide-screen views have stayed with me. There’s little phone reception up here, and few people, so the birds and cliffs take on a kind of character-like importance in this unique part of the world. The deserted island of Stroma lies directly across the strait and, four miles beyond that, is the complex of islands that collectively fall under the Orkneys. You’d be pushed to find a more transporting view and I won’t forget this wonderful break any time soon.
Ruth took her own car, but car hire is available from Wick, which is the nearest town with an airport. Flybe operate flights there from Manchester. The nearest train station is also Wick, which is 16 miles to the south.
Public transport is very limited but if you don’t mind exploring on foot, there is plenty to see. There is a passenger (not car) ferry from John O’Groats to the Orkney Islands called The JOG Ferry. You can buy an Orkney ‘Maxi Tour’ ticket (£58 pp), which includes a bus tour of some of the island’s main attractions and the crossing or take single ticket for £30 return. A car ferry is run by Pentland Ferries from nearby Gills Bay Pier (also a good puffin watching spot) to St Margaret’s Hope in Orkney. The journey takes around one hour each way. Prices start from around £50 each way for one adult and car. Foot passengers cost £15 one way.
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