Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles

In my school library in Canada, there was a curious old volume printed in 1909 called “The Orkney Book.” It was written for schoolchildren living in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland and told them about their land, culture and history.

This book fascinated me with its stories of Viking warriors and mysterious stone circles. I studied the grainy black and white photos of those remote islands and dreamed of going there. Last week I finally did.

Orkney, as Orcadians call their home, is a group of about 70 islands between the North Sea and North Atlantic. The exact number is a matter of dispute because in addition to the numerous inhabited islands, some with a population as low as one, there are many more uninhabited islands and skerries. When is an island really an island and not just a rock sticking out of the sea? I suspect this has been the subject of many long conversations in Orcadian pubs.

My wife, 6-year-old son and I landed in the tiny airport at Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital. With a population a little above 7,500, it’s not exactly a booming metropolis, but it does account for more than a third of Orkney’s population. What Kirkwall lacks in size it makes up for in history and character. In the broad harbor are moored numerous fishing and pleasure boats and a few larger vessels. Beyond can be seen other islands, green humps rising out of the gray sea.

Dominating the Kirkwall skyline is the 12th century St. Magnus Cathedral built of red sandstone. It was built in 1137 by Earl Rognvald, a Viking at a time when most Vikings were nominally Christian. He built it to house the remains of his uncle Magnus, who had become a saint after having his head split by an axe in traditional Viking fashion. Magnus had been an Earl of the Orkneys, ruling for the Norwegian king along with Magnus’ cousin Hakon, who was Earl of another part of Orkney. This co-rulership led to trouble and when Magnus and Hakon met to sort things out, Hakon betrayed him. Hakon didn’t want his own hands soiled by a kinsman’s blood and called on his cook to perform the foul deed. Soon miracles started happening around Magnus’ grave and he was proclaimed a saint.

Kirkwall also has an excellent museum tracing Orkney’s history from the surprisingly active prehistoric period to the modern day. There’s also a cool Wireless Museum filled with a huge collection of old radios; one from 1912 actually works and on another set you can practice your Morse code. My son was more interested in the old TV where you could play Pong, a video game from an era that must seem as remote to him as the Neolithic.

%Gallery-160901%Our next stop was Stromness, a half-hour bus ride from Kirkwall. As we got off and gazed over the cluster of gray stone buildings huddled around the harbor, my son asked, “Is this the other place they call a city?”

Well, after growing up in Madrid, I guess it doesn’t seem like much of a city to him, but with a little over 2,000 people it’s the second biggest town on the islands. It has a thriving artistic community and many artists display their work at the Pier Arts Centre. There’s also a large museum about the lives of the hardy local sailors, whalers, and explorers of days gone by. Many of the displays are of the things they brought back from their travels, everything from artwork from Niger and Greenland to whalebone scrimshaw and necklaces made from human teeth.

The highlight of our visit to Stromness was walking along the shore and around a promontory. Soon we left the town behind us and looked out over the cold waves. Seals popped their heads out of the water to study us. “Look, a seal! Look, a seal!” my son kept shouting as he spotted another and another. A few rocks became identified as seals too, and spotting more seals took on the uncertainty and excitement that adults generally reserve for UFOs. We clambered over the remains of a World War II gun emplacement, one of many on the islands, and admired the high hills of Hoy island, shown in the photo above.

Both Kirkwall and Stromness are on Orkney’s main island, which Orcadians call the Mainland even though mainland Scotland is barely twenty miles from its southern shores. For those wanting a base from which to get out and about on the islands, either of these two cities is a good bet. Many of Orkney’s top attractions are on the Mainland and Kirkwall and Stromness have regular ferry services to other islands. While we stayed in Kirkwall, my wife and I found Stromness more attractive. Its old architecture and quieter streets had a more traditional feel.

We’d only been on Orkney for 24 hours and we were already hooked. I was looking forward to seeing the countryside and the smaller islands.

This is the first in my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney!”

Photo Of The Day: Galapagos Crab

The unique diversity and one-of-a-kind wildlife of the Galapagos Islands makes it a hotspot for traveling nature lovers from around the globe. In today’s photo, taken by Flickr user wesleyrosenblum, we find a brilliant red crab in close-up on the island of Santiago. This eye-popping crustacean’s wild crimson and orange hue photographed against the otherworldly black volcanic rocks almost had me convinced I was looking at an alien on some distant planet.

Taken any amazing animal shots during your travels? Or perhaps just a shot of your own backyard? Why not add it to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Visiting The Seychelles: Six Things You Need To Know


The Seychelles is a beautiful country of 115 granite and coral islands, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Located 932 miles east of Africa and 1135 miles northeast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, getting there takes some work. A transit point for trade between Africa and Asia, the Seychelles islands are known for their pristine beaches and untouched nature reserves that make a visit worthwhile.

The main attraction- No trip to the Seychelles is complete without a visit to the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located on Praslin Island (pictured), this is the only place in the world to find the rare coco de mer palm and home to rare birds such as the Seychelles bulbul, fruit pigeon and the black parrot.What to do- Pristine and uncrowded beaches, some framed by age-old granite boulders, offer powder-soft sands, turquoise waters and good opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, diving, fishing or pure relaxation. Artists’ studios, national reserves, marine parks, water sports, golf, horse-riding and guided nature tours show travelers some of the rarest species of flora and fauna on earth.

Getting there- Air Seychelles is the national carrier, operating non-stop scheduled flights from Mauritius and South Africa (Johannesburg) into Mahé International Airport. Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates also provide flights to various destinations through their hubs in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha.

Language- Languages spoken in the Seychelles are Seychellois Creole, English and French, all of which share the title of being the official language of government and business. Tourist areas are most commonly English-speaking.

Local currency- The GB Pound Sterling (£), the US Dollar (US$) and the Euro (€) are all accepted, as well as some other major international currencies. Exchanging foreign currency into Seychelles Rupees can only be done at banks, authorized money dealers at the Seychelles International Airport, or with a hotel cashier.

Staying there- A wide range of new and refurbished hotels, Creole guesthouses and exclusive island retreats are currently on 16 of Seychelles 115 islands. Other islands are expected to develop hotel facilities in the near future, which could be good or bad, depending on how one views tourism and all it brings.

Seychelles, with an estimated population of 86,000, has the smallest population of any African state but this week celebrated its 100,000th visitor to arrive in the islands for 2012. Also this week, Air Seychelles celebrated the arrival of its first Airbus A330-200 aircraft, named Aldabra in honor of Aldabra island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Seychelles’ most remote and pristine islands.

One more thing you need to know: “How to Visit Seychelles on a Budget” by Gadling’s Alex Robertson Textor.

Update, July 27th 2012: Quinn and & Co, the firm that handles PR for Etihad, reached out to tell us that Air Seychelles also flies into Abu Dhabi from Mahé.

[Flickr photo by MrFederico]

Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa Opens September 1 On Easter Island

Easter IslandEaster Island is getting a new, 75-room luxury boutique hotel, located just a five-minute walk from the only town of Hanga Roa.

The Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa officially opens on September 1, with a soft opening August 31, for which guests will receive 30 percent off nightly and package stays if they book now.

The Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa is being deemed an integral tourism property based on sustainability, located in the most remote inhabited island in the world, 2,181 miles from mainland Chile.

Each detail of the hotel’s architectural design and functionality is on the cutting edge of green technology due to the ecologically and culturally sensitive environs. Energy-saving measures, water filtration and reuse systems, waste recycling programs and the use of organic and locally sourced food products at the property’s two restaurants are some of the green methods used by the hotel.

The Hangaroa’s 500-square-foot Kainga double rooms and 800-square-foot Ma’Unga suites are made of volcanic rock, clay and wood, including washbasins and freestanding tubs. The hotel’s lounge spaces, reading room and lobby are designed to resemble a traditional casa bote, a traditional Rapa Nui house that appears as an upside-down canoe. Manavai Spa utilizes holistic as well as high-tech treatments that incorporate ancestral techniques of the Rapa Nui.

The Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa philosophy is to bring the community into the project. More than 75 percent of the hotel’s staff members are local and ethnic Rapa Nui, and the Hangaroa has developed a series of educational and professional training programs that also seek to maintain and conjoin the Rapa Nui’s beliefs, rites and traditions. The Hangaroa will also donate funds to local educational programs and environmental causes every year.

As part of the Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa’s desire to give back to the local community, the hotel subcontracts acclaimed local tour company Mahinatur to provide cultural experiences for guests, such as visits to the Rano Raraku quarry, the Ahu Tongariki with 15 standing moais and the Rano Kau volcanic crater.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Ndecam]


Disappear From The Map On These Independent Islands

It’s the middle of a long workweek and you’re having that island escape fantasy again. You’re picturing yourself tan and shoeless and thousands of miles away from your office, beer in hand, lazing away afternoons on the deck of your cozy little bungalow. The location: one of a few independent islands ungoverned by international law and free from the outside world – a place where you, your money and your history can disappear.

Sound too good to be true? Believe it or not, there are still a few corners of this world where you can really escape. Read on to find out where.

Norfolk Island
One thousand miles east of Sydney and 900 north of New Zealand, the choice to inhabit this tiny piece of land adrift in the rollicking Pacific requires an active desire to be absorbed into a quirky community that prides itself on being behind the times. Inhabitants brag that the island’s telephone book is the only one in the world listed by nicknames. Residents speak Norf’k – a blend of old seafaring English and Tahitian. There are no stoplights – nor any railways, ports or harbors for that matter.

Although technically part of Australia, with that country’s postcode, currency and police force, Norfolk Island is proudly independent. It has its own nine-member government, not to mention its own customs rules, immigration laws and stamps. In true competitive Aussie form, it even has its own Commonwealth and South Pacific Games teams. Australian residents are not automatically entitled to relocate there. You have to be sponsored by an existing resident or business. If you make the cut, part of your Norfolkian reward is not having to pay Australian federal taxes. Instead the island raises money through an import duty, fuel and Medicare levies, and GST and local and international phone calls (and good luck getting an Internet connection consistent enough to use Skype).

Jersey is a parliamentary democracy that is a British island but not part of the United Kingdom. Constitutionally, its status is that of a Crown Peculiar, which implies the place is or was some sort of plaything for the King. Jersey’s official name is the Bailiwick of Jersey, which means a bailiff presides over it. Think Norman England, not Judge Judy. Here there are no political parties, no cabinet, not even a prime minister lurking about.

The largest of the Channel Islands, it’s divided into twelve parishes all named after Christian saints. Each is run by a Constable who serves the community for free (and you thought Mayor Bloomberg’s $1 a year salary was impressive). The Constable’s initial job description included “ensuring fresh horses for the royal entourage.” Today he still controls the Centeniers and Vingteniers, which are not the names of “Game of Thrones” characters, but rather the two branches of local police. Amongst others, they also enforce laws relating to ormer – an indigenous shellfish no one I know has ever heard of. Ormers are fiercely protected by a wealth of regulations, including: it is an offence to either possess fresh ormers or export them on the first day of a new or full moon and the five days following.

Marshall Islands
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is part of Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean. It’s made up of five islands, 29 low-laying atolls and around 65,000 people. It’s a presidential republic in free association with the United States – who offers defense, funding and social services. Oh, and $57 million a year. We’ve piled on another $2.3 billion for the small favor of using one of their atolls, the one with the largest lagoon in the world, as a missile test range until 2066.

Recently, the Marshallese government has turned their lawmaking attention to marine life. In 2011, they announced that over 700,000 miles of ocean (around the size of Mexico) would be reserved as a shark sanctuary. Enforcement officials will cut the gear right off your boat if they find you fishing for them, not to mention levy fines high enough to put you off shark fin soup completely. You might, however, be tempted to console yourself by downloading some pirated movies and music: the islands have no copyright laws.

Cook Islands
The Cook Islands are a parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand. Cook Island’s own website offers what is now officially my favorite description of a place: “The 15 islands of the Cooks lie halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, scattered like fragrant frangipani petals floating across 2.2 million square kilometers of a seductive, sensual ocean.” (If you don’t have to Google frangipani, you officially know more about flowers than I do.)

Sorry for the double standard Kiwis but you can be a Cook Islander and also a New Zealand citizen but not vice versa. Any foreigner who wants to purchase residential property must first invest in a business for at least five years. An exception to the law is snatching up a place no resident wants: that run-down warehouse on the highway is looking pretty good right about now. Two of my favorite local laws: you’re not allowed to build anything higher than a palm tree and no franchised businesses are allowed. Sorry, Starbucks.

Rachel Friedman is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure. She has written for The New York Times, New York and BUST magazines, among others. More about her at: www.rachel-friedman.com.

[Flickr image via bawpcwpn]