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The Orkney Isles in Scotland

Pity anybody who doesn’t know about the good vacation value in the Orkney islands—all 67 of them—starting just six miles north of the Scottish mainland. They are home to friendly islanders ready to enthuse about a variety of unusual but magnificent places and sights.

Kirkwall, a proud and ancient town, is dominated by the magnificent St. Magnus Cathedral, an 860-year-old architectural masterpiece. The winding main street there is lined with houses dating from the 16th century. There’s special reason for heading to Kirkwall each June, when the St. Magnus Arts Festival celebrates its anniversary with performances of music, dance, and poetry.

Near Kirkwall is Scotland’s northernmost whisky distillery, built on the very spot where Orkney’s most cunning smuggler, Magnus Eunson, a minister, kept illicit whisky under his pulpit. When excisemen came to investigate, he had the kegs moved to his house and covered with a coffin lid and a white cloth to suggest it was a body. Officers who went too close fled when Eunson looked up from his bible and warned: “Smallpox!”

Most visitors sail to Orkney from Scrabster, in Caithness, and land at Stromness, a town in a well-sheltered bay that has greeted seafarers for centuries. The neat stone houses have their own small piers or slipways.

The sounds of the Orkney Traditional Folk Festival spill out from the hostelries in Stromness and throughout the islands in May. Stromness Shopping Week, the town’s annual festival held each July, is celebrated with pipe bands, fishing contests, and fireworks--not shopping carts or checkout lines.

Knowledgeable visitors who regularly take a break in these magic islands know that the locally-produced food has a special freshness and flavor. Orkney is famous for its cheese and its oatcakes as well as for its beef. Visitors also talk of Orkney ice cream made with milk from the scrubbed pasturelands and of bannocks made from an ancient form of barley.

The islands have a number of family-run hotels on the waterfront and inland and a large number of B and Bs. Ferries allow you to take your car between the islands, and there are day and half-day tours to explore the historic and archaeological sites.

For detailed information about what to do and see, visit the Orkney Tourist Board (www.visitorkney.com).

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