Loch Ness: You can't visit the Highlands without trying to spot Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, right? Loch Ness is set amid beautiful scenery, and the romantic ruin of Urquhart Castle at loch's edge makes a great viewpoint and photo op. The castle has 1,000 years of history, and the visitor center tells you its story and features a display of medieval artifacts. A five-story tower has the best viewpoint over the 23-mile long loch. There's also a restaurant and a large gift shop -- so even if you don't spot Nessie, you can still buy a much more adorable stuffed version. If you're a Nessie fan, the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, in nearby Drumnadrochit, is worth a visit, too. Urquhart Castle is located about 17 miles south of Inverness, off of the A82 road. (+44 01456 450 551; open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer, to 5 p.m. in fall and to 4:40 p.m. in winter)
Cawdor Castle: Cawdor Castle is far from a ruin. In fact, the Cawdor family still lives there, and the stately home has evolved over 600 years. You can tour rooms with lavish furnishings and see the thorn tree that legend says the castle was built around. The thane of Cawdor let a donkey roam around and located his new castle where the donkey lay down for the night, right by the thorn tree! The castle also has a famous connection to the Shakespeare play "Macbeth." (Located 15 miles from Inverness and five miles from Nairn, off of the B9090 road; +44 01667 404401; open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. May to early October)
Dunrobin Castle: While we weren't overly impressed with the interior of Dunrobin Castle, the garden and the exterior are another story. Reminiscent of a French chateau, the castle's turrets and stonework were designed by Charles Barry, who also designed the British Parliament. Below the castle, formal gardens carpet the landscape, and you get a great bird's-eye view from the castle terrace. If you're willing to brave an imposing set of steps down to the garden, you can be treated to our favorite part of the visit, a birds-of-prey demonstration. The fascinating resident falconer provides a great commentary as hawks, falcons and owls swoop low over the audience and pounce on lures. Shows are at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday to Saturday on the far side of the garden and last just over half an hour. (Located about 30 miles northeast of Invergordon, off the A9; +44 01408 633177; open 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday in April, May, September and October and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in June, July and August)
Distillery Tours and Tastings: If castles aren't your thing, how about a wee dram of Scotch whisky? You can tour and taste at the Dalmore Distillery (+44 01349 882362; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday from April to September and Monday to Friday from October to March), located in Alness, just three miles from where you're docked. Aficionados like the small-group tours there and praise the traditional techniques. If you visit in the fall "silent season," (check the distillery's website for dates) production will be halted. Reserve in advance online. The Glenmorangie Distillery (+44 01862 892 477; open days and times vary, call for hours) also offers tours and tastings. It's located 13 miles from Invergordon and just outside of Tain.
Invergordon Golf Club: For golfers, there's a course a five-minute drive from the dock. Invergordon Golf Club offers a reasonable package that includes pickup from the quayside, club rental and cart, a round of golf, and even a dram of whisky before you're returned to your ship. (King George Street; +44 01349 852715; firstname.lastname@example.org to book in advance)
Highland Trike Tours: If you're up for an adventure, try touring with Highland Trike Tours on a chauffeur-driven three-seated "chopper" with three wheels. Various tours visit all the area highlights. (+44 07760 483 846 or email@example.com)
Stay in Town: Want to stick close to the ship? Grab a map of Invergordon and try to track down all 11 of the mural-bedecked buildings around town. Each painting was led by a different community group that worked with the artist on the subject matter. There's a pipe and drum corps, a landscape with ocean critters, a burning building being extinguished by the fire brigade, traditional Scottish sports and much more.
Invergordon Naval Museum and Heritage Centre: There, displays highlight Invergordon's history and three nearby castles; oil-rig models; a rescue lifeboat; and information about Polish soldiers who escaped the Germans and helped protect the area during WWII. (High Street to the right of the pier; +44 01349-852707; open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when cruise ships are in port)
Invergordon Church of Scotland: You'll notice the steeple of the Invergordon Church of Scotland as you sail up the firth. The gray stone church has ministered to residents for more than 150 years and offers free tea and shortbread to cruise visitors.
Shopping: You might enjoy browsing the mom and pop shops along High Street. We thought there were some real finds in the Caring & Sharing (96 High Street; hours vary) charity thrift shop, including elegant silver-plated candlesticks, antique jewelry, hand-built sailing ship models and a big bucket of used golf balls.