Although it's the most popular cruise ship port of call in Scotland, Invergordon might look a bit bleak as you pull up to the dock. Its main industry is repairing oil rigs, which are towed into Cromarty Firth, so there's little glamour to the waterfront. But the town's natural deep harbor (carved by glaciers) makes it the ideal cruise portal to the Highlands.
Once ashore, you'll probably head out to see the Loch Ness monster, Culloden Battlefield, the town of Inverness, a castle or perhaps a whisky distillery.
Because most visitors scurry off to the heather-covered Highlands, this town of about 4,000 is less touristy than you might expect, and it owns a homespun charm. When we visited on our Windstar cruise, a handwritten sign greeted us at the little tourism kiosk: "Welcome Wind Surf! 100% guaranteed sighting of Nessie tomorrow!"
Take a short walk into the town center and you'll find impressive murals, overflowing flowerboxes, small shops, cafes, banks -- and friendly people happy to have a wee chat. Don't forgo a shore excursion to hang out there, but if you have an extra hour or so, you can have a pleasant time seeing the murals and poking around High Street.
The town seems thoroughly genuine and blissfully short on jaded tourist glitz. One of the best memories of our cruise was being played off during our sailaway by an 18-member high school drum and bagpipe corps in full Scottish regalia. Their haunting music carried out over the waters as we sailed off through the firth.
When you disembark, there is a pier, about 750 feet long, to walk along to reach the shore. Any excursion buses will be parked there.
A five-minute walk takes you a bit uphill to High Street, the town's main business street. Just keep walking straight ahead from the pier and you'll hit it. There are several ATMs, a pharmacy, cafes with Wi-Fi and a post office inside the SPAR store.
If you decide to drive, remember that the Scottish drive on the left-hand side of the road. Be particularly careful when you make a right turn, because you have to cross oncoming traffic. Be a cautious as a pedestrian, too, when crossing streets -- though Invergordon doesn't have much traffic to worry about.
The pound is Scotland's currency, comparable to -- and interchangeable with -- the British pound. For currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. A few shops in Invergordon will accept U.S. dollars and euros (SER Supplies, for example), and credit cards are usually accepted, too.
There are no ATMs at the port, but you'll find several along High Street, including at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and the SPAR convenience store, both on High Street -- a five- to 10-minute walk once you're onshore. Bank hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.
English is the primary language, but you may have to listen closely because of the accent (unless you're a "Star Trek" fan, practiced at deciphering Scottie's speeches). Gaelic is spoken by 1.2 percent of the Scottish population, but most Gaelic-speakers live on the islands.
A boggling number of bottled Scotches can be found at SER Supplies Superstore (131-133 High Street), including airline-sized bottles that make it easy to sample a wide array and see what you like. Quality tartan plaid blankets and an interesting assortment of handmade walking sticks, some with antler handles, also are among the popular items. You'll find Celtic jewelry aplenty at M.A. Forbes Jewelers (106 High Street), and the prices were comparable to what we found elsewhere in Scotland for similar pieces.
When in Scotland, go for the Scotch! There are many whisky labels that never make it to the United States, so sip and experiment. A pleasant spot to relax with a whisky (no "e" in Scotland) is Tuckers Inn (11 Saltburn Road; 01349 852335), to the right of the pier, about 200 yards along the waterfront. Or visit one of the two local distilleries (see below).