Situated on what's known as the "Mainland" of the Orkney archipelago, Kirkwall is the capital of a group of about 70 islands north of Scotland. The town was founded around 1035, and was declared a Royal Burgh in 1486 by King James III. Kirkwall's most famous landmark is nearly the 900-year old St. Magnus Cathedral, built from beautiful pink and yellow sandstone. Its towering spire dominates the town, even from the water.
Settlements on Orkney's mainland go back to 3000 BC. You can see remains of that civilization at Skara Brae, as well as cairns (man-made piles of stone), Bronze Age stone circles and Iron Age roundhouses, at different sites around the island. The richness of the Orkney's Neolithic past has earned it UNESCO World Heritage status.
Vikings arrived in the eighth and ninth centuries and left their mark, too. The name Kirkwall is derived from the old Norse name Kirkjuvagr, which means "Church Bay." The original town is considered to be one of the best-preserved examples of an ancient Norse settlement.
Follow the streets, which snake around this town built of gray stone, and you'll find shopping, dining, banks and more, as well as a museum and historic sites.
You'll end up in any of three locations:
Kirkwall Pier: Smaller ships dock at the most convenient spot. After a 400-foot walk on the pier, it's about 10 minutes walking (slightly uphill) to the cathedral; shops, restaurants and other services begin when you hit the shore.
Hatston Quay: Larger ships dock at this facility two miles outside of town. It's Scotland's longest deep-water commercial berth, about a one-minute walk to reach the spot where excursion buses wait. The ferry terminal has toilets, drink-vending machines and a parking lot. For most ships, the town operates a shuttle service to the tourism office in the city center.
Anchored: If berths aren't available, some lines anchor in the bay and use tenders to serve the port. It amounts to about 15 percent of all cruise ships.
For a list of ships stopping at Kirkwall and where they will dock or anchor, check the Orkney Islands Council Marine Services website.
St. Magnus Cathedral is a popular spot for weddings, so if you're exploring the town, we recommend checking it out first to see whether it might be closed for a wedding, so you can plan accordingly.
There can be chilly winds at places like Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar, so you might want to dress in layers.
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 cautious crossing streets, too.
The pound is Scotland's currency. It's comparable to -- and interchangeable with -- the British pound. You'll find convenient ATMs at the Royal Bank of Scotland (1 Victoria Street) and Clydesdale Bank (2 Broad Street) -- a short walk from the cathedral. For currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
English with a strong Scottish accent is what you'll hear on Orkney. But you'll encounter many place names that reflect the Viking heritage. As late as the 19th century, a version of Norse was spoken there, rather than Gaelic.
Renowned jewelry designer Ola Gorie lives on Orkney, and her exquisite -- though pricy -- silver jewelry is a great souvenir choice. Gorie draws on Norse symbols to inspire her work. You'll find pieces at the Longship shop, 7 Broad Street, across from St. Magnus Cathedral.
Orkney is a center for fine crafts, and the Orkney Craft Trail offers an online guide to artists around the island. We would have loved to take home a traditional Orkney Chair, made of wood and woven straw. Alas, these hand-crafted masterpieces sell for thousands of dollars.
When in Scotland, go for the Scotch! Many whisky labels never make it to the United States, so sip and experiment. Scotches made on the islands tend to be more "peaty" or smoky from the peat used as fuel in the production process. You might even want to visit Highland Park, the world's most northerly whiskey distillery (see below). You'll also find a number of Orkney-produced beers and ales.