Go to Stromness, in Orkney, this summer and you’ll find the sun rarely sets. This is the time of the simmer-dim, when endless days and short, dusky nights make for long hours of leisure
It's past midnight and all is quiet, except for the sweet thwack of golf club against ball. Old George has reeled in his line and is heading home; there is nothing catching tonight. Out in the bay, we have a visitor: a grey common seal snorts and frolics close to the shore. Ducking under for several minutes, he pops up, eyes quivering, a silvery fish flapping in his maw.
Stromness is quiet now. The wedding party is over and the pub shuttered for the night. The wind is picking up, whistling through the halyards with a freshness and bite. Wisps of cloud settle over the old Viking town, softening the pinky blue light against the rugged houses.
This ethereal milky twilight is known locally as the simmer-dim. On a fine midsummer’s day, 19 hours of sunlight are followed by five hours of dusky gorgeousness. This atmospheric condition continues throughout the summer, allowing for long hours of leisure. It's the perfect time to wind down in this ultra-friendly harbour town, and enjoy the slower pace of life this relaxed outpost of Britain has to offer.
Where to stay
If you’re on a budget, the well-maintained Point of Ness Caravan & Camping Site is the place to stay. Situated next to the golf course on a former herring dock, the site affords inspiring views of the town, the Isle of Hoy and Scapa Flow. The bathrooms are spotless and there’s a handy common room to shelter from the elements. To cheat the wind, it is best to pitch against the stone wall. A small tent costs £5.85 per night, and take some 20 pence pieces for the showers. Wear a sleeping mask to combat the constant daylight.
For those further up the food chain, the very comfortable Stenigar House is a good bet. This delightful boathouse conversion next to the campsite has two four-bed apartments and two two-bed cottages. My parents rented the cottage wing for £250 a week. The garden belongs to Squeaky the pussycat; a little crabmeat is sure to get him purring.
What to do in town
The insightful Stromness Museum (52 Alfred Street) celebrates the achievements of Orkney’s seafaring culture. The many curios include salvage from the scuttled German fleet out in Scapa Flow, Inuit and Polynesian artefacts, Captain Scott’s naval tunic and exhibits relating to Orcadian Arctic exploration. Adult tickets cost £3.50 and are valid for a week. Take your time and absorb this gem of a museum in bite-size chunks.
The stunning Pier Arts Centre (Victoria Street) has recently been renovated, bringing a slice of the uber-cool to traditional Stromness. The weathered grey stone and gun-metal sheet-glass structure houses a fine collection of 20th-century British masters, including the likes of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Terry Frost. This summer (2009), a selection of haunting yet spiritual Bill Viola videos are on view. Entrance is free.
The Stromness Golf Club (Ness Road) is widely regarded as one of the most attractive courses in Britain. This well-clipped course has truly jaw-dropping views of Hoy and Scapa Flow. Several holes have tricky water features, with out of bounds being in the sea. Tee off at 10.30pm in mid-summer and you’ll still get round in the light! Visitors are very welcome; it costs £25 for an adult round.
Follow the coastal path around the golf course for a bracing nature walk. At low tide, you can watch the seals rolling in the shallows and the eider ducks gorging on the seaweed. Look out for skuas gracefully swirling along the cliffs. For more walking ideas, chat with the girls at the tourist information office downtown.
There is some quality free fishing in Orkney. The lochs are well stocked with brown trout and offer enticing sport for the seasoned angler and novice alike. I tried my hand on the expansive Broadhouse Loch, catching nothing but a very burnt face. However, a gentleman from Fife took in a fine haul. Wading at Kirbister, I had better luck, landing a lively pair of 1lb trout on fly. This water is encouraging for the beginner and those who are badly out of practice. For tackle, tips, solace and worms, head to WS Sinclair (25-27 John Street, Stromness; 01856 850469). Saturdays are best for chatting with those in the know.
If you prefer to spend time underwater, Scapa Scuba in Stromness (www.scapascuba.co.uk) run full PADI courses, exploring the numerous wrecks out in the Flow.
The historically minded shouldn't miss a trip to Maes Howe (off the A965, four miles from Stromness). Marvel at the craftsmanship of this chambered Stone Age tomb and decipher the Viking graffiti. Return for the winter solstice, when the setting sun shines down the entrance passage, turning the interior a glorious rosy pink. Adult ticket £5.20. From Maes Howe, walk to the nearby Ring of Brodgar, soak up the landscape and wonder how Neolithic man moved all that rock. See www.historic-scotland.gov.uk.
Food and drink
If you don’t fancy catching your own, there are two excellent fishmongers near Kirkwall. Sadly, the one in Stromness has now closed. Jolly’s (www.jollyfish.co.uk) sells a fine selection of Orkney fish and farm produce. Try their exquisite oily Westray salmon - you’ll never want to touch a supermarket fish again. For shellfish at wholesale prices, go to Orkney Seafayre, on the road to Finstown. The wading pool tanks contain live crabs, lobsters and clams. Oysters are on offer, too. Three crabs cost £8. The friendly staff will advise how to shuck and cook your catch.
For simple flavoursome grub, try the Royal Hotel (55 Victoria St, Stromness). Local dishes are the order of the day, with partons (crab), grilled trout and Orkney steak topping the menu. Two courses and a drink cost £15. If you hanker after a little style, then book a table at the Hamnavoe Restaurant (35 Graham Place, Stromness). Relax in the elegant dining room and enjoy fresh Orkney produce served with a twist (£35 per person). Alternatively, the chippie on Victoria Street offers mouth-watering haddock and not-too-greasy chips for under a fiver.
If you’re after a tipple, then stroll over to the Stromness Hotel. Pop into the Flattie Bar for a pint of the local brew and a game of pool, or have a sedate drink in the Hamnavoe lounge bar and admire the harbour below. For the serious drinker, the Still Room whisky bar holds all the charm - have a glass of Orkney’s Highland Park under the watchful eye of Chesthill, the stuffed stag.
If you're travelling from London, you can take a train from Euston to Thurso for £59.80 one-way. The first leg is by Virgin Trains to Inverness, then it's Scotrail to Thurso via the scenic east-coast route (watch out for seals). See www.nationalrail.co.uk for details.
From Thurso, take a bus, taxi or walk (45 minutes) to Scrabster, then catch the shiny new Northlink ferry to Stromness (www.northlinkferries.co.uk; advanced booking recommended).
Alternatively, you can fly to nearby Kirkwall with Loganair (www.loganair.co.uk).
Official tourism website: www.visitorkney.com
For public transport: www.travelinesscotland.com