Invergordon Cruise Port
Port of Invergordon: An Overview
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.
There's no cruise terminal at the pier, but you will find a souvenir shop with a tea room, taxis, tour company signs with prices and phone numbers, and a large placard with a map of the town.
Tourism representatives sometimes come aboard ship to offer information and maps. There's also an information kiosk on the first road you'll reach if you continue straight off the pier toward High Street. It's not staffed full-time but should have someone there when you first come ashore. Either way, there are maps, lots of brochures for attractions all over the Highlands and a signboard with thorough bus and train information.
If you walk left when you hit shore, you'll be headed toward an industrial area; to the immediate right is a nicer area and waterside pathway.
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.
On Foot: You can pretty much stroll to any place of interest in Invergordon, but to head for the Highlands, you'll need to organize transport or sign up for an excursion.
By Train: It will take you about 15 minutes to walk to the Invergordon train station. Head for High Street, then turn left. Toward the end of High Street, the train station will be to your right, down Station Road. A 50-minute journey gets you to Inverness; an hour and 20 minutes will take you to Dunrobin Castle (a request stop). Service to Dunrobin is limited, and there are no trains to that destination on Sundays. ScotRail train schedules are posted in the tourism kiosk.
By Bus: Buses can also take you to Inverness, with a connection onward to Loch Ness. It takes between 45 minutes and one hour to reach Inverness (depending on which route you take), and then after a change of bus, it's another 45 minutes or so to reach Loch Ness. You can reach the charming little town of Dornoch in about 55 minutes (no Sunday service) and Tain, home to Glenmorangie distillery, in about 35 minutes. Bus schedules, through Stagecoach Bus, are posted in the tourism kiosk.
By Taxi: Taxis should be waiting at the pier, and four companies offer taxi or private-car touring: Scotland Taxi Tours, Invergordon Shore Excursions, Invergordon Tours and Highland Classique Tours. All have set itineraries or will do custom tours; they provide four-seat cars or six- to eight-seat vehicles.
By Rental Car: You can rent a car to drive yourself from Ken's Garage (+44 01862 842266; Jane@KensGarage.co.uk). Book in advance to have a car waiting for you at the pier.
Traditional Scottish dishes include the renowned haggis -- sheep's heart, liver and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal and spices, cooked in a sheep's stomach and traditionally served with a shot of whisky (for courage, we suspect); tatties and neeps (mashed potatoes and turnips), black pudding (blood sausage with oatmeal); and a less-scary assortment of baked goods, including scones, shortbread and oat cakes.
Invergordon is surrounded by rolling farmland and, though they're modest establishments, even the High Street cafes proudly list the sourcing for many ingredients.
The Purple Turtle: This place serves breakfast and lunch, including a traditional cooked breakfast of bacon, sausage, haggis, beans, tomato, scone, egg, black pudding and toast. Yes, that's just one meal! You also can get breakfast sandwiches and lunch sandwiches of all types, including burgers, toasted cheese and paninis -- even a haggis-and-mozzarella version, though you'll also find one with ham and Orkney cheddar or mozzarella, tomato and pesto. Try the house-baked scones and other pastries for dessert. And if you need a coffee fix, it offers espresso drinks. Wi-Fi is free with purchase. (86 High Street; +44 01349 852203; opening times vary; dollars and euros accepted in small denominations)
The Crazy Horse: This coffee shop offers a similar menu, with a few more hot items, including the full-on haggis with tatties and neeps (but no whisky). There are also baked potatoes with various toppings and bangers and mash (sausages with mashed potatoes). The menu features sandwiches, paninis, house-made pastries and espresso drinks, too. (74 High Street; +44 01349 852030; open 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Friday -- and 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday when a ship is in port; dollars and euros accepted in small denominations)
The Birch Tree: This is one of Invergordon's best restaurants, but to reach it, you'll need a cab to travel three miles north of town. This bistro serves fresh seasonal food that's stylishly plated. You might start with a Kintyre applewood-smoked cheese souffle, followed by a shoulder of local shire lamb with morels, and end up with an elderflower gratin or cheeses from Tain, which is located just nine miles away. At Sunday lunch, there's a fixed-priced "Sunday roast" menu. (Off the A9 road; +44 01349 853549; open noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday for lunch; reservations required)
Where You're Docked
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.
Watch Out For
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.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
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).
For More Information
On the Web: Invergordon Tourism Alliance
Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles and Western Europe
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--By Gayle Keck, Cruise Critic contributor
1. Cityscape view – visitinvergordon.com
2. Ruins of Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness – Circumnavigation/Shutterstock
3. Cawdor Castle – johnbraid/Shutterstock
4. Dunrobin Castle – Sorin Colac/Shutterstock
5. Glenmorangie Distillery – EIDH/TripAdvisor
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