Departing from Inverness by car need recommendations for a visit to Orkney.
There are two options. Drive to Thurso and take the ferry to Stromness. Or, drive to John O'Groats and take the ferry to St. Margaret's Hope. I've only done the former. But, I've a friend in Scotland who always wants to route us via St. Margaret's Hope. I suspect that the St. Margaret's Hope route is a cheaper ferry. I'll let you research on the two sites provided.
The Pentland crossing is the shorter crossing, and I believe the cheaper one. Some comments I have heard is it is also the rougher crossing as it crosses where the North Sea and the Atlantic meet. The main crossing, Thurso/Stromness is calmer, longer and more expensive, but you will see the Old Man of Hoy from the ferry.
Should we take our car on the ferry ?
A car is almost a necessity for getting around Orkney, at least Mainland and down the Churchill Barriers. I would say yes, take the car across. If you are in doubt about the insurance, check with the hire car company you are using.
Yes, you really need a car on Orkney. The sites are spread out and all so wonderful that you won't want to miss anything waiting for an infrequent bus. :(
Even though we stayed at the Mill of Eyrland near Stromness, we took the ferry to St Margarets Hope, partly because it was about 20£ cheaper, but also because I wanted to drive around a bit and get my bearings. The ride over was really calm and the drive was nice and I was able to follow the B&B owner's directions with no problem.
On the drive up from Inverness, if you have the time stop at Dunrobin Castle for an interesting manor house and gardens to walk around, with the bonus of a falconry exhibit that I enjoyed tremendously.
If you do stop at Dunrobin, don't miss the Broch about mile north on the right hand side. Park on the left side. The walls aren't super high, but it's right on the North Sea! And you can even wander down to the sea if you would like. Easy to to visualize everyone cramming into the Broch when a strange sail approaches....
Kathy-- Can I take this as an endorsement of the Mill Eyreland accommodations?
Definitely check out the Mill of Eyrland! We loved it when we were there in 2012. It was our second-favorite b&b in our 18-day trip (#1 was the Pottery House on Loch Ness)--the location was just off the main Kirkwall/Stromness road only a few miles east of Stromness, just south of the Stones of Stenness.
It is a 1830s converted mill with a lot of the original equipment around. Morag, who runs the Mill, is a wonderful hostess who provides a terrific breakfast around a communal table which leads to really interesting conversations with your fellow tourists. The rooms are all a bit different, with one en suite room with a double bed, one double with its bath next door, one big family suite with multiple beds in a few rooms (we snuck in to check that suite out after the guests checked out and loved what we saw), and our room with a big double bed and a twin bed. The only drawback was that the wifi was restricted to the guest lounge due to the really thick walls. Oh, and our room's bathroom was really tiny, being shoehorned into the room's layout, but everything works fine. Also, Morag provides yummy cookies in a biscuit tin which is refilled daily!
Orkney overall is well worth the trip. I want to make my next trip to Europe a two-week trip just to Scotland, and will make sure to get at least four days there in the middle of the Highlands portion. I will definitely go in July or August so I can visit the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site, check out all the places on the Mainland that I missed the last time around (Mine Howe, Tomb of the Eagles, Broch of Gurness, and at least one night of music at a Kirkwall pub), and finally get to one of the other islands (Hoy for nature, Rousay for more prehistory).
Edited to add: don't forget to do some shopping in Orkney! We went to the tapestry gallery near St Margarets Hope and picked some really neat prints of the tapestries (the actual hangings are way out of my price range, but the frameable prints aren't), stopped by the gift shop at Skara Brae for some really cool Orkney-themed tchotchkes (I love my Skara Brae dresser fridge magnet), and spent way too much money on Kirkwall's main street on silver jewelry that was just gorgeous.
Oh my yes, can you spend money in Orkney! There is a craft and Design "trail" that you should check out.
Sheila Fleet is one my favorite jewelry designers. I am sure that there are new ones since my last visit. Also, if you spend any time in Edinburgh, Jenners has a nice collection of Scottish jewelry.
And Kathy I was gasping when you mentioned the tapestry place thinking wow, she must be rich!! and then the let down that you bought prints. :) It was an amazing gallery. I wish I had the money to buy one of them! Hoxa is amazing.
Pam, Ha! on the tapestries! Yeah, multiple thousands of dollars for a wall hanging is completely unreasonable on my salary--I do my own cross-stitch, and that takes up enough money and time that I can understand why they charge so much.
Another store that we really liked for inexpensive but nice items was on Kirkwall's main street, right across from St. Magnus Cathedral (well worth a look-see, btw!). I can't remember the name, but it was painted an aqua bluish-green in 2012, and had a nice selection of local artists' stuff inside. My mom and I got some nice coasters with Orkney scenes painted on them. They also have a great selection of local food items that are great for taking back to the b&b for a cheap dinner in. We picked up some local cheese, beremeal biscuits (bere is a really old variety of barley that is still grown on Orkney; the biscuits are quite tasty not-sweet crackers that provide a good blend with the cheese), and some Orkney Brewery bottles of beer, which are excellent! If you are in the mood for something cold and creamy, they also have a decent selection of Orkney ice cream in the back of the shop, along with some lunch items you can eat there.