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The Isle of Iona lies off the west coast of Mull separated from that island by a deep, narrow channel, known as the Sound of Mull. Iona is easy to reach; a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry sails between the port of Fionnphort on Mull and Iona 'very frequently', with the crossing taking only a few minutes.
Iona is a tiny island being about three miles long and 1.5 miles wide. Despite its small size, the island has a wide variety of things to do and see, and is stunningly beautiful and tranquil. Those wanting peace and quiet with time to simply stand and stare will find that Iona is a perfect place to relax.
Iona is often referred to as 'The Cradle of Christianity'. Saint Columba founded a monastery here in 563AD after being banished from Ireland. The island quickly became an important centre of learning and was influential in the conversion to Christianity of the ancient Picts. There is some evidence that the 'Book of Kells', often regarded as Ireland's most important national treasure, was written, or at least started on Iona near the end of the 8th Century.
An abbey was built on the island in 1203, and still stands today. This building is the most elaborate surviving ecclesiastical monument from the Middle Ages and provides a stunning centrepiece for the island; visible across the sound from Mull, but growing ever more impressive as one crosses the water over to Iona.
In front of the abbey still stands St. Martin's Cross. Built in the 9th century, this is one of the oldest, best examples of Celtic crosses in Britain.
As well as the abbey, a Benedictine nunnery was built in the 13th Century. Unfortunately, this building fell into ruin during the Reformation and although many of the original walls still stand, it has proven impossible to restore the site to its former glory.
For almost 1500 years, Iona has been a place of worship and pilgrimage with thousands of people visiting this tiny island off the west coast of Scotland each year. The island has survived Viking attacks, the vandalism of the Reformation, and the eventual fall into disuse of its once important abbey, to today be one of the most important historical sites in Scotland whilst still being a working religious centre.
Things to do
As might be expected, the abbey is a focal point for modern day visitors. The building is, up close, even more impressive than when viewed during the ferry crossing. The abbey contains superb architectural detail, and although relatively small compared to later buildings, the design, detailing, and stunningly beautiful Fionnphort granite construction, mean that this is a delightful place to walk around and photograph. To tour the grounds of the abbey is free, but entry into the building itself costs £4.70 for adults and £2.70 for children. If you are interesting in such buildings, the entrance cost is worth it: the interior is amazing.
Iona is renowned as a centre for local arts and crafts and many galleries and studios are located here. From paintings and pottery, to tapestries and traditional Ionan jewellery, visitors will find many beautiful items to browse through. Buyers should beware, however, whilst there may be some bargains on offer, we found that, on average, the wares for sale were quite expensive.
A good place to visit, especially if it's raining is the Iona Heritage Centre. A modest entrance fee (£1.90 adults, £1.20 children) gains access to displays of over 200 years of island history together with excellent exhibits of local geology, flora, and art.
For those wishing to get out on the sea, several boat trips run from Iona. Destinations include the Isle of Staffa and its awesome Fingal's Cave, as well as the seabird colonies of Lunga. Whale and dolphin watching trips set out from Iona, too. These trips are not cheap, but on a nice day are a wonderful way to spend your holiday.
Places to eat
Given its small size, there are a surprisingly large number of places to have a meal on Iona. These range from traditional pubs (The Argyll Hotel), to cafes (the Heritage Centre) to the large residential hotel of St Columba. The quality of the food is high, although so are the prices. I can recommend Martyrs Bar and Restaurant. This caters for a wide range of tastes from bar snacks to high quality cuisine using fresh local seafood. Its location on the seafront means that diners can enjoy glorious sea views, both from inside the restaurant, and from the outside tables on the forecourt.
Most of the attractions listed above are located in the main part of the island surrounding the ferry terminal. Away from the hustle and bustle of the centre, the island's pace of life slows down. Iona is a hilly little island, with each turn on its few roads hiding visitors from view and giving them something new to look at. The scenery is spectacular: the lush 'machair' grassland meadows, the dazzling white limestone outcrops, against the backdrop of the deep blue of the sea makes a real treat for the eyes. One's other senses are stimulated, too, with the sound of the gulls, the smell of salt in the air, and the feel of the warm sea breezes; the result is a great feeling of peace and wellbeing.
There is, however, one place that is a must for lovers of beautiful scenery: the beaches of the northwest of the island. A road from the centre allows access here. The path cuts across the island, through the golf course, and finally over the crest of a hill, giving a panoramic view below. The vista is breathtaking! My girlfriend and I, when seeing this view for the first time, were stopped in our tracks. The beaches are made of white sand, with rocky limestone outcrops forming intimate little coves. The sea is crystal clear and a lovely shade of blue. The overall effect was of a Caribbean island, yet we were only a few miles from mainland Britain.
We spent a couple of hours here, enjoying the sunshine and saw only a few other people during that time. This has to be one of the loveliest seaside places in the whole of Britain and a place we could have stayed all day.
Iona is home to some quite special wildlife. Perhaps appropriately, for the home of Saint Columba, the island has resident wild rock doves. This ancestor of the feral pigeon is now extremely rare in Britain and Iona is one of the best places to see it still.
Around the island in the summer, all sorts of sea birds breed. Most noticeable will be the gannets as they plunge dive for fish. These brilliant white birds have a six foot wingspan and hit the water at 60 mph in search of a meal. Puffins, guillemots, razorbills and fulmars will also be seen. Also on the sea, it is quite possible that bottle-nosed dolphins will be spotted along with their smaller cousins the harbour porpoise.
Rarest of all is the corncrake. This secretive little bird is common in the summer on Iona, despite having been wiped out on the mainland. Visitors are sure to hear their 'crex crex' call (which sounds like running a nail across the tines of a comb), but seeing one may be another matter since they hide in the tall vegetation that abounds on Iona.
Places to stay
As well as the hotel, Iona abounds with high quality B&B and self catering accommodation. This would make a wonderful base for a relaxing holiday and there are places to stay to suit all tastes. Many of the best places can be found here: http://www.isle-of-iona.com/accommodation.htm.
As you have hopefully seen from my review, the Isle of Iona is a special place. Beautiful, spiritual, relaxing and exciting, this is a great place to visit. My girlfriend and I were only able to have a day here during our last holiday. We're planning a longer holiday in the future knowing that Iona's tranquillity will be the perfect antidote to the rigours and stresses of modern day life.