At first it's hard to put your finger on exactly what makes the Sutherland seaside town of Dornoch so special but, as you wander its streets, you can't help but be enchanted by its charm.
History flows through the veins of the town and nowhere more so than Dornoch Castle Hotel, the ideal base from which to explore the royal burgh and coastline of east Sutherland. Believed to have been built in the 13th century as the bishop's palace for the neighbouring cathedral, the castle served as a court, jail and school down the years before becoming a hotel in 1947.
The Thompson family took over the hotel in 2000 and have refurbished the castle to a very high level, offering a mixture of "standard" and "superior" class rooms. At present, the two stars of the show are the pair of "deluxe" rooms, called the Old Courtroom and the Cathedral View Suite.
We stayed in the Cathedral View Suite, complete with a giant sleigh bed and views across the street to church at the heart of the town. There's no point in staying in a castle unless it has retained some of its historic characteristics and the conversion at Dornoch ticks all the right boxes, with the toilet in the suite even sitting within a curved tower. But the historic touches don't come at the expensive of modern luxury, with the suite also having a whirlpool bath, powerful shower and wall-mounted flat-screen TV.
While the rooms in the three-star hotel are beautifully finished – and the open fires in the residents' lounge and bar are a real treat – it's the standard of service on offer from the Thompson family and their staff that really sets Dornoch Castle apart. Simon and Philip, the sons of the owners, can wax lyrical on any aspect of the bar's extensive range of whiskies and wines, while French head chef Mikael Helies runs a very tight kitchen – the food was just as good on his night off as it was when he was striding between the ovens.
Culinary highlights included Sutherland venison, sirloin steak and a giant bowl of mussels for my seafood-loving wife. Since we visited, the castle is now using its new biomass solar heating system, which will burn local logs and adds to the hotel's "green" credentials. The effort is obviously paying off – last month the hotel was handed a gold award by the Green Tourism Business Scheme.
Pop into the tourist information centre next door to the castle and pick up the Forestry Commission Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) leaflets for the area, packed full of ideas for walks.
But before you explore the wider county, take some time to enjoy the delights Dornoch has to offer. Consecrated in 1239, Dornoch Cathedral reminded me of St Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall. Although smaller, Dornoch has the same special feeling. The cathedral is open for visitors to enjoy a quiet moment of contemplation.
Dornoch also has "the only five-star museum in the Highlands" in the form of Historylinks. It's easy to see how the museum earned the plaudit from Visitscotland: with an entry price of only 2 for an adult and handy opening hours even in winter, the museum relates Dornoch's history, taking in the cathedral, golf courses, railway line, building of the bridge across the firth and even Madonna's visit to the area to get married.
Dornoch's sense of history even extends to its shops – one of the best, Jail Dornoch, is further along the street from the Castle Hotel. Each of the old cells is laid out with different souvenirs and the rear of the shop is packed with outdoor clothes and boots. Another shop well worth visiting is J Grant & Sons: don't be put off by the Spar signage outside, because the grocer has retained its bakery and meat counters, plus its own-label range of preserves.
There's another type of history that's worth exploring while in Dornoch – the area's natural history. In winter you can enjoy watching seals, geese and ducks on Loch Fleet, to the north of Dornoch, which plays host to fishing ospreys in the summer. We enjoyed watching seals up close and personal from the car park at Skelbo. The woods to the north of Loch Fleet – which is cared for as a national nature reserve by SNH and the Scottish Wildlife Trust – are worth a wander on a dry winter's day, as are the mixed oak and pine woods at Ledmore and Migdale, to the west of Dornoch, which are maintained by the Woodland Trust Scotland.
A two-night luxury champagne break including dinner, bed and breakfast at the Dornoch Castle Hotel (01862 810216, www.dornochcastlehotel.com) starts from 189 per person. Historylinks Museum (01862 811275, www.historylinks.org.uk) is open on Wednesdays and Thursdays during the winter, while Dornoch Cathedral (www.dornoch-cathedral.com) is open daily. Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve (01408 633602, www.swt.org.uk) and Ledmore and Migdale Wood (01764 662554, www.woodland-trust.org.uk) are ideal locations for wildlife walks.
• This article was first published in The Scotsman on September 25, 2010