Iona has been known as a place of spiritual power and pilgrimage for centuries and was the site of the first Christian settlement in Scotland, preserving the learning that was nearly lost in the Dark Ages.
The island was owned by the dukes of Argyll from 1695, but to pay £1 million in real-estate taxes, the 12th duke was forced to sell it to Sir Hugh Fraser, former owner of Harrods. Fraser secured Iona's future and made it possible for money raised by the National Trust for Scotland to be turned over to the trustees of the restored abbey. The only village on Iona, Baille Mor, sits in the most sheltered spot, allowing some trees and garden plots to be cultivated. Walking is the best way to get around.
Iona is accessible only by passenger ferry from the Island of Mull. (Cars must remain on Mull.) Service is informal but fairly frequent in summer. In the off season, transport depends on the weather. The round-trip fare is £6. Contact Caledonian MacBrayne (tel. 01688/302-017 in Tobermory; www.calmac.co.uk) for times.
Today, the island attracts nearly 1,000 visitors a week in high season. Most come to see the Benedictine Iona Abbey, part of which dates from the 13th century. People also come to visit relics of the settlement founded here by St. Columba in A.D. 563, from which Celtic Christianity spread through Scotland and beyond to Europe. The abbey has been restored by the Iona Community and is run by Historic Scotland, which leads tours and runs a coffee shop daily from 10am to 4:30pm. Admission is £4.70 adults, £3.70 students and seniors, £2.35 children 5 to 15. The community also offers room and board to interested visitors, conducts workshops on Christianity, sponsors a youth camp, and each Wednesday leads a 11km (6 3/4-mile) hike to the island's holy and historic spots.
Despite the many visitors, the atmosphere on the island remains peaceful and spiritual. You can walk off among the sheep and cows that wander freely everywhere to the top of Dun-I, a small mountain, and contemplate the ocean and the landscape as though you were the only person on earth.
The attraction of the island of Staffa, 10km (6 1/4 miles) north of Iona, is Fingal's Cave, a lure to visitors for more than 200 years and the inspiration for music, poetry, paintings, and prose. Its Gaelic name, An Uamh Ehinn, means "musical cave." It's the only such formation known in the world that has basalt columns; over the centuries, the sea has carved a huge cavern in the basalt, leaving massive hexagonal columns. The sound of the crashing waves and swirling waters (the music) inspired Mendelssohn to write the Fingal's Cave Overture. Turner painted the cave on canvas, and Keats, Wordsworth, and Tennyson all praised it in their poetry.
Staffa has been uninhabited for more than 170 years, but you can still explore the cave, which is protected from development by the National Trust. Entrance is free, requiring only payment for boat passage from Mull or Iona at £20 for adults and £10 for children 13 and under. The boat runs twice daily from Iona and Mull between March and October. Rubber-soled shoes and warm clothing are recommended. Reservations are important; call Mrs. Carol Kirkpatrick, whose husband, David, operates the boat, at Tigh-na-Traigh (House by the Shore), Isle of Iona (tel. 01681/700-358).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.