Seals, puffins and proper pubs: How to take a staycation in North Berwick

Less than an hour from Edinburgh, this seaside gem makes for the perfect wildlife weekend

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The Independent Travel

A slick fin emerged first. Then a seal’s head bobbed up. Exhilarated, we looked out at the North Sea for another glimpse, but he was gone. It was the briefest of encounters but we felt like we had witnessed something precious. 

In the winter, seals come to lounge on the rocks off the coast of North Berwick, which are home to puffins and a kingdom of gannets. 

A lounging seal (Greg Macvean)

Less than 40 minutes by train from Edinburgh, this town is a total escape from the city, with wide open skies and sea views that stop you in your tracks. Wake up early to watch the sun come up over the sea, changing light hitting the rocks. There’s another show at sunset. 

Proximity to Edinburgh means that North Berwick is far from a seaside backwater. There’s an artisan coffee roastery, Scandinavian design shops and in August it has its own mini-festival, Fringe by the Sea. But there’s plenty to do all year round.

A pair of gannets (Gareth Easton)

What to do

The big draw here (besides two top golf courses) is the wildlife. The volcanic Bass Rock, which rises sheer out of the Firth of Forth, is home to the world’s largest colony of northern gannets, with up to 150,000 here at one time, while the neighbouring islands of Fidra and Craigleith are home to a circus of puffins yes, that is the collective noun). Head to the Scottish Seabird Centre, where you can control cameras on the islands to catch a glimpse, and you might even see those seals. 

Bass Rock sits just off shore (Paul Tomkins/VisitScotland)

If you fancy taking to the water yourself, the Seabird Centre and Sula both offer boat trips, or – if you’re feeling particularly hardy – you can take a bracing dip at one of North Berwick’s gorgeous, rock-strewn beaches. 

The town does a fine line in crumbling coastal fortifications, with Tantallon Castle standing on the headland just to the east. The 14th-century fortress looks wonderful from Seacliff beach just below it. 

The view out to Tantallon Castle (Paul Tomkins/VisitScotland)

Walk along the coast paying perambulatory tribute to John Muir; the environmentalist and father of America’s natural parks was born in nearby Dunbar, where the 130-mile-long trail named after him ends. 

There’s a glorious view of the coast from The Law, a gumdrop-shaped hill behind North Berwick. Reward yourself after the climb with a pint of Belhaven Best by the open fire at the Auld Hoose. Fittingly, the beer is brewed in Muir’s home town.

Where to stay 

Gone to the Beach has a number of houses in North Berwick, all managed by friendly Lorna Armstrong, who lives in the town and is happy to give her local tips. From £275 for three nights’ self-catering.

I stayed in two of her properties; 29 Victoria Road is a semi-detached house at the end of the peninsula. It sleeps four and has sea views from all sides, making it feel like you’re on a boat in the middle of the nautical action. 

Head to the kitchen to watch the rowing boats set off in the harbour, watch the gulls from the living room and listen to the masts rattle in the wind from the comfort of the deep freestanding bath upstairs - a haven after bracing sea swims. 

Lorna has an eye for interior design - think statement wallpaper with illustrations of whales on, mid-century modern shelves and velvet armchairs. She’s kitted all the houses out with digital radios and a comprehensive selection of DVDs, board games and books, should the weather make you want to baton down the hatches, or courrie down as the Scots say.

Down the road, right on the beach, Bonshaw is a flat with a more modern feel. The large, light-filled living room has more spectacular views – light the open fire and admire Bass Rock from the window seat.

Where to eat

Fresh fish is the order of the day. The Herringbone serves plump fillets of Bass Rock salmon in a burger with shredded cucumber and wasabi mayo. There is also local trout. It has a city bistro feel, with Scottish food prepared with modern flair. Start with a Sea Dog cocktail featuring North Berwick gin and round off your meal with a cheeseboard. Booking recommended. 

For more traditional fare, North Berwick Fry (11-17 Quality Street; 01620 893246) serves superior haddock and gloriously fat chips.

There are plenty of cake shops, namely Cake and Steampunk, a roastery and co-working space serving lemon drizzle cake, croissants and dark raw chocolate to pep you up. 

Pick up a sweet treat to go with your coffee (Steampunk/Facebook)

Return in summer for the Lobster Shack on the beach and a scoop of fine Scottish ice cream at Alanda’s Gelateria, where Ewan McGregor likes the Madagascan vanilla.