Orkney, the small collection of islands off the north east coast of Scotland with a population of just over 20,000, might not seem the likeliest candidate for a “best place” accolade. But the archipelago has just been named the best rural place to live in the UK.
Little crime, low levels of anxiety and high rates of employment, good earnings and impressive education spend per pupil – of which there are only 3,000 – all contributed to Orkney’s desirability in the survey from Halifax. Falling house prices also added to the mix. All this is well and good on paper, but what’s it really like to live there?
Malcolm Stout, proprietor of the Lynnfield Hotel in Kirkwall, the largest town in the Orkney Islands, says it’s a mixed bag – but emphasises the advantages that come with being cut off.
“Because we’re apart from anywhere else, we don’t have all the evils you find in cities,” he told the Independent. “There’s still a strong sense of community here. You’ll always find rural places more peaceful and civilised than urban areas where nobody knows anybody. Things often take a lot longer to reach Orkney – we’re a long way behind cities in terms of drugs and abuse and things like that.”
However, Malcolm presents a picture that may confound visitors’ expectations of the islands being tranquil and isolated. “Rural communities are prone to gossiping,” he said. “If you want a quiet, nomadic life, this isn’t it. Everyone wants to know your business – who you are, where you came from, what part you’re going to play in the community. You’re going to get drawn into it, and not everyone likes that.”
The weather is also something to be aware of, whether you’re planning a move or a holiday. “If we had the sunshine, we’d be worse than the Costa del Sol,” says Stout. “But you can’t be coming here for the weather. Not everyone’s built for our climate; it’s a bit windy to say the least. We usually give people 18 months to see if they’ll stick.”
The Orkney Tourism Group says community is what sets the islands apart as a rural destination. “What makes it different is it’s very much self-contained, with everything you need here for a great quality of life,” said a spokesperson. “There’s good food and drink, craft, culture, history. But what sets it apart is this really strong community spirit.”
Not everyone wants to embrace the rural life though, even for a week. But if you’re after a holiday in another top-rated location, here are the places to have won plaudits for livability.
Bristol: best UK city
Orkney may lead when it comes to rural living, but it doesn’t necessarily make the cut when up against towns and cities. Bristol was named the best place to live in the UK last month, and with its focus on independent shops, a burgeoning restaurant scene and beautiful surroundings, it has huge citybreak potential.
Vienna: best quality of life
Judged on a range of issues, from public transport and housing to the economic and political environment, Mercer’s annual Quality of Living index ranked the Austrian capital top for the eighth year in a row, thanks to its café culture, thriving arts scene and relatively cheap public transport and rents. All this amid a historical backdrop of Habsburg-era architecture and gothic churches sitting side by side with contemporary design. In case you’re wondering, London placed a lowly 40th on the index.
Almaty: most affordable city
Achieving an urban lifestyle doesn’t normally come cheap. But it’s possible to combine the excitement of city living with a Scrooge-like attitude in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which came top for affordability in the 2017 Economist Intelligence Unit’s Worldwide Cost of Living Survey. The country’s capital until 1997, it remains Kazakhstan’s cultural heart. With the average rent of a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre costing just £270 a month (though five-star hotel rooms aren’t given away), a one way ticket on public transport costing from 20p and a domestic beer costing 63p for half a litre, city living doesn’t have to break the bank.
New York: sexiest city
Looking for some va-va-voom on your city break? Forget Paris, Venice and Rome – NYC is the place to be. Named the world’s sexiest city by Playboy, the city that never sleeps famously featured a bar, now thankfully closed, with beds instead of tables so guests could get their date in the sack without breaking a sweat. Manhattan remains one of the hottest destinations however, throwing together 24-hour nightlife, impeccably groomed native New Yorkers and a plethora of ready-made perfect first date locations, from world-class galleries to the High Line.
Mexico: best for doing nothing
According to International Living’s annual list of the best countries to retire to, Mexico is this year’s top bet. But you don’t have to be an OAP to reap its retiree benefits of affordability, good quality of life and a high proportion of English speakers – those ingredients also make for a pretty good holiday, too.