It might have earned the title of Scotland’s Dolphin Coast, but there’s a whole lot more going on underneath the waves on the Banffshire Coast.
Hundreds of visitors make a pilgrimage to this outstanding area of unspoiled natural beauty on the north-east coast every year in the hope of catching a glimpse of the bottlenose dolphins that have made the Moray Firth their home.
Not everyone gets their wish: for some, the only dolphins they will see are those on the picture postcards that they send to family and friends.
However, what you are guaranteed to see on a trip to this hidden gem of a coastline is dramatic rugged scenery, quaint fishing villages untouched by modern development, and some of the most diverse marine life in the UK.
You could see common and grey seals hauled out on the rocks, minke whales and even the odd basking shark.
Troup Head, an impressive RSPB reserve near Gardenstown, is home to Scotland’s only mainland colony of gannets. You will also find kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, and puffins, all jostling for nest space on the cliff face.
The wildlife on the Banffshire Coast is so diverse that, from time to time, some sightings even leave the experts stumped.
In recent years, local wildlife tour operators have had to return to shore and hit the books after encountering creatures such as Rissos dolphins, ocean sunfish – the heaviest bony fish in the world – and crystal jellyfish.
These jellyfish are usually seen off the west coast of the Americas, but somehow they have found their way into a remote bay near the village of Pennan.
Pennan shot to fame in the 1980s as the setting for the film Local Hero, and the attractive fishing village received just as much acclaim as the movie.
The red telephone box from which oil executive Mac called his boss in the US is still there and is a photo opportunity not to be missed. While you have your camera out, point it out to sea, as this is known to be a dolphin hotspot and a favourite hangout for seals.
You can stop for a meal at the Pennan Inn, but it was actually the Ship Inn in the nearby county capital of Banff where the bar scenes were filmed. Fans of the movie should definitely pay a visit – the current owner may even let you pose for a picture behind the bar.
While in the area, you simply must stop off at Crovie.
This picture-perfect collection of houses forms the best-preserved fishing village in Europe and is tucked into the bottom of a steep cliff.
Driving in the village is not so much banned but impossible, because there are no roads.
There is a tiny harbour and traditional fishermen’s cottages, but few people now live here permanently as most villagers relocated to neighbouring Gardenstown when a fierce storm in the 1950s swept many buildings away.
Moving east along the coast, you will be able to get up close and personal with the sea life of the Moray Firth at Macduff Marine Aquarium.
It is one of the area’s top attractions and features a variety of innovative exhibits, including an open-air tank which is home to more than 100 fish and many invertebrates.
The only one of its kind in Britain, the tank also has a living kelp reef, while elsewhere in the aquarium the touch pools are a huge hit with kids.
If you want to observe marine animals in their natural environment, take a trip with one of the local operators – Puffin Cruises, North 58 Sea Adventures and Guide Charters and Cruises.
Their crews have a huge amount of knowledge about wildlife and birdlife, and also have plenty of stories to share about local history and places of interest.
The sea has played an integral part in the heritage of Banffshire, and the Salmon Bothy Museum at Portsoy offers a fascinating insight into how it influenced people and shaped industry.
The museum, which also has a genealogical research centre, is housed within the old ice chambers of the bothy, while upstairs, in a cavernous space where salmon fishing nets were once repaired, there are some lively traditional music events.
History buffs should also stop off in Cullen to see the Thomas Telford-designed harbour, but it is possibly another man-made structure that this charming town is more famous for.
The lower part of the village is effectively separated from the higher section by an elegant Grade B listed railway viaduct. No trains run along it now, but you can take a walk along the old tracks to enjoy a sublime view over the bay.
Cullen Beach has a long stretch of golden sand and bathing water recognised as being of the highest standard in Europe, so it’s no wonder that the rock pools abound with sea-dwelling beasties.
While you are there, don’t forget to try a bowl of Cullen Skink. This soup of smoked haddock, onions, potatoes and milk appears on menus all over the world, but the original and best version of the recipe is found in Cullen.
Active outdoor types might want to put the beach at Sandend on their list of places to go. The wide sandy beach is a magnet for surfers who say the waves there are among the best in Britain – it’s like Cornwall without the crowds.
For ideas, inspiration and information about accommodation, attractions and activities on Scotland’s Dolphin Coast, visit www.banffshirecoast.com