FEW towns in the north east of Scotland have as perfect a setting as Stonehaven. The natural harbour has long brought wealth and strategic importance to the town, as evidenced by the presence of ancient Dunnottar castle on the dramatic cliffs above.

Times change, of course, and the booming fishing industry that once powered Stonehaven has waned. But it still serves up some of the tastiest fish suppers (and deep-fried Mars bars) in Scotland, and attracts tourists from around the world to its unique Hogmanay celebrations.

But you needn’t wait till winter to experience the delights of Stonehyve, or Stoney, as it is known locally. And whether you’re using it as a base to tour the wider Aberdeenshire area or just fancy a day trip, you’ll find plenty to shout about.

Historic highlights

Stonehaven goes way back. A fossil of the oldest known land animal, a species of millipede, was found on the town’s Cowie beach in 2004. People, meanwhile, has been settled in the area since Neolithic times.

Dunnottar Castle, ancestral seat of the Keith family, became home to the Scottish Crown jewels during the 13th century wars of independence. In 1296, Edward I of England took the castle, which was reclaimed it a year later by William Wallace after a lengthy siege. In the 17th century, the castle was used as a prison for Covenanters.

Stonehaven was a Jacobite stronghold during both the first and second rebellions, in 1715/16 and 1745.

During the 19th century the town became a major centre for the herring trade. Marine services and tourism are now the most prominent local industries.

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What to do

Housed in a 500-year-old building overlooking the harbour, the Tolbooth Museum (stonehaventolbooth.co.uk) is the perfect place to discover more about Stonehaven and its people. The Tolbooth once served as a prison, and some of the best exhibits are the ancient punishments – including stocks and a Crank – meted out to inmates. Free entry, closed on Tuesdays.

One you’ve explored the quaint and bustling harbour, keep on going to the beach, which is great for tiring out dogs and youngsters alike.

According to Esther Ballesteros, no visit to Stonehaven could be complete without taking the scenic walk up to Dunottar Castle, a 90-minute round trip. “The views are just amazing. Alongside with the castle itself and the beautiful cliffs, Stonehaven War memorial is also really interesting. And it’s an easy route for people of all ages and abilities.”

The castle itself (dunnottarcastle.co.uk) is simply spectacular, its iconic ruins jutting out into the sea on rocks formed 440 million years ago, making it a treat for history and photography buffs alike. Film fans will recognise Dunnottar from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 production of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close.

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Though it is now closed for the season, Stonehaven’s heated open-air swimming pool (stonehavenopenairpool.co.uk) is a huge draw on summer days.

The much-respected Stonehaven Folk Festival takes place every July, and in winter the Stonehaven Fireballs Festival (stonehavenfireballs.co.uk), which features a parade of brave souls swinging flaming spheres around their heads on Hogmanay, makes for a truly spectacular way to greet the new year.

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Where to eat

For the ultimate fish supper experience, go to the town’s famous Carron Fish Bar on Allardice Street, which also claims to be the birthplace of the deep-fried Mars bar, Scotland’s most controversial food item. Hero or villain? You decide.

Nina Holmes gives her vote to another local chippy, The Bay, on Beach Road. “This place is so good the queue is usually out the door. The fish and chips are just sublime in their wee cardboard box – it really is the best chipper in the north east. And Betty’s Ice Cream next door is also great – they even do ice cream for your dog!”

If you’re looking for a proper sit-down meal, The Ship Inn on Shorehead (shipinnstonehaven.com) has an extensive menu of seafood, meat and vegetarian dishes. The fish sliders, lightly battered selection of “fritto misto” and mussels are a treat. The nearby Marine Hotel is also likely to entice foodies with its focus on quality seafood and game cooked with seasonal ingredients.

If it’s coffee and cake you’re after, local Andrew Newton recommends the Shamrock and Thistle in Arbuthnott Place. “The waffles and crepes are to die for,” he says. He also nominates the newly refurbished Carron to Mumbai Indian restaurant in Cameron Street, with its “good reputation and art deco setting”.

Esther adds The Waterfront Café Bar into the mix. “Cheap, good fish and chips and mac ‘n’ cheese, and the best the views to the North Sea.”

She also had tea and cake in The Villa in Arbuthnott Place. “Cosy interior, cakes are great and the staff are super nice!”

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Where to drink

The aforementioned Marine Hotel has been serving punters since 1884 in its atmospheric bar. Great selection of Belgian and craft beers, wines and whisky, including those made in its own brewery.

The Ship Inn has more than 100 malt whiskies on offer, while the beer garden at the Station Hotel on Arduthie Road is particular a hit in summer.

Troupers Bar on Barclay Street also provides a warm welcome, and if you’re willing to travel a couple of miles outside the town, the cosy Lairhillock Inn has an open fire and nooks and crannies galore.

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Where to stay

Sea view: If you want to soak up the harbourside atmosphere, The Ship Inn, built in 1771, has sea view rooms from £125. The Marine Hotel also offers views of the harbour, with rooms from £110.

Value: Hotel and Restaurant Number 44 on Allardice Street has cosy doubles from £60.

Tranquil: If you’re looking to get away from it all, Mergie Bothie is a beautifully renovated cottage in the grounds of historic Mergie Castle, overlooking the river and forest, and surrounded by open countryside. Sleeps four, from £39 a night. Go to Airbnb.co.uk.

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Famous faces

Many, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, would put Sunset Song at the top of their list of favourite Scottish novels. Its author Lewis Grassic Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) grew up in Stonehaven, attending the town’s Mackie Academy.

Robert William Thomson, inventor of the pneumatic tyre and the fountain pen, was also born in the town.

Where to visit nearby

Just south of Stonehaven is the RSPB reserve on the spectacular cliffs at Fowlsheugh. During the spring and summer months, 130,000 breeding seabirds including guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins and fulmars pack in, but the views and walks are spectacular throughout the year. From this lofty height you might also spot grey seals and dolphins below. Rspb.org.uk

The Grassic Gibbon Centre (grassicgibbon.com) is a 20-minute drive from Stonehaven and gives a fascinating insight into the life and work of the Sunset Song author, who set much of his work in the stunning and fertile Mearns countryside you can see all around. There’s also a café, shop, exhibition space and children’s play area.

You can easily spend a whole day at Crathes Castle and Garden (nts.org.uk/visit/places/crathes-castle), 30-minutes’ drive west of Stonehaven. As well as the house itself, one of the best examples of Scots baronial architecture just about anywhere, the extensive grounds are home to buzzards, herons and kingfishers. Look out, too, for the year-round special events, from ghost tours to nature walks.

In the next few weeks I'll be visiting Nairn, Linlithgow and Pitlochry. Send your hints and tips for things to do and places to eat, drink and stay, with a few lines about what makes them so memorable, to marianne.taylor@heraldandtimes.co.uk