This post is in paid partnership with NorthLink Ferries but all thoughts and opinions are, naturally, my own.
If you follow me on Instagram, you might have seen that I went on the adventure of a lifetime a few weeks ago. I was kindly invited to explore Shetland by NorthLink Ferries, the ferry service which runs between Aberdeen, Kirkwall and Lerwick. Seeing as much of Scotland as possible, particularly the islands, has always been my dream and I’m so grateful to NorthLink, Promote Shetland and Visit Scotland for making this incredible trip a reality.
The icing on the cake is that NorthLink Ferries are currently running an amazing competition where you could win your own adventure to the islands. They’re offering the chance to win a return ticket on any route to Orkney or Shetland (for two adults including a car and cabin!)
*Please note: the competition closes 30th June 2019*
We drove up from Edinburgh to Aberdeen in time for the 5pm ferry to Lerwick. There are a couple of departure times each day but the general idea is you board the ferry in the evening, spend the night onboard and awaken bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ready to explore Shetland first thing in the morning. You can find all the details for booking tickets, etc. here.
I wasn’t sure what to expect having never spent the night on a ferry, but I was most pleasantly surprised. We tucked up our beloved car in the hold and checked into our cosy private cabin. Complete with tea making facilities and an ensuite bathroom – luxury! The ship is extremely well-catered for. You can eat on board, there’s a shop, a bar (or two!) and even a little cinema where you can while away a few hours with a new release.
We had a yummy three course dinner, nothing particularly fancy but the food was fresh and tasty. On the way back, we were treated to the Magnus Lounge which I really appreciated. It’s a quiet space where you can sit and enjoy a lovely array of complimentary drinks and snacks. And you can have your dinner in the more formal restaurant setting which made it all feel a little bit more luxurious!
Well-fed and sleepy from the sea air, we retired to the cabin for an early night. Our room was so cosy and comfortable and I slept like a log on both legs of our journey. There’s something so relaxing about travelling by ferry. You don’t have any of the stresses which come with air travel: getting to the airport on time, queueing for security, baggage restrictions… I’m definitely a ferry convert!
Where to stay on Shetland
We stayed on the island for two night (four days in total) and absolutely loved both of our locations. Our first night was spent at Busta House Hotel, a gorgeous hotel about an hour’s drive north of Lerwick. The decor is traditional and gorgeous and I fell head over heels for the long drawing room and roaring log fires.
A friend who lives on Shetland was kind enough to take us on a bit of a pre-dinner adventure. A short drive from Busta House (and a bit of a trek!) later we found ourselves at the most incredible beach. It’s utterly remote – I can’t even find its name! – and totally unspoiled. This beach to me summed up what’s so incredible about Scotland. Wild, beautiful landscapes just waiting to be enjoyed.
Lonely Planet recently included Shetland in its top 10 European destinations for 2019. When you visit places like this, it’s easy to see why.
We spent our second night on the island at Ortolan House, a gorgeous B&B in a Georgian townhouse in Lerwick. Our room was tucked up on the top floor and had a lovely view of the harbour. Breakfast was simple but delicious and exactly what we needed before a busy day of exploring. Phil and Rebecca were such welcoming hosts and it was a real joy to stay in their beautiful home!
Things to do
There is no shortage of things to do on Shetland. History, nature, music, art – everything is available to you. Saying that, some of my favourite memories are simply driving around the long open roads, soaking in the landscape and savouring the beauty of life at 60° North. And you never know, you might just spot some of Shetland’s most famous locals…
Lerwick is Shetland’s principal town but it still has the charm of a quaint seaside village. Think cobbled streets, lovely old buildings and cute wee shops all nestled beside the sea. There are some lovely restaurants and cafes in Lerwick. We ate at The String one evening – the food was delicious and I can personally vouch for their gin collection! We were also recommended The Dowry, but didn’t get a chance to try it. I also indulged in a little retail therapy at Anderson & Co, the place to buy proper, traditional handmade Fair Isle knitwear! (Just a heads up: if you’re in Lerwick on a Sunday, don’t expect many things to be open!)
Shetland is renowned worldwide for its incredible wildlife. Otters, puffins, whales, dolphins, seals… you name it, Shetland has it. I have always dreamed of seeing an orca whale in the wild, so eagerly joined the whale spotting group on Facebook – just in case there were any sightings while we were there. Unfortunately, we didn’t see whales, but my dream of seeing puffins and otters did come true.
We were lucky enough to enjoy a private tour with a local otter expert, Ian, who took us on a stunning three-mile coastal walk round some otter hotspots. Even if we hadn’t spotted any, it would’ve been the most gorgeous walk, but we got lucky and saw three beautiful otters enjoying the sunshine.
Puffin watching at Sumburgh Head
The best place to spot puffins is at Sumburgh Head, roughly a 40 minute drive from Lerwick. The cliffs at Sumburgh are basically seabird heaven and you can see so many birds: puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars, to name a few! It’s a really accessible colony and we spent a glorious hour watching the puffins swoop in and out.
As well as the bird colony, Sumburgh Head is also known for its lighthouse! It was built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather and has such an interesting history. It was a crucial military base during WWII and has saved countless lives since it was built in 1821.
Noss Nature Reserve with Shetland Sea Bird Tours
One of the best ways to see Shetland and appreciate its wildlife up-close is, of course, by boat. We spent an incredibly happy morning onboard with the Shetland Sea Bird crew, cruising out to the Island of Noss and the seabird colony there. This boat trip was one of the most memorable parts of our time in Shetland – getting so close to the birds was just breathtaking. Frankly, my words just won’t do it justice so I’ll let the photos do the talking…
St Ninian’s Isle
It wouldn’t be a trip to Shetland without a visit to St Ninian’s Isle, the largest tombola in the UK. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world! Although, sadly, we had the most awful weather when we went. Think torrential rain and howling winds! Undeterred, we went for a bracing walk on the beach and laughed as a friendly seal followed us the whole way along. Wet through, we raced back to the car to warm up with a flask of tea.
Of course, Shetland is haven for history lovers. The island has such a fascinating history – everything from Vikings to daring military escapades during the world wars. The best place to start? The Shetland Museum & Archives in Lerwick. I think this might be one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. It’s laid out in chronological order (why aren’t all museum’s like that?!) so as you wander round, you feel like you’re travelling through time.
The Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse settlement is one of the most important archaeological sites in Scotland. Given my other half is something of a history-lover, this was basically heaven for him. Jarlsholf is located at Sumburgh Head near the southern tip of the mainland. The site has an amazing collection of ancient settlements which cover more than 4,000 years of history. It’s also home to some very friendly Shetland ponies!
We also visited the Scalloway Museum which has, amongst others, a fascinating exhibition about the Shetland Bus, a clandestine operations group that made a permanent link between Shetland German-occupied Norway from 1941 the end of the war in 1945. Next door to the museum (like, right next door!) is Scalloway Castle – one of just two castles constructed on Shetland. My favourite part? The castle is left open for visitors to wander in and out as they choose! It’s a testimony to the trusting nature of the locals!
And that’s a wrap! Shetland was everything I hoped it would be. Wild, unspoiled and breathtakingly beautiful. Unlike other places I’ve visited in Scotland, Shetland still has that feeling of being somewhat undiscovered. A hidden gem just waiting to be explored! It’s fair to say, I fell head over heels for the island. Its history, culture, wildlife… I could definitely get used to life at 60° north!