What’s the first thing you think of when I say Shetland? Cute ponies? Jimmy Perez from the TV series filmed on the mainland? Or maybe Up Helly Aa? Well I can confirm in my recent short stay in Lerwick there are more reasons for visiting Shetland than you think. Even in the depths of winter!
For those of you made of stronger stuff, or through the necessity of needing your car to explore Shetland, you can catch the Northlink ferry from Aberdeen. It takes twelve plus hours and goes overnight. If you’re lucky you will get a good crossing. If not, well there is nothing you can do about it except make friends with the nearest toilet!
Thankfully, my trip allowed me to fly from Aberdeen airport with Flybe and be there in less than an hour. Result. As my group were booked in with a private tour guide all week we had no need for a car whilst there, including a pick up and drop off to the airport. Perfect.
Where to stay
As you can imagine there are plenty of self catering lodges and hotels across the islands, something for everyone.
Just a 15 minute drive out of Lerwick is the former capital of Shetland, and home to the Scalloway Hotel. We stayed here for three nights and it really was a pleasant stay.
The rooms were clean, simple and with everything you need for a good nights sleep. If I am honest I didn’t spend much time in my room, a jam packed itinerary meant lots of time exploring – sleep, shower and re-charge my camera batteries, what more do you need?
For breakfast there were cereals, porridge, croissant, fruit, yoghurt and lots of hot food including a full Scottish cooked breakfast to keep you going for the rest of the day. Much appreciated for those of us out and about all day.
We ate in the hotel dining room at the end of two of our days and boy were we in for a treat! With things like cullen skink fishcake with black pudding and hens egg, pork belly with balsamic and port glaze, black pudding, pea puree, apple jam and THE most incredible crackling. Serious foodporn!
The owners, waiting staff and housekeepers we all super helpful, friendly and genuinely interested in what we were doing during our trip.
You don’t have to be a resident at the hotel to dine there or have a drink in the bar, but I would recommend you book in advance.
Places to visit
Lerwick – the UK’s most northerly town and is full of character. Quirky independent shops along the narrow streets, bars and plenty of places to get food. It’s a great place to just wander without purpose. Following the lanes up and around the town, back down to the harbour – home to ferry services and fishing boats.
We also found Mareel was a hive of activity. It plays host to the cinema and is a music and cultural hub for Shetlanders of all ages. Part of the Shetland Arts scheme it promotes, educates and supports artists. You don’t have to be here long to realise that art (in many forms) and music are an important way of life here.
St Ninians Isle, Tombolo – This idyllic beach stretches between the mainland (Shetland) and St Ninians isle. Created naturally by the sea it forms a sandspit (not a typo), linking the two pieces of land together. For anyone who has visited Chesil beach in England, it’s the same thing just on a smaller scale. That’s about as technical as I want to make it but what I can tell you is that it is super pretty and from a photographers point of view it was heavenly.
Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement – this site is something rather special. Evidence of human settlement for over 4000 years, through the bronze and iron ages with amazing examples of brochs and wheelhouses. Most recent (16th Century) addition is the laird’s house, the remains towering over the rest of the site. You can walk through time as you follow the site around. I have never seen anything like this before and it is said to be one of the most important archaeological sites in Scotland. Well worth visiting.
Scalloway Museum – a charity since 2001, is run purely by a team of enthusiastic, passionate, knowledgeable volunteers. With so much history in Scalloway itself this museum tells the local stories and shows a way of life with a strong Nordic influence. The story of the Shetland Bus is told here too, clandestine operations during world war II, to and from Norway. Around 20,000 Norwegian military were homed in Shetland amongst families during this time. Tales of these young men are heart breaking to read but a truly incredible story. Well worth visiting. Frankies Fish & Chips – You might wonder why I have added a fish and chip shop into this list? Well I am told the view is stunning from your table but I had to take the word of our guide on that one because it was raining and misty. Couldn’t see a thing but what I did see inside would have taken my mind off of the view anyhow! Fish that over hangs the side of the plates, huge pieces of scampi and the most beautiful scallops in garlic butter. Oh and fresh homemade tartar sauce. Incredible and easy to see why they have a list of awards longer than a piece of haddock!
Sumburgh Head – this location plays many roles – lighthouse, visitor centre and a nature reserve. In the summer months the cliffs are teeming with birds – guillemots, razorbills, kittewakes and everyones favourite, puffins. There is parking and a cafe for amazing cakes and an even better view. You won’t find many spots like it.
With 2017 being VisitScotland’s themed year of History, Heritage & Archaeology I would say I have had the best start to learning more about Scotland. My list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this stunning place or give enough reasons for visiting Shetland. Whether its the birds, history, geology, food, drink, art, music or the people you come for, I can guarantee you will leave with a passion for islands. A feeling when you get home, you may well have left a piece of yourself in Shetland. You may never be the same again.