by Elizabeth Atia -
I am of the firm belief that no experience of visiting Shetland is complete unless you have completed the journey by ferry, at least once. You don't get that sense of remoteness if you fly, I feel. True, you get stunning views of the sea and Sumburgh Head as you land, but for the true wild adventure to the edge of the world you need to set sail.
NorthLink Ferries provides a lifeline service to Shetland with nightly sailings from both Lerwick and Aberdeen, with four of these sailings stopping at Kirkwall in Orkney.
The ferry certainly has changed a lot in the 17 years I've called Shetland home. When I first arrived on these islands on the P&O freight ferry St Rognvald, the gangplank was (what felt like!) a rickety steel plank straight from the boat to the pier, with nothing but a net underneath to catch you if you should fall overboard.
I remember the first time I boarded the St. Clair with my newborn son, heading to the mainland of Scotland to visit family. I was terrified I was going to drop him overboard! The tide was in and the gangplank was so steep!
My newborn son is now a young man (where has the time gone?!), and things have changed quite a bit .There's a super walkway from the ferry terminal to the ferry itself, where you are always greeted by friendly staff on board.
Let me back up a bit though - if you're like me and you're worried about missing the ferry and end up waiting for ages before you're allowed to board, a great way to kill a bit of time in the Lerwick Ferry Terminal is to go upstairs and have a look at the stunning mural painted by Dr. Bobby Robertson. It contains 33 individual images associated with the Shetland Islands. How many can you find?
Recently, my teenage son and I headed to the mainland for a belated 16th birthday day trip to Aberdeen. Nine hours spent on the mainland, twenty eight hours spent on board the MV Hjaltland.
One of the highlights of our trip on board was being invited up to the bridge for departure (such stunning views of Lerwick harbour!), and meeting Captain Dave Wheeler, pictured below giving his departure message over the tannoy.
One of the first things I learned when I moved to Shetland, just after my first Shetland Folk Festival experience, was how people would see their friends and family off at the ferry terminal and then drive to the Knab in Lerwick to wave goodbye from the clifftops.
It's a tradition we uphold when one of our family members goes away on the ferry. Pictured below, my daughter waves goodbye to her big brother a few months ago as he was off to Italy on a school skiing trip.
From the bridge we could see a couple waving goodbye to someone on board. It was a lovely sight to see.
After departure it was time to eat. On board the NorthLink ferries you can choose to have your evening meal at their main restaurant The Feast, the Longship Lounge or the Midship Bar.
All the NorthLink vessels have achieved the coveted 'Taste Our Best' award, meaning that they use as much locally sourced produce as they possibly can.
My son started with the soup of the day and opted for a fish supper - a hearty portion of locally sourced island beer-battered haddock and chunky chips. Me, I started with some hot smoked Shetland salmon and Lonnie's Italian meatballs with spaghetti - a recipe developed by Lonnie Paton (10) from Hamnavoe Primary School.
Last year Northlink Ferries invited primary school pupils from across Orkney and Shetland to enter a competition to help shape the new autumn/winter menu on board the ferries, and Lonnie's recipe was one of the two winners. The other was a rather scrummy dessert recipe for waffles with chocolate sauce by Dylan McKay (5) from Sandwick Junior High.
I consider myself to have a rather hearty appetite, but I confess that this mountain of spaghetti and meatballs did defeat me! It was very reminiscent of the spaghetti and meatballs recipe of my childhood - a simple yet rich tomato sauce and rather generous sized meatballs made with Orkney beef. Proper comfort food. Note, the restaurant does serve half portions and they also have a children's menu served in the most adorable little cardboard NorthLink ferry.
For me, no visit to The Feast restaurant is complete without indulging in a slice of Orkney Fudge Cheesecake. I'm a creature of habit and I always treat myself to a slice of this indulgent pudding every time I travel on the ferry.
This is the most favourite dessert on board, and they've ever so kindly shared the recipe on their website so you can make it yourself at home!
After dinner there are several options for entertainment. Check out the cinema listings to see if anything takes your fancy, grab a drink in the bar, take the kids to the Viklings Den to burn off some steam, and have a wander around looking at the artwork. There is always a display of art on in the corridor on the way to the shop, and don't forget to check out the impressive metal Viking statue in reception, complete with sword. I'd highly recommend a trip out to the deck as well to have a look at the stunning sea views.
Don't forget to have a browse through the gift shop, well stocked with all sorts of fantastic Shetland and Orkney souvenirs.
I'm going to do a little bit of six degrees of separation here. Last year a food blogging friend of mine, Rachel from Vagabond Baker, visited Shetland and we met up on a wet and rainy Shetland day for a chat. Her and her partner travel, a lot, in their Thundertruck, and they were looking for an interesting spot to camp out for the night. I suggested the end of a nearby road where I live, as the views are pretty fantastic and it's quiet and secluded.
She took a photograph of the area I suggested, and as chance should have it, that photograph is the first photograph you see on the inside cover page when you open Ann Cleeve's book Shetland! It's funny how one thing leads to another, isn't it?
At the time of writing Rachel is currently traveling through Norway but you can read all about her adventures in Shetland on her blog.
We both slept really well that first night as the seas were calm. We were gently rocked to sleep and woke up refreshed. Although getting a cabin is a more expensive way to travel, it's definitely worth it for the quality of sleep you'll get. There are more budget options including reclining chairs and sleeping pods.
Another thing I would highly recommend that you do is to get up early in the morning and watch the sun rise over the sea. There's something seriously magical about this view, and if you're really lucky, coming into Aberdeen harbour you might be lucky enough to spot porpoises jumping in the wake of the ferry.
The NorthLink ferry terminal in Aberdeen is ideally located just across the road from the train and bus station, perfect for onward connections.
My son and I spent a very enjoyable day in the trees at the Go Ape facility just outside Aberdeen, a short bus journey away, before returning to the city centre for a spot of shopping and fast food (there's no KFC in Shetland - he wanted his fix!) before heading back on board to return to Shetland. By this time we were rather hungry after our day adventuring, and the chicken strips (for him) and Viking burger (for me) went down a treat. For afters, we both indulged in the chocolate marquise - a seriously rich and delicious chocolate dessert.
To find out more about the NorthLink Ferry including timetables, prices and their menu visit their website. They also have very active social media channels and they are very good at sharing all sorts of Shetland and Orkney news and features - you can find them on Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram. Don't forget to tag them with the hashtag #OurNorthLinkJourney.
Posted in: Exploring Shetland