Holiday Planning New Year Round-Up
by Alastair Hamilton -
It’s that time of year when many of us begin to juggle with holiday ideas and I thought it might be useful to pull together some tips for planning a Shetland holiday, whether you’re a first-time visitor or know the islands well.
Even if you’ve not visited Shetland before, you may well have heard about some of the things that make our islands special; but, when you arrive, be prepared to be surprised. The word ‘unique’ can be over-used, but I do think it applies here. In fact, it’s best to think of Shetland as a small and distinctive country, one that has echoes of Scotland and Scandinavia but feels different from both
There is, of course, a wonderful natural world that takes in strikingly beautiful coastal scenery, alive with thousands of seabirds. Keen bird-watchers also find all kinds of rare species during the spring and autumn migrations. Shetland is also a good place to see other marine wildlife. You shouldn’t have too much of a problem seeing seals; they often haul out beside Tesco.
However, you’ll need some luck and a bit of patience, or the help of one of our expert guides, to see otters, though they’re present everywhere – even around the harbour in the centre of Lerwick. If you’re very fortunate, and keep an eye on the local grapevine, you might catch a glimpse of whales.
Shetland’s human history is just as impressive, with archaeology that rivals anything in northern Europe. Among a wealth of other remains, we have the most complete broch to be seen anywhere and an outstanding multi-period settlement at Jarlshof. The islands’ story is told very effectively in the Shetland Museum and Archives and there are well-run local museums around the islands, offering fascinating insights into such topics as textiles, the wartime Shetland Bus operation or traditional boats.
The scenery reflects a complex geology, with rock types ranging from sandstone and limestone to granite, gneiss, serpentine and more; Shetland is a UNESCO-recognised Geopark. There is peat moorland; green, botanically-rich meadow; and an upland landscape with sub-arctic features. There are glorious beaches, including Europe’s best tombolo. Sheltered inlets are ideal for kayaking and we have hundreds of lochs, many stocked with trout. And there’s even some woodland, with the larger plantations in Weisdale hosting Britain’s most northerly rookery.
If the weather isn’t the best, the indoors is just as appealing: as well as the museums, we have leisure facilities of a scale and quality that may well astonish you, including several leisure centres with swimming pools and an arts centre with cinemas and a concert hall. There’s a lively local music scene and a thriving community of artists and craftspeople, many of whom participate in a craft trail.
It’s easy to get around, particularly if you bring (or hire in Shetland) a car, motorhome or bike. Bus services can be a viable option, too, as they serve all the larger communities and quite a few of the smaller ones. Services on some routes are infrequent, though, so it pays to study the timetable. Our inter-island ferries make it easy to reach all the inhabited islands and there are flights to Fair Isle, Foula, Out Skerries and Papa Stour. The services offered by local tour guides and tour operators, some of them specialising in particular topics, are also a great way to travel, learn about and enjoy Shetland.
There are, then, lots of reasons for paying us a visit. If you want a relaxing break, this really is a place where you can cast your cares aside. You might want to add some Shetland sightseeing to a business trip. Or you might be thinking of moving here, perhaps to set up a business or to take up a job.
Whatever draws you, we have a huge amount of information on our website to help you. We offer a primer on the islands’ history, geography, geology, climate, economy and culture. We have lots of information about things to do, whatever your interests. Our pages in ‘discover Shetland’ introduce you to our very special, creative community, not to mention our impressive larder. If you’re thinking about a move to Shetland, you can explore the practicalities. Our guidance about planning your trip includes a district-by-district guide to what you can see and do. We have details of how to get here and how to get around. There are useful links to help you find somewhere to stay, including camping and caravanning options and details of our marinas, which welcome the many visitors who arrive by yacht.
To help you work out what might be possible during your visit, I’ve written several articles about stays of various lengths.
If time is really tight, it’s possible to get a taste of the islands in a couple of days, though – if you want to get a sense of the scale and variety on offer – you’ll be on the move most of the time. My suggestions for a two-day visit include more than you’d manage to fit in, but then everyone has their own preferences and priorities, so it’s a la carte rather than a set menu.
With just a little more time, it’s possible to ease the pace slightly but also see a little more. I tried a three-day itinerary with a couple of Spanish friends – who are themselves tour guides – and we did manage to cover a lot of Shetland, albeit at a pretty fast pace.
Travelling by sea to Shetland, the usual route is from Aberdeen by the nightly NorthLink service. The ships – which are modern and comfortable – leave Aberdeen at either 1700 or 1900, depending on the day of the week. Those leaving at 1700 make a call at Kirkwall in Orkney. If you’re not bringing a car, bike or motorhome, the ferry terminal is an easy ten-minute walk from the Aberdeen rail and bus stations.
Incidentally, the thrice-weekly ferry service via Kirkwall, and the daily air link, allow a visit to both Orkney and Shetland in one trip; and, if you have plenty of time, that’s well worth considering. The two island groups look and feel surprisingly different. If you do that, there’s the further possibility that, before or after visiting the islands, you could use either of the car ferry services (or the passenger-only service) that connect Orkney to Caithness. That would allow you to take in all or part of the North Coast 500, the touring route that encircles the northern highlands.
When to visit Shetland? A visit can be enjoyable and rewarding at any time of year. From January to March, there are several fire festivals, including the largest, the Lerwick Up Helly Aa. Whatever their scale, though, these are spectacular community events.
As the days rapidly lengthen, the scope for all sorts of outdoor activities open up. By mid-May, the sunset has begun to move around the northern horizon and in June and early July it’s so light that the really energetic can walk, beachcomb or play golf all night should they feel so inclined. This is a particularly good time to visit if you want to see the seabird colonies at their best and, of course, make the most of all that daylight. As summer gives way to autumn, the weather usually remains mild, though occasional gales can create spectacular seas around the coast. In winter, we keep an eye out for the northern lights, or aurora borealis, on any clear night.
You might want to fit a visit around one of our festivals. If music moves you, the Shetland Folk Festival offers eclectic sounds from around the world; over the years, it has embraced everything from bluegrass to Mongolian throat-singing, klezmer to trad jazz. There’s always a generous helping of Shetland’s traditional fiddle music, and more of that can be heard during the annual Folk Frenzy and the Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival.
There’s lots more: Shetland Wool Week draws textile enthusiasts from all over the world, and the more recently-established Shetland Boat Week has lots to interest even the most dedicated landlubber. We also have a Nature Festival that makes access to our natural highlights even easier and a Food Fair that celebrates the best that we produce from land and sea. And that is by no means all: there are all sorts of other diversions, including yacht races, agricultural shows, community-run afternoon teas in local halls and a wealth of other local events.
No matter how long you’re able to spend in Shetland, there will be more to discover. So, we hope to welcome you soon, then tempt you back for more!
Posted in: Exploring Shetland