“Flights and trains are booked” my photographer told me whilst shutting down the laptop. Once again it was time to pack my backpack and go on an adventure. This time I was heading north for a long weekend.
The most northerly part of the UK. 100 islands which make up Shetland are located on the crossroads where Scotland meets Scandinavia and the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea meet. 60 degrees north, the subarctic isles are filled with an abundance of nature and scenery ( I was most excited about seeing puffins!). On the same latitude as St Petersburg, Russia I was fully prepared for freezing weather (I couldn’t have been more wrong). On paper Shetland has everything, no wonder it’s made Lonely Planet’s Best in Europe 2019 list.
How To Get There
Contrary to popular belief, a 14 hour ferry ride isn’t the only way to reach Shetland. I took a very scenic train ride to Edinburgh, then went to the airport. Loganair, Scotland’s airline flies to Sumburgh Airport on mainland Shetland, three times a day. 1 hour and 10 minutes on a really tiny propeller plane took me over the Scottish Highlands to my destination. I was so lucky to fly on a clear day and it was totally worth visiting Shetland for the views out of the plane window!
Where To Stay
Self catering provided me with the best option for my short stay. Located within walking distance to Lerwick centre I chose the Corbie apartment. Last minute bookings reduce your options but this gem was still available. It provided me with a better location than many of the hotels. I also thought having my own ground floor apartment would give me the freedom to have the choice of lazy nights in and cook what I wanted.
What to do
To make the most of the sunny June weather and midnight sunshine (I am still amazed this happens), my activities mainly focused on the outdoors. I love being in nature so I focused most of my time searching for wildlife, visiting the coast and you guessed it … eating.
3 days on these islands is definitely not enough to see it all, as I only had a short time there I stuck to the Mainland. From the Airport it was a short journey to the South, weirdly you have to drive over the runway to get to the airport.
My first stop after leaving the airport was Sumburgh Head and I can safely say I was not expecting a beautiful sunny afternoon. When I arrived there were a few people looking over the cliffs as Orcas had been seen in the area the day before, I would have loved to see them in the wild. Instead, I got to see something just as great … Puffins!
I love how they run and being able to see them up close was such a privilege, they were not shy at all. If I was a Puffin living in Sumburgh, I would be happy too. The day was so clear I could see for miles, making me very excited to explore more of the islands.
Spiggie Beach – The Peerie Voe, South Mainland
One side is a loch, the other is a hidden beach only accessible via a lane through the sand dunes. It is a very sheltered area as the land almost curves back around to itself. Apart from one or two humans enjoying an evening stroll, I had the beach to myself (YAY!). I haven’t ever had a whole beach to myself, its so fun! I’m definitely going to try and find more hidden beaches in the future. I didn’t have the beach to myself for long, the some friendly locals came to say hello! Lots of seals were happily playing close by in the shallow water, a sight not seen in many places. I think the Shetlanders must be kind to the seals as they didn’t rush away in fear. It was a great place for a post flight walk and picnic in the sunshine. I had been in Shetland for less than 3 hours and I had already seen a lot of wildlife, it is a place which truly makes me happy as none of the animals are trapped in tiny enclosures.
The sunny weather, clear turquoise waters and white sand almost made me think I had gone to the Caribbean.
St Ninians Ayre – South Mainland
Next up was a slightly bigger beach, 500m of sand, the tombolo connects St Ninians Isle with the Mainland. Symmetrical white sand with turquoise water on either side kept me amused for hours. It’s like getting to visit two beaches at once, it’s so exciting! I even wrote my name in the sand for everyone to see! This beach is quite popular with those travelling about in motor homes, but in no way does it feel crowded.
Wilderness in West Shetland
It doesn’t take much to go off the beaten track in Shetland. Whether it is a wrong turn, or an impromptu photo stop. There is a big contrast in landscape between the South and its white sandy beaches and the West coast’s dramatic sea lochs. I may have only drove 15 miles but I had left a relatively Scottish landscape behind and entered Norway. Fjord like voes travel far inland to the greenery of the crofts (farms). Both land farms and shellfish farms are visible on the drive through the area.
The Sands of Meal – West Burra
On an island only linked to the mainland via a bridge, which goes via Trondra (another island), lies my favourite beach (possibly in the world). Even in the cold and rain it still created a beautiful backdrop. Especially with the wild flowers and view of other little islands, it was a fabulous place for a late night wander to enjoy the midnight sunshine. Unlike the other two beaches, this one has toilet facilities and a boardwalk. So I imagine it gets crowded on a sunny day.
I drove past this village on my way to a beach, which I honestly believe has no name. I love how the houses were perched in the middle of a voe and loch on a small piece of land. I really like the Scandinavian coloured houses which stand out against the green, hilly backdrop.
A hidden oasis
At the end of a road filled with Otter crossing signs (I cannot believe this is a thing!), was a field of Shetland Ponies. They are smaller and cuter than the ones found on mainland UK, but I digress. At the end of the field was a dirt track, so I parked up and continued to hike on foot. A steep hill led me to a stream and an abandoned croft, only ruins were standing from the times when the Lairds ruled the land.
Steppy stones helped me reach the beach, which was filled with flat stones that were perfect for skimming. Sadly I could not do that, since I lack opposable thumbs. Instead I chose to enjoy the view and calming air of the silent beach. After spending so much time in busy cities this year, I have a new found love for anywhere quiet and calm.
Nature in Northern Shetland
Attached to the Mainland by only a thin road, Mavis Grind, the Atlantic Ocean sits on one side and the North Sea on the other. The stark contrasts of the landscapes in Shetland are apparent here, the flat landscapes are left behind in favour of dramatic cliff faces.
The edge of the earth is a place and it happens to be super windy. I visited on a cloudy and windy day, which allowed the waves to be very dramatic. It’s a great place for hiking and picnicking (in the car). I walked along some of the cliffs, but found it very scary as the waves were crashing onto the rocks directly below. As the weather was angry, it made Eshaness a truly exhilarating place to be. Looking at the cliffs and incredible rock formations in the sea was like nothing I could ever describe. I doubt I will ever see anything like this anywhere else in the world.
It’s relatively flat to walk around and there’s always the option of the tea shop nearby for the less adventurous (it has fabulous views). Eshaness is definitely in the top 3 scariest places I’ve ever visited, yet I have never felt more alive.
Isle of Nibon
As an adventursaurus, it is very rare for me to find a place I would happily stay for a long time. I found tranquility at the end of a long and windy single track road. When thinking about what Shetland would look like, I had a certain image in my mind. A house at the end of a track surrounded by fields, near a small pebble beach with calm waters and a scattering of sheep wandering around.
Nibon is exactly how I pictured Shetland, down to the naughty lambs licking the salt from the car’s mud flaps. Splashes could be heard in the water, I think there may have been some shy otters close by (but they are sometimes vicious so I’m glad they stayed away). There is a small pebble beach littered with shells from crabs and other sea creatures. Winding around the edge of the land is the North Sound, which is scattered with many uninhabited islands.
When heading back from Nibon to the main road, there are many abandoned buildings from the days of fishing. These make up the abandoned village of Gunnister, I was sad that no humans live there anymore as I think it would be a beautiful place to live.
Laid back Lerwick
Lerwick is Shetland’s capital, it may be small but has everything I needed for my short stay. From my apartment I was able to walk into the main shopping area quite quickly. The water surrounds Lerwick one one side and the hills lead back inland. I really like how you can walk along the waters edge and it nearly takes you in a circle. This gives great views over to Bressay, an island so close I thought it was attached to the mainland.
The south end of Commercial Street leads to a rather famous building. Jimmy Perez’s house from the Shetland TV series. When I walked past I was surprised to find a viking boat bobbing around too!
The Gurkha Kitchen was a fabulous vegetarian and gluten free friendly Nepalese restaurant, perfect for my budget and just around the corner from my accommodation. I also visited Fjarå Cafe Bar, which was slightly more expensive but served vegetarian and gluten free friendly food with a beautiful view over the ocean.
Rather than sitting in my accommodation, I spent many of my nights wandering along the coastal Knab footpath (hoping to spot an orca) enjoying the late night sunshine. My favourite part was watching all of the boats and ferries going out to sea, it looked like hard work navigating through narrow waterways.
60º north is an amazing place to visit, I love how somewhere so small can have stark contrasts. The south has beautiful white sand beaches, the west is stony and the north has sheer cliff faces. I’ve never been anywhere with such an array of wildlife, scenery and weather changes. I doubt I will ever visit another place where I can experience 5 different types of weather in the space of two hours. As Shetland is known to have a very friendly community, I’m happy to say this dinosaur felt very welcome. I’ve loved experiencing 24 hour daylight, hopefully one day I will get to return to see the infamous Northern Lights.
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