The idea of an out-of-season break on the Shetland Islands may not occur to many people – but for those who take the plunge and venture north, a wild and fascinating place on the same latitude as southern Greenland and Alaska is on offer.
Avoiding the main tourist season of May to September, my wife and I flew in to Sumburgh Airport on a sunny mid-April day.
As we skimmed past the Sumburgh Head lighthouse on our landing approach, we were totally unaware of the return of the puffins or tammie norie to the cliffs below after their winter travels, providing the summer spectacle for many visitors.
Driving our hired car towards the capital, Lerwick, our first impressions were of a rugged landscape with peat bogs and heather, inlets with fish farms, fields with Shetland ponies and roads which put those on mainland Britain to shame.
To allow us to reach most areas of Shetland during our five-night stay, we decided to base ourselves within the centrally placed village of Scalloway on the west coast, dominated by the ruin of Scalloway Castle. We later discovered that this region has close links with Norway and the wartime “Shetland Bus”, so much so that the Norwegian prime minister was due to officially open the new Scalloway Museum the month after our visit.
While Shetland has a range of tourist accommodation to suit all tastes, from hotels to self-catering, on this occasion we had chosen a bed and breakfast stay with Beth and Ian Cummings at Windward in Scalloway.
We received a warm welcome and our comfortable accommodation was a real home from home. Beth also provided invaluable advice on where to go off the beaten track to see the hidden aspects of Shetland we would otherwise have missed.
Lerwick itself is a busy port largely due to the oil industry, but growing numbers of cruise ships and leisure craft also add to the hustle and bustle.
A walk around the town’s ancient Fort Charlotte, the narrow streets and waterfront gives visitors some idea of the capital’s maritime past. We used our only wet morning to brush up on Shetland’s history in the free and excellent Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick followed by a snack in Hay’s Dock Café upstairs.
Even on a dry day it’s well worth adding the museum to the itinerary. Every January, the town’s streets come alive with people celebrating Europe’s largest fire festival, Up-Helly-Aa, and it’s certainly an event to merit a future trip.
However, the main thrust of our holiday was the scenery and wildlife. While the puffins and otters were to elude us during our travels, we were destined to discover dramatic coastal rock formations, beautiful beaches, cliffs and more oyster catchers than we had ever seen in our lives.
Our first drive north took us to Northmavine, a peninsula with some of the most picturesque coastline on Shetland. Stopping for coffee at the modern and impressive Braewick Café, we were able to look across to The Drongs, stacks sticking up from the water.
Nearby is Dore Holm or the “drinking horse”, a small island with an unusual natural arch. Our final destination was Esha Ness, an exposed headland dominated by its white and yellow lighthouse.
Here, we witnessed the awesome power of nature with granite cliffs eroded to form stacks and blowholes stretching far into the distance. There is an enjoyable cliff walk revealing the Holes of Scraada where the sea suddenly appears some three hundred yards inland at the bottom of a huge chasm.
At the end of an exhilarating day, during which we had experienced snow flurries, wind and rain followed by warm sunshine, we called at the Busta House Hotel near Brae for a delicious bar meal from its varied menu before returning to Scalloway.
The next day took us to Unst, Britain’s most northerly inhabited island and the view of the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga at its northern tip.
We had left the mainland at Toft and taken the car ferry to Yell where we drove through the vast expanse of peaty moorland to Gutcher and caught the ferry to Unst, a more arable island.
A drive up Saxa Vord, the highest point on Unst, brought us sight of Muckle Flugga, its lighthouse and the nature reserve at Hermaness, home to 100,000 nesting seabirds and a walk which we resolved to undertake on a future occasion.
After coffee and delicious carrot cake at the newly opened Northern Lights Café and Gallery in the shadow of Saxa Vord, we returned to Yell and took a detour along a side road to Gloup to view the memorial to 58 fishermen who died in 1881 when their sixareens (open, six-oared rowing boats) were overcome in a violent summer storm.
Rain on our fourth day took us to Lerwick and the Shetland Museum but when the sun came out we headed for the island of Trondra, near Scalloway, and then the twin islands of West and East Burra all connected by bridges and home to some beautiful beaches.
At the southern end of West Burra we came upon the white sands of Banna Minn.
Tiny footprints on the sand were the only evidence we were to get of Shetland’s large otter population. As dusk fell, we were treated to a memorable sunset as the sun retreated over Fugla Ness and its lighthouse.
Our penultimate day saw us heading for the west side of the Shetland mainland and some spectacular coastal rock formations. The stacks around Westerwick with their seabird populations, were stunning and hard to replicate during an enjoyable road journey through West and East Burrafirth.
We rounded the day off with haddock and chips at Frankies Fish and Chip Café in Brae, a culinary experience as good as any to be found at any fish and chip shop on the British mainland.
Our first trip to the Shetland Islands had been more interesting than we had anticipated. The islands have much to offer the visitor with the wild landscape, wildlife and the friendliness of the Shetlanders making it a unique place for a memorable break.
Flybe (Loganair) has flights to Sumburgh from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Orkney (www.flybe.com)
NorthLink Ferries sail from Aberdeen to Lerwick (www.northlink ferries.co.uk)
Tourist Information: visit.shetland.org and www.shetland.org