003B: Tips for Visiting Shetland
Released: March 1, 2019
You should visit Shetland.
I just want to make that point clear, right off the bat. I love to travel and I’ve been blessed to be able to travel far more than my original life circumstances led me to believe I’d be able to. On my travels, I have learned that it is a gift to be able to slip on some different cultural lenses for a time. (The greatest blessing might be that I continue to find that the bedrock we share is the same.) While I’ve enjoyed the all of my trips, there have been only three places where I felt like I’d like to linger in those lenses for a few years and see if I could incorporate aspects of the culture into my own character. One place I ended up lingering long enough to mostly raise my children. The other I’ll maybe talk about another time. The third is Shetland.
If it’s not already on your bucket list of places to go, add it. And place it higher on the list than you think you should. And I’m not just speaking to knitters here. Nonknitters–spend at least a couple of weeks. Knitters, you’ll want a month. Or longer. That’s pretty pie-in-the-sky planning for most of us, I know. Aim for at least a week!
No, I’m not kidding. Yes, I know the islands that comprise Shetland are much smaller than, say, Japan, which your cousin visited and felt he saw everything there was to see in 10 days. First of all, I’d call anyone who said that about Japan a liar or ignorant. Second, get out of that tourist, check-the-boxes mindset. There are things you will want to do and see on Shetland. Plenty. But it is also an ideal place to just go and be.
There are three ways people tend to get to Shetland. One is by cruise ship. I assume those folks are there as part of a cruise around ports in the North Sea. If that’s how you’re getting to Shetland, you’ll only really have time to get into Lerwick. You’re going to want to stay longer. I promise.
The next option is by plane. LoganAir is the only airline that services Shetland. You can fly from multiple cities in Scotland year-round, and seasonally from Manchester, England, and Bergen, Norway. This is, in theory, the quickest way to get to Shetland; however, weather often causes delays, so pack some snacks and something to keep your mind occupied.
Both of my flights were delayed by several hours, but the LoganAir staff kept us all well apprised of what was going on. All of it was beyond their control, and passengers just rolled with it. While chatting with an attendant on the way up, I was told if the flight becomes truly impossible due to weather concerns, they put passengers on the ferry. A fellow passenger shared that when they travel to and from the mainland, they always leave a day before they need to be somewhere, to allow time for potential delays.
The third way to get to Shetland is by ferry through NorthLink Ferries. They depart in the afternoon from Aberdeen and arrive in the morning in Lerwick. They offer different levels of accommodation at different price points. You can rent private rooms with beds, a bed in a shared room (you’ll be grouped by gender), sleeping pods (akin to some business class seats on planes) and basic reclining seats. There are showers on board, so you can arrive fresh and ready to go in the morning. Be aware, though, that the passage can be rough. However, delays are much less likely with the ferry than with air travel.
I strongly recommend that you rent a car. Yes, there is public transport. Yes, you may have to drive on the left instead of the right. But, the truth is that unless you are planning on staying in town all day, you will want the flexibility that having a car provides, especially if you are there for a limited amount of time.
Star Rent-a-Car, Ltd. is the company I rented from because they have an office at the airport and in Lerwick, so I knew I could get the care right away and if anything happened, they had an outlet close to my flat. They are a popular choice. You’ll see their sherbert-colored Fiat 500s all over the islands. They rent subcompacts through 7-seaters, including prestige vehicles. The one thing they didn’t seem to have was automatic transmission vehicles. So, before you head to the islands, find yourself a standard and practice. Also, have the person at the rental desk come out and show you any quirks of the vehicle. For instance, there was a trick to removing the gas cap on my car that I didn’t discover until it was time to remove the gas cap three days later.
If you don’t drive or really don’t want to drive on Shetland, there are buses. Plan your activities around the bus schedule, take a book with you, and you should be fine.
Many of the roads on Shetland are single-lane roads. All along these roads there are wider areas where you can pull to the side and allow on-coming traffic to pass. Sometimes both sides of the road widen, sometimes it’s one of the other. If both sides widen, whoever gets to the pull-off first should pull to the side. If the road widens to the left, you should pull over, if it widens to your right, on-coming traffic should pull over. Regardless of who moves out of the way, you should give a little wave as you pass. It’s only polite.
I’m going to be frank here. When I was looking into booking my trip, very few of the available hotels in the Lerwick area looked appealing to me. The ones that did were already booked up. I did not actually see the rooms in these less-than-appealing hotels, but the photos on their websites made them look very dated and run down. If this is not the actual situation, I would suggest to these hoteliers that they invest in some new photos.
I ended up turning to Airbnb and found an apartment a short walk away from the Commerce Street area of Lerwick that had everything I needed and was a perfect jumping-off point for all my adventures in Shetland. There are many people offering apartments or homes on Airbnb, and even more offering single rooms in their house.
Be aware that during festivals and events on Shetland, all forms of accommodation are in high demand. As of writing this, there are only a handful of hotel rooms and Airbnb “entire place” listings available for Wool Week 2019–a event taking place seven months from now. So if you plan to visit during one of their peak events, book as soon as you can.
Things to Do and See
There is far more to do and see on Shetland than the small landmass suggests. Shetlanders create their own fun and are very proud of their history and heritage. There are festivals galore and museums a-plenty. There are artists with open studios, opportunities to observe birds and animals in their native habitats, and no lack of space for rambling.
Promote Shetland is the best place to start planning your trip. From there, hop over to TripAdvisor to learn the specifics of various attractions. Below is a list of all the places I visited on my 4-day trip. This should give you a sense of just how much you can fit in if you do need to keep your trip short. If I’d stayed longer, I would have added visits to Unst and Yell, a nature cruise, a dance in a community center, and a knitting circle. Plus, I would have wandered about more in nature. And, had I been able to be more flexible with my dates, I would have timed my visit to line up with one of the many festivals. Bottom line: I really do regret only having had four days to visit.
Anne’s 4-Day Trip (Your results may vary)
The smaller sites can be visited in 30-60 minutes. Larger museums and sites take 1-2 hours. Rather than listing the sites in the order I saw them (because I don’t completely remember!), I am listing from the south toward the north:
Sumburgh Head Lighthouse
Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement
Croft House Museum
St. Ninian’s Isle
Broch of Mousa
Hoswick Visitor’s Center
Shetland Museum and Archives
Shetland Textile Museum
Tangwick Haa Museum
Every museum and visitor’s center I got to visit had a gift shop. You will have plenty of opportunities to buy souvenirs!
Generally speaking, the best concentration and variety of shops that I encountered was along Commercial Street in Lerwick, which got a mention in The Guardian’s list of 10 cool shopping districts around the world. There was a nice blend of tourist-oriented and “real life needs” shops to be found there. Another spot in Lerwick for gifts and daily-need items is the Toll Clock Shopping Center on the north side of town. Near the Toll Clock is the Co-op grocery store, in case you are staying in a flat and need some ingredients for meals, and a Tesco is available on the south side of town. There are also specialty food shops scattered through town and drug stores can be found on Commercial Street and on the corner of Commercial Road and Burgh Rd.
Jamieson’s of Shetland and Jamieson and Smith were the two yarn stores I was able to visit, but there are other places for yarn and finished sweaters as well, such as Anderson and Co. and Loose Ends. Some other shops that tickled my fancy in the Commercial Street area were Love from Shetland, The Peerie Shop, Peerie Isles, and Ninian. Remember to be sure about hours and opening days before you head into town to lighten your wallet.
Additionally, there is a Craft Trail you can follow to visit artisans at work and buy directly from them!.
Places to Eat
This list is incredibly incomplete. I ate in Shetland with a special diet, so I was actually pretty excited to find so many options to meet my needs. But, that said, there were tons of restaurants on Shetland at various price points and convenience levels, so this list of places where I took my meals is far from exhaustive.
There are a few things I’d recommend to prepare yourself before your trip.
First, watch Shetland or read the book series the show is based on by Anne Cleves. Yes, it will have you convinced that this island network of 23,000 people has a serious murder problem. Just remind yourself that it is a work of fiction. The stories are gripping to watch/read, and the show will acquaint you with the scenery, culture, and look of Lerwick. (At times, the first series feels like a travel advert, but that’s ok! It was all helpful information!)
Second, there are some common themes that arise in the various museums around the island. The first is the island’s knitting history. Even if you aren’t a knitter, a working knowledge of the history of Shetland knitting will help you appreciate what you see when you’re there. The first parts of Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting and Magical Shetland Lace Shawls to Knit provide a good overview. The latter parts of the books cater more to the interests of knitters, but will also help non-knitters train their eyes for what they will see when they are there.
The second common theme of the museums is Shetland’s involvement in World War II, specifically the Shetland Bus, which was a group of people running secret missions between Shetland and Norway using fishing boats. A little background knowledge will help you better appreciate what the remaining artifacts represent.
I went to Shetland with my checklist of activities and a sense of adventure and left feeling like I was leaving home. The checklist was helpful, but after a day or two, I found myself mentally calculating the price of moving to this gem on the edge of the North Sea. The people are kind and welcoming. The food was delicious. The landscape was full of surprises. Shetland climbed into a corner of my heart and it has stayed there. I look forward to visiting again in 2019. Maybe I’ll see you there!
For additional information about knitting-related sites and shopping on Shetland, listen to Episode 003: Shetland.
You can follow Anne on Instagram or Ravelry as @ithoughtiknewhow. She posts articles related to knitting and yarn on the Facebook Group and Twitter as @ThoughtIKhewHow. Subscribe to the podcast through iTunes or the podcast app of your choice.
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