We got out of the car and had a quick look at the map. It wouldn’t be far, but the weather looked vicious. We set out anyways; wrapped up in our waterproofs, our cameras safely stowed in our waterproof bags and our boots strapped on tightly. The first stretch was simple and the path easy to follow, but then it stopped. Well, there was one path leading to the left on wooden boards, but that’s not the fastest way to the tip. The fastest way would lead across the peninsula and even though it was a bit muddy and badly marked, we started walking away from the safe path and into the wild. Needless to say that we gave up as soon as the hail came in and turned around. Back at the crossing and out of the hail we decided to follow the wooden path to wherever it would lead. The sun came out from behind us, standing low in the south-east. We were walking north, towards the end of the island, the northernmost point of the UK, the tip of Hermaness. Welcome to Shetland!

One Week on the Shetland Islands | Travelettes

I knew it would be magical – our trip to the Shetland Islands. The rugged landscapes, the fluffy ponies and numerous sheep encounters, the gorgeous beaches and intense ferry crossings. I had a very clear image of what Shetland would be like. To be honest, for some time I thought it would be very similar to Iceland – a kind of insider alternative to going to the now heavily tourist-flooded island further up in the Atlantic. In a way, I was right. Just like Iceland Shetland was windy but beautiful, cold but welcoming, with empty landscapes but so rich in culture, but apart from that it is hard to find the words to describe just how different Shetland is in itself. I had not seen any place like it before. Let me try to explain.

One Week on the Shetland Islands | Travelettes

I had told you about the initial purpose of our trip before – the incredible Up Helly Aa viking and fire festival in Lerwick. But with a week spent on the islands we got to see so much more of what makes Shetland so special.

Shetlanders = Explorers

When you look at the Shetland Islands on the map you might think, ‘wow, how can anybody live this remotely’ – but soon after chatting to the Shetlanders themselves you will realize that the islands are not as remote as it might appear geographically. Tucked between Scotland and Scandinavia, both geographically and culturally, the people here carry the mythical viking spirit deep in their souls. Shetlanders are fishermen, sailors and explorers. They travel a lot and many move to mainland Scotland for school or work. I talked to designer Joanna Hunter, who says she needs to get away every three to four weeks, and visual artist Vivian Ross-Smith, who lives and works between Lerwick, Glasgow and Aberdeen where she went to art school. The adventurer’s spirit is everywhere – I am not surprised that a travelette like me was drawn to this place…

One Week on the Shetland Islands | Travelettes

Close to Nature

From the artists I also learnt that a Shetlander’s life is is inseparable from the islands’ nature. The colors, the roughness, the fragility of nature are themes that reoccur in Vivian’s work as well as in the glass art of Cheryl Jamieson who I visited on the northernmost island of Shetland, the Isle of Unst.

The road trip to Unst was one of the highlights of my trip, especially because so many activities are closed down for the winter months and road tripping becomes your only option. Nature however is always open and receptive to the inquisitive traveler. You might need a thick skin and a good rain coat (don’t even bother with an umbrella – the wind is too strong and persevering) but then hiking is the best way to experience Shetland and find a connection to the place.

Falling for the Shetland Islands - Kathi Kamleitner-25

The Hermaness peninsula in the north of Unst is such a place to reconnect – the sheer beauty of the scenery, the dramatic cliffs dropping off into the sea, the silence which is only broken by seabirds and the waves crashing into the rocks. Standing at the edge of Unst made me realize why you would want to live here. The energy is overwhelming. Back in Lerwick you can indulge in food and culture and events, but here you are alone with your thoughts.

One Week on the Shetland Islands | Travelettes

Everything you need

And yet, city life is never out of reach. Or maybe more like small town life. Lerwick has few but great restaurants (like the Scottish cuisine at the Kveldsro House Hotel, delicious Thai food at Phu Siam or Nordic inspired dishes at Fjarå Cafe), there are a couple of pubs and bars (like the Lounge Bar in the town center), a cinema and arts center called Mareel, and plenty of live music. Every year the island hosts the popular Wool Week, a week-long festival for knitting and wool crafts, and a folk music festival with local and international acts.

Maybe, if you head off every now and then you could live here – but for travelers the balance is just right. We could not believe how many expats had moved there from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and of course from mainland Scotland. They came with an idyllic idea of living on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but stayed for the reality of a tough but friendly place – tough only because of the harsh weather. I guess the long days of summer, the beautiful landscape and the feeling of being in balance with nature are the best rewards after a long and cold winter. And of course, there are views like this one on St Ninian’s Beach

One Week on the Shetland Islands | Travelettes

5 Shetland Highlights in Winter

1) Hermaness peninsula on the Isle of Unst

2) Sumburgh Head lighthouse on mainland Shetland

3) Frankie’s Fish & Chips in Brae – the best chippy in the UK! (voted in 2015)

4) The Knab walk in Lerwick

5) Red Houss jewelry workshop with Mike Finnieston – arrange here.

One Week on the Shetland Islands | Travelettes

Good to know before you go

– Shetland can be reached by overnight ferry from Aberdeen or by plane from major Scottish airports. As you can imagine both modes of transport are dependent on the weather, but from what I heard, the boat is more reliable.

– Winter is generally off-season and many places will be closed – however, the last week of January gets super busy, when the annual Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick takes place. Book your accommodation and travel well ahead of time! Don’t know what Up Helly Aa is? Find out more here.

– There are some hotels in Lerwick, but if you ask me self-catering is the way to go. We stayed at Haakon View guest house and had the entire house to ourselves.

– Definitely get a rental car as public buses and ferries are scheduled for local commuting rather than leisure travel.

One Week on the Shetland Islands | Travelettes

For a beginner’s guide to the Shetland Islands, tips on places to stay, the best eateries and suggestions for things to do head over to my blog and read up on my Quick Guide to Shetland. Or watch the best of Shetland in three minutes below:

Have you ever thought about visiting the Shetland Islands? What’s your idea of this magical place up north?

All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.

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It's a Kind of Magic: The Shetland Islands | Travelettes.net

More inspiration for Scotland:

The Travelettes Guide to Edinburgh

The Travelettes Guide to Glasgow

The Scottish Highlands: The best things to do & see

The Sea Kayaking Introduction Course in Oban

Kathi’s 8 Reasons why Scotland is the Perfect Place for Solo Travel