The Mysterious Shetland Islands
“Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.“
- Apsley Cherry-Garrard; Explorer
I rose at 5:30 am this morning, and arrived up in the Explorer’s Lounge on Deck 7 aboard Viking Cruises’ Viking Star in time to see the sun rise over the North Sea. It was magically obscured by a headland and a lighthouse as we arrived in our first port of call: Lerwick, located on Scotland’s Shetland Islands.
Lerwick is the main port and the capital of the Shetland Islands, which are situated more than 150 kilometres off the north coast of Scotland. Its name is derived from an Old Norse word that means “bay” or “inlet.”
Lerwick is like a period mystery novel come to life, with fog, clouds and rain enshrouding the town on a regular basis. The record high temperature for September, according to Wikipedia, is just 19.4°C, or 66.9°F. But more likely, you’ll find the weather hovering around 10°C if you come here at this time of year.
Adding to that mysterious feel is just how cut-off the town is from the rest of the world. The small Sumburgh Airport offers a handful of flights to places like Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, all of which rely on small, propeller-driven aircraft that are susceptible to weather delays and cancellations.
Ferries are the more ideal way of leaving the island, with overnight sailings to Aberdeen. Located just off our stern, ferries zipped in and out throughout the day, whisking passengers between the Shetland Islands and the Scottish mainland.
Lerwick, however, does a very decent business as a cruise port of call. This year, the town will get 79 visits from visiting cruise ships. Viking Star is the third-last call of the year, and the only ship to visit Lerwick this year on a maiden call.
Of course, Lerwick is also our first UK port of call – and that meant a date with customs and immigration in the Star Theatre on Deck 2 early this morning. Guests were called down according to their shore excursion number to have a face-to-face with immigration authorities, who visually scanned (but didn’t stamp) passports and had guests proceeding ashore in no time.
Once again, I took part in the complimentary tour option offered by Viking Cruises today. In Lerwick, this consists of a two-hour “panoramic tour” that whisked guests into the Shetland countryside via motorcoach.
Although I’m more partial to walking tours, today’s coach excursion offered a fantastic look at the Scottish countryside. Here in the Shetlands, it’s a barren, wind-swept existence that reminded me a lot of a cross between Akureyri, Iceland and Portrush, Northern Ireland. There are few trees, as few trees can survive at this latitude, which is beyond 60°N. Those that could survive are generally blown away by ferocious winter storms. The local newspaper reported that just last Saturday, Princess Cruises’ Caribbean Princess had to scrap her call on Lerwick because of rough seas. She anchored out in the bay, then took shelter around the headlands, before departing for Akureyri at 1400 hours.
Today, the weather has cooperated for Viking Star’s inaugural visit to Lerwick. Temperatures hover around 13°C, give or take, and the low overhead cloud that stayed with us for the better part of the morning had all but evaporated by mid-afternoon.
Following our tour, guests could elect to stay with the motorcoach and venture back to Viking Star at her Holmsgarth Pier berth, or disembark at the center of town to go exploring around the pedestrian shopping district known as Commercial Street.
Of course, I did just that. So what’s in Commercial Street? An eclectic assortment of shops that range from your run-of-the-mill Boots Drugstore to high-end clothing merchants and a really fabulous independent bookstore. There’s cafes, chocolatiers, and even a Thai restaurant. Curiously, I didn’t see any pubs. I was dying for a Scotch in Scotland, but it eluded me on this journey.