We’ve just spent a really chilled long weekend in Shetland. After a summer of flight cancellations, delays, being stranded abroad by Ryanair and driving miles to reach affordable airports, the ease of boarding a ferry in Aberdeen was akin to luxury. Ferry travel isn’t cheap compared to budget airlines but it’s reliable, and reaching Shetland by boat is part of the story, part of the excitement. The destination is stunning and full of Viking adventure. En route there’s lots to do onboard to entertain and engage kids, lots to eat, and the concept of sleeping in a cabin sends them giddy. Here’s how it goes…
Load your car with whatever detritus you fancy, then turn up at Aberdeen harbour 1-2 hours before departure for an easy, friendly check-in with Northlink Ferries. (Foot passengers can turn up up to 30 minutes before departure time.)
Whilst waiting in our designated car lane, I realised I’d left the kids’ coats at home. You can’t go to Shetland without a coat!!! Ever!! In an airport we’d be scuppered, but Northlink let my husband board as a foot passenger, which meant he could wait for a taxi to deliver the coats to him. Meanwhile the kids and I waited in the car lane till it was time to drive onboard the ferry, the HV Hjaltland – huge excitement.
Timing is everything when travelling with children. The Aberdeen departure is spot on – a 5.00pm sailing. This means Aberdonian children can go to school and most people can do a full day’s work and just leave a little early to catch the boat. Those coming from further afield have a whole day to reach Aberdeen harbour.
The crossing takes all night, arriving at 7.00am in Lerwick the following morning. This works for several reasons. Because you travel as you sleep, you travel in dead time, no time is wasted, you arrive in Shetland with the whole day ahead of you. Travelling in the UK isn’t cheap but this route is relatively economical as your transport is also your accommodation for two nights of your holiday i.e. you can leave Friday evening, have all day Saturday and all day Sunday in Shetland, then head home on Monday, and only one night in a hotel/B&B is required, as the ferry covers the Friday and the Sunday night.
The return ferry leaves Lerwick at 7.00pm, arriving in Aberdeen at 7.00am. Again, good timing for little ones. On the return leg you don’t even wait in lane, the minute you check in (from 5.00pm) you drive straight onto the ferry, it’s seamless.
You don’t have to book a cabin, but for an overnight crossing with children it’s a bit of a no-brainer. The cabins are compact, but when you compare it to an airline seat it’s completely luxurious, and there’s the rest of the boat to explore too. Our four-berth cabin came with four bunk beds, a tea/coffee/kettle station, and a small toilet and shower room. The shower is small but piping hot, with ‘Shetland Soap’ shower gel and hand wash provided. Again, it’s not a hotel, but it felt fresher than overnighting on a plane or a train.
As the cabin is snug, try to pack one small case for the ferry, and leave the rest of your holiday clothes in the car, below deck. We had a small toy bag for the boys, a food/drinks bag and an overnight bag. [Take a peak at the video below to get a sense of the space.]
Food & Drink
After dumping our luggage in the cabin, the ship departed and we watched Aberdeen disappear into the distance (it’s a great way to see the city from a new perspective). We then went for dinner at admittedly the busiest time of night – everyone waves goodbye to Aberdeen and then wants fed. The food is notably good for a transport operator – mammoth fish and chips, mushroom stroganoff, braised beef in a red wine sauce. The fudge cheesecake was also a highlight. It’s hearty food, and Northlink prides itself on serving local produce from Orkney, Shetland and Aberdeen. Children’s meals are served in the cutest paper Northlink ferry boat, which of of course the kids thought was the coolest thing, or they can request half portions of adult dishes. We then hit the bar for a pint of shandy and some pineapple juice for the kids.
Prices aren’t particularly cheap or expensive (around £8-£9 for an adult main course), but remember you can bring your own food or alcohol onboard to consume in your cabin to save some pennies. We did this on the return leg, having an ‘indoor picnic’ with the boys.
For a more exclusive experience visit the Magnus lounge.
A winner is the small but much loved play area onboard HV Hjaltland. Due to the potential movement and rocking of the boat, the toys are either very soft, or anchored to the floor securely. Books are popular, and a cartoon is usually being screened. Called ‘Viklings’ these dens are designed with mini Vikings in mind :-).
A cinema is also available, with prices here, and free wifi across the vessel is an added bonus, although it can be a little erratic.
The million dollar question is … did we sleep? I’m quite skilled at sleeping, it’s not something I put on my CV but I am rather good at it. The kids were so excited we all conked out around 9.30pm. Yes, the boat moves, yes it makes occasional ‘boat’ noises, but nothing disruptive. I did wake briefly when the ferry docked in Orkney at 11.00pm – suddenly the boat had stopped moving so I woke up. And when we hit slightly stronger weather, around Force 5, I think my body woke me up to check what was going on, but I went straight back to sleep. The kids slept through the night.
On the return leg, with no stop in Orkney, we all slept through the night. All in all I’d say we slept well in unfamiliar surroundings.
Around 6.00am a man with most beautiful, calming accent gently announces over the tannoy the arrival of a new day, and essentially wakes up the sleepy passengers in the most delicate fashion. He has such a lovely voice, the kind of voice that makes you think he’s nice to his mum. The children slept through ALL the announcements!
What’s very cool about Northlink is that despite the boat arriving in Lerwick/Aberdeen at 7.00am, you don’t have to disembark till 9.30am. Last orders for breakfast are taken as late as 9.00am. Car drivers do have to remove their vehicle for safety reasons, but there’s a designated ‘breakfast parking’ area, so Mr Husband nipped off to remove the car then returned to the boat. [Foot passengers could sleep in till 9.00am.]
Breakfast was a generous affair. Two kids eat free with one paying adult, which is a strong deal, and the coffee includes free top ups. I don’t eat a lot in the morning, so I just nabbed Mr Husband’s cereal as he and the tots tucked into the fry up. We shared one coffee, then refilled it. Essentially four of us ate for the price of one: we weren’t being cheeky, but I wasn’t prepared to pay through the nose for a bowl of cereal, and Northlink kinda get that.
In summary, the highlight of travelling by ferry was how relaxed an experience it was. Kids generally love planes, trains and ferries, but as parents I didn’t have to worry about the size of my bags, their weight, carrying liquids, carrying passports, or getting through security. And the kids got their coats! And the scenery is fantastic.
We recently visited Orkney with Northlink, read about how that journey fares here. Overall I feel the timings for Shetland work better for wee ones. I’ll write up a list of family friendly Shetland activities asap, for an Orkney list click here.
Such a simple story, drove from Aberdeen to Aberdeen Harbour. Boarded ferry. Ate. Fell asleep. Arrived in Lerwick. Job done. Aberdeen Harbour is within walking distance of Aberdeen Railway Station and its Bus Station, a cab/bus would be required to link you to the airport. To see the best of Shetland, if possible, bring a car or hire one in Lerwick.