Monday 19 October 2015

Orkney: NorthLink Ferries

I've lived in Scotland for my entire life but I'm constantly embarrassed when I speak to people who've visited for a couple of weeks and have seen parts of the country that I've never gotten to. Prior to this week I'd never ventured further north than Inverness and hadn't made it to any of the Northern or Western Isles. With the big move quickly approaching there's a bit more urgency to see parts of the country I may not get a chance to visit for some time so this week we travelled to Orkney for a few days with NorthLink ferries.

NorthLink, which is part of Serco, offer a couple of different ways to get to Orkney, either from Scrabster to Stromness, or Aberdeen to Kirkwall. We sailed from Aberdeen which gave us less time in the car to get there, essential when you're travelling with a one year old! The sailing itself takes six hours, which seemed a little daunting in advance but turned out to be perfectly pleasant due to the amenities available.

Aberdeen harbour

We arrived at Aberdeen harbour a little over an hour before we were due to depart and rolled straight on to the boat. Once on board we found some comfortable reclining seats and settled in, although not for long! There was so much to see and do on the ferry that we were soon up and about again. The boy and I headed straight to the cinema, where we spent a couple of hours watching Disney's Inside Out. There were two more films showing afterwards, so it would have been possible to spend the entire journey catching up on the latest Hollywood blockbusters but there was plenty more to do.

Northlink ferry Aberdeen to Orkney

After the movie we all headed for dinner at the onboard restaurant The Feast. My expectation of onboard dining was not too high to begin with but it rose when I saw this:

TripAdvisor Northlink Ferry restaurant

4.5/5 TripAdvisor rating for a restaurant on a ferry? It didn't disappoint! Serco are justifiably proud that 85% of all food and drink onboard is locally sourced. My steak pie was delicious and Blondie Boy gave his kids fish and chips two thumbs up!

Kid's fish and chips in a boat

After dinner BB had a play in the kids area and completed a viking treasure hunt around the ship. A couple of games on the Xbox and we were ready to pack everything back up and prepare to arrive. We were lucky with weather throughout our trip and the sailing was smooth the whole way. The six hour crossing flew in and the time on the ferry was more like a part of the holiday than the journey.

As a family, we instantly fell in love with Orkney. We spent two days touring by ourself and one with a guide. There is so much to see and do, and everything is relatively close together, so no long drives between attractions, which is ideal when travelling with a young family. On day one we visited Skara Brae, the world famous (it's even mentioned in Indiana Jones) Neolithic settlement. Both my Mum and I studied Skara Brae in high school, so this visit was almost half a century in the making for her! The whole three generations enjoyed the visit and the lunch we subsequently grabbed in the cafeteria there was to set a theme for every meal we had in Orkney, the produce was great quality, well cooked and reasonably priced.

Skara Brae heritage Scotland ancient

On the recommendation of a friend we visited Brough of Birsay, which is a small island at the North West of Mainland. The island has been used as a fort by the Picts and the Norse and there are the remains of an 8th Century Norse church and settlement. The island is connected by a causeway which is uncovered for two hours either side of low tide, so even getting across to it is an adventure in itself! We walked across the slippery causeway, while looking in the rockpools at either side of crabs and shells.

Brough of Birsay low tide

On the way back to the hotel we stopped off at the Orkney Brewery and did the tour. I had to force myself to taste the beer too, for research's sake. It did not disappoint.

Orkney Brewery tasting flight

We stayed at the Ayre Hotel in Kirkwall and found it to be ideal. It is situated in the town centre, only a five minute drive from the ferry terminal. The rooms were modern and clean and the food was home cooked and tasty, with the Orkney lamb and breaded haddock being particular favourites. The staff could not have been more helpful, particularly saving our bacon when it turned out some idiot forgot to pack the travel cot...

Day two was spent on a tour with the wonderful Lorna from See Orkney tours. A native Orcadian, Lorna was both able to give us information about the points of interest and more general background on what it was like growing up on the island of Westray, even teaching us some local dialect. She was completely flexible about fitting in around the needs of the children, even finding a play park for us when the boy seemed to be flagging! With Lorna we visited the Italian Chapel, which has to be seen to be believed. Created from two huts by Italian prisoners of war, with little more than some concrete and some paint, the building is spectacular.

Italian Chapel Orkney

In the afternoon we visited two more Neolithic sites, the Ring of Brodgar and  the Unstan cairn tomb. The standing stones were spectacular and the preservation of the tomb was incredible. Lorna's local knowledge was second to none and really helped us make the most of our time.

Ring of Brodgar standing stones

In the afternoon and the next morning we spent some more time exploring Kirkwall. We were very impressed by the shopping in the town. It had everything you needed while still retaining it's local charm. There were lots of independent shops, many selling local goods. We had expected there might be a price premium coming from being on an island with the added supply costs but this wasn't the case at all. St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall was spectacular and the Orkney Museum was well worth a visit.

Our journey back was on the overnight ferry which had the benefit of giving us an extra full day to explore. With Orkney having spent as long as part of Scandanavia as it has as part of Scotland Blondie Boy was really enjoying learning about its Viking heritage. We spent the morning at Orphir learning about the Orkneyinga Saga and looking at the round kirk and Earl's Bu.

Orphir Scandanavian Scotland Orkney

In the afternoon we visited the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness. Blondie Boy took part in a workshop which was running over the school holidays and had a great time, while the adults had time to enjoy the unique collection of modern art, including the recently acquired Two Forms (Orkney) by Barbara Hepworth.

Children's workshops Pier Arts Centre Orkney

Being on the overnight ferry meant that we spent our day on holiday as usual and then instead of going back to the hotel at night we checked in to the ferry and went to bed there instead. The cabin was comfortable. At 6'3" I am well used to single beds which are too small for me but the bunk onboard was long enough and wide enough to be comfortable. The cabin was ensuite with a shower and had tea and coffee making facilities and felt more like a hotel room than a mode of transport. The bar seemed to be in full swing when we arrived but with the kids we were more interested in a good nights sleep than a night cap and we certainly got that. As well as being comfortable the cabin was quiet and we all dropped off in Kirkwall and woke up about fifteen minutes away from Aberdeen the next morning.

Double Cabin Beds Northlink Ferry

Our trip to Orkney was unforgettable for all the right reasons. There is so much to see and do there, the people are warm and genuinely friendly and the scenery is spectacular. The journey there on NorthLink Ferries felt like a part of the holiday, it was quick, easy and entertaining, even with a five year old and a baby. While I can't ask the baby her opinion, here's what Blondie Boy thought of his trip and the journey.


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Transatlantic Blonde were provided ferry crossing, accommodation and a tour guide for the purpose of this review. All adventures & opinions are our own.