Last week, Nana and I made the long trek from Edinburgh to Orkney, Shetland, and back.
It's not easy getting all the way up to 60° N, but that's part of the charm. There are regularly scheduled flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Kirkwall in Orkney and Lerwick in Shetland, but they cost a lot and tend to fill up fast in the summer. The more popular route involves a train or a drive and some combination of ferries, mostly operated by Northlink.
The shortest ferries run between Caithness (the northern tip of the Scottish mainland) and Orkney, crossing the very unpleasant Pentland Firth, where the North Sea and the North Atlantic meet, creating some pretty violent currents. A longer route runs overnight between Aberdeen and Shetland, stopping off in Orkney on the way.
We took the latter option, both because we were told to expect calmer seas and because Aberdeen is easier to get to than Caithness.
The ship itself (the "Hjaltland," using the Old Norse for "Shetland") was surprisingly nice. You never know what you're going to get when you hear the word "ferry," but the Hjaltland was less like a boat than it was like a small floating hotel.
When you board the Hjaltland, you enter a small lobby area, complete with an abstract sculpture of a Viking.
(With horns! Tut, tut: Vikings didn't wear horns!)
In addition to an array of cabins, the ship also had a cafeteria, a fancy sit-down restaurant, a gift shop, a "cinema" (chairs arranged around a large flat-screen), and two bars. The ship also had a misleadingly-named "sun deck," which was nevertheless a great spot for watching our departure from Aberdeen.
Our first leg of the trip took us from Aberdeen to Kirkwall in Orkney. It was an evening run, from 5pm to 11pm, so we didn't book any assigned space--we just camped out in the bar and watched the World Cup. There was a little difficulty getting from the ferry terminal to our guest house, as both Google and Lonely Planet seem to think that the Northlink ferries arrive at the small pier in the middle of town, not the larger pier on the outskirts. But Nana saved the day by hailing a bus!
Our second leg, from Kirkwall to Lerwick in Shetland, was a short overnight run. The cabins were all full by the time we booked, so we had to settle for sleeper seats in the recliner lounge.
The chairs were pretty comfy (Nana adds: So was the floor!), and certainly a whole lot better than you would get in coach on an overnight flight. But an airplane has at least one advantage over a ferry: the noise. On a plane, the jet engines drown out all the disgusting sounds people make when they sleep. On a ferry, you get to hear the symphony of farts, belches, and snores in their full glory.
The last and longest leg of our trip, from Lerwick back to Aberdeen, was also the comfiest. We were lucky to book a small twin cabin with a little window out onto the sea.
The cabin also came with a bathroom, complete with the world's smallest shower!
Bonus Fact: Did you know that you get less motion-sick if you're lying down?
Bonus Bonus Fact: After you spend a night on a ferry and then three hours on a train, you feel like the earth is shifting under your feet the following day! Whee!