Best strategies for biking in Orkney and Shetland?
February 14, 2014 4:46 PM   Subscribe

We'd like to spend a week each in Orkney and Shetland this (late August/early September). We love bikes, photography, historical monuments/museums. What are we not thinking of/what would you recommend?

Most cottage rentals are 1 week minimums so we're looking at a week in each. We plan to rent bikes when we arrive.

Specific questions:

* where are the best places to stay that are central? Assuming Kirkwall and Lerwick. We plan to explore on our rental bikes as much as possible.
* how are the roads, cycling wise? At home I prefer a heavy upright Dutch-style bike but I assume I won't have a lot of choice at the rental places.
* is this a good time of year to go, weather-wise? I assume it won't be raining much. We don't get cold easily. Will a light jacket suffice?
* what's don't-miss photo-wise? For me, puffins, Neolithic sites, wildflowers. Anything in particular we might not know about?
* Food recommendations for local specialties we might not know about?
* Should we rent phone card sims at the airport, or?

Any other input is welcome! I'd like to plan as much of the logistics as possible beforehand so we can just relax and ride around looking at things!

Thanks in advance!
posted by to Travel & Transportation around Manchester, England (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Bug Spray. If it isn't windy or raining the midges are fierce.
posted by srboisvert at 5:07 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ha, I can answer this! More about Orkney, less about biking and/or Shetland. On Orkney, you might actually want to consider staying in Finstown, for geographic ease, as that is at roughly the midpoint of the main island. It would position you better to see all of the archaeological stuff at the Stromness side of the island (Stenness, etc.). If you're looking for any semblance of nightlife/restaurants/live music, though, Kirkwall is definitely the best option. A day biking trip to Rousay we found worthwhile. We were there in June, and it was quite cold (probably in the 40s F, very strong winds, and drizzle most of the time). I would definitely prioritize something extremely waterproof if you're going to be outside a lot. I wished I had brought rainpants, a lightweight/midweight fleece, and a waterproof shell.
posted by ClaireBear at 5:08 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

In terms of things to see, there are cliffs to walk along at the bottom of South Ronaldsay, just past Tomb of the Eagles, that are stunning, and had lots of white birds flying from side to side. You can drive/bike to South Ronaldsay from the main island, since all of those WWII embankment things. All of the archaeological stuff on west (?) mainland was well worth it - I'd say that would be what I would prioritize if I were going again and had to choose. The Italian chapel was great in a cute and quirky way. I also thought Kirkwall and Stromness were beautiful little towns, and I wish we had budgeted more time for them - Stromness more for quaint walking around, and Kirkwall also for that, but also for the historic sights (especially the stunning rosy cathedral, but also the ruined palace). I'd recommend buying the sites pass to save money. If you consider going during the music festival week (June?), Kirkwall books pretty fast, but you can hear some pretty good live up-and-coming Celtic performers and the town has a really nice atmosphere then. The stores (big grocery store, etc.) are generally all in Kirkwall, so if that matters to you, you might want to base yourself there (although obviously that would mean a longer bike ride to the stuff on the west mainland, which might be half of what you want to see). Also in June, you get ridiculously long days, since you're so far north, which are fun to experience and also stretch your time to explore.

Also, I know I said this above, but I can't stress too heavily how wet it was when we were there. We had far more drizzle/rain than sun. As I said, it was also very windy and chilly. I've been to Iceland too, and the weather was similar. Much colder than my experiences of England in June (which also isn't always warm).
posted by ClaireBear at 5:18 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ok, wetter than I'm expecting! Got it. I assumed it would be more like Maine that time of year, which can get chilly but is generally dry!
posted by at 5:28 PM on February 14, 2014

Oh! I spent a day in Lerwick then hopped down to the Orkneys for several days in 2007. Absolutely wonderful, in the middle of November when it was stormy and dark and magical. I travel a bit and generally don’t like tours/tour-groups but I have to recommend (so highly!) a wonderful couple who offer “off-the-beaten-track” tours. They have short walks which could orient you/increase your comfort level when you arrive. We ran around a standing stone circle during a thunderstorm, got on our hands and knees in underground ancient mounds, and just spent time delightfully uncovering the amazing archeology and local history. I can’t say enough good things about them and their love of the place; definitely worth checking out.
posted by jicinabox at 5:37 PM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Weather: I have photos of me in both Orkney and Shetland around midsummer in the late evening. I'm wearing a wooly hat, scarf, gloves and an anorak in both. The best week I've had in Orkney in summer it barely rained all week and was gloriously sunny (which according to locals was the longest run of dry weather in about five years), but most of the time it was still more comfortable with a light jumper on than in shirt sleeves. As with all Scotland "don't like the weather? Wait five minutes" applies.

Geography: Orkney has a much greater density of sites of interest, and Mainland Orkney is much flatter than Mainland Shetland. I don't cycle, but cyclists in Orkney looked much happier than ones in Shetland!

Photography: there are some fantastic neolithic sites to see, and I love all of them, but in summer you'll find that you probably won't get great photos of the most popular because they're pretty busy with people. But Orkney (and to a slightly lesser extent Shetland) is absolutely lousy with ancient sites. The Megalithic Portal is a great resource for ancient sites, and might help you plot a route (on that site do look up what there is to see for each site; it lists everything from single unimpressive stones to full neolithic complexes).

Puffins are easy to see in a lot of places across Orkney and Shetland at that time of year, but there are some places that you can get really close to them - you might want to look up the RSPB reserves, and see what they say about them.

Food: it's the only place I've had razor clams (spouties locally), very tasty if you like seafood. There's some great local cheeses, my personal favourite is Grimbister Farm Cheese.
posted by Vortisaur at 1:06 AM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oooh! Hadn't found that Megalithic Portal yet, that is great! Thanks!
posted by at 11:22 AM on February 15, 2014

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