Shetland is a 2 1/2-hour flight from London. By air or sea, Aberdeen is the major departure point from Scotland. British Airways (tel. 800/247-9297 in the U.S., or 0844/493-0787; www.britishairways.com) flies from Aberdeen four times per day Monday to Friday, with reduced service on Saturday and Sunday. The flight takes less than an hour.
Roll-on/roll-off car ferries operate from Aberdeen to Shetland Monday through Friday, carrying up to 600 passengers and 240 cars. For information, contact NorthLink (tel. 0845/600-0449; www.northlinkferries.co.uk). The trip takes about 14 hours and costs £67 to £92 per car or £17 to £26 per person. On-board facilities include restaurants, cafeterias, bars, lounges, and gift shops.
NorthLink offers year-round ferry service once a week, departing on Sunday at noon and Tuesday at 10pm from Stromness, Orkney, heading for Lerwick, in the Shetlands.
If you have a problem with transportation either to or around the islands, you can always check with the tourist office in Lerwick.
Loganair (tel. 0871/700-2000; www.loganair.co.uk) provides daily and weekly service to the islands of Whalsay, Fetlar, Foula, and Out Skerries. Although flying is a bit more expensive than taking a ferry, the bonus is that you can go and return on the same day as opposed to spending 2 or possibly 3 days on a rather small island.
Most of the inhabited islands are reached from the Shetland Mainland, and passenger fares are nominal because they're heavily subsidized by the government. Service is 13 to 16 times a day to the islands of Unst, Yell, Whalsay, Fetlar, and Bressay. Passenger and cargo vessels service the islands of Fair Isle, Foula, the Skerries, and Papa Stour. Scheduled services to the little-visited places operate only once or twice a week, however. Boat trips to the islands of Mousa and Noss can be arranged in summer. Call the Shetland Islands Tourism office for more information.
In summer, buses travel around Mainland to all the major places of interest. Call the leading bus company, John Leask & Son (tel. 01595/693-162; www.leaskstravel.co.uk), or pick up a copy of the Inter-Shetland Transport Timetable, costing £2 at the Shetland Islands Tourism office .
It's easier to drive around the Shetlands than you'd think, as there are some 805km (500 miles) of passable roads -- no traffic jams, no traffic lights. Many of the islands are connected by road bridges, and for those that aren't, car ferries provide service. Renting a car might be the best solution if you want to cover a lot of ground in the shortest time. You can either bring a car from mainland Scotland or pick one up in Lerwick. As yet, no major international car-rental firm maintains an office in the Shetlands. However, Avis and Europcar have as their on-island agents Bolts Car Hire, 26 North Rd., Lerwick (tel. 01595/693-636; www.boltscarhire.co.uk); a competitor is Grantsfield Garage, North Road, Lerwick (tel. 01595/692-709; www.grantsfieldgarage.co.uk).
If you want to pedal your way around, Grantsfield Garage, North Road (tel. 01595/692-709), rents bikes for £5 per day and £30 per week. If you're planning on renting a bike for several days, reserve at least a day in advance.
The Shetland Islands Tourism office is at the Market Cross in Lerwick (tel. 01595/693-434; www.visitshetland.com). The helpful staff does many things, such as arranging rooms and providing information on ferries, boat trips, car rentals, and local events -- they even rent fishing tackle. It's open from April to September, Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm and Saturday 8am to 4pm (May-Aug also Sun 10am-1pm); and October to March, Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm.
Festivals and a festive atmosphere surround the communities of these remote islands, where the slightest excuse will kick off music and revelry. Pubs and community centers regularly schedule music and dancing, and on most weekend nights, all you have to do is go in search of a pint of beer to find live traditional music.
The Shetland Folk Festival (tel. 01595/694-757 for information; www.shetlandfolkfestival.com) takes place at Lerwick around the end of April and the beginning of May. Young fiddlers on the island take part, and international artists fly in for 4 days of concerts, workshops, and informal jam sessions, climaxed by what is called the "Final Foy." Concerts, usually incorporating dinner and dancing, take place in local halls throughout the islands, with most events costing about £20 to £35. Often festival entertainers will convene at the pubs and join local performers.
January also finds Lerwick hosting Up Helly Aa, its famous Fire Festival, on the last Tuesday of the month, when a thousand locals, torches held high, are cheered on as they storm an effigy of a Viking longboat and set it aflame. These heroes and their witnesses follow this with a long night of eating, drinking, playing music, and dancing. The celebrations spread out from here, and more remote communities hold their local versions of the event over the next 3 months.
Summer weekends bring regularly scheduled local regattas, in which different communities compete in sailing and rowing competitions. Afterward, there are celebratory dinners, music, and dancing in local venues.