AD (I was gifted complimentary return travel for 2 on the Northlink Ferries Scrabster-Stromness route aboard MV Hamnavoe in exchange for this feature) This blog post is actually almost 18 months in the making, as I was due to travel in Spring 2020. Thank you to Julie from Weber Shandwick and Northlink Ferries for their assistance in re-arranging this trip!
Whenever going across to Thurso and looking out across the bay, it’s impossible to miss the face of Magnus, the Viking seafarer on the side of MV Hamnavoe as it traverses the Pentland Firth between the north coast of Scotland and Orkney.
Recently I was able to have a much closer view of Magnus, as a friend and I were invited to use Northlink Ferries for four days of exploring Orkney. On its off-peak timetable, Northlink Ferries operate two crossings a day (three on the peak timetable) to and from the port of Scrabster, situated just west of Thurso. The crossing takes just 90 minutes and gives stunning views back towards the north coast and to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the British mainland. Northlink Ferries also operate Aberdeen – Shetland and Aberdeen – Orkney routes.
The Hamnavoe check-in experience for vehicles is smooth and simple – simply exchange your booking confirmation for boarding passes and follow the staff instructions for queueing and driving onto the ferry. Grab everything you need for the 90-minute journey and head up to the passenger deck, as there’s no access to the car deck during the sailing. A tannoy announcement instructs drivers and passengers when it’s the right time to head back to the car deck.
At the time of writing (September 2021) there were no social distancing rules in place, but masks are mandatory when moving around the ferry. There are lots of clear and regularly updated information on the Northlink Ferries website about what to expect on your journey. Northlink Ferries ask that passengers take lateral flow tests before sailing, and we did as requested three days before travel, and on the day of travel.
We picked a mid-week evening crossing for our outbound journey, hoping that we would be able to take in a pre-sunset sight of the Old Man of Hoy, a stunning sandstone sea-stack that towers at almost 450 feet, just off of the west coast of Hoy. The crossing was fairly calm, but the Old Man and adjacent cliffs were shrouded in low-lying clouds – it was so atmospheric. On our return journey, the skies were much clearer to have views of Hoy, and it was a very calm crossing.
We alternated between the sun deck and the comfortable seating in the cosy bar and lounge, of which there was plenty. There’s also a kids play area, and comfy seats if you want to have views of the scenery without venturing outside onto the sun deck.
For our return trip, we booked the B&B Hamnavoe offer, which means that we could stay onboard the night before sailing. It was my first time doing B&B on a boat (although I have travelled by overnight train from Inverness to London in 2015) and I was excited about it!
In normal times, check-in can take place over a couple of hours and Northlink also offers a drive on valet service. Understandably in the current climate, this service is currently suspended, and we had a half-hour window to board (or we could have chosen to board the car the following morning) once the evening sailing from Scrabster had arrived. Walk-on passengers had a longer check-in slot later in the evening.
Once we had grabbed our overnight bags, we ascended to the passenger deck. We were welcomed aboard, given our cabin key and directions to the restaurant where breakfast was served the following morning. A choice of cooked and continental options were available and it was a good way to start the day!
Hamnavoe B&B bookings also included access to the Magnus lounge for the evening, where we could enjoy free hot soft drinks and snacks, and also buy alcoholic drinks if we wished. It’s where I wrote some of this blog post, thanks to the free Wi-Fi (which seemed secure enough to browse the internet in the lounge – it was much slower in the cabin, so my tip is to download any films or podcasts before boarding). Using the onboard wifi, all passengers also have access to electronic newspapers and magazines.
In the outside twin berth cabin we stayed in, there are two single beds with a small bathroom with shower. Other features include tea and coffee making facilities, plenty of space to hang clothes or store overnight luggage, and a TV which was great for relaxing before getting to sleep. The beds were comfortable with good quality mattresses, warm duvets and comfy pillows. We both slept extremely well without the earplugs which were provided. (There is an engine noise that does run all night but this did not bother either of us).
In the morning, we opened the blackout blind to reveal a harbourside view of Stromness. The only downside to our cabin was a bad drain smell from the bathroom later in the evening, and we reported this to the reception staff upon check out.
Our stay aboard the MV Hamnavoe enabled us to have a full final day of our break, and is an affordable way to have a unique last night on Orkney. We appreciated the generous Highland hospitality and friendly Northlink staff who were happy to help at any point – even providing us with some ice to package up some Orkney goodies we were transporting home!
If you’re travelling round the North Coast 500, and are thinking about a trip to Orkney, I would highly recommend heading aboard with Northlink Ferries, who operate the Hamnavoe B&B offer on Thursday and Saturday nights.
Hamnavoe cabin accommodation options starts from £40 for a inner cabin during low season, which includes breakfast. Other accommodation types including pet friendly, four-berth cabins and reclining seats are also available and can be viewed here. To read more information about journeys to the Northern isles with Northlink, please visit their website.
Thanks again to Northlink Ferries for sponsoring this trip. If you are interested in working with A Highland Blend to promote your hospitality business, please do drop me an email!