Ferries with Kids? Travelling to Orkney with NorthLink

Islands are often automatically described as ‘remote’ but part of the adventure, when visiting a destination like Orkney, is actually getting there. In terms of being ‘remote’, the transport links are actually really joined up, and your concept of whether a location is ‘remote’ or not often depends on your departure point. Tots2Travel’s base is Aberdeen, so Orkney is easier to reach than London, and more leisurely than most road trips because someone else does the driving (or sailing) for you.


As still as a pond on the Aberdeen to Kirkwall sailing.

As a starting point I’m a bit of a fan of ferries when it comes to family travel. Kids are occupied from start to finish, everyone can walk around and stretch their legs (unlike long car journeys or flights), you can bring your own car for exploring once you reach your destination, you can fill said car with scooters, toiletries over 100ml, toys, wellies, buckets and spades, endless detritus to create the ultimate family holiday. It’s just a lovely way to travel. We sailed with NorthLink ferries from Aberdeen to Kirkwall, returning Stromness to Scrabster, and this is how we got on and what you need to know.

CHECK IN – Check in is friendly and smooth. Show your tickets, wait in lane, drive onboard, get the party started. Simple.

FOOD – As our ferry, MV Hjaltland, departed Aberdeen at 5.00pm, dinner was a priority. NorthLink prides itself on its menu, sourcing food from within fifty miles of its operating ports. Orkney Fudge, Dark Island beer and Orkney Cheddar are all incorporated into the dishes. We tried the Moroccan Style Lamb and good old Fish and Chips, both went down well. If you travel in the mornings you can feast yourself on an ‘all you can eat’ breakfast or ‘continental breakfast’ as you would at a hotel. For food on the move NorthLink is putting its best foot forward. Children can request half portions and pay a reduced amount, or buy from the children’s menu and have their meals presented in a cute ferry shaped box. The restaurant is always busy but service is swift and the views are excellent.


Views from the restaurant aboard HV Hjaltland

FACILITIES – We spotted lots of different lounge chairs (sleeping pods and reclining seats) which can be booked in advance. The cinema had child-friendly screenings throughout the evening, with family tickets costing £12. The bar was always popular: I remember from past trips up to Orkney (BC – before children) I thought the bar the best way to while away the hours, though do remember if you have to drive at the other end.


Lounge seating with sea views

For us, going on deck and looking at the scenery was an activity in itself. On the outward leg, Aberdeen-Kirkwall, the sea was as still as a pond, gloriously beautiful, mild on deck, without a breath of wind. Looking out across the water was simply glorious.

On the return leg, Stromness to Scrabster, it was slightly choppier. The boys looked like they were in a wind tunnel and clung onto the railings. I think they preferred the more dramatic weather overall. We got excellent views of the Old Man of Hoy which was a highlight of the journey.


Play area aboard HV Hjaltland

It’s worth bearing in mind that, due to a ferry’s potential to roll with the waves, the kids facilities can’t exactly be jam-packed full of toys. Instead you find large soft play areas, wooden bead toys fixed to the ground, and cartoons on the television. We brought a bag of the boys’ own toys onboard, which is the joy of a ferry, you can take whatever you wish, so they had some Octonauts and stories at their disposal too. We also collected a free NorthLink Wildlife Pack, including little binoculars, from reception. This tells you about the animals you can expect to see on the islands at certain months. Admittedly it was as informative for me as it was for the kids.


Play area aboard HV Hamnavoe

CABINS – We’d requested cabins aboard NorthLink for both legs of the journey. Check out our simple video to see what they look like. I liked having our own space, a bit of privacy and our own toilet/shower facilities. When we initially boarded my husband had to make a work call from the bar (that’s his story and he’s sticking to it) so I was relieved that the boys and I could hang out in the cabin whilst I was outnumbered. The cabins have tea and coffee making facilities, and bunk beds, which is hugely exciting for any child (and for big kids too). The cabins are a luxury but they are comfortable, you can get a proper night’s sleep, stretch out, dream. Sleep is so, so important to me right now, I’m sure you understand. Prices are available here.


Wriggling and playing Octonauts in the cabin of HV Hjaltland

WHAT TO PACK – We had four small bags between us. An overnight bag, a toy bag, a snack/drinks bag and a change bag. Mr Toddler was seasick at one point and required a change of clothes, but everyone onboard was totally unfazed by his incident, so I’d recommend a change of clothes, especially for little ones. Of course you could take fewer bags onboard but this is what worked for us, and having these bags prepared before boarding made for stress-free travel.


Free Wildlife Spotting Kit from NorthLink

TIMETABLE – When travelling with youngsters timing is key and can really influence your trip. NorthLink ferries currently leave Aberdeen for Kirkwall at 5.00pm, workable for anyone travelling to Aberdeen Harbour to make the connection, great for Aberdonians as you can virtually fit in a full day of work before departure. After dinner and a play, our kids fell asleep in our cabin, other parents recommended bringing a pop up tent for kids to sleep in and putting it in the bar. I love getting local tips.

When we docked in Kirkwall at 11.00pm we carried our sleepy bundles to the car deck and drove to our self catering apartments at Ayre Hotel. This hotel appealed as it’s only minutes from the ferry port, yet in the heart of Kirkwall, and the staff are extremely used to late arrivals. After only a six hour sailing we’d arrived. It was so simple.


Boarding HV Hamnavoe at Stromness

RETURN – The return Kirkwall-Aberdeen leg departs at 11.45pm which was too late for my wee ones so we opted for the scenic route. The Stromness/Scrabster journey takes only 90 minutes, so a far shorter crossing.  If you opt for the early morning ferry, which leaves at 6.30am, or 9.00am on a Sunday, you can overnight on the ferry on a B&B ticket. This worked really well for us. We boarded at 9.30pm, got the boys to sleep, had a few beers in the cabin ourselves, then nodded off in our top bunks – how romantic.  After a proper sleep aboard HV Hamnavoe we all rocked up for breakfast, dining as the ship left harbour on a Sunday morning.


[Top tip. Looking for things to do before the ferry departed at 9.30pm, a Tots2Travel reader recommended a gorgeous playpark in Stromness’ Franklin Road. It had trampolines and extra slides and swings not pictured.]

From Scrabster we drove home to Aberdeen, stopping for a lunchtime pit-stop at the Storehouse in Evanton, which is extremely busy but extremely tasty.

To discover what you can get up to in Orkney click here for an overview of our Orcadian adventures. So much to do. And just to clarify, Orkney isn’t remote, it’s glorious.

If you like what you read then don’t miss a post, enter your email address in the ‘Follow’ box then click ‘Follow’ or join the conversation on Facebooktwitterpinterest and instagram at Tots2Travel. For any queries or opportunities please email tots2travel@hotmail.com. We ventured to Orkney courtesy of Northlink Ferries. We stayed at Ayre Hotel in Kirkwall courtesy of the Digital Media Orkney project. Discover more at orkney.com. All images copyright of Tots2Travel.