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TRAVEL: All at SEAL; TAKE SHELTER FROM STRESS IN SHETLAND.

Byline: By SIMON WOODCOCK

IF work or frantic city life have wound you up tighter than a spring, here's the perfect way to unwind - a trip to Shetland.

It's a magically calming place with miles of views, crystal-clear water, abundant wildlife and some superb dining out. On top of that, the locals are friendly and welcoming.

Reaching the islands used to be an arduous trek, involving either a couple of flights or several modes of transport over the course of a day.

Now you can fly there from all major Scottish airports and, in just 90 minutes, direct from Stansted.

The islands' capital Lerwick (which means "muddy water" in Old Norse) is a short drive from Sumburgh Airport and a great point to start exploring the area. Most of Shetland's wonderfully smooth roads (try finding some as good on the mainland!) run through the town.

Originally an unofficial market-place for 17th century Dutch herring fleets, Lerwick is a busy port regularly visited by cruise liners.

For our first night we took a five-minute ferry ride to the island of Bressay and stayed in a lighthouse keeper's cottage. Constructed in 1856, the light was engineered by David and Thomas Stevenson - father of Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson.

Perched on the south-west tip of the island, the tremendous views and refreshingly clean air are something to savour. With this edge-of-the-earth feel, it's easy to imagine where Robert Louis may have got his inspiration from to write his adventure stories.

The 16-metre lighthouse is still operational, with the light flashing twice every 20 seconds, although, thankfully, the foghorn is now out of action.

The newly-renovated cottages are cosy and comfortable, with all mod cons and relaxed furnishings. Sleeping up to six each, they are the perfect base for all the rambling, bird watching or book reading you can manage.

A seemingly quiet if windswept island at first glance, you'll soon realise that wildlife numbers make up for the lack of humans.

Dr Jonathan Wills offers regular trips around Bressay aboard his boat, the Dunter 3. You'll see seals, gannets, guillemots and, if you're very lucky and willing to wait a couple of hours, otters. A sighting of these notoriously shy creatures is a rare and exciting event.

The 180m high Noss bird wall with it's thousands of screeching gannets is a breathtaking sight, but take a brolly with you. It beats getting "lucky", as my grandmother used to say.

THE highlight of the trip is when Jonathan drops an underwater camera below the boat to reveal life beneath the waves.

Expect to see plenty of fish, coral and other sea life. If a cheeky seal isn't playing with the cable connecting the camera to the boat then you might get to go exploring with it.

The seals near the harbour have been encouraged by the local fishermen feeding them scraps, so they often venture near boats to check what might be on offer.

I was surprised at how large the population of Shetland is - about 22,000 people. This, though, is dwarfed by the 30,000 gannets, 160,000 guillemots, 20,000 puffins and at least 330,000 sheep spread over 1,500 sq km.

If the abundant wildlife and views aren't enough to relax you, then surely one of the local holistic and well-being experts will have something to suit.

Ranging from reiki to hypnotherapy, there is a host of different alternative treatments available in Shetland. A new upmarket spa offering massage, floatation tanks and reflexology is under construction and due to open later this year on Bressay.

Being as close to Norway as you are to Edinburgh you'd be forgiven for thinking that you'll need your thermals all year round, but I'm happy to report that's not the case.

The Shetland islands are blessed with more sunshine than anywhere else in Britain.

This is especially true during the summer months when the sun shines for almost 19 hours and the night is little more than dusk and known as the "simmer dim".

Although the winter months offer little sunshine, they compensate in another way, with excellent chances to glimpse the Aurora Borealis - the Northern Lights - on a clear night.

If history appeals more than wildlife, Mousa is for you. Reached via the village of Sandwick, it's an uninhabited island, boisterous seals aside, that houses an 2,000-year-old broch, an Iron-Age fort.

Originally designed as a line of defence and communication it is now home to many storm petrels, tiny swallow-like birds.

Night visits can also be made to watch them return from their long-distance sea fishing trips, using the cover of darkness as a way of avoiding predators. If you're feeling energetic, you can, with the aid of a torch, climb the broch and admire the view from the top.

Most of the brochs on these islands are visible to each other, making them perfect communication towers as well as somewhere to live.

On the return boat ride from Mousa, five porpoises make an appearance and circle the boat, teasing us with glimpses of their fins, before satisfying their curiosity and moving on again.

The porpoise is apparently quite a common sight all year round, and killer whales are also attracted into the bay by large shoals of fish in the late summer and early autumn.

No trip to Shetland would be complete without a sea-fishing trip with legendary local Geordie Mainland.

At 82 he is the most active pensioner I've ever met.

He and his 79-year-old assistant know exactly where to find all the fish you can manage, and We landed more than 80 mackerel in just 15 minutes.

After our nautical adventure we moved on to Busta House Hotel, the friendliest hotel I've ever stayed in.

Situated in Brae, on the edge of a voe (sea inlet) on the north mainland it's in a serene setting with a large garden that runs to the water's edge.

It's worth reading up on it's spooky history as many guests over the years have reported hearing or seeing things during the night. One of my companions, Dave, was woken in the middle of the night by a gently pulsating light bulb.

Fortunately for him, all the fresh air and trips out to sea we'd been enjoying that day put him straight back to sleep.

Or perhaps the hotel's selection of fine wines we'd been enjoying that night might have had something to do with it.

The Busta House's dinner menu changes daily with a five-course menu priced at a reasonable pounds 30 a head.

Make sure you sample the locally sourced fish. My breakfast of poached haddock and eggs was more than compensation for leaving my comfy bed.

The surrounding area has some great walks for all abilities as well as some memorable landmarks, including one of the large standing stones that feature in the area.

When departure day came, I was longing for a little more time to explore so was pleasantly surprised to learn that our aircraft was held up on another island due to fog, meaning we would have to remain on the island a further night.

Just time for a Blue Coo ice cream (delicious!) before zipping back to Busta House for more of their excellent hospitality.

As Geordie Mainland said to us while we were out fishing: "It's a strange place, where strange things happen." I couldn't have put it better myself.

GETTING THERE...

Simon flew to Sumburgh with Atlantic Airways new scheduled service from London Stansted, starting at pounds 199 return (www.atlantic.fo). Busta House Hotel double rooms start at pounds 110, with dinner in the restaurant pounds 30 per person. Call for all inclusive packages (www.bustahouse.com/01806 522 506)

Dr Jonathan Wills and Dunter 3 sailing information at www.seabirds-and-seals.com Fares are pounds 35 for adults, pounds 25 for under 16s. Under fives free, space permitting. Learn more about the area at www.visitshetland.com

CAPTION(S):

HARBOUR PATROL: Seals pop up to do their rounds; LIGHT SLEEPER: The Stevenson lighthouse on the isle of Bressay; CATCH OF THE DAY: Simon's delighted with his haul
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 21, 2007
Words:1355
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