What an HF Trails guided walking or island hopping holiday looks like in the Covid era

The Isle of Hoy in the Orkney Islands, Scotland

After the year we’ve had, you’d be forgiven for being wary of getting away. And while we’re able to control all aspects of a stay at our own UK country houses and enforce new safetry measures, what’s it like to travel and stay at one of our handpicked partner hotels?

Our team work hard to ensure that, regardless of where you stay, every element of your holiday complies with the latest government guidance, so you can book and travel with confidence. Here, HF Board Director and outdoor enthuiast Ben Reid describes his first experience of a covid-era walking holiday with HF, describing what he found when he joined a small group on our Orkney & Shetland guided island hopping holiday this September.

Orkney & Shetland guided walking holiday
Orkney & Shetland guided walking holiday

Over the past few years my wife and I have been getting more adventurous with our HF holidays, moving from the more traditional country house-based walking holiday to exploring Cambodia, Nepal and India with HF. However, given the current Covid-19 situation, we decided to stay closer to home this year and try an HF holiday to Orkney and Shetland – a classic guided walking island hopping island in the tradition that HF have offered for more than a hundred years. We had previously completed the Coast to Coast trail with HF so had a fair idea what to expect and we were excited about visiting Orkney and Shetland, names that so far had only been points on the BBC weather map to us. Being outside was a big pull and these islands with their wild spaces and wonderfully open air held huge attraction.

As with all holidays, a key element of the experience is the anticipation. Given the strange times we live in, this was tempered by the concern that our break might be cancelled at any time. Communication from the HF team was excellent though, and we received assurances that it was all systems go during the run up. That was until, with a week to go, Aberdeen went into lockdown so we couldn’t fly into the airport.

The switch to Glasgow and the need to travel up a day earlier could have created a negative vibe around the start of the holiday but this was dispelled by a really positive call from the HF team, explaining what had happened and giving us the opportunity to cancel. That created just the right mood. We weren’t being forced into anything, this was our choice. So we set about making the most of it.

After a really enjoyable day in Glasgow we turned up for our flight to Kirkwall where we met the rest of the group including the leaders Jim and Mary, a husband and wife team. Mary has 18 years of experience leading HF guided walks and had no qualms about doing so now. ‘I was initially concerned about the travel but felt that once there it would be as safe as at home‘, she said, noting that as a leader there was a lot more to prepare and there was a lot of uncertainty in the planning stage over precisely what would be open and what the rules would be. But by staying flexible & being prepared for changes and adaptations, she was convinced that things could be a success.

Everything on our journey up went smoothly and in no time we were on our way to Orkney and, after a short coach transfer, we arrived at our first hotel, the Merkister, stood on the shores of Harray Loch. All transport arrangements were slick and mask wearing and hand sanitising felt routine following the consistent example of the drivers.

Everyone naturally had concerns around Covid-19 but these were soon allayed by the way the hotel handled things. This included masks in all public areas, individual times for breakfast to avoid bunching, and a dinner table just for our group. There was hand gel everywhere and a real sense that they were doing everything to keep us safe.

Orkney & Shetland guided walking holiday

Orkney itself lived up to our expectations. The scenery was everything we had imagined. The mostly flat-topped islands stripped bare of trees and ringed with red sandstone cliffs at the mercy of the moods of the sea were spectacular. This wildness was made even better with the lack of other people on the trail.

Our first walk, a clifftop trail from Birsay to Stenness, introduced us to the variable weather of the islands, with glorious sunshine, showers and winds strong enough to make it tricky to walk in a straight line. The windy and at times wet weather certainly enhanced the wildness though, and helped to keep the midges at bay. With the wind, ventilation was as good as it could be! Sites like the Ring of Brodgar and the standing stones of Stenness underlined the history of this part of the world, while natural wonders like the magnificent sea stack of the Old Man of Hoy, rising out of the blustery Atlantic to a height of 450 feet, hammered home the harsh beauty of the place.

For the second half of our holiday we flew to Shetland, Britain’s most northerly outpost, Although close to Norway and influenced by Scandinavia, the place still feels uniquely Scottish, though, with deep, naked glens flanked by steep hills, sky-blue lochs and, of course, sheep on the roads.

Orkney & Shetland guided walking holiday

On arrival we shuttled to Sumburgh Head to see the lighthouse, from where we walked the cliffs to Jarlshof, an archaeological site that dates back to 2500BC. Caught in a downpour, we battled on to arrive, wet and well-weathered at our base for the next few nights. Our accommodation on the island was the Busta House, a 16th century stately home-style property with lots of history around it. Again, the hotel was taking Covid-19 seriously with markers on the floor to control flow, face masks in public areas, staggered breakfast times and a table of three for dinner.

Walks in this stirringly bleak setting – it’s a UNESCO geopark - included a stroll around the Eshaness Peninsula. The weather was kind, views spectacular and we saw seals bobbing along just off the coast. The walk to Muckle Roe on the last day is rightly described as rugged and remote; we didn’t see any other people from the point we were dropped off until the time we were picked up. The scenery was spectacular but the weather was at its most testing. The rain felt like hail as it hit you and the wind was so strong there were times we just had to hunker down, and in fact we had to change the route slightly to avoid some of the cliff tops that could have been very challenging. This is when having two really experienced walk leaders proved to be an invaluable asset. They made sure we were safe throughout but ensured that we still saw the sights that were important.

Orkney & Shetland guided walking holiday

Over the six walking days we probably covered 50 miles but it did feel more given the tracks and the weather. It was a great trip and underlined why we like the HF trails holidays. It gave us not only a great sense of the history and the spectacular scenery of both the Orkneys and the Shetlands but showed how resilient the people have to be to live there.

Overall this was a five star island hopping holiday. The HF service leading up to the trip, the hotels, the food and the packed lunches were all first class, and the HF group all got on well. Adaptations and new measures to make the holiday Covid safe were apparent but had been implemented well. The time away brought home how much we’d missed the simplest of things, like human connections, in the course of the Covid crisis.

We felt that this holiday was a great advertisement for everything that is good about HF Holidays, and we would thoroughly recommend it. It’s possibly the perfect antidote to these challenging times.

In the Leader's words

"Ultimately the trip was able to run in an almost normal way. While guest experience was affected by necessary adjustments it did not seriously damage the overall quality of the experience. It still felt like an HF holiday should: sociable, relaxed, enjoying a wonderful landscape in all weathers, sometimes feeling stretched, gelling as a group and leaving as friends."

Mary Scott, HF Walk Leader

Orkney & Shetland guided walking holiday