Put on your eco-warrior cloak and head for the pristine islands of Shetland. WORDS : Robin McKelvie

Shetland’s green credentials are manifest in a land where Mother Nature is firmly in charge. New housing here is built to fit into the natural environment, rubbish is used to create heating, pollution control is taken very seriously, more and more inhabitants are utilising the elements to help power their homes and there is even a wind-powered pub.

Ask most Brits to place the Shetland Isles on a map and they may struggle. Even the BBC weather forecasts have often been a bit reluctant to place this most far-away of island archipelagos.

But now, thanks to November’s National Geographic Magazine survey, which rated Shetland as the ‘fourth most desirable island in the world’, this clean and green destination is finally making it onto the map.

The survey was carried out by National Geographic’s Centre for Sustainable Destinations, in conjunction with George Washington University, with a panel of 522 experts looking at such criteria as ‘environmental and ecological quality’, ‘condition of historic buildings and archaeological sites’ and ‘outlook for the future’. Shetland scored highly across the board, tallying 82 out of a possible 100. One of the panel described Shetland as having ‘everything, with bells on’, which conveys how special this spectacular northern eco-oasis is.

As recognised by the islands’ survey, tourism is also being managed carefully, with the emphasis placed on small groups and eco-tours that work with the environment rather than ride roughshod over it. An example of the latter are the traditional böds (www.camping-bods.co.uk). Instead of throwing up new hostels the locals have resurrected these old stone houses to conjure up an experience as atmospheric as it is sustainable.

This protected environment also provides you with some of the most impressive wildlife viewing opportunities in Europe. In summer legions of puffins flitter around the vaulting sea cliffs while the mammoth great skuas put humans firmly in their place by dive-bombing anyone who is foolhardy enough to venture into their territory. In total 21 of the 24 varieties of sea bird found in the UK grace Shetland. Then there are the seals (common and grey), the porpoises, otters, dolphins and whales, with orcas being one of the most spectacular visitors.

Shetland is the sort of escape that grabs you the second you swoop down over the Atlantic and land for the first time, halting traffic on the islands’ main road as you go. It is an oasis where you constantly find yourself smiling at the quirky things – the little differences that make every day here an experience rather than just a holiday.

And Shetland’s experiences are thrilling, whether it be scrambling around rugged cliffs seeking out a colony of what feels like more birds than you have seen in your entire life or rambling around one of the most visually impressive historical sites in Europe, or even just reclining by the waterfront in the capital, Lerwick, enjoying fresh-from-the boat seafood as seals frolic in the ocean.

Shetland is also home to some stunning historical sites that have been lovingly preserved. Jarlshof is sublime, a site with the power of Stonehenge. Here you can explore the remarkably preserved buildings, not only seeing right into Iron and Bronze Age houses, but actually walking among them, discovering similarities between our lives and theirs.
The easily recognisable Viking dwellings are much larger and more uniform, but are equally impressive, also built using the ‘dry stone’ technique without the use of concrete or any other adhesive materials.

The most dramatic building is the Jarlshof itself, the ceremonial hall that peers out over the beach and out towards the Atlantic breakers. Standing atop the Jarlshof you are taking in a scene largely unchanged in centuries.

Heading back up the western coast from Jarlshof there are a number of fine beaches. White sandy beaches are something that Shetland is justifiably famous for, with more than 100 sprinkled along 900 miles of coastline. Here you are just as likely to have a couple of seals or a flock of birds for company as you are any other humans beings.
Shetland boasts over 100 islands and visiting at least one other is a must. One of the most accessible is Mousa, the small eastern island that is home to Mousa Broch. These defensive two-thousand-year-old tower dwellings are unique to Scotland and about 120 of them were built throughout Shetland. Mousa Broch is not only one of the most striking in the country, but it is also the best preserved, offering visitors another insight into how people lived on these islands centuries ago.

The best time to visit is the summer, when evening cruises go out amid the ‘simmer dim’ long nights to savour the storm petrels as they flock to nest in and around the broch, with a golden backdrop of a sun that never quite seems to set.

Perhaps the best way to really get a flavour of the world’s ‘fourth most desirable island’ is by getting right down onto the ocean that dictates much of Shetland life. A half or a full day trip run by Sea Kayak Shetland (www.seakayakshetland.co.uk) takes you down to water level where you can paddle alongside seals as puffins, gannets and skuas swoop around. If you are lucky you may even chance upon a whale. Shetland is that sort of place: a clean and green escape filled with exhilarating experiences that really should not need magazine surveys to put it firmly on your travel map.

Faroe Islands
National Geographic’s top-rated island is an island nation ruled over nominally by Denmark.
With subsidies from its big brother, large oil revenues and a substantial fishing fleet, this volcanic archipelago has the money to go green.
It does this through alternative energy, a sustained attempt to keep village life alive (rather than concentrating all life in the capital, Tórshavn) and a focus on small-scale low-impact tourism.
See www.tourist.fo

Set adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, the Azores are almost 1000 miles from the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. The nine volcanic islands have a total area of 910 sq miles and were uninhabited when the Portuguese first settled them; in many ways they are little changed since, with plentiful pristine landscapes to explore. Whales and dolphins are abundant in the unspoilt waters surrounding the islands with regular wildlife-watching trips strictly controlled.
See www.azores.com

This rugged island throws out all the Caribbean clichés. There are precious few sandy beaches or luxury hotels; instead this pristine rainforest-clad wilderness is left intact for adventurous souls willing to fling on a pair of hiking boots and head deep into the wilderness. Once there a thick cloak of forest, hulking volcanoes and bubbling lakes await them in an underdeveloped island that in some ways is green by default, but no less impressive for it.
See www.dominica.dm.

Tourism is no stranger to this stark, beautiful glacial island chain off the Norwegian coast, but real attempts are being made to lesson its impact. The wildlife is impressive as the meeting of the Gulf Stream and the chilly Arctic Ocean combine to create fertile feeding grounds for all sorts of marine and bird life.
Man is thriving here too, with the fishing industry being backed up by artists drawn to tiny villages where the quality of light is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
See www.lofoten-info.no

Fraser Island
Protected by law, this Unesco World Heritage listed eco-system stretches for 123km and is the largest sand island in the world. There is little of the mass tourist development that has scarred other parts of Queensland and here the beautiful sandy beaches are left largely undisturbed.
See www.fraserisland.net