With up to six return ferry services each day, Shapinsay is one of the most easily accessible of Orkney's north isles.
The ferry Shapinsay leaves from the slipway that's found on the west side of Kirkwall's shorter pier, near the lifeboat station. For current fare and timetable information, and for bookings, contact Orkney Ferries via their website.
Shapinsay built in 1989, can hold up to 12 cars and 91 passengers, and uses an interesting variant on the roll-on roll-off theme. Vehicles reverse on to the front of the ferry and drive straight off at the destination. The nice yellow lines on the deck are there to assist in the process, but bystanders and foot passengers can still find occasional entertainment as drivers hand over their car keys to members of the crew with the admission they can't reverse.
Passengers are accommodated in a lounge with a vending machine immediately below the Shapinsay bridge. There's also enough deck space to allow excellent views of the trip, most of it behind the bridge.
The crossing takes just 25 minutes and involves the Shapinsay sailing out of the Bay of Kirkwall past the Iceland Skerry, turning half right to pass the islands of Thieves Holm and Helliar Holm, and into sheltered Elwick Bay and journey's end at the slipway of Shapinsay's main village, Balfour.
Much of the landscape of the surrounding islands is fairly flat, and the journey is dominated less by the landscape than by three different man-made structures. At the Kirkwall end, St Magnus Cathedral remains in view pretty much throughout the trip, while nearer Shapinsay the lighthouse at Saeva Ness on Helliar Holm attracts your attention.
But by far the most dominant feature of the northern half of the route is Balfour Castle, placed boldly and uncompromisingly at the south-west tip of Shapinsay. As you approach Shapinsay you see the castle from the south-west and then the south, before sailing around its eastern side and into Elwick Bay and Balfour harbour.
On the point that marks the southern tip of Elwick Bay is the striking structure of Dishan Tower, more often called the douche. This was originally built in the 1600s as a dovecot, but with the completion of Balfour Castle in 1848 it was converted into a salt water shower. Visitors staying at Balfour Castle can rest assured it's no longer used for that purpose.