Why the remote Faroe Islands are a must-visit for adventurous travellers
Worth adding to your travel bucket list!
A sheet of icy rain falls steadily from velvety grey clouds. A swirl of silver fog blocks out our view of the snow-covered mountains we’re driving through. “This particular fog is called Mjørki,” explains Jóhannus—our indefatigably cheerful guide. There are 40 words for fog in Faroese. I can understand why. Lying north of Scotland and east of Iceland, this set of 18 volcanic islands with no trees, a proud Viking history and a strategic political position float almost unnoticed in the North Atlantic Ocean buffeted by some of the strongest winds on Earth with a sub-arctic maritime climate that brings chilly days and foggy views. Welcome to the Faroe Islands. The summer here is known to be delightful and filled with migratory birds, emerald green hills and blue skies along with a small hoard of tourists. But I’ve chosen to arrive in late December, the dreariest time of the year. I have a perverse love for moody landscapes and off-season travel. I definitely deserve the grey skies but I am desperately holding out hope for more.
Sørvágsvatn lake with the ocean below
The Vikings found the Faroes around 800 AD as they sailed across the North Atlantic from Norway looking for Iceland. They left behind a few of their hardier troops to guard the islands. They weren’t the first to arrive here. Some intrepid Irish monks had already made it out a few hundred years before them and since then various people, including pirates have found their way here looking for an escape, for gold or for political positioning. But the Vikings are the ones that established a culture here, and to this date the Faroese seem incredibly proud of this inheritance. The village of Kirkjubødur holds the remains of a Viking cathedral built in 1300 AD with the volcanic stone blocks forming arched doorways that rise up to the bleak heavens, framing the dramatic mountain-scape in the background. Outside, the village looks like it hasn’t changed much in millennia with the same houses being occupied continuously for 17 generations. These warm wooden structures with thatched roofs are still decorated with original Viking doors and dragon pillars. If the Vikings were to come back they may be startled by the presence of the four–by–fours and an iPhone or two, but would be quite at home with the rest.
Hand-made glass gate by a local Faroese artist
Only grass seems to grow on this craggy landscape. Even the Vikings, known more for their agricultural prowess and not as much for Hand-made glass gate by a local Faroese artist their TV-starring roles as fighting machines, were flummoxed by the barren hills and resorted to livestock rearing instead. Sheep have since starred in a central role as food, currency and landscape décor. Their fluffy monochromatic patterns are individually named and recognisable. There is a saying here “Ull er Føroya gull” —Wool is Faroese gold. While slow food has become a catchphrase in many parts of the world, many Faroese, including Jóhannus, hunt, raise or grow over 95 per cent of their food. Living this sustainable lifestyle can be controversial and the Faroese have come under much criticism for killing Pilot whales and seabirds. While I may not enjoy the idea of killing whales, I do appreciate that if each one of us were responsible for growing or hunting our own food, the world would decidedly be a better place. The disconnect from what we eat and how we eat, is at the root of many of our conservation problems.
Traditional thatched roofs in Saksun village
Overfishing is another issue that plagues the world and the Faroese are battling the larger forces of powerful nations nudging their way into their seas. The langoustines from these parts here are so famous, it’s rumoured that Vladamir Putin has them flown in daily for his breakfast. I can confirm he has good taste when Dorjiit comes to seafood. The langoustine bisque at Aarastova, a charming restaurant housed in an old wooden structure set by the harbour at Tórshavn, is rich and deserving of many a Michelin star.
Gasadalur hill turning golden around sunset
Jóhannus drives us through a series of subterranean tunnels that connect the islands together. He is more at home hiking the breath-taking mountains such as Krosstindur and some of the sheer cliffs that rise out of the churning sea, but in winter he decides it’s better to show us around in a car and avoid the slippery slopes and gale force winds. We drive past charming villages nestled into mountain folds, waterfalls trickling down through snow covered crevices catching a shaft of occasional sunlight to spring into mini-rainbows. I feel like I’ve been transported into a land of magical creatures and an elf wouldn’t be out of place in this scenery. There was some hope of glimpsing the Northern Lights, but they don’t make an appearance or if they do they are covered behind a thick sheet of clouds. The rain has been relentless; the sea is a churn of gunmetal, lashing in anger against sturdy rocks. The Faroese may be surrounded by water, but no one swims here. There is a story they tell their children of the legend of the horse that entices kids to come play in the ocean only to drown them by tangling them up in his horsetail. The only thing that remains are the lungs of the children that rise to the top as a gruesome reminder of their fate. The ocean is to be respected and feared.
Sørvágsvatn lake in the morning light
It’s my last morning on the islands and the sun still hasn’t shown up. It’s to be expected but I had held out in hope. I’m determined to hike at least one mountain before I leave, even if that means being soaked in the rain. We drive to Sørvágsvatn lake in a blanket of darkness—dawn has yet to arrive. What will the Gods give us today? I can imagine a set of Norse Gods sitting up somewhere on one of those mountains, looking down with pity at this strange Indian woman who has turned up in this northern archipelago in the middle of winter. As we get out of the car, the base of the walk, the sky fills with a flush of luminescence. A glimmer of warmth wavers at the corner of the east and as we wind around a grassy corner towards the Trælanípa cliff (also known as Slaves peak), a golden shaft of light breaks out from the rising sun, and gleams like a beacon over the ocean. The sea glows sapphire, the sky is cerulean and the tufts of cloud light up in translucent rose. My faith has been rewarded and the day is filled with golden orange sunlight and a soft breeze. This must be heaven and it’s worth the wait.
FLIGHTS FROM LONDON:
SAS via Copenhagen or Atlantic Airways via Edinburgh
Separate visa from a Schengen, but processed through Danish embassy
Hotel Havgrim: right on the seaside close to town Hotel Føroyar: set atop a hill with a view of Tórshavn
Jóhannus from Reika Adventure knows his way around the country from hiking and camping to history and food
Gudrun and Gudrun: for sustainable woollen knitwear
Aarastova: beautiful restaurant with thoughtful food at the centre of Tórshavn. Barabra Fish House: Seafood tapas with a Faroese twist in a charming setting. Koks: Eclectic Michelin star restaurant set out in the countryside. Book in advance. Etika: Easy lunch option with Faroese fusion sushi
Photographs: Tara Lal