The Faroe Islands are an archipelago of 18 up-thrusted hunks of igneous rock in the middle of precisely nowhere, the stretch of North Atlantic halfway between Norway and Iceland. Farao Islands are grand, wild and majestic.
It is oddly temperate, thanks to the currents of the Gulf Stream. It is oddly green, thanks in part to the two million pairs of seabirds — guillemots, fulmars, storm petrels and, of course, the famously cute puffins — that carpet the islands in guano each breeding season.
Faroe Islands – Grand, Wild and Majestic
The Faroes offer a sense of drama that fills travelers with awe. Each island is a giant slice of elaborately tiered basalt, tilted to one side and covered in green, tussocky felt. Rocky cliffs, topped in arêtes and tarns, plunge into the sea, while up from the water jut massive, looming sea stacks.
Related: Faroese Knitting Festival
It rains a lot here, and waterfalls flow pretty much continuously. Half of the residents live in the archipelago’s tiny capital Tórshavn “Tor’s harbor”, which has a cosmopolitan air, a rich cultural history and a burgeoning food scene. Some of the islands, however, are sparsely populated, with just a handful of people living on them. Created by volcanic eruptions some 55 million years ago, the islands feature glaciated slopes, soaring cliff faces, sweeping valleys and rugged mountains.
Vikings settled the islands
There’s pleasing juxtaposition of arresting topography and bucolic simplicity; charming villages of multicolored cottages and grass-roofed homes nestle into lush emerald valleys, while razor-sharp cliffs and towering basalt sea stacks overlook deep fjords and a mercurial ocean.
You might also like to read: The Viking Mystery on Greenland
Vikings settled the islands more than a thousand years ago, and almost 50,000 of their descendants now live here, sharing space with 75,000 more or less freely roaming sheep. People speak a derivative of Old Norse. The Faroese are self-reliant, modest people, with a rich heritage of storytelling and a deep desire to share information with one another.
Danish possession since 1380
Although the Danes took formal possession of the Faroes in 1380 and have never fully relinquished it, “We are not Danish” is a common refrain here, the Faroese are nothing if not Faroese. They speak their own language, recite their own sagas, dance their own raucous chain-formation dance (based on the old French branle simple) and still sing quarter-note, Gregorian-like chants.
You might also like to read: Scandinavian Adventure Activities
Their icon remains the turf-roofed house. When the Vikings first arrived, they made rock foundations in the shapes of their boats, turned the boats over on top of the rocks and then, to stabilize and insulate these makeshift houses, put sod on the hulls of the boats. It is not uncommon to come upon a Faroese mowing his roof.
In summer, there’s a delightful 19 hours of sunlight a day. Some of the islands are connected by tunnels and bridges, but others are only available by boat or even helicopter. The tourism body (visitfaroeislands.com) estimates that the isles welcome about 100,000 visitors a year. So, if you want northern exposure without the crowds, the Faroe Islands are for you.
To this day, when a Faroese man, looking out to the harbor, cries “Grind,” every man in town, from the barkeep to the mayor, drops what he is doing, reaches for a metal implement and sprints toward the water. The cry means whales have been spotted, are being herded into the harbor and now need to be slaughtered, in a ritual called a grindadrap. Within minutes, the harbor waters are drenched in red and the corpses of pilot whales lie on the dockside in a row. The precious meat and blubber are distributed, first according to who spotted and who killed, then according to need, with a special emphasis on the elderly, sick and poor.
Most of the focus on the Faroe Islands is on outdoor activities such as hiking, horse-riding, cycling, kayaking, sailing and fishing. A ferry trip to the westernmost isle of Mykines is a must to see the thousands of puffins, gannets and other flyers that nest there, as is a boat tour to the dizzying bird cliffs at Vestmanna on Streymoy.
The Faroese speak English well. Early in the Cold War the United States and NATO deemed the Faroes strategically important, stuck an early warning system on one of its mountaintops and told the Danes, in no uncertain terms, to increase their subsidy to the islands — to use the teat, in other words, to stave off a growing independence movement. In a generation, with the help of a robust fishing industry, the Faroese went from village poverty to zesty, car-loving, suburban-style affluence.
On Vágar, take the old postman’s path from Bøur to Gásadalur to see the Múlafossur waterfall. (Before a tunnel was built, this was the only way to reach Gásadalur.) In Gjógv, on Eysturoy, stay at Gjáargarður guesthouse, leaving time to scale the archipelago’s highest peak, Slættaratindur. Speaking of mountains, six of the 10 highest are on the island of Kunoy, which is sometimes overlooked by visitors but worth the trip.
A few miles out of Torshavn is Kirkjubour, the most ancient of ancient places in the Faroes. Everything in Kirkjubour, is very old. Settled life began here more than a millennium ago. Kirkjubour’s original sod-roof farmhouse, known as the Roykstovan, still stands, and is the oldest inhabited wooden structure in Europe. “Roykstovan” means “smoke room,” and everything happened in this, the one room where the tribe could afford to make a fire, by burning peat. They slept, ate, combed wool, slaughtered and danced the chain dance for days to keep blood flowing through the bitter cold.
Restaurants, cafes and bars
Enjoy Faroese cuisine at newly Michelin-starred Koks, along with the islands’ sole vegetarian eatery, Smakka. Café Natur is a bar popular with locals, with good bar food and live music. Check also out the official list of culinary restaurants. Try a traditional Faroese lamb meal while dining in the home of farmers Anna and Óli. In an authentic location in the old part of Tórshavn, try Aarstova. The fictional home of one of the most famous characters in Faroese literature, Jørgen Franz Jacobsen’s Barbara, is now a charming tapas restaurant, Barbara Fish House.
This beautiful turf-roofed house was the fictional home of one of the most. Now a charming tapas restaurant,
Where to stay
Hotel Føroyar is the top pick as a base. It’s a pleasant hilltop property, overlooking the harbor and the city, with a good restaurant. Hotel Torshavn, right down by the harbor, is recently refurbished, and the new boutique hotel Hotel Havgrím, is another good choice. In picturesque surroundings, far away from the treadmill of reality, Gjáargarður is the most charming hotel in the Faroe Islands. Torshavn city hotel is Hotel Hafnia. Local living at Mykines, check it out here.
Sights and activities
The best overall resource with a list of festivals, hikes and events is visitfaroeislands.com. In Torshavn, stop by Nordic House, which offers exhibits, seminars and concerts, and the National Gallery. On the island of Streymoy don’t miss the beautiful drive to the village of Saksun. The old schooner Nordlysid sails around the islands and takes you to the grottoes and bird cliffs and to Nolsoy, and will also feed you great seafood.
You can fly non-stop to the Faroe Islands from a variety of destinations, such as Copenhagen (Denmark), Reykjavik (Iceland), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Bergen (Norway). There are also seasonal flights from places like Barcelona, the Gran Canary Islands, Mallorca, Crete and Malta.
Feature image (on top): Mulafossur Waterfall
Faroe Islands – Grand, Wild and Majestic, written by Tor Kjolberg