Situated halfway between Norway and Iceland, the sparsely populated Faroe Islands offer otherworldly landscapes, unexpected flavors, and the chance to lose — or perhaps find — oneself in their isolation. Barry Stone gets well and truly off the beaten path.
In a remote archipelago in the North Atlantic, there’s a long, slender island that locals say is shaped like a wooden flute. Unlike its larger neighbors, this island is not accessible via bridge or tunnel, only by ferry from Borðoy, a 20-minute passage that brings you to the hamlet of Syðradalur. From there, you drive north along the island’s only road, passing through four dank and somewhat spooky mountain tunnels — the flute’s finger holes — until you reach Trøllanes, population 20. Here, you park your car and hike to your goal, Kallur Lighthouse, a squat beacon set high above the churning ocean on the island’s northernmost tip.
Providing the trail hasn’t been closed because the wind is too strong or the fog too thick, the hour-long hike to the lighthouse will take you through shrubby, heather-filled grassland, and once you arrive you’ll be in no mood to leave. You might stay an hour. Maybe even two. Maybe you won’t want to leave at all. Like the sailors in Greek mythology who were lured by the beguiling song of the Sirens, you’ll be tempted to just sit and listen to the crash of the waves against the sea cliffs and the wind that whistles across bowl-like valleys and sharply etched peaks — music this flute-shaped splinter of land, Kalsoy, was wrought and twisted by nature to play.
Welcome to the Faroe Islands. Situated 320 kilometers north of the Scottish mainland, this chain of 18 islands and hundreds of assorted skerries and islets is officially part of Denmark, though the archipelago has been self-governing since 1948. It’s the visible manifestation of the Greenland-Scotland Ridge, an ancient uplift of basaltic lava that makes for a unique geological footprint. If you took Norway’s fjords and Scotland’s Highlands and mixed them up in a blender, you’d have a place that looked like this: a scattering of austere volcanic peaks marooned in a wet and windswept world. Locals joke that the original Faroese were seasick Vikings dropped here en route to Iceland after they became too ill to continue their voyage.
With just 1,400 square kilometers of land, the Faroe Islands are wholly defined by water. All towns and villages — with the exception of one, Vatnsoyrar — hug the shoreline, though even Vatnsoyrar has a waterside perch on the edge of the islands’ largest lake. Yet despite the dispersed nature of its communities, the archipelago is remarkably well connected thanks to a network of bridges and mountain tunnels. Take Gásadalur, where the Múlafossur waterfall tumbles 30 meters into the Atlantic. The tiny cliff-top village was all but cut off from the rest of Vágar Island until a 1,400-meter-long tunnel was blasted through the rock in 2004. Prior to that, when a Gásadalurian passed away, the coffin had to be carried for five kilometers over the steep and windswept mountain to the cemetery in Bøur along the old postman’s trail.
How the Faroese have worked to overcome their geographic challenges is impressive, but nothing can compare to the audacious infrastructure programs of the 21st century, the fruits of which cannot be seen from any headland or mountaintop: undersea road tunnels. The first of these linked Streymoy (the largest and most populated island) with neighboring Vágar (where the airport is) in 2002; another opened four years later connecting the islands of Eysturoy and Borðoy; and late 2020 saw the completion of the longest one yet, running 11 kilometers between Streymoy and Eysturoy and featuring the world’s first undersea roundabout (one illuminated, I might add, by a light installation by local artist Tróndur Patursson). A fourth sea tunnel from Streymoy to Sandoy—the only Faroese island with sand dunes — is slated to be ready for traffic in late 2023. It is estimated to cost 866 million Danish kroner (about US$128 million), even though only a few hundred cars are expected to drive through it each day. But the Faroese have done their sums: tunnels are cheaper to operate than ferries in the long run.
The islands’ capital, Tórshavn, is a compact harbor city on the southeast coast of Streymoy. Home to nearly half of the archipelago’s 53,000 inhabitants, it’s as bustling as it gets in the Faroes, with a lively restaurant scene, craft beer bars, and more than its share of cultural offerings. You can admire centuries-old Faroese rowboats still gloriously intact at the National Museum, while the National Gallery’s permanent collection comprises 2,500 works including paintings, sculptures, and textile made from everything from wool to horsehair. At Steinprent, a small gallery and workshop set in an old factory on the harbor, artists use limestone blocks to create beautiful limited-edition lithographs while you watch. And the old Faroese saying “ull er Føroya gull” (“wool is Faroese gold”) still holds true at Gúðrun & Gúðrun, the islands’ only couture fashion brand, which produces beautiful handmade knitwear rooted in ancient knitting traditions but with a thoroughly modern sensibility.
Indeed, Tórshavn is nothing if not an intriguing blend of old and new. Perched on a hill above town is Glasir Tórshavn College, a bold vortex-shaped structure by Danish architectural firm BIG whose upper levels radiate outward in all directions toward the Faroes’ mountainous landscapes. Back down on the water is the rocky promontory of Tinganes, the historic location of the Faroese landsstýri (government). With its sod-roofed buildings and narrow cobbled streets, this is where Nordic settlers established a parliament of their own when they arrived here around 825, making it — along with Tynwald Hill on the Isle of Man and Thingvellir in Iceland — one of the three oldest parliamentary sites in the world.
After a couple of days with Tórshavn as my base, I moved up-island to Heimi í Stovu, an 1830s farmhouse turned holiday rental in the west-coast village of Kvívík. It’s owned by one of the Faroes’ most ardent promoters, Mauritia Kirchner, a fly-fishing devotee who has split her time between here and her native Germany for the last 20 years or so. “The Faroes are one of Europe’s last untouched places,” she told me. “There are trout in our lakes and salmon in our rivers. Even if you’re a fly-fishing novice, our winds can help with your casting. It’s perfect.”
The same could be said for Heimi í Stovu, which radiates old-world charm. The kitchen is in the former stable, its walls hung with old cooking utensils and large cast-iron pots that were once used to melt whale blubber. There’s a snuggery decorated with vintage William Morris wallpaper, and an antique oak four-poster in the ground-floor bedroom. Should you be in the mood for an alfresco soak, you’re welcome to use the hot tub in the gravel yard out back. If history is more your thing, a Viking-age archaeological site lies just down the road.
The weather in the Faroes borders on the psychotic. It rains or snows more than 200 days a year, and nature determines everything, especially the wind. “If you want to see the Faroes,” goes an old joke, “stand still. Eventually it’ll blow right past you.” Only it’s no joke. The climate is such that there are virtually no trees here, and those that do manage to take root have for centuries been gnawed to the ground by the islands’ 80,000 sheep. Yet the dearth of trees means there’s nothing other than fog to obscure the many colors and hues of the islands’ other flora: the purple marsh thistle, the yellow buttercup, the reddish catkins of the creeping Arctic willow; green-gray blankets of heath and lichens and mosses. More than 400 species of plants in all: a forest in miniature.
No trees also means there’s no wood available for smoking fish, an otherwise common Scandinavian practice. Instead, catches — mostly cod and haddock — are hung beneath the eaves of cabins to dry in the briny air. (Mutton, another island staple, is similarly left to wind-cure in traditional drying sheds or hjallur.) The ocean is the Faroes’ greatest resource, its abiding pantry. The islands are shaped like a series of giant sieves, paralleling each other and funneling Atlantic currents twice a day, mixing cold Arctic waters with the warmer Gulf Stream to create a nutrient-rich broth that provides sustenance for hundreds of fish species.
Which brings us to the spot where all culinary roads here invariably lead: Koks. Helmed by young Faroese chef Poul Andrias Ziska, this is the archipelago’s most celebrated dining destination — a fiercely locavore restaurant with two Michelin stars that sits in splendid isolation on the edge of a small lake on Streymoy. The experience actually begins where the road from Tórshavn ends, at a lakeside hjallur where guests (a maximum of two dozen diners in a single seating per night) are presented with the first of 18 courses: dried cod-skin chips accompanied by a glass of gooseberry juice. From there, a Land Rover took us along a heavily rutted lakeside track to the restaurant proper, which occupies a converted 18th-century farmhouse appointed with sheepskin-topped benches and moody Faroese art.
The rest of the courses — some barely more than bite-size, all beautifully plated — came out in steady succession over the next three and a half hours. Scallops served so fresh the barnacles were still moving about in its shell. Mahogany clams with kale puree and kelp broth. A langoustine liver; a sea urchin draped in pickled parsley stems; a turnip lovingly grown at the base of a nearby waterfall that preps the palate for the smoked pilot whale heart, butchered from one of the 900 or so whales slaughtered annually in a community hunt known as grindadráp. Almost everything on the menu was locally farmed, foraged, fished, or — in the case of native seabirds like gannet and razorbill — caught. The Faroe Islands on a plate.
Despite their astonishing landscapes and bevvy of wildlife — this is a puffin-lovers’ paradise — the Faroes have never had to deal with overtourism; prior to the pandemic, only around 60,000 people visited each year, not counting another 50,000 or so cruise ship passengers. But even that proved too much for the residents of Saksun. Their picturesque turf-roofed village in northern Streymoy sits at the end of a lagoon that was once a fjord until a severe storm in the 1600s blocked its mouth with sand. The setting became so popular with visitors that the road into the heart of the village was closed to all but locals, while a sign was put up near the church advising: ENOUGH! NO MORE TOURIST TRESPASSING. POLICE WILL BE CALLED.
Fortunately, there are numerous other places to explore; too many, in fact, for my weeklong visit. I never saw the famous puffin colony on Mykines or the sand dunes on Sandoy. I hiked alongside the “floating” lake of Sørvágsvatn on Vágar — do not leave without doing this — but didn’t make it to Fugloy, which is ringed by precipitous cliffs, or to Kunoy, with its tilted, towering tiers of basalt and the archipelago’s only forest, albeit a man-made one. Spend a few days in the Faroes and I guarantee you’ll leave lamenting what you’ve missed because for all the bridges and subsea tunnels, it’s impossible to get around all these islands in a hurry. And if you find yourself hurrying here, then you’re missing the point.
The Faroe Islands are an hour’s flight from Reykjavík or Edinburgh with local carrier Atlantic Airways, which also flies to Oslo, Copenhagen, and Paris. For visitors with time on their hands, a weekly ferry service operated by the Smyril Line sails between the Danish seaport of Hirtshals and Tórshavn — a 36-hour crossing.
Where to Stay
On the waterfront in Tórshavn, Havgrím Seaside Hotel (doubles from US$425) is a former Danish naval residence turned 14-room lodging with an elegant color palette inspired by the sea and shoreline. Also on Streymoy Island, Heimi í Stovu (US$255 per day for the entire house, minimum four-night stay) in the village of Kvívík is even more intimate, with just three bedrooms that ooze traditional Nordic charm.
Where to Eat
A dinner at Koks is almost mandatory for foodies, though the tasting menu will set you back US$295, not including wine pairing. In Tórshavn, Barbara Fish House serves Faroese seafood in a charming grass-roofed house.
What to Do
Explore the islands’ mountains with Reika Adventures, which specializes in climbing and rappelling excursions.
This article originally appeared in the December 2021/February 2022 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“So Far So Good”).