North of 60, between Iceland and Norway lies an 18-island archipelago belonging to Denmark. Subarctic landscapes like those found in the Faroe Islands are few and far between so, of course, I wanted to see them.
Fifty-five million years ago, as Greenland and Europe separated, volcanoes in the ocean spewed basaltic lava forming the plateaus, sheer cliffs, sea stacks and mountains that comprise the Faroe Islands.
The layers of rock were then tilted to one side and glacial and interglacial periods sculpted the islands leaving tarns, arêtes, erratics and hanging valleys, all adding further complexity to the landscape.
The Faroes, however, are more than just a geological picnic. As the Gulf Stream current moves northeast, it injects warm water into the cold East Icelandic current that moves in the opposite direction. This moderates temperatures and produces unstable air masses that make for a cool, wet and windy climate, despite its high latitude.
Fast-moving weather systems leave an exposed treeless landscape cloaked in vibrant green grasses and bog mosses that contrast sharply with the black rock.
Highly variable weather, like a mind-altering drug, can quickly change the mood of the colourful villages and green and black landscapes, making the Faroes a photographer’s dream.
The Faroe Islands has a population of 50,000, 19,000 of whom live in its capital, Tørshavn. The country is self-governing with its own language and culture and has a buzzy, emerging music scene of multiple genres. Choral, pop and thrash metal as well as avant-garde music by Orka are making in-roads internationally.
Roads didn’t arrive until World War II when the British occupied the Faroe Islands after Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. Today, roads connect all inhabited villages and two undersea tunnels link the islands of Vágar and Streymoy and the islands of Eysturoy and Bordoy. New sub-sea tunnels between Streymoy and Sandoy (11.2 km) and Streymoy and Eysturoy (10.6 km) are also on the books.
The footpaths used before roads, are the best way to explore the islands. Most are single track and sometimes absent in the thick grass but cairns guide the way. An organised walking tour offers walks that are judicially chosen to showcase the country’s diversity and reduce the risk of getting lost in the unpredictable fog that quickly clouds your vision.
I was due to meet my group of walkers on the island of Vágar, at the airport, in Sørvágur (pop.1,000). The runway there is armrest-clenchingly short and kisses the back gardens of nearby houses. The roar of the thrust reversers/air brakes brought the plane to a screeching halt, lurching us forward as Country & Western music started playing – not quite the Faroese music scene I’d expected.
We were a motley group of 8 with a particularly odd duck called Margaret; a large, clumsy woman with all the right stuff, in fact a steamer trunk full of it. Neither she nor our van driver could lift her luggage and she moaned about the 25 kg (50 lb) checked baggage restriction on her flight. The contents of her case remain a mystery and were a constant source of speculation because the Faroe Island week was her only destination, she wore the same clothes every day and claimed to have the best in ultralight walking gear.
The next morning we boarded the ferry for Mykines, the westernmost island with a population of 11. Margaret swallowed anti-sea sickness tablets before boarding which unfortunately didn’t kick-in until after we arrived. Too sleepy to walk straight, she found the up and down hard going as we hiked into a mystical land of seabirds. Atlantic puffins, gannets, kittiwakes and terns flew above and below us.
The clown-like puffins were unperturbed so we had lunch in their ‘hood, on a grassy hillside covered in puffin burrows. Flying awkwardly, like giant bumblebees, they beat their short wings at 400 times/minute looking like they might fall out of the sky at any moment.
Margaret, now emerging from her drugged state, complained that bird paradise was too windy and that, as a vegetarian, the sandwich provided to us was marginally acceptable. This was the first of daily, unending accounts of both her vegetarianism (which, she felt, set her above and apart from the rest) and her (unextraordinary) life in general.
So captivated was she by her stories of herself that she drifted off the trail and stepped directly into a puffin house on a steep hillside. Sitting on the ground with one leg jammed in the hole up past her knee, even her ultralight Leki poles could not help her to stand. A group tug was necessary and it made me think of Pooh stuck in Rabbit’s house with Tigger, Eeyore and Piglet all pulling to free him.
We moved to the small village of Gjógv that evening, on the island of Eysturoy. Gjógv, means gorge and this village of 30 people was so named for the 200 ft. gorge extending to the sea.
Walking from Gjógv to the northern headland meant crossing a fen that is home to skuas, seabirds that aggressively protect their nesting sites. We had to wave sticks in the air as we walked to defend against these dive bombing birds.
Margaret turned back after the first 10 minutes, worried she’d get rained on, despite her high-end waterproof clothes and boots. She’d been to the Faroe Islands twice before and she explained that rain had made it impossible to walk on both occasions and the (light) misty drizzle today meant she had to turn back today as well. Did she suffer from the same water-causing meltdown syndrome as the Wicked Witch of the West, I wondered.
We ate lunch overlooking the sea, scrambled across a ridge and picked our way down the face of a cirque, covering a satisfying 14 km and 2000 ft (610 m) of elevation that day.
The next day we did the coffin walk, from the tiny village of Elduvik to the slightly less tiny village of Oyndarfjørdur. It taught us a lot about the hardiness and determination of the Faroese people.
In the days before roads and without a church in Elduvik, villagers carried their dead over the mountain to the church in Oyndarfjørdur for the funeral. Traversing a mountainside fit for goats and crossing over a dozen small streams as we climbed, it occurred to me that if we carried Margaret’s suitcase we could have experienced the real feel of an Elduvik pall bearer.
We regularly rotated walking positions now, dutifully taking our turn listening to Margaret as she compared what we saw to places she’d been that were better, as she directed our guide to be more “explicit and forthright” at restaurants about her vegetarian preferences, and as she expressed concern that a (non-existent) partner sharing the double bed in her hotel room would be unable to get to the loo because the bed had been pushed up against the wall. We all took a turn walking beside Margaret, even Nick who was reluctant because he hadn’t packed his noise-cancelling headphones.
Then it was on through the 6.3 km sub-sea tunnel from Eysturoy to Bordoy to the town of Klaksvik where we visited the poison museum. The Klaksvik museum is very interesting but it was the intact turn-of-the-century pharmacy that caught my eye. It struck me that the medicinal jars of strychnine arsenic ferroplex, lead oxide and cocaine fluoride might help explain the well-worn coffin-walk path and the low population of the Faroe Islands.
There are 17 land tunnels in the Faroe Islands. Single-lane tunnels as long as 3 km pass through the mountains. Driving can be harrowing so you must know in advance which tunnels you allowed to enter at a particular time. It was unnerving driving directly into headlights approaching from the opposite direction. Many tunnels are not lit and although there are lay-bys, it’s dark and the walls whoosh by so quickly it’s difficult to spot them in time. A roadside post slightly taller than adjacent posts signals their presence and there are right-of-way rules to help avoid a collision. Trucks and buses are exempt from certain rules so you’d better know the rules. Just as your seat starts to feel moist, the headlights screaming toward you disappear into a lay-by and the road is clear. I was thankful to be just walking the Faroe Islands, and not driving a rented vehicle.
The next morning we ferried from Klaksvik to the island of Kalsoy (aka the flute) an island of many tunnels. From Trøllanes, a village of only four families that comprise the population of 12, we hiked up to a dramatic headland ridge. Margaret was quiet and groggy after taking more tablets for the short ferry crossing which, of course, didn’t begin working until we disembarked. At least this made the walk very peaceful.
An afternoon visit with the beautiful Seal Woman of Mikladalur and an evening drive to picturesque churches on the islands of Vidoy and Kunoy, marked the end to a busy day.
The next morning, on a wavy morning boat ride from Vestmanna, we explored coastal caves and sea stacks between the islands of Streymoy and Vágar.
Impressive as they were, I was almost more impressed with the skill of the boat captain at manoeuvring the large craft in and around the tiny fjords, land arches and sea stacks on rough seas that made standing on deck difficult.
The Faroe Islands are beautiful in the rain and under cloudy skies but they were even more beautiful in the sunshine we had on our Streymoy walk that afternoon. Even Margaret said so once the boat tablets had worn off.
The following day, for the full monty experience, we saw the beauty of the Faroe Islands while not seeing them. Nólsoy was in fog, as we began our 16 km walk to the lighthouse we never found. Margaret turned back after 15 minutes as it threatened to rain and she managed to board the early ferry back to Tørshavn without melting.
We stopped for lunch at a sheep shed because we couldn’t find the lighthouse in the fog but discovered, once the fog lifted, that it was only 200 ft away. With free time before our ferry, we found live music and homemade ice cream in Maggie’s Café, a treasure hidden in a corner of Nólsoy village.
An historical walk through the grass roofs of Tørshavn ended our week. Margaret bought enough books in her free time in Tørshavn to fill a large impossible-to-carry carry-on. I didn’t look to see if she made it onto the plane.
We had seen half of the 18 islands, each with a unique look and feel and which together showcase the county’s diverse landscapes and villages. With breathtaking surprises over every crest and around every corner, walking this country was the right decision. It is increasingly rare to find an unspoilt gem like the Faroe Islands; they are few and far(oe) between. #gooutsideandplay.