Why you need to go to the Faroe Islands

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on December 3, 2018.

To fully appreciate the grandeur of these vertiginous islands, set out on the navy-blue ocean and see them from afar. Photos by Bloomberg

There are 80,000 woolly grazers here, compared to just 50,000 human residents.

The island of Kalsoy, marked by its thin shape, steep peaks and rugged valleys, is one of the best places to hike on the archipelago.

-A +A

Astonishing landscapes, culinary adventures, and incredible wildlife await

The Faroe Islands are a remote, enticing archipelago of 18 massive volcanic basalt rocks thrusting skywards through the North Atlantic Ocean, halfway between Norway and Iceland. Originally settled by Norwegian Vikings in the ninth and 10th centuries and now an autonomous outpost of the Kingdom of Denmark, the destination is a paradise for hikers, mountain climbers, and sheep — there are 80,000 woolly grazers here, compared to just 50,000 human residents. As for tourists, they have yet to descend en masse upon these vastly unspoiled, lush, and relatively undiscovered islands. But that may be changing.

By 2020, three new, large-scale hotels will open along the Faroes’ shores. And an uptick in budget flights from Copenhagen, Edinburgh, and Reykjavik means that annual visitor numbers have already been climbing 10% annually for the past five years. In other words, the time to go is now, before over-tourism becomes a reality. You will get to blaze trails along misty mountain peaks, where you can see enormous colonies of puffins, guillemots, fulmars, and storm petrels; sail a traditional masted ship along a dramatic, crashing coastline; and engage with welcoming Faroese locals, whose ancient language, live-off-the-land instincts, and communal customs remind us just how strong human nature can be.


To fully appreciate the grandeur of these vertiginous islands, set out on the navy-blue ocean and see them from afar. Out here, you will experience the full force of the Atlantic, no doubt gaining deeper respect for the gruff, salty Faroese captains who swiftly navigate its strong currents. Breathe in crisp, clean air as white sea foam crests along a trail behind you, recalling that just 100 years ago, this was the local mode of transportation. Today, excursions on both modern boats and historic 19th-century schooners are easy to book. Just head to the main city of Torshavn, where same-day departures are available from kiosks along the harbour.


Not only do these peaceful grass grazers provide natives with warm, woolly wardrobes (and stylish home décor) — they have literally put the Faroes on the map. The Faroe Islands even petitioned Google to be featured on Google Street View by creating “sheep view” mapping, which entailed mounting cameras on their backs to chart the islands’ roads. Getting around in your rental car is now easier than ever.


Kalsoy island
The island of Kalsoy, marked by its thin shape, steep peaks, and rugged valleys, is one of the best places to hike on the archipelago. Take the 45-minute hike to the lighthouse on the northernmost tip and you are more likely to meet native avian species — such as red-legged black guillemot seabirds — than you are to encounter humans. Given that severe storms can come on quite suddenly, hiking with a local guide is the only way to go. Jóhannus Hansen from Reika Adventures and Pol Sundskaro of Hiking.fo offer a wide range of tours, suitable for beginners and experienced mountain climbers alike.


One of the greatest pleasures in the Faroes is also the simplest: driving. Thanks to the modern infrastructure of roads, bridges, and undersea tunnels connecting the islands, you can cover plenty of ground with four wheels. (Avis and Hertz have rental outlets at the airport.) An old mountain road to Tórshavn presents a fantastic view of Koltur island, a Viking village that is inhabited by just two reclusive sheep herders and can be reached only by helicopter.


Hiking Eysturoy Island
Eysturoy, the second-largest island of Faroes, is home to peaceful fishing villages and 66 mountain peaks, including the tallest in the entire archipelago. Hiking here is so rugged and raw it seems a more fitting backdrop for a Game of Thrones episode — though the only costume you will need is a sturdy pair of boots and waterproof pants. (The terrain is well-marked and suitable for beginners — as long as you are not too terrified of heights.)


Rowing culture
For the Faroese, rowing is a national sport that traces back to the area’s earliest Viking settlers, who had to row fast to survive; when blubber-rich pilot whales were spotted, the most agile oarsmen were best at hunting down this vital source of sustenance. Today, rowing is a popular club sport; competitions start in Klaksvík in June and end with the final boat race at Ólavsoka on July 28. The culminating regatta also kicks off a two-day festival, making mid-summer an especially lively time to visit.


Faroese architecture
Faroese architecture reflects the islands: Traditional homes are generally made from dark basalt and sport grass-turf rooftops that must be regularly mowed. These modern, geodesic versions can be spotted in the village of Kvívík; they were designed from recycled and sustainable materials by Danish architect Kari Thomsen and are powered by small solar arrays.


Contemporary design
Faroese architects are young, ambitious, and growing in number. A prominent example is Osbjorn Jacobsen of Henning Larsen Architects, who recently completed the Eysturkommuna Town Hall. The structure clearly pays tribute to tradition, but it also forges a new path. “We are an extremely young nation when it comes to architecture. I feel we’re beginning to have our own identity and language. But we are still heavily influenced by Denmark, where most receive their formal education,” said Jacobsen.


Translated as “home hospitality”, heimablídni refers to Faroese dinner parties hosted by local farmers in their homes. They offer farmers an intimate platform to share the fruits of their labour, along with a modest side income. For visitors, the dinners are a chance to taste and experience Faroese customs first-hand — and they are easily bookable by phone.


Where to stay
Opened in April 2018 with just 14 rooms, Hotel Havgrím is the only boutique hotel in the Faroes — for now. Situated on a private estate-style property minutes from Torshavn harbour, it boasts uninterrupted views of the ocean and of Nolsoy Island. Built in 1948 by Havgrímur Johannesen, this ivory inn has a commanding maritime presence; it was formerly occupied by the Danish Navy. More important, it has high-speed Wi-Fi and friendly staff and is a comfortable place from which to plan a full-on Faroese adventure. — Bloomberg