Tuesday 17 September 2019

So near, so Faroe Islands - an antidote to cities, traffic and airports

Looking to connect with nature in the great outdoors, Yvonne Gordon headed to the ultimate off-the-beaten-path destination

Island life: The striking Tindhólmur
Island life: The striking Tindhólmur
Tapas-style dining at Katrina Christiansen
Ferry
Faroe Islands
Roykstovan

Yvonne Gordon

Where are  they?” is  the question I’m asked when I mention to anyone that I’m off to the Faroe Islands in the weeks before the trip.

“Draw a line straight up from Scotland. Go up about 200 miles and there they are, tiny dots in the middle of the North Atlantic. You have to zoom in on the map to see them,” is my answer.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

There they are, indeed: 18 rocky islands, sitting in reality between Iceland and Norway but also occupying the space at the top of my travel wish list for many years. So I can hardly contain my excitement when, finally on the plane, we’re coming in to land and the tantalising view out the window is of the edge of an island and rows of grassy cliffs.

I’m accompanied by a pal who also loves the outdoors, and after landing, within about two minutes of driving out of the airport on the western Vágar island, we see green fields, mountains and sheep. We pass two small black horses and a pen with hens and geese. This is exactly what I expected — unspoiled landscape with immediate access to nature. An antidote to cities and traffic and airports. My soul starts to feel refreshed at the prospect of exploring the islands over the next few days.

Tapas-style dining at Katrina Christiansen
Tapas-style dining at Katrina Christiansen

It’s late afternoon but, thanks to the islands’ northerly position, the sky is still bright so our first activity is a hike to the cliffs with guide Jóhannus Hansen from Reika Adventures (reika.fo) who tells us a little about the islands as we walk. The islands are part of Denmark but have their own language (Faroese) and ancient traditions for fishing and farming.

Suddenly, Jóhannus is interrupted by some birds that are calling shrilly and directly at us. Two birds are circling above us, swooping down and making a racket. Jóhannus explains that they are oystercatchers that are protecting their babies, probably nearby (oystercatchers nest in the ground) and that they can get pretty aggressive if we go too close.

Oystercatchers are even known to fake injuries to lead predators away from nests. I smile inwardly at how I had wanted a nature immersion; being attacked by the local wildlife within minutes of arriving is probably about as immersive as you can get.

We steer away from the nesting area and through the rough, grassy and mossy land. There’s no path — it’s not an official walking trail but Jóhannus has permission from the local farmer to walk on it.

Land is private on the islands (there’s no ‘right to roam’) and we hear how in other areas on the islands popular for hiking, farmland has been destroyed or bird habitats disturbed due to tourism, which is a relatively new industry here. The islands are having to adapt and also communicate to tourists to be respectful where they walk and hike — and preferably to use a walking guide so they know where to go.

We soon arrive at the cliffs, and although they are steep (around 480m) with a sheer vertical drop into the sea, they are surprisingly green. The mountains have flat tops and rocky ridges similar to the Dartry Mountains in Sligo. At times it’s like seeing different versions of Ben Bulben.

Sheep are positioned high up on impossibly steep grassy cliffs in the distance. Birds screech loudly as they circle in and out of the cliffs, where they are nesting. Most are puffins and northern fulmars. Far below, there are lines of white surf where the dark blue water meets the cliffs.

After a refreshing two-hour hike to the cliffs and back, we set off for the village of Gjógv, on the northern tip of Eysturoy, two islands to the east. Some of the islands are connected by underwater tunnels or bridges, which makes it easy to get around without needing ferries.

I am delighted to find that, like many of the houses in the village, our guesthouse has a grass roof. These turf or sod roofs on top of the old wooden houses can help with insulation but they also look the part. After dinner, we explore Gjógv and the famous gorge that the town is named after. It’s nearly midnight but dusk is only just falling and we walk down into the 200m sea gorge, which has more grassy cliffs on each side, and watch the sea at the end.

The village itself is quiet — there are no shops, hotels or restaurants and apart from our guesthouse; there’s just one tiny takeaway café, open during the day. Most of the buildings are summer houses so they are not occupied all the time. It’s eerily silent but also tranquil.

Other villages are similarly peaceful, and there’s a refreshing absence of commerce. When we’re walking around Funningur, we pass two farmers loading seaweed from their truck. They ask us where we’re from, and we in turn ask what the seaweed is for; it’s used to fertilise the grass in the fields for their sheep.

In the village of Tjørnuvik — the most northerly on Streymoy Island, set in a large sheltered gorge which faces the sea — there’s just one shop selling local knitwear and crafts. Feeling peckish, we follow a sign for waffles and coffee and end up in the kitchen of local man Hans Esbern Heinesen. We share travel stories with some American hikers and end up giving them a lift halfway back to their village, only to run into them again on a ferry the next day. It’s that kind of place.

The ferry takes us to the island of Nólsoy, where we arrive to find our guide, Edvard, dressed in waterproof gear from head to toe. It’s lashing rain — sideways, thanks to the high wind — and there’s low fog. He offers to take us to the ‘princess ruins’ where a Scottish princess was said to have lived, and we walk up part of the mountain. We pass the Americans who had started hiking but have now turned back because of the weather, and we soon do the same.

We explore the village in the driving rain and Edvard tells us about the colony of storm petrels on the island — one of the world’s largest.

The birds are nocturnal and if you’re staying overnight on the island, you can take a walking tour, starting at sunset, which will bring you out to the bird colony on the other side of the island.

Our last stop is Tórshavn, the islands’ capital. Even here, there are areas of buildings with grass roofs, particularly in the old city area around Tinganes where the government sits.

In one of the oldest former houses near the harbour front is Ræst (raest.fo), which dates back to the 1500s and takes its name from how food is prepared with the traditional Faroese style of fermenting. Dried and fermented fish and fermented lamb all feature on the menu, which has optional alcohol or juice pairings.

The fare at Katrina Christiansen (kc.fo) is based on tapas, with cold dishes like smoked salmon or lumpfish roe, or hot pork ribs, monkfish or courgettes. There are small shops to browse local knits, and my favourite spot in the city turns out to be HN7, a huge book and gift shop with Paname Café and, to the side, the most magnificent garden.

It’s the perfect end to a relaxing few days on the islands.

Get there

2019-08-24_lif_52592280_I3.JPG
Faroe Islands

(Picture: Tom Archer)

Atlantic Airways (atlantic.fo) flies from Reykjavík, Edinburgh and Bergen (flight time one hour) and Copenhagen (flight time two hours). The best way to get around is car hire. Yvonne was a guest of Visit Faroe Islands.

For information on what to see and do, see visitfaroeislands.com.

Top tips

Driving is on the right and toll tunnels between the islands are around 100DDK/€13 return. Check with your network provider if your phone will work there (my mobile did not work at all) and be prepared for flight delays.

What to pack

Weather is unpredictable, so wear warm layers (temperatures are max 13-15°C, even in the summer months). Proper rain gear and proper hiking boots are a must. Bring snacks and arrange picnics with your accommodation, as many of the villages don't have food outlets, although there are service stations on main roads.

Take a hike

Jóhannus Hansen from Reika Adventures (reika.fo) grew up on the islands, and will tell you all about daily life and how the islanders live with nature, as well as bringing you to the best hiking and climbing spots.

2019-08-24_lif_52591769_I4.JPG
Roykstovan

(Picture: Ingrid Hofstra)

Museum piece

The village of Kirkjubøur on Streymoy island has what's said to be Europe's oldest wooden house, the 900-year-old Roykstovan, which houses a small museum (patursson.fo) and the village is also home to the ruins of a cathedral.

Ferry tale

2019-08-24_lif_52592139_I2.JPG
Ferry

(Picture: Bardur Mikladal)

Nólsoy is a 20-minute ferry journey from Tórshavn (for ferry info, see ssl.fo) - cars are not needed, and return tickets cost from 40DKK (around €5). For guided tours of the island of Nólsoy or night storm petrel tours, see visitnolsoy.fo.

Read more:

Sheep View: Camera-toting sheep put Faroe Islands on the map

Weekend Magazine

Editors Choice

Also in Life