As friends and followers may know about me, I often get obsessed about potential destinations based mostly (and sometimes solely) on geographical quirks. “Direction-most” places are obviously easy targets, but come with a little less nuance. I like to find places that are not only geographically remote, but are geo-politically inconspicuous. Also, if the place has been heavily advertised as a tourist destination, I’m a little less apt to put it at the top of my list.
I love Scandinavia. I used to visit Norway for weeks at a time as youngster, hanging out in the Ullern neighborhood of Oslo while visiting my Norwegian grandmother (and distinctly American grandfather) in the summers. I’ve spent all of two full days in Denmark, each time visiting Copenhagen’s Tivoli (once during those long ago summers and once as an adult). While I haven’t made it to Sweden and Finland, I enjoyed a few layovers in Iceland in my youth – sparking my fascination for off-beat places (none of my school friends in Montana had ever been to a place as literally “cool” as Iceland – they did all think it was covered in pure ice). I visited Reykjavik for a longer stay to witness the men’s national team make a valiant effort to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
So when it came time to booking another vacation this year, and I knew that Breeah had yet to visit any Scandinavian country, Iceland was the natural (and most affordable – at least with airfare) choice. But I’m not even here to talk about Iceland (I’ll get more into the land of fire and ice later). I’m here to talk about the Faroe Islands.
Because of course!
I mean, you all know me by now, right? If we are booking a week-long stay ANYWHERE, I’m using that as an excuse to hitch some other crazy idea to that. See: Montserrat (Antigua trip), Barrow (Alaska trip, heck that was a three-day trip), Northern Mariana Islands (Guam Trip). I really have a hard time sitting still and in one place for the entire journey.
Anyway, for some odd reason the Faroe Islands have been on my bucket list for a long, long time. They met a lot of various criteria for me, criteria that is sometimes totally made up on the fly or completely unique to the actual place. 1) It is has a great deal of autonomy despite its place within the Kingdom of Denmark. It even has its own football (soccer) team that has done surprisingly well on the world stage as of late (ranked ahead of a tepid Canada squad in the FIFA rankings as of this writing). 2) It is smack dab in the middle of the North Atlantic – further north than the well-withered and worn Scottish Isles. The Faroes are the first line of defense for clouds, rain and wind and anything else the North Atlantic current throws at it. That said, even at its northerly position, a temperature below 10 degrees Fahrenheit has never been recorded in the country. 3) I know multiple people who had no idea where I was going when I mentioned this trip to them beforehand. 4) They have their own language, arguably the closest relative of the lost Old Norse jargon. 5) No one I’ve ever known has been there. 6) I likely wouldn’t have to be navigating through throngs of tourists and tour buses. 7) Ok, you get the point…
So Breeah and I worked a Faroes excursion into the middle of a week in Iceland. We got a full two days bookended by a late-ish arrival and very early departure. Doesn’t seem like a lot of time (it isn’t, but it is do-able) and it almost got derailed early by a very stupid oversight by yours truly. I booked a freakin’ manual!
Yeah, that’s right…I don’t drive stick shift. I can puzzle out semi-auto, but not full. I’ve never had my foot on a clutch pedal in my life. In the Faroes, where there are cliffs, open water, one-lane tunnels, hills, windy roads and more sheep than people, learning manual on the go was not an option. So, long story short, we sat for two hours in the Vágar Airport until the kind rental car agent (Erikur, a Faroese student summering back home from Copenhagen) got off work and drove us to our boathouse rental in Hvalvik, a tiny little town about a 35 minute drive north of Tórshavn – the Faroese capital where he lived. He had promised us their only automatic when it got returned at noon the next day, and that we could have it out until 9 p.m. of our second (and last day).
Faroese kindness prevailed that night, as not only were we saved by our new friend Erikur, but our hosts at the property stayed up until we showed up at the house at 11 p.m., offered to make us dinner (we couldn’t take them up on that) and even offered us a ride into Tórshavn the next morning (which we happily accepted).
Tórshavn is a fully functional city, and is home to around 20,000 people when you count the surrounding towns. Though only about 12,000 live within the city parameters, it feels a bit larger than, say, a place of that size elsewhere. This is the center of government and commerce on the islands and includes a 5,000-seat national stadium, a culture center, a few car dealerships, banks, restaurants, a shopping mall, grocery stores, gas stations, a hospital, various Faroese corporate headquarters, etc… We had about four hours to amble about town, and we made the most of it – knocking out the beautiful harbor, walking out on the football field, getting some souvenir postmarks, sampling a donut from a bakery and getting fish and chips from a small stand near the Løgting parliament building. Danish kroner is the cash of choice here, but the Faroese put their own spin on it, printing notes with their own imagery. These were fun to collect, and we probably took a bit too much home considering they might be tricky to convert at a bank.
Our next plan of attack was taking the bus back to Vágar Airport and picking up the rental (the nearly 40-minute ride cost 90 kr a person, about $14.20). Incredibly, the Faroes have equipped themselves with an incredibly detailed network of public transportation. Buses roam the islands even at the most remote outposts. If an island isn’t connected by road, you can likely hitch a ride on a car ferry or a helicopter (which are incredibly cheap due to the government’s financial backing). Europe is well known for its elaborate and relatively efficient public transit system and the Faroes, despite the obvious geographical challenges, don’t differ.
We spent the rest of our first day on the island of Vágar and were challenged by our first one-lane tunnel en route to the village of Gásadalur. I will now present you with motivation #7 for coming here. The unreal view of the town of Gásadalur serving as a backdrop to a sea-cliff waterfall AND the island of Mykines was my background image on my computer at my last job. For four years or so, I started my work day with that dreamscape panorama and now I finally got to walk into it…
From there it was a hike along Sørvágsvatn, the largest lake in the Faroes and likely the first visual treat for visitors flying into the country as its one of the first impressive landmarks you see as you make your way further west and away from the airport. Pro tip: Walk up to that point that you see in the distance if you want to capture one of the most impressive natural visual illusions you’ll ever see.
The next day we visited the remote and small villages of Saksun and Gjogv (acutally pronounced more like “Cheg”). Saksun is home to one of the more idyllic beaches in the country, but we missed our chance due to high tides washing out the path that morning. Nevertheless, the few homes here have quite the bucolic setting, nestled in a fjord-like bay surrounding by steep elevation on each side.
If you’re going to Gjogv, make sure to take the road from Eiði, situated in the northwest of Eysturoy island. Gjogv has a notable hotel that hosts a Faroese “traditional” dinner during the summers (want some sheep’s head?). The windy road from Eiði takes you past the highest point in the country, Slættaratindur (at 2,890 feet). Switchbacks greet you as you sail through the mountains and come out on the other side of Eysturoy and up into the town of Gjogv.
What can I say about Gjogv, other than the fact I was calling it “Gyawgv” all day before being corrected by Erikur later in the evening. It is like walking into a fairytale, these colorful houses surrounding a quiet stream that empties into a quaint little pond where visitors and townspeople alike float around in these tiny little leisure boats. Visit the Gjogv coffeeshop and for 20 kroner you can get a tiny little cup of joe and enjoy the view over the town’s eponymous gorge. Breeah and I swore we could have spent many days right here, far more than the hour we gave it.
We ended our Faroes tour south of Tórshavn in Kirkjubøur – home of the oldest continuously inhabited wooden structure in the world and the only surviving medieval structure on the islands (an unfinished church) as well as the oldest operating church (though since reconstructed), Ólavskirkja. There is a feel of old Scandinavia here as most of the houses have the Faroese black with red-trim paint schemes and almost all have grass roofs.
In the Faroes almost no view is a bad view. Driving, which can have some challenges in watching for the errant sheep or adjusting to the one-way rules in tunnels or village roads, is made more difficult by just wanting to look at all the gorgeous scenery. You literally never know what you’ll find around the next bend. Every road is so dang scenic that I swear that if a place like this existed in the United States proper, it would be absolutely overrun with tourists (thank goodness it has a relatively safe hiding spot in the world). Weather forecasts mean nothing here. While we had some lucky breaks being here at the end of July (we honestly didn’t experience that much rain at all), you will experience micro-climates all over the place and will surely see your share of clouds, fog and wetness at various stages of the trip. Its all good though, the beauty pierces through it in spite (and sometimes because) of the weather.
Scandinavia is full of old-world Norse charm. The definition of the region varies, though there are some unique flavors you can find if you tread a little off the well-worn paths. There are the Åland Islands of Finland, Denmark’s Bornholm and the arctic playground of Svalbard in Norway. Parts of Northern Scotland and Estonia have Scandinavian elements in their histories. The Faroes definitely satisfy that feeling of familiar, yet new, for those seeking a different kind of adventure in the great North Atlantic seas.