The Most Unique Island to Escape to This Year
Cover photo by Derek Herndon
Føroyar / The Faroe Islands
If you’ve never heard of the Faroes, they’re a tiny collection of islands lost in the North Atlantic Ocean, roughly between Scotland and Iceland and Norway.
The islands are characterized by dramatic cliff faces, waterfalls that pour into the ocean, and quaint, jet-black houses with grassy rooftops. Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings both filmed some scenes there, so it’s pretty likely you’ve seen it without even realizing.
The Faroe Islands were relatively unknown to travelers until National Geographic Traveler ranked them in the Top Five Island Destinations in the November/December 2007 issue. They were voted most “authentic, unspoiled, and likely to remain so.”
And I must say, that mostly rings true ten years later (despite a rapidly growing tourist population). The collection of tiny islands is home to just under 50,000 people. And outside of the summer months, the islands are almost entirely inhabited by locals.
One local told us that the beauty of the Faroes is that there’s always good weather on one of the islands, you just have to go after it (which isn’t terribly difficult considering it takes less than two hours to drive from one end of the country to the other). Unfortunately, this wasn’t our experience. We never could outrun the storms — the weather was similar wherever we went.
We visited the Faroe Islands for ten days at the end of September through early October. It was mostly terrible weather consisting of intense wind speeds (average 40mph) and pelting rain. I’ve never been soaked by the rain faster than by the rain we experienced there.
When the skies merely threatened rain, the clouds were dark and contrasted beautifully against the violent peaks and cliffs.
But, on the few days when the sky was clear, it was perfectly blue and delightful. Although, a bit too chilly to be playing in the water or sunbathing (summer average = 55 degrees F & winter average = 37 degrees F).
If you visit in the off-season, you’ll find that all three parking spots at the most popular tourist destinations are typically unoccupied. Yep, I meant three — the Faroes have made some services for tourists, but not many.
During the summer, you’ll probably be fighting for a space or parking down the road and walking a short distance. But this is sure to change as the country gains more popularity each year. They’ll either have to increase parking lot size or start offering public transportation options to the popular destinations.
I was shocked at how incredibly difficult it was to find postcards or souvenirs. We asked the mailman where we could get a post card stamp (we found a post card in a hotel lobby), and he wasn’t sure — he was genuinely baffled by the question. Turns out, there’s a little information desk in the airport that will send them for you because the post office is only open two hours per week.
I asked many local people where to get souvenirs, and only one had an idea. He took us to a shop in the capitol city, Tórshavn, and found a couple baubles for sale — and that was it. Conveniently, the itty bitty airport’s Duty Free store has a small souvenir section.
Some local person could make a lot of money selling handmade, locally sourced souvenirs (the world doesn’t need any more mass-produced crap). One local friend was working on getting his ink drawings of the island made into post cards for the 2018 summer season, but the market is relatively untapped.
Even though the Faroes are considerably smaller and less populated than Iceland, the food costs and variety are relatively normal by Western European standards (a relief on the wallet after Iceland’s ~$5 per bell pepper pricing).
However, the local fare is an acquired taste. Skerpikjøt is a Faroese favorite — wind cured lamb leg. It has a leathery rind with a blue tint from the fungi that grows on it. Inside, the meat looks almost normal, but it smells like someone wrapped their gym socks in a carcass and left them in the sun to flourish for a week. If the leg is over-cured, the meat closest to the bone gelatinizes — you could spread it on a toast point like sticky artichoke dip.
It takes precisely three days to clear a room of that smell, but the locals love it. They eat every bit of the skerpikjøt, moldy rind down to the meat preserves. They typically cut it into bite size pieces and serve it on buttered bread.
Since we did work trade through WorkAway while we were there, we didn’t have to go through the hassle of booking accommodations. But, according to the locals, there are tons of AirBnB options (which are actually causing a housing crisis, but that’s another story).
We worked in a small, vintage hotel with only eight bedrooms and two bathrooms available. A King of Denmark once stayed in the master bedroom.
One afternoon, we served tea and skerpikjøt sandwiches to over five hundred mourners after a local man’s funeral. We spent the afternoon with 1% of the country’s population, and they nearly all fit in the restaurant and dining rooms of the hotel.
Most of the hotels are similar to the one we worked in — the rooms are quirky and true to the local decorating style. I don’t believe that there are any large or chain hotels on the islands (yet).
Favorite Activity (& An Anecdote)
On a cloudy but rainless morning in October, my friends and I went on a hike to one of the best-known spots on the islands — Sørvágsvatn, a lake that appears to be only a meter away from a cliff that ends abruptly in the ocean. Although this is an optical illusion, it’s still a stunning view, no doubt.
The hike was mellow, just a couple miles across lightly rolling hills speckled with dreadlock-sporting sheep. The wind picked up as we trekked, but we didn’t let that deter us from an otherwise decent weather day. Our adventures were punctuated with days of storm-induced laziness, so we were always anxious to get out and hike.
We walked toward the edge of the first cliff we came to and glanced down a sheer rock face to the ocean hundreds of feet below — we backed up. The wind continued to pick up more, so we didn’t walk too close to the edge — we army crawled to get a better look. Our fingers grew tired from instinctual vice grips on our cameras, so the wind wouldn’t rip them out of our hands.
We hiked up the slope that hosts the iconic lake-near-cliff-over-ocean shot, and the wind grew even more intense with altitude. We could hardly hear each other speak if we faced the wrong direction.
Looking straight into the wind, my eyes watered, and my jacket filled with air like a motorcyclist on the highway. I opened my mouth and was surprised when it filled with an active air that flapped my lips and cheeks almost like a dog with her head out of the car window.
While standing still on the hillside, a gust of wind caught me off guard, sweeping up, seemingly, from beneath me. It knocked me down and left me lying in the short, sheep-trimmed grass on the hill. I couldn’t believe the wind had shoved me over.
I lay there laughing hysterically, unable to breathe — partly because of the laughter rocking my core, but also because the air moving past my mouth was so fast that it was difficult to pull the oxygen from it.
When my friends saw me there, they laughed too. Sadly, they didn’t witness the attack by wind, but they couldn’t help but laugh at the state of me, rolling around on the grass, completely unable to stand up because I was so weak with laughter, and the wind was keen on keeping me down.
Shortly after I regained composure, the temperature dropped and the clouds (…cloud? Is it singular when the whole sky is one mass of gray?) darkened, so we turned back home. The rain started when we were three minutes away from shelter. Two minutes away, the wind whipped the rain into our faces with the force of a hailstorm. We were perfectly soaked by the time we arrived.
That’s kind of how my time in the Faroes went — I went there expecting a serene tourist experience and left laughing with grass stains on my hood.
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