The Faroe Islands are an eclectic assortment of 18 volcanic rocks hundreds of miles from anywhere in the middle of the North Atlantic. Many people haven’t heard of them. Others think they’re in Egypt. So what are the Faroe Islands? And why should you go there? We spent a week finding out and over the next few weeks we’ll be bringing you a few of the delights and surprises of The Faroes…
Welcome to the unspoilt authentic Faroes
“Happy Birthday Dad,” say the boys, presenting Stuart with a large framed picture. For a moment he looks alarmed in case it’s a pin up of one of their favourite pop stars. Surely nothing could be worse than a scaled up cardboard cut-out of Bruno Mars? But as the wrapping falls away, corner by corner, he reveals a recent memory; a framed sketch of a cliff constructed from trolls.
On his 48th birthday, Stuart is now the proud owner of his own piece of Faroe Islands seaside, complete with the puffins he’s been trying to see up close since the Westman Islands. As we stand and absorb the scene, we are all taken out of Cumbrian farming country and transported back to the middle of the North Atlantic. His lightly etched troll cliff is magical, unspoilt by human life, populated by puffins, gannets and sheep, and surrounded by nothing but sea. Just like the Faroe Islands themselves.
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside…
It is the sea that defines this volcanic outcrop, feeds its inhabitants and adds grey and blue shades to a predominantly green landscape. And as a tourist, there are unlimited ways of being beside, under or on the sea. Because in The Faroe Islands you never really leave the ocean behind. In 2007 the Faroe Islands were called the ‘most authentic and unspoilt’ island destination in the world by National Geographic Traveller. It’s an incredible achievement when you think of the competition. But it’s not achieved in a showy way; the Faroes tourism experience blends subtly into daily life here.
On our first morning in the capital, over coffee at the harbour, I’m not arguing with the decision. I can’t imagine a more relaxing capital city than Torshavn. In the tiny marketplace, the fishermen sell the morning’s catch, while a barman presses fresh juices for those who need an extra shot of life. Birds swoop and call and the yachts sway in the stiff breeze. It may be a bit windy, but after a month in Iceland, it’s positively balmy for us. We sit outside with our drinks and take off our coats for the first time in a while.
Boat trips, fishing, island hopping…
If you don’t fancy staring out to sea, there’s plenty you can do to engage with it more actively. In season you can go out on a traditional boat to the sea caves for a grotto concert. You can island hop on a variety of ferries. Or fish to your heart’s content. Fishing is the country’s biggest export and the reason people have been able to live here for so many centuries. But we couldn’t find it in the shops as locals hardly ever buy it; they just jump in a boat and hook it out for themselves, or barter with friends and neighbours for a fillet.
During our stay in the capital we enjoy a meal with a local family (arranged by the tourist board and an option for all tourists.) It’s a good way to get to know the culture from an insider and we chat about education, life, death, music and whaling. During this engaging and lively conversation the adults eat freshly caught, lightly battered and perfectly cooked cod. The kids prefer the lasagne, particularly our hosts’ children who I sense might be served fish rather a lot! Oddmar and his wife Camilla explain they borrowed a boat from a friend and spent a happy day out with their children sourcing it. Our meal is like the biblical story of the loaves and fishes; we eat and eat until we are full and then we eat some more and I start to wonder if their friend’s boat was a trawler?
Sea life in miniature – Torshavn aquarium
One of the best ways to see what lies beneath the surface here is to visit the Aquarium. But don’t come expecting Sea World; like many of the visitor attractions on the Faroe Islands it’s a small and charming experience. All the marine life in here has been hooked out by local fisherman and given for free to the manager Bjorki Geyti who has built up the aquarium from scratch since it opened in 2007. You won’t find all of the local species here as some are hard to catch.
“They suffer from the bends like divers” says Bjorki, a former diver and marine biologist. He laughs as he tells us people come looking for sharks, and find lump fish. But they also find an enthusiastic, knowledgeable team willing to explain and engage.
The aquarium is an old ice house, where they used to store ice and snow to preserve the herring for bait. It’s an intimate space, with small subtly lit tanks, and I’m mesmerised by one of the tiniest jelly fish I’ve ever seen; a fragile, opaque wonder. The kids gravitate to the ugly lump fish with their batch of roe and try to stare them out while Stuart goes in search of the shark. Yes there is one; a Small Spotted Catshark, but it’s not exactly Jaws.
Giver and taker of life
The sea itself is a far more threatening force. It may nourish the islanders both physically and spiritually, but this brooding mass of water that shape shifts with the moon is as much a potential enemy as a friend. And if you spend time on these islands you can’t fail to notice its power. Our first night is spent in Gjógv, at Gjaargardur guest house on the far north of the island of Esturoy.
Like everything in the Faroes the guesthouse is relaxed and welcoming with plenty of fish and local delicacies on the menu. It’s the only guesthouse in the village, but then it’s a village of only 30 people. And both the Swiss style chalet and the annexe have traditional grass roofs, which have the kids wondering just how they cut them.
We wander down to a cove tucked compactly into a gorge (the village gets its name from this gorge) where the waves crash onto rocks so mottled they resemble marble. By the little village church a woman and her children stare out to sea. The pitiful trio wait silently for their husband and father to come home. But unfortunately they will wait till the end of time as the statue is a memorial for the men who are lost at sea, and in particular a tragedy that wiped out nearly all of the men in the village. We stand silently, mirroring the statue, listening to the song of the sea and looking out onto an ocean that ultimately extends to America. I breathe in the salt and the crashing waves and know, without a doubt, this week beside the sea is going to be one to remember.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 exploring Iceland and The Faroes, researching what’s on offer for adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to Smyril Line for help with transport, to Berghaus and Thule who helped equip us for the journey. And to Gjaargardur Guest House and Visit Faroes who helped us out on the Faroes. All views and opinions are as ever our own.
You can see a map of our journey on The Family Adventure Project Punkt! and view some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of what we got up to.