The Faroe Islands - early summer 2016

The Faroe Islands - most people will not know much about these islands in the north atlantic, some will never have heard of them. The archipelago is located approximetly half way between Scotland and Iceland, there are about 50.000 people living there, the Faroe Islands are an autonomous part of Denmark with an own language and currency the Faroese Krona (danish krona are accepted). The term Faroe has very likely its roots in the old norse word for "island of the sheep". Thats the basic facts.

If they appear in the news the reason is very likely football. During the qualifiers for the big international championships the more prominent teams have to travel there to play the Faroe team, which is always a great event in the islands.

It was not the first time, that I visited the islands, but my last visits took place in the early 90ies and 80ies and lots of things have changed since then. The landscape however is still as fascinating as it was!

The landscape is dominated by massive mountains and the sea. During the ice age, Faroe was covered by its own ice sheet and therefore the landscape looks like a drowned alpine relief with corries (not high above sea leavel....) and U-shaped valleys which are now fjords or sunds. Towards the sea the constant erosion of the north atlantic has created magnificent cliffs several hundread meters high and they are among the best I ever have seen.

The geology is quite simple, many layers of slightly tilted basalt. Nowadays there are no glaciers left, there are no vulcanoes and there is hardly any geothermal activity. The climate is cool but not cold and Faroe is very green at least during summer.

Again I was very lucky weatherwise! I could cover the islands much better and with a bigger depth than I expected. It was not always sunny, but there was neither a long period of rain nor was it very windy! The local tourist office tries to push the slogan, "the land of maybe" for the Faroe Islands. For me this is not a good choice. Travelling there is very reliable, at least during the summer months and the infrastructure is very good. For me the Faroer is "the land of different clouds". I have never seen so many different cloud types in such a small timeframe. Absolutely amazing!

Torshavn - one of the smallest capitals in the world

Torshavn is a strange capital, somehow it is a village with most of the attributes of the "big" capitals of the world. Torshavn itself has a bit more than 13.000 inhabitants, greater Torshavn in total about 18.000. All the same it has a parliament, government, administration, national galleries, museums, a (small) university, a busy port and of course a shopping center. I liked the place and after some weeks on the smaller islands it really felt like entering a big city.

There is no rush and you find many places to hang out, relax and get good food. To find accomodation in Torshavn however is at least as difficult as in London or New York, at least during the summer months. The hotels are all fully booked far in advance and even bed and breakfeast or self catering is quite hard on short notice. If you want to stay there, book ahead or better be flexible!

Torshavn is a peacefull but not a sleepy place but people hardly rush.... The numbers of visitors are still quite low, the only exception are the days a cruise ship is around or the ferry to Iceland is in the harbour. I guess the ferry Norrona is the biggest "building" in Torshavn, at least for the moments she is laying at her pier.

Tinganes, the old town and now seat of the government, is postcard picturesque and in its style very unique. I never got tired to stroll through the narrow lanes of this quarter. I wanted to take pictures of the new quarters as well, but I never managed to go there, the harbour and the old town was just to good for photography and suddenly I run out of time, maybe next time.....

The (many) Islands

The Faroe are not one island but it is an archipelago of about 18 bigger islands, most of them still permanently inhabited. In the 3,5 weeks we stayed there we did not manage to visit all and we did not try. We stayed several days on most of the bigger islands and that is necessary, if you want to get a feeling and take good pictures in different weather and at different hours. If you rush you will not feel the life on the islands!

Lets start with a small island, but one with a very special atmosphere!

Mykines

Mykines is a small island on the western edge of the archipelago and most people visiting Faroe want to go there for a couple of hours. The main reason is a very busy puffin colony and a nice walk to Mykinesholmur.
For me Mykines is in the same category as Fair Isle and Foula in the Shetlands, St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides or New Island in the Falklands. Small islands with an old history and tradition and awesome landscapes and wildlife!
Most people come by ferry just for a day trip and they miss so much! There are only few beds for tourists on Mykines, but with a little planning it is not a real problem, again you have to be a bit flexible.

 

 

The biggest attraction on Mykines is the huge puffin colony, which is easy to access. In general Faroe is not as "good" to watch seabirds as my favourite place the Shetlands. There are only a few colonies, which are easys to access on Faroe. But Mykines is among the best puffin places I know. Like in nearly all regions the numbers of seabirds, especially puffins declined (gannets are the exception to the rule) in Faroe as well. Therefore the hunting of seabirds for food was reduced, especially for puffins.

Access to the island is either by helicopter (scheduled flights) or by a small ferry, which most tourists are using. Mykines has not a good harbour and the ferry does not stop at the jetty and the passengers have to jump a bit to go ashore... If the swell is to high or the wind to strong, the ferry is canceled. If you want to go there, do it at the beginning of your trip and have some spare days if you get stuck on the island!
If you do not want to stay on Mykines, you catch the ferry in the morning and return on the same day in late afternoon. After the last ferry has left, you are nearly the only visitor and can enjoy the island in a unique atmosphere!

Mykines is highly recommended! 20 years ago I was there for the first time and we had to camp (which is nowadys still an option). This year Mykines felt a "bit more developed", but has kept its unique atmosphere, especially after the (many) day tourists have left. On one of our days on Mykines, the ferry was canceled and we had the island, the village and the seabirds for us. All the same, even a day tip is worth while and very unique.

Vagar

The only international airport of The Faroe Islands is located on Vagar and most people stay just one day there, their day of arrival or departure, especially after Vagar got connected to the main islands by a subsea tunnel. Vagar deserves much more time, it has so many beautifull places and is a prime hiking area. But it does not have many restaurants (two and one pizza take away) or places to stay. Again booking is recommended or essential.
Gasadalur, Bour, Slaettanes, Vikar or Leitisvatn, all are magic places. Some are easy to access some very hard, take your time and you will be rewarded!

The Northern Isles - Kalsoy, Kunoy, Vidoy, Fugloy, Svinoy and Bordoy

The Northern Isles are different, steeper, darker, brighter, higher, more remote....

As Vagar the main Northern Isles are now connected to the main islands by subsea tunnel. Kalsoy, Svinoy and Fugloy have their regular ferry connection, which operates more or less daily, weather permitting, of course. All the same the feeling there is different. Klaksvik, the second largest town on the Faroe is the main base on the Northern Isles and basically the only place with touristic infrastructure. You can stay on most of the smaller islands, but without any "normal" infrastructure like shops, tourist information and so on. If you want to get away from everything, these smaller islands are the place for you!

In general the landscape is awesome and challenging! Have a look

We stayed in Klasvik in a wonderfull B&B (no webpage, send a mail to hanus.lydersen(at)gmail.com ) close to the harbour. Many thanks to our hosts espcially for the delicious salmon.... It is said, that the harbour of Klaksvik is the best in the North Atlantic. I cannot comment on this, but it is darn pretty and photogenic!

Compared to the other islands, the northern isles do not get many visitors. For a day trip from Torshavn, it is a bit far and the tunnel, which is not free of charge, seems still to be a kind of barrier. The road network is very limited and if you want to explore the islands you need time and have to take the ferry to the smaller islands. If you are not put off by this, the Northern Isles will reward you with many exciting views!

Some more pics of villages and landmarks....

Fish, Seabirds, Sheeps and Whales

For ages the population on the Faroe Islands had to rely on what the region could offer to survive. This was sheep, bird, fish and whales. Agriculture was and is limited. Nowadays the supermarkets and smaller shops are offering (nearly) everything you can find in any european supermarket.

Fish is by far the main source of income for the islands. Trawler and fishing boats of all sizes are bringing the catch to the local fish factories, where it is processed. Salmon and other spieces are farmed in most of the fjords or sunds. Without fish the islands could not survive! Birds however have lost their importance, hunting is restricted due to deminishing numbers. They are loved by the locals as local speciality, which is hard to find in any restaurant.

Sheep are rarely exported, on the contrary the local stock can not meet the demand and sheep/lamb is imported from Iceland or New Zealand. As a dish, it is cheerished in many ways and curing huts are spread all over the island.

Whale (Pilot Whale, a non threatened species) is taken for subsistance only. It is not exported or for sale. If there is a catch it is spread according to age old rules among the population and institutions.
No other Faroe topic is internationally discussed more heated than whaling. By accident we saw how a pod of whales was brought ashore, it is bloody business but any slaughterhouse is bloody as well. Some consider the local hunting method as cruel, I cannot comment on this as I am definitly not an expert in killing animals. But to condemn subsistance hunting just because the animal is a whale is far to simple.
The fact that the meat of the whales is nowadays contaminated with mercury and other poisonous substances to an extent that the consumption of meat should be reduced or stopped, is by far more scary!

And how about tourism, does it contribute much to the GDP? As far as I know not really. The season is short and the Faroe Islands do not have spectacular attractions, they are "just" subpolar islands with a pretty landscape. This fact attracts some visitors, but definitly not mass tourism, which could not be handeled anyway. More about planning and organizing a trip, at the end of my blog.

Fishing is the number one contributor to the GDP and this makes the economy still very vulnerable!

Streymoy and Eysturoy - the two main islands

Streymoy and Eysturoy are connect by a short bridge over the Sundini sund. Thats the reason why I combined them in one chapter. They have everything, from small charming villages like Elduvik to the capital Torshavn, from touristic hotspots like Gjögv or Saksun to secluded places like Tjornuvik. The landscape ranges from nice to spectacular (the mountains and fjords around Slaetteratindur, the highest peak on Faroe). In Gjögv or Saksun it can be crowded if the day trip tours from Torshavn or Cruise Ship bus trips are heading to these locations.

It is not necessary to spend nights out of Torshavn, as the road network is very good. Some places like Fuglafjördur, Oynafjordur or Elduvik deserve a night or two to experience the area all day round. Accomodation however is sparse outside Torshavn, planning and booking is essential!

Most of the things I had in mind did work out really well, but, strange enough, not my plans to work on the many waterfalls in the Faroe Islands. There are many, many waterfalls not only on Streymoy and Eysturoy and some are really pretty and I have seen many good spots. But it was to dry, no kidding, most of the times the water trickled over the rocks, not very photogenic! I just managed to get to two location with enough water. At the end of the trip we saw some people watering their yellow not green roofs.....

Again I want to highlight two wonderfull places, again B&Bs, one in Fuglajördur on Eysturoy the other on Streymoy in Torshavn. Fuglafjördur is a very special place. There is a (the only) restaurant with a great view over the bay and the fjord, but also over the harbour and the commercial district with factories for food processing and fishing nets. I looked around and it reminded me of Grytviken on the island of South Georgia. Very emotional!

Back to the B&B in Fuglafjördur/Kampsdalur, Kaja & Eydfinnur Jacobsen, Kraavegur (you have to call or to book through the tourist information), very spacious, good breakfast, good kitchen....

The last days in Torshavn/Streymoy we stayed at Jonna Ellingsgaard (jonnae6(at)hotmail.com great breakfast, very nice hosts, a bit out of town).

Infrastructure for travelling

Travelling to the Faroe Islands is easy, there are regular flights from Europe and the ferry from Denmark. Just book and thats it.
The road network on the islands is very good, only in the remote corners the country roads are single file. Faroe is mountainous, expect winding roads with switchbacks! One thing you have to get used to however are the single file pitch dark tunnels, which can be several km long. You have passing places, but it takes some time to get used to it. Do not forget to swich off your lights, if you wait in the passing places! As I have already mentioned, the bigger islands are now connected by subsea tunnels, therefore ferries are only needed to the southern isles and to some smaller islands.
Another option to travel to the more remote islands are the scheduled helicopter flights, it is like a bus system. And of course there is also the road based bus system which connects nearly every villiage with Torshavn, the airport or Klaksvik.

Accomodation is available only in the bigger towns or villages. In the high season Torshavn is full, I could not get any hotels 3 months in advance, all hotels in Torshavn or Gjögv had been already fully booked! B&B is the option you have to go for, if you cannot get a hotel or prefer to stay closer to a family. The booking of B&Bs is not as straighforward as you might think. Most B&Bs have no webpage, neither in Torshavn nor in any other place on the islands. The tourist information offices of the different regions have a list with available accomodation including B&Bs and self catering. The booking has to be done through the tourist information office.
Another option are self-catering houses, which are offered through the islands, very often in more remote areas. The downside is the rental period. If you stay 5 days or longer in one place, this could be an option! We have seen very pretty houses from rustic to posh!

I do not like the term "The Land of Maybe". However sometimes it is unfortunately very true. I contacted two rental car companies with big webpages by mail (for a very long rental period...), I never got an answer, even after I asked them a second time for a reply! Strange!
Renting a car is the best way to explore the islands, if you arrive by plane. There are buses, which are fine to reach the bigger villages. But if you want to be flexible, get to remote destination at every time of the day (real night does not exist during summer) and have heavy luggage (as I have), there is nothing better than a car!

The third company I tried (Make Car Rental) was good, helpfull and the whole process was very smooth! We saw quite often cars from a company called  62N, as it seems they answer as well.

Similar was the story with the tourist information offices. They are organized by region, have their own webpage and work very different. I tried to find accomodation in Vagar by mailing the Vagar Tourist Office, no reply, I tried several times, no reply! I even asked the Torshavn office to ping them (they ARE very helpful), no reply! Finally  I used booking.com to find a place on Vagar.

The Torshavn Tourist office works really good, quick, helpfull fluent in english, recommended! Similar simple and recommend is the Eysturoy Tourist Office. I bit more tricky was the Tourist Office for the Northern Isles. Strange enough we had some problems with mails, but after calling it was also very smooth. What have I learnt? If you do not get an answer, call, the staff is helpfull and communication in english is easy.

Guidebooks, general information and how to organize

The best and easiest way to get information for travelling in the Faroe is the Faroe Tourist Office (again a different webpage...). They publish really good guidebooks in several languages (travel in general and hiking), which can be downloaded. They send the guidebooks to your home adress free of charge, which is a good service.

With the webpage and the guidebooks you are set! There are some printed guidebooks available in German and English, but for a normal visit you do not need them for travelling. If you are interested in background information about the country, get them as well!

Last but not least how to organize everything? You can do as I did, decide where to stay with whatever information you get or need, find a place to sleep thats it. It takes some time, but basically it is not very difficult (as soon as your mails are answered...). The other option is to call/mail one of the local tour organizers (you find them in the VisitFaroe page). they will take care of a car, accomodation and so on. It is your choice! It is an option you should consider as getting accomodation can be a lengthy process as you have to contact the tourist offices in each region, unless you book into the hotels which are often fully booked anyway.

One final, for some people a very important bit of information. Camping is allowed only on designated areas or with the consent of the property owner. This is true as well for campervans, mobile homes etc. Some people may find this sad, I think it is a good thing. Space is limited on the islands and farm land and good pastures are treasured. Uncontrolled camping will eventually destroy a place or pollute farmland or streams. During my visits to Iceland I witnessed how unmanged camping will destroy and area.

At the moment the people in the countryside of Faroe are extremely friendly and helpfull. It would be really sad, if this would change due to abuse of parking places, fields or pastures.

Hiking in the Faroe Islands

Hiking is an excellent way to explore the islands. There are many trails from very easy to difficult, from one hour to several days! Do not underestimate hiking in the Faroe, it is an alpine topography. The weather can be very tricky, dense fog with a visibility under 10 m can come in seconds. Most of the trails are marked by old cairns and in the more remote areas the path itself is NOT visible! Be prepared for such situations, take a good map and a gps.

Hiking the old trails is fascinating, as it allows you a glimpse into the old way of living and the hardship of the past. The paths now used for hiking are the old "road" network of the islands, connecting the valleys and villages. Very atmospheric and highly recommended. The FAroe Torusit Office is publishing a booklet "Hiking in the Faroe Islands", it is excellent!

The final words.....

Highly recommeded!

Right now I am getting ready for the next trip, basically everything is already packed. Tomorrow I will head north again. Greenland!


Munich, August 2016

PS there is a new and very, very  exciting workshop on the horizon, check out my workshop pages and forward it to all the people who might be interested!