These Tiny but Mighty Islands Combine the Best of Scotland, Iceland, and New Zealand
Some of the most epic 500 square miles on Earth.
The Faroe Islands -- the very definition of "under the radar" for most travelers -- recently drifted into the spotlight. Some have even dubbed this lush, supernaturally beautiful Danish territory “the next Iceland.”
Set foot on the Faroes, though, and you’ll realize that statement isn’t quite true. First of all, the primary airport is barely long enough to accommodate hang gliders, let alone jumbo jets like the ones shuttling North Face-clad tourists en masse to Reykjavík.
But beyond that, the sheer abundance of fairytale wonders on this archipelago puts even its Icelandic neighbors to shame. You'll continuously wonder whether or not a rip in the fabric of reality swallowed you whole and then spit you into a Tolkien-like fantasy realm.
These 18 isles, nestled in the North Atlantic between Great Britain and Greenland, are all singularly serene. Yes, the stark beauty and rugged isolation of Iceland is here, but it’s fused with the ceaseless rolling green of Scotland, girded by the grandiose solitude and scale of New Zealand's South Island. This is a place where grand, epic scale exists in distillate form.
You want to get here as soon and as you safely can. And though the pandemic temporarily grounded plans for direct flights from New York, once they’re up and running it will be easier than ever for Americans to visit. Even then, though, you’re going to need to plan: Many of the obligatory sites and experiences are well off the motorway. But what’s the point of only treating the concept of “off the beaten path” figuratively? This is a place ripe for discovery. Here’s what you’ll see.
A surreal land of giants and optical illusions
At a scant 540 square miles, the entire archipelago is roughly half the size of Rhode Island. But somehow, it contains an obscene wealth of dreamlike villages and sites, like ocean waterfalls, clifftop lighthouses, mythical statues, and geometrically puzzling rock formations. To access most of it, you don’t really need to wander too far from the car.
“Even though I have lived here most of my life, it is still breathtaking,” says Dánial Hoydal, co-founder of Faer Isles Distillery, whose cutting-edge facility is a must-visit stop on a mostly out-of-time journey. “The constant presence of the vast North Atlantic Ocean makes it different. It is omnipresent. You are very close to it at all times, and you can hear, feel -- and even taste it in the wind.”
He recommends the steep mountains of the northern islands, notably Cape Enniberg. Towering 1,300 feet over the surf, these are the highest sea cliffs in the world. And “Suðuroy [the southernmost island] is the most isolated but therefore has the least tourists,” he explains. “A forgotten gem.”
Before you get too deep, start with the most obvious attraction, since it’s only a 15 minute drive west of the airport. Múlafossur is an iconic site. In fact, it will likely be the first image that pops up when you google, “Faroe Islands.” But that doesn’t make it any less breathtaking to behold in real life.
After a 10 minute walk from the carpark, sea cliffs come into view. Careening off the edge is a steady stream of freshwater, fed from hills high above, plunging a sheer 200 feet into the ocean below. In the background, the Hobbit-like village of Gásadalur (population 18) is caught between the edge of the Atlantic and the shadows of a crenulated massif overhead.
Long isolated, a tunnel finally connected the town and waterfall vista to the rest of the island in 2004. But you can still opt to hike down into the area tracing the former path of the postman, from the neighboring village of Bøur. It’ll take you two hours, although the civil servant apparently did it in 45 minutes. And you’ll enjoy uninterrupted views of Mykines island, across a narrow straight in the distance, while descending into the magical valley below.
On the way back, make sure to stop at various pull-offs for views along the adjacent Sørvágsfjørður fjord. Hovering at its mouth is Drangarnir, a stack punctuated by a naturally formed sea-arch. Next to it is Tindholmur, an imposing crag that rises up from the water like a pyramid sliced in half -- almost forming the shape of a wizard’s hat.
After you’re circled back, make time for a 45-minute hike high above Sørvágsvatn. This the largest freshwater lake in all the Faroes. Suspended between sloping green and sea cliff’s edge, there is a specific spot along the trek from which the catchment looks like it is literally floating above the ocean. You most certainly will know when you’ve arrived; it is among nature’s most profound optical illusions. Accessing the trail requires a $20 fee at the entry gate.
Next up, Trøllkonufingur. This 1000-foot-tall monolith is said to be the finger of a witch who came here to throw the Faroe Islands to Iceland. Luckily, she was thwarted by sunlight and turned to stone. You can spy the formation after a short walk at the edge of Sandavágur, a historic fishing village of some 860 residents. There you’ll see plenty of lodging sporting the island’s trademark living-grass roofs.
After resting up, drive to Streymoy, which is connected to Vágar island by tunnel. If you’re heading down to the capital ‘"city" of Tórshavn -- where you’ll find the best hotel and dining options -- make sure to arrange a pit stop along the mountain roads high above Skælingur. From here you’ll enjoy a bird’s-eye view of surrounding fjords carved out by glacier over eons. Within view are some of Faroe’s highest peaks, lumbering 2,500 feet beyond the valley floor.
About 30 minutes north of Tórshavn, trace a narrow straight separating your current landmass from neighboring Eysturoy island. Route 594 will lead you past the dual cascades of Fossá and eventually around a dramatic cliffside hairpin to reveal the village Tjørnuvík. Nestled into the foot of a verdant valley, where it meets steep sea cliffs and rock outcroppings, it is among the most surreally situated towns you'll ever encounter. Stroll along a gray-sand beach and admire Risin og Kellingin in the distance: These two precariously balanced sea towers seem to teeter against the bluffs from which they were eroded.
On the opposite side of Streymoy -- just south of Tórshavn -- make time for the quiet village of Kirkjubøur, home to the ruins of a 700-year-old church. Though never completed, it is the largest medieval structure in the Faroe Islands. From here you can access a walking path that skirts the oceans edge over several miles. Or perhaps pull up at the Gamlarætt Ferry Port to explore the adjacent isles of Hestur and Sandoy.
Do not, under any circumstances, skip the ferry ride to Kalsoy. This is where you’ll find the legendary Kallur Lighthouse, marking the northernmost point of the archipelago. It straddles a spiny ridge, with steep drop-offs on either side. Surprisingly, getting to the landmark isn’t as treacherous as it may seem. It involves a relatively easy hour-long amble in each direction.
Upon your return south, stop in the village of Mikladalur for a heaping plate of local salmon… and mythology. Down a steep set of stairs hugging the cliffs you’ll reach Kópakonan, an 8.5-foot bronze statue dedicated to the Seal Woman. According to one of the most well-known tales in the Faroes, seals are believed to be former human beings who voluntarily surrendered themselves to the sea. Once a year they would shed their adoptive skin and dance along the edge of the ocean. So here, backdropped by the mossy bluffs of Kunoy, a beautiful maiden is sculpted with her seal outfit crumpled and clutched below her torso.
After several days of touring these islands you might be inclined to believe the fable. In a setting like this, no fantasy seems too far-fetched.
What to know before you go
The Faroe Islands may be tiny, but they’re incredibly sparse. To get around, you need to rent a car -- a piece of cake once you land at Vágar Airport. Adjacent to the terminal you’ll find a kiosk for 62ºN Car Rental, named after the island’s latitude. Consider something on the rugged side in case you encounter any mud along your journey. The main motorway is sealed and well-maintained, but it's super damp in this part of the world, so better to be prepared with all-wheel drive capability.
This next point cannot be overstressed: keep up to date with local ferry schedules during your visit. Many must-see destinations require a boat ride. You’ll want to queue up with your vehicle at least 45 minutes before scheduled departure to ensure your spot. Times fluctuate with the day, and tolls are required. So keep this link bookmarked on your phone.
There are also 10 state-subsidized heliports scattered across the islands. From here you can book a private “flightseeing” tour. Or you can even make use of commuter choppers to hop from island to island. There is a designated timetable for that too. But remember: inclement weather is the norm around these parts. So expect the unexpected (read: frequent cancellations).