These mythological green-listed islands just became more accessible

·7 min read
Mulafossur waterfall - Getty
Mulafossur waterfall - Getty

Faroese mythology recalls the whimsical Huldufólk, the ‘hidden people’ – mischievous grey-skinned elves with a reputation for being tricksters. I wouldn’t be so rude as to suggest any of our government ministers resemble mischievous elves, yet there have definitely been a few shenanigans at play in the compilation of our travel green list.

Take the Faroe Islands, which made it on. If there’s a suspicion the government isn’t keen upon us travelling, then this faraway archipelago was ripe for the list. With no direct flights operating from the UK when the May 17 announcement was made, it could only be reached via Denmark – which is amber thus attracting a 10-day quarantine.

“We haven’t sent a single client since the announcement,” says Andrea Godfrey, of Regent Holidays. The Huldufólk would approve of this impish subterfuge.

But the Faroes are not the South Sandwich Islands and as of today (July 1), they become a realistic green list option when Atlantic Airways recommence direct flights from Edinburgh.

Currently the Faroes have a seven-day average of less than one infection per day and travellers must take a PCR test upon arrival. I actually took mine before boarding the MV Norröna. I’d been working on the Danish mainland and, having missed being at sea, decided to take the Smyril Line’s regular ferry, a 31-hour crossing from Northern Denmark to the Faroese capital, Tórshavn.

MV Norröna arriving in the Faroe Islands - Mark Stratton
MV Norröna arriving in the Faroe Islands - Mark Stratton

From my rather plush upper-deck cabin, in between whitecaps and a gourmet five-course meal (not always mutually compatible at sea), the voyage offers me a stark appreciation of how the existence of this remote archipelago is wedded to the ocean.

“Modern literature suggests the word ‘Faroes’ translates as ‘Sheep’ but that’s a Danish interpretation. In old Norse, our ancient language, it better translates as ‘faraway’” says my guide, Jógvan Thomsen, on my first excursion during a four-night stay.

He shows me around Vágar Island. And, by Odin, its breathtakingly scenic – Herculean U-shaped valleys scooped out during Ice Ages, linear fjords, emerald pasture, and waterfalls thundering into the sea, like Múlafossur, where gannets skydive in kamikaze freefall.

Mythical Nix statue on Vagar - Mark Stratton
Mythical Nix statue on Vagar - Mark Stratton

The Faroes is a more workmanlike version of Iceland. No showy geothermal and volcanic antics to titillate audiences but landscapes buffed by time and meteorological extremes into rough-hewn diamonds. Much like its inhabitants.

Jógvan says recent DNA profiling suggest Faroese males descend from Norway and Iceland, while females herald from the UK’s Gaelic fringes. This hints at a … ahem … rather improprietous approach to women, I venture. “No, I think Gaelic women saw tall blond Viking men and were happy to go with them,” says Jógvan.

Even so, these Gaelic womenfolk, coerced or otherwise, surely wondered what they were letting themselves in for upon arriving on the likes of Vágar? And this is the marvel of travelling the Faroes – experiencing, past and present, an epic determination to cling on to these North Atlantic rocks that puts our current coronavirus woes firmly into context.

Guide shows a traditional croft house in Bøur - Mark Stratton
Guide shows a traditional croft house in Bøur - Mark Stratton

They have created homes and food from the basest elements. In Bøur, Jógvan shows me a simple croft, the way his ancestors lived, built from unmortared stones, with roofs lain with grassy turf. In a slatted barn, a hjallur, nearby, they hang sheep carcasses for months to cure. “Our sheep meat dries in the salty winds and when ripe is soft like a knife through butter.”

The restaurant, Ræst (translating wind-dried ‘fermentation’) is undoubtedly the best place to try this cured sheep in Tørshavn but it’s popular and booked out. I settle for Etika, a contemporary glass-fronted sushi house. The Faroese claim to produce the finest farmed salmon in the world, reared in crystal cool fjordic waters, and there are few more uncomplicated ways to taste it than sashimi.

The restaurant is a short walk from the photogenic red and black wooden weatherboarded architecture of the Tinganes promontory, first recorded around 825AD as the Faroese løgting, one of the world’s oldest established parliaments. But for the most part it’s the land and seascapes that captivate me, as beyond Tørshavn it’s impossible to turn your head in any direction and not be wowed.

Red weatherboard architecture of Tinganes - Mark Stratton
Red weatherboard architecture of Tinganes - Mark Stratton

Mind you, you’ll remain in the lap of the Gods when it comes to weather. On another day tour, this time following the so-named ‘golden circle’ – the ridiculously scenic villages in the north of Streymoy and Eysturoy Islands – my reverie is tempered by evanescent sea-mists.

Conditions are clear enough, however, at Saksun village, left high-and-dry above a magnificent sea fjord that was blocked to the ocean by a 17th-century storm. Isolated before a new road tunnel arrived a few years back to service a population of eight, the architecture is preserved in aspic, not least, a 17th-century longhouse farm complex called Dúvugardur. And throughout, I hear the shrill cries of oystercatchers who fandango along the shorelines. They migrate to the islands the same day every year, March 12, when they are celebrated during the festival of St Gregory by the Faroese.

Other birds, however, have been feted for more nefarious reasons, not least fulmars and puffins, on the wing during a final excursion by boat along the imposing Vestmanna sea-cliffs. The Silja Star threads its way around pointed sea-stacks and with great manoeuvrability into wave-gouged caverns busy with nesting kittiwakes, fulmars, and guillemots. On one perilous sea-stack taller than the Old Man of Hoy, the captain explains local men used to climb it to harvest nesting puffins.

Vestmanna sea cliffs - Mark Stratton
Vestmanna sea cliffs - Mark Stratton

“But not anymore as puffins are protected,” he adds. Still, the Faroese remain partial to food-to-die-for as on one cliff ledge I see forlorn sheep that have been lowered by rope to graze inaccessible herb-rich pasture. “Their fitness makes the meat very tender but occasionally the sheep roll off the cliffs into the ocean,” he says.

There wasn’t a cut of lamb, fermented or otherwise, to be seen during my farewell meal that evening, let alone puffin. Because ‘Ruts’, a new restaurant in the luxurious Hotel Føroyar, is offering a Faroese culinary first … a six-course vegan tasting menu of exquisite finery created by head chef, Sveinar Fuglø, one-time apprentice at the iconic two-Michelin-starred KOKS.

I’m halfway through my third course, white asparagus and almond cream, when I think of the ancient Faroese reaction to such meatless fare. Even if the meal’s foraged components, such as pink purslane and seaweed bladders, would’ve been familiar, I imagine them cursing upon the beard of Odin and suspecting the Huldufólk to be behind such trickery.

How to do the Faroes Islands

Tour operator:

Regent Holidays offer a four-nights Faroe Islands Experience Break from £1,380 per person. Includes B&B accommodation, return flights, transfers, and day trip excursions.

Coronavirus rules:

This is rather complex, as the Faroes have slightly different rules within the Kingdom of Denmark. Travellers are not required to be fully vaccinated and all arrivals to Vágar Airport must take a PCR test upon arrival. This costs 312DKK (£36) and the fee is collected pre-departure by Atlantic Airways. Regent Holidays, however, recommend non-vaccinated passengers take a test before travelling to ease entry but again, not a requirement. Thereafter, a PCR test (free) is requested by the Faroese – although not insisted upon – four days after arrival. This may be used for the return to UK test if within 72 hours of departing the Faroes.

Tørshavn harbour - Mark Stratton
Tørshavn harbour - Mark Stratton

Getting there:

Ferry: Smyril Line currently sail four-times weekly from Denmark to the Faroes and routes may carry on to Iceland. Two-person shared cabin costs around 5990DKK (£688) for the 31-hour voyage.

Flight: Atlantic Airways offer flights from Edinburgh to the Faroes from 749DKK (£87) one-way.

Hotels

Havgrim Seaside Hotel (Tørshavn) hotelhavgrim.fo

Hotel Hafnia (Tørshavn) hotelhafnia.com

Hotel Føreyven hotelforoyar.fovegan tasting meal, £53

Further information

visitfaroeislands.com