On arrival, the Faroe Islands come as a shock. This remote and craggy archipelago, set in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Norway, is more magnificent than you could possibly imagine. Vertiginous, pristine and empty, the 18 dramatic islands are home to just over 50,000 people.
In recent years, remote Atlantic islands like Iceland and those in the Azores have risen unexpectedly to the top of American bucket lists, being perceived as refuges from reality that are safe, peaceful, scenically spectacular and environmentally intact. Now the Faroes are beneficiaries of this trend, one which seems likely to gain strength from the coronavirus crisis.
Vertiginous, pristine and empty, the 18 dramatic islands are home to just over 50,000 people.
Aside from the pleasure of being somewhere so culturally unique and utterly unspoiled, the Faroes offer excellent New Nordic-style restaurants — including one with two Michelin stars — and several charming small hotels. And the hospitality of the inhabitants, all of whom speak perfect English, is complemented by well-run adventure companies offering activities such as hiking, horseback riding, fishing and sea kayaking.
Visitors to this autonomous Danish territory must travel via Reykjavik, Copenhagen or Edinburgh before reaching the islands’ diminutive airport on the island of Vágar. Recently, the number of flights has increased. However, the authorities are determined that tourism remains small scale, with a low environmental impact. Government investment is intended to diversify the islands’ economy away from fishing and create more opportunities for young Faroese to work at home rather than being obliged to seek employment in Denmark.
Many visitors immediately head for Tórshavn, 30 miles away, the lively little port that is the island’s capital. This is where the island’s best hotels are found. However, we chose to begin our visit at Gásadalsgarður Guesthouse, a simple but immaculately clean and comfortable bed-and-breakfast. We were getting in quite late and its location, in Gásadalur, a 15-minute drive from the airport, was an incentive. Also, it is a spectacular 10-minute walk from one of the most famous sights in the Faroes, the Múlafossur, a waterfall that plunges from a clifftop into the sea 200 feet below.
After an exceptionally friendly welcome, our hostess inquired if we needed help with touring the following day, before leaving us to relax over a glass of wine in a lounge with spectacular views of the sea. The whitecaps cresting the steel-gray waters were mesmerizing, but eventually we pulled ourselves away to go in search of a home-style Faroese supper in the guesthouse’s café-restaurant. There we enjoyed a bowl of ræst (fermented) bull calf soup and home-baked bread topped with succulent Faroese smoked salmon. (Fishing and fish farming are the Faroes’ economic mainstays, and their antibiotic-free farmed salmon is exported to markets in Russia and the United States.)
Our comfortable room, one of only four, came with a double bed topped by a gray-and-white-striped duvet, and a simple bath with a shower, a sink and abundant hot water. Tucked away under the eaves we listened to the gusting wind and felt remote from the rest of the world. And then we slept, very deeply.
If you are a frequent guest at Four Seasons hotels or Aman resorts, the idea of staying at a simple place like Gásadalsgarður may well seem improbable. But stepping out the door after a hearty breakfast to join our hiking guide, the reasons for being in this place of almost incomprehensible beauty seemed obvious. Brandur, a native-born Faroese, took us to see the Múlafossur waterfall and then we ranged across the grassy heaths of Vágar, all the while listening to the cries of the seabirds that nest in the island’s sheer cliffs. Brandur explained that he had studied to become an electrical engineer in Copenhagen and had worked there for three years after he received his diploma. “Copenhagen is a beautiful city,” he went on, “but the longer I stayed away, the more I ached to come home. These landscapes were always in my mind’s eye, and this is where I want to live my life.”
The second day of our stay at Gásadalsgarður, we made a day trip to the island of Mykines, the westernmost of the Faroes. There, we hiked to the end of the island at Mykineshólmur, with its sturdy white lighthouse, and sat watching the puffins flying in and out of their clifftop burrows. Afterward, we returned to Vágar and drove to the island of Eysturoy via an undersea tunnel to the tiny village of Gjógv on its north coast.
Friendly staff; stunning location.
Rooms are very small and sparsely furnished.
The best nearby restaurant is Café Zorva, a 5-mile drive from the hotel.
Gjógv means “gorge” in Faroese, and the village takes its name from a narrow 600-foot-long rocky inlet at the edge of the village. We reached 23-room Gjáargarður early on a luminous summer evening, the surrounding deep-green meadows and mountain slopes glowing in the rich sunlight. Our Superior Room in the hotel’s annex came with a sloping wood-paneled ceiling, tile floors, a very comfortable bed made up with fluffy duvets, wall-mounted reading lights, a small wooden writing desk and a sofa. Two windows on one side of the private entrance afforded glorious views over the surrounding countryside.
Gjógv proved to be one of the most peaceful and otherworldly places we have ever been.
After a shower in the simple but spacious tiled bath, we joined the other guests for a buffet-style dinner. That night, the spread included a hearty vegetable soup and baked salmon in butter sauce with dill. These we enjoyed accompanied by a bottle of good German Riesling.
The following two days at the Gjáargarður were spent taking long walks and watching the seabirds. The highest mountain in the Faroes, Slættaratindur (2,887 feet), looms over the village, while off the coast stands Búgvin (617 feet), the highest sea stack in the archipelago. The four-hour climb to the summit of Slættaratindur — which we did not attempt — is physically demanding, but in clear weather, energetic hikers are rewarded by stupendous views over the entire island chain.
Gjógv proved to be one of the most peaceful and otherworldly places we have ever been. We left the hotel and its delightful staff with real regret.
Charming staff; magnificent location; comfortable and spacious rooms.
The lack of a proper bar.
The hotel’s café-restaurant serves good, uncomplicated, sustaining food, but if you have any dietary restrictions, they should be communicated well in advance.
It is a very easy one-hour drive south to Tórshavn (pop. 13,000), as the roads in the Faroe Islands are well maintained and there is no traffic to speak of. After four days in two tiny villages, Tórshavn, which overlooks a sheltered bay at the southern end of the island of Streymoy, seemed almost as hectic as Manhattan. After a diet of Faroese home cooking, we decided to have a big city-style lunch at Etika, the only sushi bar in the Faroes. It seemed logical that a place producing some of the world’s highest-quality seafood — not just salmon, but cod, halibut, scallops and langoustines — would have great sushi. And so it proved.
After lunch we visited the fascinating Tjóðsavnið, the national museum of the Faroe Islands. (Normally, we’d never leave our luggage in a rental car, but since the Faroes are essentially crime-free — another reason it is such a profoundly relaxing destination — we didn’t give it a second thought.) What is most astonishing about this anthropological and historical museum is that it vividly displays just how recently the islanders lived in near total isolation and were required to be self-sufficient in almost all of their daily needs.
The 129-room Hotel Føroyar, a striking, modern, low-slung, turf-roofed hotel, set on a hillside overlooking Tórshavn, is generally considered to be the best address in the Faroe Islands. Designed by Danish architecture firm Friis & Moltke, the Føroyar has a friendly young staff and, depending on the room you get, beautiful views over Tórshavn. Wanting more spacious accommodations than those offered by the standard double, we booked an Executive Suite.
The upgrade proved well worth the money, as the large sunny room came with a wall of windows offering stunning vistas of the city’s harbor. Aside from the sea-blue wall-to-wall carpeting, the room was all white, with a comfortable duvet-covered bed, a large wooden writing desk, two occasional tables and an oatmeal-colored tweed armchair with hassock. The well-lit bath had a jetted tub, a shower and a single large wall-mounted vanity.
For years, the Føroyar’s most notable amenity was its restaurant, Koks, but this has now been relocated to a rural setting in Leynavatn, 15 miles north of Tórshavn. Before leaving home, we had made a dinner reservation at Koks for later in the trip, so on our first evening we dined at the hotel’s current restaurant and enjoyed an excellent meal of salmon tartare followed by a hearty shellfish and langoustine soup.
The following day we embarked on a private daylong deep-sea-fishing expedition with [MM Tours] (https://www.mmtours.fo/private-tours/). The trip began in the fishing village of Vestmanna, a 35-minute drive northwest of Tórshavn. There, we were outfitted with slickers and provided with tackle. On our second anchorage, I managed to land a sizable turbot. Having fished for four hours, we retraced our steps to Kvívík, where we visited a well-preserved 10th-century Viking settlement. Back at the Føroyar, we presented the turbot to the hotel’s chef, who had promised to prepare our catch for dinner that evening.
Overall, the Føroyar is a well-run and ideally located property. At times I found the atmosphere to be slightly sterile, but the hospitality of the staff compensates for the interior’s lack of warmth.
Sensational views; friendly staff; the jetted tub in the bath of our Executive Suite.
The rather sterile atmosphere.
The hotel has bicycles available to guests.
An alternative base in Tórshavn is provided by the 14-room Hotel Havgrím. A boutique property located by the sea at the edge of town, it opened in April 2018. Having called ahead to see if we could drop our bags before heading out sightseeing for the day, we received an exceptionally warm welcome when we arrived around 11 a.m. While sipping a coffee and enjoying the views of the sea, we learned the history of the house from the engaging manager. Apparently, it had been designed in 1948 for a wealthy Faroese by a local architect who had been inspired by his many trips to Britain. This explains why the house would not look out of place in upscale residential areas of London like Chiswick or Richmond. Eventually, the Danish navy acquired the property, and subsequently it became home to some 21 commodores and their families until 2013. Finally, in 2017, it was purchased by local investors and converted into a hotel.
Hotel Havgrím is an intimate little hotel that perfectly distills the warmhearted and increasingly sophisticated hospitality of the Faroes.
Learning that we were heading for Kirkjubøur, the Faroes’ most important historical site, which contains the ruins of the St. Magnus Cathedral dating from around 1300, as well as the 12th-century St. Olav’s Church, the manager urged us to visit the Kirkjubøargarður, a 900-year-old log farmhouse that is perhaps the oldest inhabited wooden house in the world. She explained that it had been home to 17 generations of a single Faroese family, the Paturssons. She also telephoned to see if Jóannes Patursson, the current farmer, would be able to meet us.
Happily, he was, and our chat with this worldly and wise man was one of the highlights of our trip. The farmhouse itself was a time capsule, with oil paintings of Patursson’s ancestors, spinning wheels and other implements of daily life, and the sturdy cast-iron peat-burning stove that has kept generations of Paturssons cozy on wild winter nights.
Returning to the Havgrím after lunch in Tórshavn, we were shown to the Commodore Suite and spent the rest of the afternoon mesmerized by the seaviews from its windows. Painted sea green, the room came with oak herringbone parquet floors, a high ceiling, a table and chairs and a huge bed made up with a thick duvet. The bath provided a rain shower in a stall lined with topaz-glazed tiles, a single vanity and L’Occitane toiletries.
The Havgrím does not have a restaurant, so that evening we headed to Koks, where the menu included decidedly challenging dishes, such as “sandwiches” of dried cod skin, salt-cured gannet and fermented whale blubber, along with some of the best scallops we’d ever eaten and delicious halibut with watercress and toasted buckwheat. Afterward, it was a huge pleasure to return to our suite and sip a cognac while a full moon polished the sea beyond our windows.
Hotel Havgrím is an intimate little hotel that perfectly distills the warmhearted and increasingly sophisticated hospitality of the Faroes. It is a property to which we’d gladly return to visit one of the happiest and most unspoiled places in the world.
Spectacular sea views; charming hospitality; comfortable rooms; excellent breakfast.
The lack of a bar.
You can walk to the center of Tórshavn in about 10 minutes, which means that you don’t have to drive when you go out for dinner in town.