Decades ago, I was leafing through the pages of National Geographic magazine when I came upon a photograph of a grass-roofed house in the Faroe Islands. The image of that fairy-tale-like home engaged my imagination, and thus began my desire to visit the exotic cluster of islands that had etched an indelible image in my mind.
The journey from then until now spanned more than 30 years, and it was only last week that I set foot on the rugged group of islands jutting out of the North Atlantic. Descending the steps from the Atlantic Airways jet that had brought me to the Faroe Islands from Copenhagen, I put my foot on the tarmac and gazed in front of me: rugged, green and impressive.
I wasn’t the first traveler to be enthralled by the beauty before me. In 2007, National Geographic Traveler named the Faroe Islands the world’s most appealing island destination. The Faroes outranked the Azores, Lofoten, Bermuda, Hawaii and other islands. The judging panel remarked that the Faroes were “lovely, unspoiled islands, a delight to the traveler.”
Indeed. Not five minutes from the airport and already we were commanding the driver to pull over so that we could snap photographs and film the surrounding scenery. This continued for three days as I traveled with a film crew from Copenhagen on assignment here to capture the essence of the Faroes. Our mission was to discover the soul of this mystical place and to reveal it in video to give cruise passengers a tantalizing taste of what they can expect when cruising to the Faroes.
A few minutes further and a group of grass-roofed houses emerged. The village of Bøur was picture-postcard perfect, perched on a small cliff by the sea, the white steeple of a church piercing the sea of grass roofs. Creating a near-deafening sound, a stream of whitewater roared past the church.
What I discovered during three days in the Faroes was a stunning landscape and a vibrant culture. The near vertical slopes of the glaciated landscape plunged into the sea. Dotting the grass-covered hillsides were sheep, brown, black, grey and white. The sea, which is is nearly always within view, teems with marine life, and the economy of the Faroes relies on the bountiful harvests from the sea. Seafood export accounts for the more than 90 percent of the local export economy.
On one day of our visit, we witnessed a tradition more than four centuries old, the so-called drive hunts for pilot whales. The killing of these whales has been part of a non-commercial ritual dating from 1584.
Hunters surround the pilot whales with a wide semicircle of boats, then drive the whales to shallow water in the bay, where the whales become beached and are slaughtered. The ritual is an important part of Faroese culture and history. The Pilot Whale was considered a gift from god. Whale meat meant food for a long time. I was told, there is no waste, and as has been the custom for centuries, the whale meat is distributed to villagers, not sold commercially.
Upon hearing of the practice, I thought it to be barbaric. But once I witnessed this age-old tradition and was informed about its social significance, I realized it was no more barbaric than the slaughter of cows, pigs or chickens for sustenance worldwide.
The Faroe Islanders are extremely independent. They descended from the Vikings who came here from Scandinavia more than 11 centuries ago. Irish monks lived in the Faroes even before the Vikings but fled the islands when the Viking longships arrived. In 1035, the Faroe Islands were annexed by the Kingdom of Norway, which ended up under Danish rule in 1380.
Though officially an autonomous constituent country within the Kingdom of Denmark, the Faroese were granted control of most of the matters that affect their islands in 1948. However, the Danish Queen’s kingdom includes the Faroe Islands (as well as Greenland), and Denmark is responsible for the military defense and the foreign affairs of the Faroes.
The Faroese have their own language, with grammar as well as vocabulary similar to Icelandic and to the extinct language Old Norse. Spoken Faroese, however, is closer to Norwegian dialects. While Faroese is the main language in the islands, both Faroese and Danish are the official languages.
The Faroe Islanders even have their own currency, the Faroese krona. The islands are not a member of the European Union.
A modern infrastructure of paved roads and tunnels connects more than 80 percent of the 50,000 people who live in the Faroes. Nearly 20,000 people live in Torshavn, the world’s smallest national capital. There are 18 islands in total, and all but one is inhabited.
The Faroe Islands are a place of unforgettable beauty. A simple photograph in a magazine had inspired me to visit, yet I waited much too long for my first journey to these enchanting islands. You need not wait for decades to pass before your visit. Chart your course to the Faroes on a cruise of the North Atlantic. You’ll be glad you did.
As you will read in the comments below, the Faroese pilot whale killings have created a lot of controversy. In December of 2017, I received this letter from three mayors in the Faroe Islands voicing their side in defense of the practice.