The Faroe Islands: grass underfoot and overhead

Depending on the weather and your mood on the day you arrive in the Faroe Islands, you might describe them as “windswept, treeless and gloomy” or “lush, dramatic and charming.” We definitely fell into the later camp.

See if you can spot Laurel waving on the cliff in a white jacket.

The Faroe Islands are between Scotland and Iceland and home to 50,000 hardy souls descend from the Vikings who settled the islands in the 9th century. The grassy islands are kept treeless by the relentless scouring of hurricane-force winter gales and the munching of 80,000 of the fluffiest sheep you can imagine, grazing nonchalantly on the precarious slopes. While breezy, the weather was mostly sunny and warm for our three day stay. When someone in our tour van asked to have the air conditioning turned on, our guide said it was the first time in her 30 years of guiding that she had that request in the normally chilly islands. Despite her perfect English (like all the locals we met), she struggled to remember the word for air conditioning.

Although the islands have well-maintained roads and several impressive mountain-piercing and sub-sea tunnels, we were glad that someone else was doing the driving. The roads are often one lane (sometimes even through tunnels) and frequently wind along the edges of cliffs. To add a little more challenge, dense fog can blow in suddenly. We only experienced that once during our charmed visit but the thought of driving on a one lane (but two way!) cliff-hugging road in a white-out is probably more adventure than our white knuckles could handle.

When you can turn your eyes and camera away from the vivid green fjords, the visual highlight is the sod-roofed houses. Some are historic old buildings but the sod roofs are also part of their modern architecture. Many of the houses and small businesses are topped with beautiful long grass. This is a sign of how proud the locals are of their traditions, which is tied to the bristling defense of their independence from the parent country Denmark. The Faroe Islands have won considerable autonomy since WWII after a period when Denmark pushed hard to assimilate the Faroese in the Danish culture. Though from the same original stock as the Danes, over the centuries the Faroese have evolved their own tongue-twisting language and culture. For you video fans, here is a roof rippling in the wind.

Though they honor their traditions, it is a thoroughly modern country. The capital of Torshavn has trendy restaurants and stylish shops. The infrastructure is top-rate, probably in better shape than Seattle despite the harsh environment. But it is sized for a small population. Several hotel construction projects are going on downtown, signaling a future surge in the level of tourism which will strain the existing resources. The locals are already complaining about how “crowded” the most picturesque villages and hikes have become. By this they mean maybe a dozen tourists’ cars, which is pretty pristine by normal measures but at times we did feel like the tourists (us included) were overrunning the petite villages. It is will be increasingly difficult to maintain a balance between the growth in tourism and the desire of both the locals and the tourists to see the unspoiled beauty of the islands.