What's Special About the Faroe Islands

A view of Klaksvík, the second largest town of the Faroe Islands. The islands are noted for their lack of trees, and so the wide-open area has garnered a reputation for its crisp air. Johannes Martin/Flickr

The Faroe Islands are not, in the strictest sense, in the middle of nowhere. But neither are they in the middle of anywhere particularly notable.

The archipelago nation is an hour-and-a-half flight north of Scotland, about that far west of Norway, and roughly halfway between Norway and Iceland. It's not easy to get to there. And once you do, the North Atlantic weather can be wildly unpredictable and, depending upon the moment, utterly unwelcoming.

Still, precisely because of all that, the starkly beautiful and proudly unspoiled country, a part of the Danish realm, has become a tourist destination of sorts. In 2007, a poll of National Geographic Traveler magazine experts rated the Faroe Islands No. 1 among 111 islands for sustainability — that is, the ability to remain in its original state.

The government of the Faroe Islands pitches its tiny home (population: about 50,000) with a straightforward phrase: "Unspoiled, Unexplored, Unbelievable."

What's good

Breath-stealing landscapes of rolling green pastures, stretching to cliffs that plunge into the sea. Charming villages (the biggest, Tórshavn, has a population of about 20,000) dotted across 17 of the 18 islands. Stone houses with traditional grass roofs. One-lane roads that meander from one village to the next.

One of the eccentricities of the Faroe Islands is a lack of trees. The islands have some, mostly imported and growing in sheltered areas. For the most part, though, strong westerly winds make it difficult for trees to survive, giving the nation a wide-open, crisp-air feel.

Traditional buildings with green roofs at Norðragøta on Eysturoy, Faroe Islands
Traditional buildings with green roofs in the Norðragøta on Eysturoy, a part of the Faroe Islands. Erik Christensen/Wikimedia Commons

The ground is covered by more than 400 types of low-lying Arctic-type plants. And sheep. By one estimate, sheep outnumber people in the Faroes at least two to one.

Bird-watchers can have a field day in the Faroes, too. As many as 300 species, including the orange-and-black beaked Atlantic puffin, have been counted.

The Faroese people, descended from Vikings who settled the islands in the 9th century, are said to be friendly but fiercely independent, with their own language, their own government and their own way of adapting. Almost anyone you run into in the Faroes speaks English; students are first taught Faroese, then Danish (in third grade) and in the fourth grade begin to learn English.

What's not so good

In the warmest-weather months, the Faroes average a high of about 55 degrees Fahrenheit; in the coldest, about 38 degrees. That's relatively mild, unless you're expecting Caribbean weather. Add the winds and rain — it can rain as many as 300 days of the year — and sunbathing seems out of the question.

Fishing is the way of life in the Faroe Islands, so if you're not a seafood fan, you're in trouble. Cod, mackerel, haddock and herring are mainstays in Faroese homes and in restaurants.

One cultural touchstone for the Faroese is controversial to many outsiders. The "grindadráp" is a government-regulated slaughter of pilot whales that has been a carefully registered part of island life for more than 1,000 years. A few times a year, Faroese boats drive pods of the whales to shore, where they are hooked, brought onto the beach and killed.

The spectacle is brutal and graphic.

But the Faroese insist that the "grindadráp" is not only tradition, it is one that is done responsibly. The pilot whale is not an endangered species. They are slaughtered (according to the Faroese) as humanely and as quickly as possible. And the Faroese who take part in the "grind" eat what is caught — it's not a commercial operation. A good defense of the practice, written by a Faroese citizen, can be found here.

Some outside conservation groups have tried to stop the "grind," but the Faroes government is resolute in defending it.

"The government of the Faroe Islands states," says a release on the nation's official website, "that it is the right of the Faroese people to use its natural resources. The pilot whale hunt is regulated and sustainable, and a natural part of Faroe Island life."

What else

If a little shot of civilization is needed after all that communing with nature, a stop in Tórshavn may be in order. The capital city has many hotels and restaurants and a few pubs, many with live music. It's a natural draw for the island's young people and visitors alike.

More than 225,000 tourists visited the Faroes in 2012, up almost 11 percent, according to the Nordic Atlantic Cooperation (NORA). Thousands descended on Tórshavn at the end of July to celebrate Ólavsøka, the national holiday marking the death of Norwegian King Saint Olaf in the battle of Stiklestad in 1030.

Like many places, encouraging tourism (by some accounts, the islands' second-leading industry) while remaining unspoiled is tricky. The fact that the Faroe Islands are in the middle of nowhere — or at least close to it — may end up being their saving grace.