As we crisscrossed our way over, through, and under the Faroes (pronounced the same as the pharaohs of Egypt), I found it exceedingly difficult to keep my eyes on the road. I stole fleeting glances on straight-aways and as we emerged from long, dark tunnels that opened to stunning vistas of fog-enshrouded peaks and villages of colorfully painted houses and majestic churches. I must confess, in spite of the fact that I missed some of the scenery, I enjoyed the role as driver—the roads were simply made for rallying, and I kept thinking how much fun it would be to drive them in my Triumph convertible.
Steep hillsides, many of which were bordered by stone fences that melded with the landscape and seemed to have been there for generations, were dotted with grazing sheep and the occasional cow or horse. It was easy to spot the enclosed grazing areas, as the grass there was vividly greener, having been continuously cropped and then “fertilized” by the livestock. Small terraces were visible on nearly all of the steeper hillsides. It was only after looking at these for some time that I realized they’d been trodden into existence by millions of hooves over the hundreds of years that the Faroe Islands—about halfway between Great Britain and Iceland—had been populated and ranched. Time and again, I found myself marveling at the impossible steepness of the hillsides on which sheep, many with lambs in tow, managed to graze with ease. Their surefootedness was astounding, and as long as I watched them, I never saw so much as a stumble.
While sheep are clearly the most plentiful inhabitants of the Faroes, the islands’ wildlife—birdlife specifically—is simply astonishing. Ever since seeing my first oystercatcher in the Galapagos a decade ago, I’ve been a lover of this species. The oystercatcher’s distinctive black-and-white body and stout, vivid-orange beak mark it as one of nature’s more memorable characters, and it’s virtually impossible to mistake it for any other bird.
Not long after driving out of the capital, an oystercatcher swooped in front of our car, and I was understandably ecstatic. I would come to learn that the oystercatcher is the national bird of the Faroe Islands and that they are as common as the crows that populate my home in Virginia. Later, I encountered fields full of them, a sight that warmed my heart.
Other bird species I was able to glimpse in the Faroes, some more easily than others, included the guillemot, which nests on steep cliffs, and the Arctic tern. Remarkably, the Arctic tern migrates from this region to Antarctica to spend the northern winter in the Southern Ocean, allowing it to take advantage of more summer daylight than any other bird. (I had seen Arctic terns on a trip to Antarctica years ago.)
Puffins, though plentiful in the Faroes, proved very challenging to photograph. They’re even more distinctive than oystercatchers and widely recognized, with their colorful, clown-like summer plumage. Tony Fleming and I were both on a mission to capture the perfect puffin image. Toward that end, we made an expedition to an island that’s well known for its copious cliff-side puffin nests. Mykines, an outpost of sorts among the Faroes, has very few inhabitants and is accessible only by small ferry—and then only just, as the landing “harbor” is tenuous at best. The day we visited turned out to be gale-like with fog and driving rain, less than ideal for photography. As many Trawler Fest attendees know, Tony Fleming is an accomplished videographer, and he gallantly lugged his gear through conditions that would be considered appalling under any circumstances. In the end, while interesting, Mykines proved a disappointment. I returned to the boat tired and thoroughly soaked, although I had managed to see and photograph a few windblown puffins.
The inhabitants of the Faroes are friendly yet business-like. Smiles are rarely returned, but I learned that’s indicative of very little, as nearly every encounter was positive. Time and again I found the Faroese to be gracious hosts who were always more than willing to lend assistance, guidance, or support. Everyone I encountered spoke English, in most cases fluently. While in the supermarket, which was not only immaculate but very well stocked with the best products from across Europe, I asked two patrons for assistance identifying unfamiliar items and was greeted with clear and detailed responses.
The communities and the islands themselves are, to use a phrase I typically associate with boats, squared away. They are clean, organized with typical Scandinavian efficiency, and well run. During my stay, I never saw a policeman. I was told there aren’t many, since crime is virtually nonexistent. During one drive, I came across a marine railway, a familiar and pleasing sight. A freshly painted fishing trawler sat on the ways; blocking timbers had been neatly stacked; turning blocks, wedges, cables, and ladders were all in their proper place; and the boatyard itself had that just-right combination of busy yet neat.
The Faroes are an idyllic locale to be sure, particularly if you enjoy high-latitude, off-the-beaten-path, uber-picturesque destinations with a wide variety of birdlife. The weather can be unpredictable and tumultuous, and facilities for yachts are limited. But that’s often true of the places most worth visiting—they aren’t easy to reach.
Next: the passage to Iceland and the Westman Islands, with their unpredictable volcanic history and some of the world’s “youngest” real estate…....