Europe's best-kept secret: The Faroe Islands

Posted May 9

FAROE ISLANDS — One of Europe's last undiscovered destinations, the Faroe Islands live up to their slogan: untouched, unexplored and unbelievable. It feels unlike any other place in Europe.

Flying into Vágar Airport is possible on the Faroese airline, Atlantic Airways, from select Scandinavian cities. The experience is unique and old fashioned from the moment the flight begins. Expect a free meal on the short two-hour flight with the likes of fresh salmon, warm homemade bread and chocolate. The pilot happily opens the cockpit door to allow Faroese children to stare in wonder and sit on his lap. This is the beginning of the feeling of stepping back in time to a place you won't believe exists.

Be sure to snag a window seat as the plane begins to descend on the remote set of islands. It is a surreal landing. Rugged landscape and mountains surround the landing strip and there is almost no trace of humanity in sight surrounding the airport. Luckily, you'll spy human life soon as the Faroese locals wave from inside the glass windows of the small airport while passengers disembark the flight. The flight from Copenhagen to Vágar can set you back close to $723, but if booked far in advance, that fare can be cut in half.

The small airport takes a few minutes to walk through, and before you know it, you're in a rental car driving roads through green (or during some times of the year, snow-streaked) hills that don't seem real. It already feels otherworldly.

Every few miles, you'll come upon a tiny town and want to pull over and move right in. Each curve of the road is gorgeous enough to make you swerve right off while taking in the sweeping views — so make use of the many pull-off sections for lookouts.

Also, keep an eye out for the plentiful sheep crossing the roads at any given moment. If you see one, there will definitely be more following. It's a pleasant type of traffic jam to come across.

As you drive toward the capital city of Tórshavn, you'll suddenly find yourself in a sub-sea tunnel lasting for a little bit longer than is comfortable, but emerging out of the other side is like coming back to Earth again. The tunnel has a toll costing DKK 100 (about $16) and it will make you feel like you're in an even more remote place. You've now covered two of the five main islands — there are a total of 18 islands.

These islands are inhabited by 50,000 total Faroese people, but locals will tell you that this number doesn't include the "hidden people." They are referring to creatures such as gnomes, trolls and fairies living in stones, hills, and grottos. Don't be surprised to hear a lot of stories about the hidden people and take them seriously. The locals like to stay in good graces with them, and you should too!

As you pull into the harbor town of the Tórshavn capital city, it may feel more like a town, but definitely a charming one straight out of the past. Explore the old part of town first, where every house has a name and not one front door is ever locked.

On a scenic drive, you can see the one prison which has about 20 beds and has never been full. It looks out on a gorgeous canyon, but still doesn't tempt the local people to commit crimes. As a guide explained, "They can't get away with it here." Smile and enjoy the fact that a place like this really still exists on earth.

In the days of your visit, nature should be the main focus. At bare minimum, make sure to explore the villages of Gásadalur, Saksun and Gjógv. Don't miss walking down the hill to get the best view of the waterfall at Gásadalur. The wind spraying the waterfall over the cliffs is one of the most memorable sights to be seen in Europe. In the summertime, it's possible to book hiking excursions from town to town, guided by cairns stacked as tall as people.

Hotel Føroyar (Hotel Faroe Islands) is the most established hotel in the capital city. Bonuses include the view over the harbor, the friendly service and the proximity to Icelandic horse rentals. Detriments include being a bit hard to find up on the hill the first time, and being a bit outdated.

A few smaller boutique hotels and guesthouses can be found down in town as well. Another suggestion is to stay at the very remote Gjáargarður Guesthouse at the top of the island in Gjógv. It's about an hour drive and definitely worth it.

Faroese food has its own take on a combination of Scandinavian traditions. Don't miss Restaurant Áarstova, the best on the island. Sister restaurant Barbara Fish House is another special place, as is Café Smakka in the iconic Nordic House. Be sure to eat plenty of fresh fish, lamb, potatoes and rhubarb to keep up with the locals.

This magical cross between Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Scotland, Greenland and the North Pole will leave you refreshed and dreaming of this faraway fairy land for years to come.

Emi Rigby lives in San Francisco and documents her travels around the world on her food & travel blog


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