Blank looks. I got a lot of them when I said I was going to the Faroe Islands. “Where’s that?” my furrow-browed friends would ask.
The Faroe Islands are a tiny volcanic archipelago in the choppy North Atlantic, nearly equidistant from Iceland and Scotland, and a bit farther from Norway. Technically a self-governing region of the Kingdom of Denmark, the Faroes have their own prime minister, language, and soccer team. The islands depend largely on fishing exports for income and contain more sheep (70,000) than people (50,700). And even though they have gotten easier to reach (the national airline, Atlantic Airways, runs flights out of 12 European cities), the Faroes are still—for now, at least—off the radar of most travelers, who are perhaps put off by the gale-force winds and rain that pummel the dramatic terrain for much of the year. But if you’re into mind-boggling landscapes, unique culture, and food unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, they’re worth the trip.
So quiet are the Faroes that when I arrived at the only airport, on the island of Vágar, there was no one at the car rental desk. A few phone calls and 20 minutes later, a young man appeared with keys and immediately started deflecting my questions about where to go: “Really, there’s only one road. It’s impossible to get lost,” he said. I snorted—o ye of undue faith—but soon realized he was right. There is essentially one large, well-maintained road that traverses most of the 18 islands, linking them via bridges, tunnels, and car ferries, with a few spokes here and there leading off to villages often with populations numbering in the teens.
I did take his one piece of advice and detoured onto the old mountain road, Oyggjarvegur, a scenic route from Vágar into the capital city of Tórshavn. The drive gave me my first glimpses of the epic nature that would come to define the next five days: layer-cake mountains in infinite shades of green; deep-blue inlets slicing through craggy sea cliffs; thousands of unimpressed sheep loitering in the road. And this was just on the way out from the airport.
Tórshavn, often described as the smallest capital in the world, is ringed by a pretty harbor and holds the densest concentration of hotels and restaurants in the Faroes. You can base yourself here and day-trip out in any direction. Head west to the puffin-watching paradise of Mykines Island (if the ferries are running in the notoriously testy weather); northeast to slender Kalsoy for a hike to the Kallur lighthouse and its stunning panoramas; or north to the picturesque village of Gjógv, set in a deep valley between soaring mountains on the island of Eysturoy.
Staying in Tórshavn also puts you within a 10-minute drive of Koks, the islands’ first Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s overseen by 27-year-old Faroese chef Poul Andrias Ziska and Swiss-born manager Karin Visth. Ziska, like many Nordic chefs, champions the use of local ingredients, and he employs traditional Faroese techniques such as drying, fermenting, smoking, and salting. “Faroese food culture was created in order for us to survive,” Ziska explained when we met later in my trip. “Fishing, foraging, preserving, and so on—all of these things come from what nature gives us. But over time, they have become a part of our palate. Today, we don’t do these things because we need to—we do them because we love the flavors, and we love the traditions.”
Ziska has constructed a series of “mobile fermentation houses” to experiment with various preservation techniques, and he works with local fishermen and farmers during the restaurant’s seasonal run (April through September). On his 17-course tasting menu, the dishes—which are often deeply earthy, funky, briny, or otherwise unsubtle—might include things like skerpikjøt, a prosciutto-esque, wind-dried fermented mutton that’s been a staple on the islands for centuries, served with fried reindeer lichen and a baggie of truffle-scented seaweed. Or cured whale blubber and shaved eggs—laid by seabirds called fulmars and collected by rappelling down the side of a cliff during their one-day season—sandwiched between thin sheets of crispy cod skin. Sea urchins are kept alive in a wooden crate in the tide pools just below the restaurant until moments before they are served. Giant mahogany clams are accompanied by a succulent sea herb called sandwort. Ziska isn’t trying to appeal to foodies by being outré—he’s working, quite viscerally, with what nature has provided.
This theme repeated itself throughout my visit. I saw sheepskin throws in the lobby of the Gjáargarður guesthouse in Gjógv; $400 wool sweaters on the racks at Guđrun & Guđrun, a chic boutique in Tórshavn; colorful houses topped with grass roofs to shield against rain. Every Faroese person I spoke to seemed almost supernaturally in tune with the subtle shifts in the weather; I was warned several times about the possibility of fog rolling in before I embarked on my daily hikes.
It is an elemental existence in the Faroes, tied deeply to forces beyond human control. “We Faroese are nature people,” Ziska told me. He gestured at the sublime ocean view from his kitchen as if to say, go outside and see for yourself.