Image: Rainbow on the island of Eysturoy
John Mcconnico  /  AP
A perfect rainbow arches over the Slaettaratindur mountain on the island of Eysturoy in the Faeroe Islands. The Faeroe Islands are a stunningly beautiful string of islands about halfway between Norway and Iceland in the North Atlantic Ocean.
updated 6/26/2007 5:43:37 PM ET 2007-06-26T21:43:37

It's just after 9 p.m. when the magic begins.

The late-setting sun breaks through purple rain clouds to drape the rugged island of Eysturoy in a golden shimmer. A perfect rainbow arches over the Slaettaratindur mountain. Offshore, a wild ocean launches ferocious swells against the Giant and the Witch, two spectacular rock pillars that protrude from the surf like craggy teeth.

All that's missing from the storybook setting is a band of orchs or goblins crawling out from behind a rock, or a pipe-smoking hobbit emerging from one of the turf-roofed houses.

The Lord of the Rings analogy is never far away in the Faeroe Islands, a barren and wind-swept archipelago whose volcanic peaks shoot out of the Atlantic Ocean halfway between Iceland and Norway. Local legend even claims the ring of power is hidden here.

"The one who holds it gets lots of powers but the one who holds it will also die because of it," says Hans Jakub Mikkelsen, a hobby historian, recounting an ancient Faeroese saga.

Although easily accessible by plane from Britain or Scandinavia, the Faeroe Islands are remote enough to be spared mass tourism for now. You run into more sheep than people once you venture outside the sedate capital, Torshavn.

That's a good thing. Anonymity has helped this semiautonomous Danish territory remain one of those rare places where you don't have to worry about traffic, pollution or crime. Doors are left unlocked and only seven of the roughly 48,000 residents are in jail.

Shy but hospitable, the islanders trace their heritage to a less friendly bunch - the Vikings, who started settling here in the 8th century. Ancient traditions live on, like the medieval chain dance, the reciting of ballads and a controversial slaughter of pilot whales.

The bloody spectacle occurs about six times a year when a school of pilot whales comes close enough to be driven onshore. Knife-wielding men butcher the whales to the silent approval of scores of curious onlookers and the horror of animal rights activists.

The brutal tradition seems hard to reconcile with the gentle character of the Faeroese, but then again, this is a land of stark contrasts.

Nature has carved a dramatic landscape from the basalt rock spewed out by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. Every winding turn of the well-kept roads offer majestic views over deep-green pastures, shimmering fjords or steep cliffs towering over the Atlantic swell.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

But walk up to the edge, and the brute force of nature stares you right in the eye.

Take Slave's Edge on the island of Vagar. Here, a high-lying lake spills over a rock wall and releases its excess water into the ocean in a 30-meter waterfall.

The surf below roars menacingly as a horizontal wind lashes your face with rain. The rocks start to feel slippery as you watch the hostile waves crash into the vertical wall. Not surprisingly, the Faeroese are looking for ways to generate electricity here.

"If you take the power of 1 kilometer off these cliffs there is enough energy in those waves for one year of electricity consumption in the Faeroe Islands," says Olavur Gregersen, the head of SeWave Ltd., a small Faeroese wave energy company.

While hiking on mountain trails is a must, the best way to get around the Faeroe Islands is by car. Modern roads and tunnels connect the main islands of Vagar, Streymoy, Eysturoy and Bordoy. Ferries run between most of the other islands. Weather permitting - and everything here depends on the weather - you can even get around by helicopter.

From the air you get a full appreciation of how lonely these 18 islands are. Tiny villages with colorful wooden houses are clustered around the shores, but the inside of the islands is desolate. The mountainsides are simply too steep or too exposed to the elements to make comfortable living possible.

You also get an idea of why the Faeroese don't pay much attention to weather forecasts. One island will be baking in sunlight while the next is shrouded in fog.

The rule is to dress warm and waterproof, especially if you're out hiking. A clear blue sky can turn into hailstorm within minutes - and don't think you'll see it coming.

Harsh as it may seem, the climate is actually very mild for this northern latitude thanks to the Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current that helps keep average temperatures between 37 degrees in the winter and 52 degrees in summer.

The mix of warm Gulf Stream waters and frigid Arctic waters also provides for fertile breeding ground for fish, whose impact on the Faeroe Islands cannot be overestimated.

The local government says fish products account for an estimated 97 percent of export volumes, and you believe it when you see the impressive fleet of trawlers crowding the port in Torshavn. Faeroese cod, saithe, haddock and farmed salmon are shipped around the world.

Oddly for a fishing nation, fresh seafood does not dominate the menus at Torshavn's eateries. The Faeroese like to eat meat when they go out, not fish which is considered a staple food.

You'll need some courage to sample Faeroese delicacies like sheep's head, whale blubber and Skerpikjoet - raw mutton that has been left to dry for months. If you're not feeling adventurous, there's always roast lamb and potatoes.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments