There’s an old Yiddish proverb that I think the Faroese would appreciate: We plan, God laughs.
Isolated in a windswept pocket of the Northern Atlantic over 150 miles from any neighbour, Faroe Islanders know the caprices of climate better than anyone. Fog drops in as unexpectedly as a neighbour. Sunny days are the exception, not the rule. Every activity has an invisible asterisk, knowing that the whims of the weather prevail.
And yet despite all odds, the Faroese have inhabited these islands for over a thousand years. They’re people of proud tradition, whose cuisine and culture are influenced by the struggle to take root in one of the world’s least forgiving soils. They’re certainly not fazed by a little bad weather.
For a first-time visitor to the Faroe Islands, seeing the chance that comes with every day comes as a surprise. It’s a place to put down the phone with its weather app and look at the sky, where layers are peeled on and off throughout the day, and where even the best-laid plans are met with a chuckle.
A First Foray With Fog
We landed on a suspiciously clear day. We picked up the rental car and drove immediately towards Gásadalur. The Faroe Islands laid themselves out, recently refreshed a brilliant emerald-green by the summer rains, dotted with bright houses popping against the green backdrop.
My friend had warned me that on her past trip to the Faroes, Gásadalur refused to fall daintily in the ocean; instead, it was kicked up wildly by the gusting wind, blowing upward in bursts. Yet as we approached Gásadalur, we watched as it flowed the turquoise water below, as if posing for us. We obliged, snapping the first hundred or so photos of the thousands that would clutter our memory cards in the coming days.
Afterwards, we wound our way through the curving roads when fog first approached in curls around our car, wiping away the sea. Undeterred, we parked where we knew we could photograph Drangarnir, the steep-roofed sea stack where the incessant seas had punched a hole through the middle, making a tiny window. Two sheep chewed their grass, unperturbed by the fog enveloping them, as we waited impatiently for the fog to clear. It didn’t.
Losing the battle of the wills, we drove onwards towards our next stop, Lake Sørvágsvatn, not wanting to burn up the rest of our day.
A Failed Hike To Sørvágsvatn
In theory, the hike to Trælanípa is a cool two-hour roundtrip hike, trudging alongside sheep and the occasional human through a grassy landscape streaked with rocky streams that empty into the basin of Lake Sørvágsvatn. At the end of the trail, climbing up to the tallest sheer cliff edge, the height difference between you and the lake makes it look as if a lake is teetering precariously on the edge of a cliff, like a glass of water about to overflow.
There was only one problem: when we reached the end of our hike, we could barely see the cliff edge 20 feet in front of us, let alone Lake Sørvágsvatn sitting nestled in the bowl of the valley basin, creating that perfect illusion. We passed the time by giving sheep ridiculously punned nicknames as we, again, attempted to wait out the fog. Two hours passed, Graham and Baarbara were the clear winners of our word game, and the thicket of fog we were enmeshed in still sat stubbornly overhead, refusing to budge.
We returned to our car, feeling slightly defeated, when a burst of sunlight illuminated Trollkonfigur in the distance, sticking out from the blanket of fog curled around its feet. Our mouths dropped as our fingers swirled the dials and tapped buttons on our cameras rapidly. It wasn’t the photo we planned on taking, but it was a new kind of magic – and certainly no consolation prize.
A Second Try In Kalsoy
The next morning as we made our way to Kalsoy, fog encompassed our ferry. It blocked our view out of the car windows, and I felt my stomach do an anticipatory dance as I experienced the unnerving sensation of gliding through a cloud. I felt like I was sitting at the top of a roller coaster, waiting to fall. Luckily, the ferry to Kalsoy is mercifully short, and we were disembarking a mere 20 minutes later – a puzzlingly short time, given how the fog had been so thick we couldn’t even see Kalsoy until we were nearly upon it.
As we maneuvered our way through a series of one-lane tunnels, the fog cleared patch by patch until we reached the village of Trøllanes, where the colors were tantalizingly bright now that the sun had elbowed its way through the clouds.
We worked our way up the first steep hill, cresting at the top where we could then take a flatter path the rest of the hike. We passed by sheep enjoying the sun – one was even basking on a rock, smiling with a Cheshire-like grin. As the sheep nibbled the grass, which was being fed by the sun, it struck me that sheep are just one small degree of separation away from photosynthesis, living in complete harmony with these islands.
Sidestepping gingerly across a particularly steep patch of hill, we made the final uphill push to the Kalsoy lighthouse. At the summit, we flopped onto our backs, taking our turn to bask like sheep in the sun, snacking on chocolate as we marveled at the beauty of the landscape around us. While the lighthouse is usually the focus of all the photographs, I couldn’t help but be wowed by its backdrop: a crag of rock erupting upwards from the sea, wrapped in green grass until it reached the crumbling, rocky cliff edge.
Clouds set in, but the fog stayed at bay as we made the 45-minute hike back, giddy from how breathtakingly beautiful the islands were and how cooperative the weather had been. My friend had actually tried this hike per past trip to the Faroes and been foiled by a fog so thick she had no choice but to sit down in and wait for it to pass. This time, she got to re-write her story, completing the trip.
On our way back to the ferry terminal, we stopped in Mikladalur to pay a visit to Kópakonan, the statue of a seal woman set against the backdrop of brilliant sea and jutting island. Kópakonan, a green-patinated bronze statue, is shown stepping out of her sealskin, a look of defiance in her eyes. As the waves lapped behind her and a patch of fog coasted behind her head, I felt in my bones the appeal of legend in the Faroes. How else can you grapple with the reality of living in a place of such extremes, of such mercurial weather and startling beauty?
As we sat in the line of cars waiting for the return boat to Klaksvík, the fog once again settled on the island, as if fulfilling a promise.
A Gamble Worth Taking
The Faroe Islands are not a destination that you can bend to your will. Every plan is in pencil. You are guaranteed nothing. Every view is hard-won, the result of an uphill climb or stomach-churning road. And yet this is exactly why this improbable cluster of 18 islands is so captivating.
In a world where travel has become almost too easy, the Faroe Islands are a breath of salty, cool fresh air. In a world where cookie-cutter Old Towns all sell the same knickknacks, where English is the lingua franca of commerce and charades are no longer the common tongue, where you can get the same five dishes in any country on a menu translated into at least as many languages, the Faroe Islands offers a joltingly different experience. It’s a challenge, in all the best of ways. And should you choose to accept this challenge, entering the Faroe Islands with a wish list rather than a checklist, you’ll find that these wind-chapped islands are truly one of the most spectacular places on earth.
It is the very unpredictability of everything that makes the Faroe Islands so truly special. Every time the clouds part, you’ll be struck by how impossibly blue the waters are. When the sun shines through a particularly thin bit of cloud, bathing the town in orange light, it is pure magic. And when the weather doesn’t go your way, spoiling the plans you were foolhardy enough to make, you’ll be compelled to return and roll the dice yet again.