Formed 50 million years ago, the landscape of the Faroe Islands is one of brooding beauty – truly spectacular. With waterfalls and streams, black volcanic rock and hulking great sea-cliffs with screaming seabirds at every turn, they also boast lush valleys and a unique, ever-changing light reflected from the ocean all around. Nestled in the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic – roughly midway between Iceland and the Shetland Islands – the archipelago is composed of 18 islands, on each of which you are never further than three miles from the sea.
A mention of the Faroe Islands as a holiday destination causes many a wrinkled nose as people struggle to place it, perhaps only recognising the name from the shipping forecast. And this only adds to the islands’ charm: a visit here is about as far away from a beach package break as you can get. You can try rappelling with the wind wrapping around your ears and the sea roaring several hundred metres below you, you can attempt to capture on film a puffin with a silver streak of fish in its mouth and you can wander through the quiet streets of the capital Torshavn, enjoying its colourful houses and see the latest catch slowly drying in the sea air.
Gudrun & Gudrun became known around the world when one of their Nordic snowflake jumpers was worn by detective Sarah Lund on the Danish crime series The Killing. It was made from so-called Viking yarn, spun from wool taken from the hardy sheep that stalk the islands’ unyielding cliffs and windswept hills, and is said to have been personally picked out by actress Sofie Gråbøl. The company’s roots are deeply embedded in Faroese culture: from designs based on the traditional shapes and family emblems of fishermen’s sweaters, to the fact that the jumpers are still knitted by hand in Faroese living rooms.The islands are under the sovereignty of Denmark but self-governing, with their own parliament and flag, and the Faroese are fiercely proud of their and unique heritage. One of the Faroe Islands’ best known exports encapsulates this Faroese pride in a uniquely modern way. Knitwear brand
The female duo behind the label, Gudrun Ludvig and Gudrun Rógvadóttir, advocate a ‘slow clothing’ policy, in the same way that slow food is valued over fast food. Their knitters make the garments in their own homes, using the work as a way of overcoming the long, dark winters. The stars and diamonds that make up the designs on their sweaters echo those on the clothes worn by hardy Faroese fishermen many years ago. They would venture out into the stormy northern Atlantic seas for long stretches at a time on trips fraught with danger.
‘When the sailors returned, they would stand out on deck while their families waited,’ Gudrun says. ‘Each family would have their own particular designs and, long before they could see their faces, they could see their sweaters and know their loved ones were alive.’
Elsewhere, fishing remains a major employment sector in the Faroe Islands and the islands are also becoming one of the world’s largest salmon producing countries. Now, almost 3 per cent of the islands’ 48,400 population work in aquaculture. Atli Gregersen runs one of the best. Luna, his company, produces the HiddenFjord brand of salmon which has been praised as tasting the closest yet to wild Atlantic salmon. Every year, salmon leave their homes in the rivers of Europe to visit the rich feeding grounds of the waters surrounding the Faroe Islands.
They grow here and thrive before heading back to the rivers to spawn meanings that HiddenFjord salmon can be said to be raised in the most naturally desirable surroundings. This – an unwavering respect for the pristine environment of the Faroe Islands and its waters – underscores Luna’s approach. Every aspect of the process, from hatching the fish to carefully monitoring the sea bed, has been carefully considered by Atli and his two brothers who run the company after their grandfather founded it in 1929. The team are as sensitive to the environment as possible, and produce beautiful-tasting fish at the same time.
Atli explains why they chose the name HiddenFjord: ‘Fjord is a very Scandinavian word which captures where we are and Hidden expresses something about his beautiful, unspoiled place – our products live up to this name.’
Among the much-praised farming methods at Luna is the way the fish are killed. A mobile abattoir is placed at the head of the fjord and the fish are slowly dragged towards it, simulating the salmon’s journey to the rivers to spawn. They are then killed individually in chambers with a mechanical stunner, causing minimum stress to the fish. The fish has won plaudits from around the world, including from the likes of London chefs Michael Roux Jnr and Mark Hix, and placed the Faroe Islands firmly back on the map of superior seafood produce.
Gregersen is matter-of-fact about the success and says his company is not resting on its laurels. ‘I’m confident that we’re producing a very high degree of sustainability, we are doing all that we can at the moment, but I know we are now more sustainable than we have been in the past and we will be more sustainable in the future,’ he says.
A helicopter ride away, on Koltur, the smallest of the islands, Bjørn Patursson and his wife live as the sole inhabitants. A helicopter stops by three times a week with supplies but they need for little. They are focused on driving forward a plan which has been years in the making, to transform Koltur into the Faroes’ first and only national park – encouraging people to visit and see a glimpse traditional Faroese life. Koltur is home to several original traditional Faroese houses which have been painstakingly preserved and restored. The plan is to create a living element to the national park, with examples of native breeds of horses and sheep living permanently on Koltur. A visit here would offer a beautiful journey back in time, as well as all the opportunities the island offers for hiking and bird-watching – its coastline is an important breeding site for seabirds such as Atlantic Puffins, Storm Petrels and Black Guillemots.
‘It is a big responsibility,’ admits Bjørn. ‘But we feel strongly that we must preserve this place for the future and make sure it remains here for society by rebuilding it.’
In 2007 the National Geographic carried out a survey of 111 island communities throughout the world. A panel of 522 well-travelled experts in sustainable tourism visited each one and the Faroe Islands were chosen as the most appealing destination in the world. Rated ahead of the Azores, Bermuda and Hawaii, judges declared the Faroes as ‘lovely unspoiled islands which are a delight to the traveller.’
Thinking over all I’ve seen as we return by boat from hearing a haunting trombone solo in a sea cave, I decided that I agree wholeheartedly. The Faroe Islands: surprising, powerful and beautiful: a delight in every sense.