- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2007

GJOGV, Faeroe Islands

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 Slaettaratindur, at 1,894 feet the highest mountain in these islands. Offshore, a wild ocean pushes 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 orcs 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, 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 just seven of the 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 eighth century. Ancient traditions live on, including 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 ashore. 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 offers majestic views over deep-green pastures, shimmering fjords or steep cliffs towering above the Atlantic swell.

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 98-foot 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 (3,280 feet) 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.

Though 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 even can 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 warmly and waterproof, especially if you’re out hiking. A clear blue sky can turn nasty and release a hailstorm within minutes — and don’t think you’ll see it coming.

Harsh as it may seem, the climate actually is 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 a 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 restaurants. 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.

Don’t miss the birds: Puffins, kittiwakes, gannets and the world’s biggest colony of storm petrels make the Faeroes a top destination for ornithologists and bird-watchers. Boat trips with an expert can be arranged through the tourist office; go to www.visit-faroeislands.com or phone 298/355-800.

Local airline Atlantic Airways flies daily from Copenhagen and twice a week from London; www.atlantic.fo. Expect some serious turbulence during landing. The Faeroese shipping company, Smyril Line, operates year-round cruises from Norway, Denmark and Scotland; go to www.smyril-line.com.

Four-star hotels in Torshavn include Hotel Hafnia, www.hafnia.fo and Hotel Foroyar, www.hotelforoyar.com. Rates start at about $240 for a double room. For a more affordable stay amid breathtaking scenery, try the Gjaargardur guest house in Gjogv, where a twin room is $127; www.gjaargardur.fo or 011-298-42-31-71.

Don’t expect any pulsating night life Iceland is the place to go for that — or major cultural events, but the Faeroese summer is packed with art and music festivals. The G! Festival July 19 through 22 brings thousands of people to the small village of Goeta to hear international bands and local singers such as Eivoer Palsdottir or Lena Anderssen; www.gfestival.com.

You can change money into Danish kroner at local banks. English is spoken widely.

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