The adventure that is getting around the Faroe Islands
Getting around the Faroe Islands is all part of the fun of visiting. From subsidised helicopters to speed boats, ferries and free buses around the capital, public transport is cheap and varied. Connecting up communities is seen as important here and the way they’ve been connected makes for some rather novel and exciting travel experiences for visitors….
Committed to connecting up communities
The Faroe Islanders are well practised at connecting up the towns and villages that lie scattered across their 18 islands. Over the years governments here have made it a priority to connect up even the most remote of settlements, working to ensure even the smallest villages remain viable communities, well connected to bigger towns and the Faroese capital Torshavn.
The infrastructure here is so good in places, with bridges, causeways and tunnels connecting up five of the larger Northern islands, that driving around it’s easy to forget they are in fact separate islands. It’s not a mistake a local would make though, especially not the older ones who remember a time before tunnels. They may all be Faroe Islanders but individual island identity still matters too.
Such has been the enthusiasm for and commitment to blasting holes in rock to connect things up that some 19 tunnels have been constructed here in the last 50 years. The long, thin mountainous island of Kalsoy has become so riddled with tunnels (it has five to connect up four small communities with a total population of about 150) that it’s been nicknamed ‘the recorder’, although it’s not clear if it plays a tune when the wind blows. Anyway the investment of time and money in these massive projects is a sure sign of how community, however small, is important here.
The tunnels are also where we discover a great new family sport; one that requires no special training or skill, just nerves of steel and a car with lights and brakes in good working order. We call it ‘tunnel chicken’ but locals just call it getting from one island to another…
Ever played tunnel chicken?
We are all glad Kirstie isn’t driving because I don’t think she’s got the nerve for this game. The tunnels in the Northern reaches are dark, cavernous, disconcertingly long and unlined. They look unfinished – as though the builders got bored after the blasting. And they are also scarily two way but single track. The kids seem sure they were designed and built by the same people that made Grand Auto Theft.
Anyway, as far as I can tell these are the rules of tunnel chicken:
- You drive along a tunnel in the dark with your lights on until you meet another car coming the other way along the single lane.
- If the other driver has the right of way, (signposted before you enter the tunnel) you must give way to them by ducking into one of the occasional passing places marked with an M.
- M doesn’t stand for mangled, mashed, or moulded into the wall of a passing place. It stands for MY GOD WE’RE GOING TO CRASH!!!
- If you’ve just passed an M when you see lights coming towards you, you must hold your nerve and drive on to the next passing place. There’s no place for reversing.
- You must drive on to the next M whether or not you think you are going to make it before you meet the oncoming car. There is no other option. You might get to the passing place just as the car coming towards you also reaches the passing place. It might feel like you are going to have a head on collision. You might shut your eyes and hope for the best, but don’t worry the other driver probably lives here and has done this many times.
- There is light at the end of the tunnel, even a Faroe Islands’ tunnel. If you play the game well you will reach the light and continue your journey in the realm of another Faroese island. If you make a mistake you may end up walking into a different light in a different realm. But you know, no risk, no consequences, no adventure.
Being small doesn’t mean acting small
If you don’t like the sound of that or just fancy ditching the car to see the islands a different way, there are other fun ways to travel around here. One of the best ways is by boat. If you’re thinking of visiting and you’ve got the time, there is no better way to arrive in the Faroes than by sea. The Faroese Smyril Line ferry, Norrona, connects the islands with Iceland and Denmark, calling twice a week in Torshavn as it plies its way across the North Atlantic. Whether you are on board or watching from the town, it’s a wonder to watch the giant ship glide skilfully into and out of the tight harbour at Torshavn; come rain or come shine, in the darkness or the afternoon light.
And it’s a wonder to think how such a small population (less than 50,000 in the Faroes) can find the resources not just to build all those tunnels but to run a cruising ferry, a fleet of interisland ferries, an international airline and even to have their own symphony orchestra. Not bad for an island that doesn’t even appear on some maps. It just goes to show being small does not mean thinking or acting small.
Getting stranded can be part of the experience
Thankfully not all the islands are connected up by road so you can still experience more traditional island hopping, using the inter-island ferries, only some of which carry cars and all of which are named after birds. You’re never far from nature here. Locals may use these boats like buses but they’re not necessarily as frequent or reliable, although the view from the window (if indeed your boat has one) makes the wait worthwhile. Services to the more remote islands like Svinoy and Fugloy may only run once a day and some islands like Mykines are simply not serviced by boat in winter. So it’s not unknown for visitors to get ‘stuck’ in these far away lands for a day or more if the weather makes crossings untenable. But then isn’t that part of the adventure?
You too can travel like a rock star
Island hopping here isn’t just about boats though. If you haven’t got great sea legs, are in a bit more of a hurry or just want to act like a rock star then you can take a helicopter. Think you can’t afford it? You probably can. We took the family to the island of Mykines from the main airport for less than it costs us at home to take the bus into town. The helicopter services connecting up the islands are just another kind of local bus service here, subsidised by the government to help keep communities connected. But visitors are welcome to use them too. And it’s a thrilling way to get around and see the islands from a completely different perspective. Flights only go on certain days and booking is essential but if you’ve always fancied the idea of hopping on and off a copter like James Bond, with the wind from the blades tousling your hair, this could be the place to do it. But don’t expect the locals on your flight to get as excited as you; they’re just on a bus going to do their weekly shopping.
The wind in your wheels
Much as we loved tunnel chicken, the ferries, free buses around Torshavn and the helicopter, our favourite way to get around was on our bikes. Biking is a brilliant way to see The Faroes. The roads are well paved and once you get beyond the capital and onto the quieter islands the traffic is light or non-existent. The scenery is exquisite and of course hopping between islands whether by bridge, causeway or boat is great fun. But it’s not for the faint hearted. With unpredictable weather, many remote communities with few services and plenty of hills you need a good plan for your ride. And it had better not involve tunnel chicken as cycling is not allowed in some tunnels, probably wisely so!
But if you’re up for it, the cycling is divine and the rewards worth all the effort, with mountain climbs up and away from rainbow coloured fishing villages, exhilarating hairpin descents down to deep blue fjords and endlessly changing perspectives on these evergreen islands, to accompany the endlessly changing weather.
We took a Sunday ride from the Gjaargardur Guest House in Gjogv up and over the hills to visit Funningur in the next bay. It’s not far as the crow flies, but enough of a climb to justify a picnic at the top and enough of a descent to get the kids whooping and the Faroes sheep scuttling out of our way on our way down.
“Where’s the coffee shop?” asked Kirstie on arriving in the village.
But of course there was none. No shops, no tourist information, no attractions, no people.
“You mean there’s nothing here?”
But there was. A few houses, a church, a pier, some boats and a public toilet. And we sat in the village for an hour or more, playing in the river, climbing on the rocks, checking out the colourful houses and grass roofed church. And that is the attraction.
We only rode about 20km, there and back. But it took us all day. A happy day. A peaceful day. A satisfyingly simple day. It was only a small ride to a small place. But it made a big impression. That’s the Faroes.
Have you been to a small place that made a big impression? We’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment and tell us about it.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 exploring Iceland and The Faroes, researching what’s on offer for adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to Smyril Line for help with transport, to Berghaus and Thule who helped equip us for the journey. And to Gjaargardur Guest House and Visit Faroes who helped us out on the Faroes. All views and opinions are as ever our own.
You can see a map of our journey on The Family Adventure Project Punkt! and view some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of what we got up to.