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Learning to slow down in the North Atlantic

Story by Steven Yan September 23rd, 2016


As I've become busier, I've noticed that I'm beholden to always having a plan. Days gets partitioned into 30 and 60 minute blocks. Life gets reduced to a list.

In September, I found myself headed to Copenhagen for business, with a free weekend to spare and - uncharacteristically - no plan. After a long week of work, I wasn't looking forward to that isolated feeling that can sometimes come with being alone in a new city, surrounded by crowds of strangers. Instead, on a sunny Friday afternoon, I boarded Atlantic Airways 453.



I felt the plane start to descend. Glancing out the window, I glimpsed the Faroe Islands in the distance, blanketed by a thick layer of clouds. Summer had long left the North Atlantic; the season was just starting to turn rainy and unpredictable.

An aerial view of Sørvágsvatn and its waterfall that drops into the Atlantic, Bøsdalafossur.
The final approach to Vagá Floghavn is a beautiful one, with the western islets and sheer cliffs of the Faroes spread out beneath you.
The wind, variable weather, and short runway at Vagá Floghavn make it one of the most dangerous airports in the world.

sheep, salt, and breeze

At first, the Faroe Islands feel immediately familiar. Despite only having 55,000 inhabitants, it has the infrastructure of a first world country. A modern network of roads and subsea tunnels link most of the 18 islands. You can drive from the western island of Vágar to the eastern island of Viðoy in two hours.

It only took a short drive from the airport for the islands' unique character to emerge. Firstly, the ubiquitous sheep; Faroe means "sheep islands". Secondly, no trees grow on the islands, probably due to the harsh Atlantic climate, which leads to the third observation: the temperamental weather and extreme microclimates. You can enter one of the tunnels in broad daylight only to exit in the rain.

Some curious sheep along the western coast of Vágar. Tindhólmur in the background.

The cause and effect of progress is not as unrelenting here as it is in San Francisco. Gásadalur wasn't accessible by road until 2004; it could only be accessed by hiking over the 400m high peaks from the neighboring village of Bøur. Over a decade after a tunnel was bored through the mountain, still only 18 people live here.

I experienced my first of the harsh Atlantic climate, where the wind gusted so hard that it lifted some of the waterfall back over the cliff.


A single lane road takes you 10 km through a waterfall-lined valley to the tiny village of Saksun. In the 1600s, a storm closed off the village's natural harbor, and now it can only be accessed at high tide.

Faroese horse manes are out of control.
This gentle horse came right up to  greet me at the string that borders its field, but wouldn't cross it.

learning to slow down

It poured all morning and I found that Faroese cottages are well suited to the harsh climate. The hygge of warmth from the radiator heaters I had cranked up the night before, the rain pattering on the roof, and the waterfalls streaming down from the rocky peaks made it even harder to venture outside. That feeling of not needing to be anywhere or do anything felt foreign.

In the US this would be somewhat of a tourist attraction. In the Faroes, it's home.

By late morning, the rain relented and I started my trek along the largest lake in the Faroe Islands, Sørvágsvatn. With the sudden popularity of travel to Iceland, you wouldn't know that the islands are trying to promote themselves as a tourist destination. The only instructions I found were, "turn left on the first street just after the church. Continue about two to three hundred metres, then turn right and continue until you reach the gate to the outfield."

Expecting some kind of clearly marked trailhead, I instead jostled my way down an unkept dirt and gravel road, convinced that my tiny hatchback would pop a tire. I came to a stop outside a dilapidated, abandoned house and an old car that looked like it hadn't been driven in years, with not a single other person in sight.

The heavy morning rain had made the narrow dirt trail muddy and slippery. I found it easier to choose my own adventure across the peat fields.

Low fog was followed by sun breaks all day. You can barely make out Trælanípa in the background.
These sheep became familiar faces on the hike along the shores of Sørvágsvatn.
These simple huts are sprinkled throughout the islands.
The brief sunbreaks lit up the golden peat fields and coaxed a thin veil of mist from the soaked soil.
What lives at the tip of a 142m high sea cliff in the North Atlantic? Not much.

The island are home to some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. I've never seen such aquamarine water.

Facing south, looking toward the island of Sandoy.

Trælanípa is a 142m high sea cliff that forms the southern tip of the island of Vágar. When you stand on it, you feel like you're at the end of the world.


You also get the famous view of Sørvágsvatn, hanging above the Atlantic.

IMG_6630 (1).jpg

The ocean meets the lake at a waterfall. Bøsdalafossur drops 30m into the Atlantic, fed by Sørvágsvatn.

The "infinity pool" view of Bøsdalafossur.

The evening fog rolled in above Sørvágsvatn. The sheep seemed to prefer grazing high up on the cliffs; I couldn't blame them.


I later hiked the highest peak in the Faroe Islands. See Faroese, Part 2.

Faroe Islands