A landscape of waterfalls and sheer cliffs inhabited by hidden people, the time-lost Faroe Islands archipelago represents true escapism, says Sarah Marshall
Up until 14 years ago, delivering mail to the village of Gasadalur was a strenuous, uphill business. Tucked into a valley hugged by steep mountains, the remote Faroese village on the island of Vagar had no road access, forcing hardy postmen to trek over a clifftop path three times week.
"At that time, it was the only form of connectivity," recalls guide and mountaineer Johannus Hansen, whose grandmother was one of the 'Goose Valley's' 13 residents. "There were only two phones in the village when I was a kid."
Even now, one old woman - Petra - refuses to have electricity installed. Up until recently, she used a pet cow in her basement to generate heat.
The arrival of a multi-million-pound mountain tunnel in 2006 revolutionised life, adding to a warren of rocky burrows that link the 17 inhabited islands of this volcanic archipelago, sculpted by powerful waves from the Atlantic Ocean and Norwegian Sea.
But although the Faroe Islands, a self-governing territory belonging to the kingdom of Denmark, are only 330km north of Scotland (there's a direct flight from Edinburgh to the airport on Vagar) - they occupy another time and place. Slow-paced and considered, life couldn't be more removed.
For a brief, blissful three-month period, the islands were even Covid-free, until guests attending a wedding in capital Torshavn sparked a wildfire of cases. It was quickly brought under control by an effective track and trace system, partially delivered by word of mouth. Now every person entering the country - tourists and residents - must take a Covid test at the airport (from £50 for foreigners as of Thursday past), self-isolating at their hotels or homes for 12-24 hours until results come through. Anyone staying more than six days will be required to take another test.
Fewer tourists than usual have gathered to witness the Mulafossur waterfall in Gasadalur, where a wisp of white water plunges as elegantly as a flashy bartender's high pour.
At the cliff edge, fulmars circle around the slim cascade, while puffins clumsily crash land onto ledges above old harbour steps crumbing into the sea.
For a destination which 'closes for maintenance' three days a year to keep the beast of over-tourism at bay, a lull in visitors must surely have been a relief?
But Johannus assures me most people are eager for visitors to return. "We're very welcoming people," he smiles.
I have a chance to sample that hospitality - known as heimablidni - in the company of Anna and Oli Rubeksen, ninth generation sheep farmers who open their sea-view home for supper clubs. Skerpikj0t - wind-dried mutton - is a speciality here. Left to hang in a ventilated shed for up to nine months, it's essentially rotten flesh, but when Anna serves the dish, it's too rude to refuse.
A luxuriant starter of codfish and egg bathed in silky butter gives me enough faith to trust anything the self-taught kitchen whizz prepares. And as it turns out, the tender, slow-cooked meat is surprisingly palatable, although its vinegary, pickled flavour is one I think I'll leave the locals to enjoy.
If days can be bright, local legends are almost always dark.
From tales of eagles swiping babies, to myths of suicidal humans disguised in zip-up seal suits, no story has a conventional happy ending. Both didactic and dark-humoured, they are nevertheless regaled with entertaining vigour.
"The islands are full of 'hidden people'," insists Rani, as we climb a narrow, vertiginous path to the island's Kallurin lighthouse. Beneath the soaring arc of a bird-clustered cliff, the setting has become an Instagram hit for photographers seeking to capture ever-changing light and shade.
Out here, in this exposed landscape, there doesn't seem to be many places for people to hide.
"They look grey, but they are among us," explains Rani. Proving the point, Rani takes a detour on our way back to the ferry terminal. Swerving left in a mountain tunnel, he follows a rough-hewn exit to a U-shaped valley above the sea. The secret route was originally built for farmers to access the land, but Rani brings people here to listen to what he refers to as the "diamond sound" - a soothing, melancholic chime of dripping water, gusting wind and guttural raven calls.
"This is what the islands sounded like when Irish monks first arrived here in the sixth century," he whispers.
At a time when everything around the globe feels so discordant, it's a welcome harmony.
Discover the World (01737 886 131; discover-the-world.com) offers a range of holidays to the Faroe Islands, including self-drives, island hopping and a Torshavn city break, plus a full tailor-made service. Prices start from £280pp for a three-night Torshavn city break, including B&B accommodation. Excludes flights, which start from around £200pp. Departures April-October 2021.
For more information on the destination, go to visitfaroeislands.com.