Photo Story | Faroe Islands

The Top Ten Marvels of the North Atlantic Saga: Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland

© Dennis Minty

Each Adventure Canada expedition holds its own unique itinerary highlights. Here, towering geology, quaint villages, and birds, birds, and more birds make our hearts go pitter-patter. Read about our ten picks for the top marvels of this trip of a lifetime, Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland: North Atlantic Saga.

A millennium ago, the North Atlantic was the frontier of the European world—and Vikings were its pioneers. We trace their travels across the isles and crags of the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes, and Iceland, marvelling at the endurance of Nordic culture in some of the wildest country on Earth. Welcome to a place of hearty folks, haunting lore, ragged coasts, emerald moors, misty peaks, and cacophonous bird-cliffs, all embraced by the big brooding sea.

Aberdeen walls

© Mike Beedell

1. Be dazzled by energetic Aberdeen, Scotland’s glittering city on the sea

Aberdeen sparkles—in more ways than one. Tucked between the mouths of the Dee and Don rivers, this is Scotland’s economic dynamo, glittering with riches from North Sea oil. It also glitters, literally, from the mica infusing its historic stone buildings. Marvel at the city’s many attractions: its famously verdant parks (forty-five in all!); its museums, the most renowned of which is the Aberdeen Maritime Museum; and its bustling port—a cradle of shipbuilding, fishing vessels, oil tenders, and, of course, your very own floating home away from home!

Ring of Brodgar Orkney Scotland

© Dennis Minty

2. Travel back through the centuries to the ancient, unspoiled Orkneys

Though just offshore of the Scottish mainland, the Orkneys are a world apart. This gaggle of green isles, sandstone cliffs, stormy beaches, and ancient villages is an outpost of Viking heritage. Its main town, Kirkwall, is dominated by the monumental St. Magnus Cathedral, dating from 1137. Be sure to check out the Hall of Clestrain, childhood home of Arctic explorer John Rae, as well as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage site, home to the eerie Stonehenge-like standing stones of the 4,000-year-old Ring of Brodgar.

Lamb sheep Fair Isle Scotland

© Dennis Minty

3. Drop anchor at faraway Fair Isle, a haven for history buffs and birders

The most remote inhabited island in the United Kingdom, lonesome Fair Isle lies amid rich fishing grounds halfway from the Orkneys to the Shetlands. This former Viking hub belonged to Norway until the fifteenth century. Now it’s an idyllic colony of roughly sixty-five shepherds and craftspeople, the latter of whom are famous for their knitted wool sweaters, which you might just be lucky enough to purchase. Visit the local museum, dedicated to preserving island heritage. Fair Isle is also celebrated for its birds: some 350 species flocks here, including fulmars, kittiwakes, and skuas (locally called “bonxies”).

Suduroy Island Faroe Islands

© Dennis Minty

4. Marvel at Faroese creatures and culture at Suðuroy Island

Awash in the cold froth of the Atlantic, the Faroes are eighteen islands forming an autonomous protectorate under the Danish Crown. Fjords, crags, moors, fog, Viking rune stones, and grassy-roofed cottages abound. Suðuroy Island, famed for its sea cliffs, is an avian paradise, featuring storm petrels and puffins. In the tiny village of Sumba, dating from the seventh century, try your hand (or is it foot?) at Faroese dancing. Hiking is also excellent in the foothills of Beinisvørð Mountain, affording panoramic views of this mysterious, enchanting region.

Torshavn capital city Faroe Islands

© Dennis Minty

5. Live large in the Faroe’s micro-metropolis, the wild yet cultured Tórshavn

Overlooked by peaks and embracing the sea, Tórshavn means “harbour of Thor.” With 20,000 residents, this former Viking trading centre is quaint—yet it’s the capital and by far the biggest city of the Faroes. Culture is rich here. The National Art Gallery is a treasure, set amid gorgeous grounds with walking trails. Tinganes is the town’s historic centre, home to grass-roofed buildings and the Faroese government headquarters. Nordic House hosts sonorous musical performances. And be sure to pop in to one of the wide range of shops, eateries, and pubs.

Mulafossur waterfall Faroe Islands

© Dennis Minty

6. Soak it all in at the stunning Múlafossur waterfall, where a river spouts into the sea

Farther afield from Tórshavn, the Faroes truly go wild. Take advantage of the many natural highlights of the region, including the dramatic and commanding overlook at Kaldbaksfjorour, the bird cliffs and sea caves of Vestmanna, and probably the most photographed spot in the whole country: the spectacular Múlafossur waterfall in Gásadalur. The latter is reached by a convenient tunnel, but be sure to note the old switchback trail over the mountain, once used by the local postman!

Eysturoy Island Faroe Islands

© Dennis Minty

7. Explore Faroe’s Eysturoy Island, an outpost of Vikings, fjords, and trolls

The shores of Eysturoy Island are perfect for hiking, birding, and photography. Charming villages are linked by futuristic tunnels through mountains and beneath the ocean floor. The tiny town of Gjógv, on the northeast tip of the island, is small but steeped in Viking history. Fuglafjørður ("fjord of the birds"), a village on Eysturoy’s east coast, lives up to its name. And then there’s Risin og Kellingin (“The Giant and Hag”), two massive basaltic stacks said to be trolls who were caught by the rising sun and turned to stone.

Atlantic puffin Faroe Islands

© Dennis Minty

8. Commune with sea stacks and seabirds at rugged Mykines Island

Mykines is the westernmost of the Faroes and a geological marvel. Great columns of basalt called the Stone-Wood tower thirty metres above the ocean. On the western end of the island, connected by a forty-metre footbridge, is the islet Mykineshólmur, famed for its century-old lighthouse. Watch for seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, and storm petrels by the thousands. Meanwhile, the human population of Mykines is far smaller—just ten friendly full-time locals, who for the most part can only come and go by helicopter.

Zodiac cruise Heimaey Iceland

© Victoria Polsoni

9. Visit Iceland’s famous Heimaey, the town that was nearly buried in ash

Off Iceland’s south coast, Vestmannaeyjar comprises countless rocks, skerries, and islands. Only one of these has residents—and they’re lucky to be alive. Heimaey became famous in 1973 when it was nearly destroyed by the erupting volcano Eldfell. Hike to the now-peaceful volcano and visit the Eldheimar museum, built around a house excavated after being buried in ash. Nearby sea cliffs offer excellent opportunities for Zodiac cruises with bird sightings, including razorbills, fulmars, and puffins.

Reykjavik public sculpture

© Mike Beedell

10. Have a hot time in Reykjavík, a city that’s ancient, quaint, and chic

According to lore, Iceland’s hip little capital was founded by Ingólfr Arnarson, who liked the steamy local hot springs (Reykjavík means “smokey cove”). Today, eleven centuries later, the city boasts dozens of geothermal heated outdoor pools. It’s worth extending your stay here by a few days to take a dip, check out the towering expressionist-style Hallgrímskirkja Church, stroll by the placid Tjörnin pond in the city centre, or visit the National Culture House (which preserves the Norse Sagas in their original manuscripts).