Few people have heard of the obscure Faroe Islands, much less visited them, but a chance encounter with one of their countrywomen had put them firmly on this traveler's map...
First impressions at Bøur Beach, before the hike
A good few years ago, summoning the courage to chat up a beautiful stranger at a London train station unknowingly provided me with an introduction to one of the world's rarest peoples, trailing, perhaps, somewhere after subjects of Vatican City and Tuvalu.
This siren's ethereal blonde locks and sparkling blue eyes were indelibly etched onto my memory, and I went home wondering whether there could really be a country where all the girls looked like her, that I'd never heard of.
I dusted off my atlas (pre-Google Maps, of course) and found a small group of isolated rocks, half-way between Scotland and Iceland where she said she'd come from.
It would be another 15 years until I would see the Faroe Islands for myself, and meet only the second Faroese person of my life.
Quite differently from my first experience, this would be a lanky Heath Ledger-lookalike at Vagar airport -- my guide, whose ice-breaker was explaining he was taking me not to my hotel to unpack, but up a mountain for a hike.
It was a novel introduction. And I wrapped up as best I could in what I'd flown in wearing, fumbling about in my backpack for my boots, so we could scale the peaks that loomed around us.
Before I knew it, we were climbing, zigzagging across craggy hillsides, gripping the rock-faces whenever a gust of wind threatened to prize us off and send us plummeting into the angry ocean swells far below.
"It's not normally like this!" the guide joked...
Gunnálvur explained how he would stalk these slopes during the islands' long, dark, numbing winters; lying in wait in the snow for hours for an unlucky hare to come out foraging, before picking it off with his rifle and taking it home for dinner, like a culinary cross between Andy McNab and Ray Mears.
Young men here, I quickly learned, embrace the traditions of hunting and farming almost instinctively. The girls, however, were more likely to make a bee-line to Copenhagen (the capital of the islands' colonial masters), as soon as they came of age, to attend university or find work.
Gunna (it was the best version of his Faroese name I could muster) had studied at a Bible school in the U.S., but returned because he was homesick.
"By the way, don't think it's always like this here," he said, waving at the cloudless blue sky and bright sunshine. "This is a real treat for us!"
After a couple of hours, with the country's 18 islands seemingly spread out beneath us, the prize of getting involved from the jump had made any doubts about our impromptu mountaineering expedition a distant memory.
We'd started out from the scenic sea-front village of Bøur, its painted wooden houses with grass roofs a throw-back to rural centuries-old Scandinavian living. We then followed the old postal route (pity the postman) over to Gásadalur, the latest village in the Faroe Islands to be connected by road.
The feeling of isolation was palpable, and this inaugural walk provided the beginnings of a real insight into how people here had gotten around since arriving here in around 400 A.D.
There remain dozens of villages, and even whole islands here, waiting to be connected to the "grid" and, until they are, their only link to civilization is via helicopter.
The views from the top were majestic
Gunna pointed to a tiny emerald island about a mile out to sea, and told me that a brother and sister lived there with their respective families.
"That's amazing," I said. "How do their kids get to school?"
"Oh, they've got a Skype connection to a classroom on the mainland," he replied.
Having reached the end of our inaugural trek, we drove to Gjógv on the island of Eysturoy, and I checked into the guesthouse "Gjáargarður."
After dinner, I wanted to head out and find a bar to meet some locals, but there was none. Weighing it up, after my initial hike, I settled on not scouring the hills by myself, in the dark, to find one.
If this village represented the sleepiest part of the Faroes, then the next morning I was off to see its liveliest hub: the capital, Torshavn, where half of its 50,000 population lives.
Getting there meant traversing this fragmented archipelago by road, which in turn meant navigating mile-upon-mile of subterranean tunnels. Millions of tons of rock have been blasted, year-by-year, so one part of each island can be linked to another.
The resulting labyrinthine warrens of underground tunnels stretches for miles. Inside them, trance-inducing lighting lulls you into a dream world, before abruptly jolting you back to reality with a kaleidoscope of spectacular green hillsides, patch-works of scrub steppes and glowing cobalt blue coastlines.
I drove into the capital in a daze, but hungry for lunch. Wandering around the center, I settled on a sushi restaurant called Etika -- a popular daytime hangout for the trendy, young Faroese who haven't fled abroad yet, as well as the city's creative types.
Experiencing "all the seasons in one day" in the capital
Further along was the shop of Guðrun & Guðrun, who designed detective Sarah Lund's jumper from the Danish TV series The Killing. Next-door there was a record shop, and further up the street was the Old Town, which dates from the Middle Ages.
I made my way upwards to my next accommodation: the four-star Hotel Føroyar, perched on a hillside overlooking the capital.
Spying a stable from the car park, I went to check it out after unpacking and within the hour was cantering around the hilltop's treeless moorlands with its owner, on his prized Icelandic horses.
In-between taking in the scenery, he encouraged me to try the "tölt" -- a super smooth extra gait unique to these horses, which legend has it you can ride at while holding a pint of beer without spilling a drop!
Dinner at the hotel's Restaurant, Koks, encompassed a spectacular tasting menu, which included salmon smoked at the table in a burning pine needle-filled pot; and the islands' delicacy: whale, where shavings were peeled from a dark block of dried meat with a "grindaknívur" ivory-sheathed whaling knife.
The food was excellent, but it was Friday night, and a night-life R&R mission in the smallest capital in the world beckoned.
My first call was Hvonn lounge bar, where many locals start their night. This is a smart café-like bar where groups meet before going on to either Sirkus: an eclectic club across the road with a student vibe, or the plush Eclipse, next to the cinema, if you want to splash some cash. Rex and Cippo offered alternatives further into the early hours, but despite the friendliness and hospitality of the locals, I knew I had an early start the next morning, so I reigned it in.
Koltur's stone hamlet vies for "World's most remote hotel"
Faroese people will tell you that here you can experience all the seasons in one day, and when it rains, "it rains upwards." Having been caught in a cloudburst while running between clubs that night, I could vouch for that and I returned to my room looking like I'd been swimming in my clothes.
Next day, a much-anticipated helicopter tour to one of the northern islands had meant a pre-dawn recce to reach the airport, the other side of the country.
This was a challenging drive in the still torrential rain, and I often had to slow to a crawl in zero visibility, fearful that one of the few other drivers on the roads might hit me, or I'd tumble to my certain death off an unmarked cliff-edge. But the spectacular silver lining to this was that once the sky cleared, I could see that each towering hillside had become a cascading waterfall, each one framed by a rainbow, creating a unique natural phenomenon.
Whereas taking a helicopter may be akin to taking a bus for the Faroese, as it's more of a lifeline than an extravagance, for me, it represented a real treat. That was particularly true of the Bell 412, which lifted us from Vagar out over the sea to begin our 20-minute journey to the far-flung island of Koltur.
Half way, we flew low over the sea stacks Risin and Kellingin known as the Troll and Witch, who it is said were in the process of stealing the Faroe Islands to take back to Iceland before starting an argument that saw them turned to stone.
Before we know it, we were setting down on one of the Faroes' smallest islands -- home to just two people, who had lived there for 18 years since rescuing it from abandonment in the '80s.
The husband and wife team are overseeing the renovation of a dozen old stone houses here, protected by the state thanks to their cultural and historical importance as examples of traditional Faroese dwellings.
The rock and grass roof exteriors made them look more like sheds or barns, but inside their warm pine floors and walls lent them more of a sauna vibe, hard as it was to imagine its original occupants happily sweating it out while braving this place's harsh, dark winters in solitude.
It is hoped this island will become a remote tourist attraction to demonstrate the historical way of the Faroese, providing accommodation in these very houses, and a communal center point in the more modern house the couple live in, adjacent to the site. Modern heating systems with hot water and Internet connections are already installed in many of the guesthouses.
It didn't take long before I was imagining myself staying there for a season, walking on Koltur's huge, overbearing hill and along the frothing swells of its coastline by day, maybe writing a book or recording an album by candlelight in the evenings. And of course, taking the helicopter back to the mainland each Friday night, to go clubbing.
A romantic dream, I guessed to myself, with little possibility to actually realize it. But then I remembered, that was what had brought me here in the first place.
The Faroe Islands will be one of only two places on land to view a solar eclipse on March 20, 2015. Eclipse parties, gatherings and festivals will be taking place across the Faroe Islands that week. For more information, see: http://solareclipse.fo
Richard Powell is a freelance journalist who also works for the Media Contacts Database, Media Monitoring and Press Release Distribution firm, Presswire, but does not work with or for any of the parties mentioned in this article.