Out of the shadows: Solar eclipse shines a light on Faroe Islands

CNN  — 

It’s impossible not to think about the sky when visiting the Faroes, even when these far-flung islands aren’t about to be darkened by a total eclipse of the sun.

Although ferries connect the Faroe Islands to Scotland and Iceland – the islands lie almost halfway between the two – the easiest way is fly.

But arriving via the sky comes with its own issues.

Landing is so tricky at the islands’ main airport, wedged between two enormous mountains, that pilots who fly here need additional training.

The main airport was constructed by soldiers during World War II who apparently picked a tricky location to deter Germans from landing.

The descent offers incredible scenery as a distraction – black cliffs, pounded by frothing waves, not to mention the mountains.

It’s a landscape that’ll be appreciated by the thousands of visitors arriving on the islands this month in the hope of watching the solar eclipse that will sweep across it for two minutes from 9:41 a.m. local time on March 20.

The Faroes and the remote Norwegian island of Svalbard are the only places that will witness a total eclipse – where the moon covers the sun fully – during this solar event.

The eclipse will reportedly be best seen from the Faroes’ northern islands – if it can be seen at all.

“The problem is that the weather on the islands is extremely varied, and you can have bright sunshine in one place while it’s pouring where you stand,” cautions astronomy expert Ole J. Knudsen of Denmark’s Aarhus University.

“But if we get a totally clear day, it’s worth going as far to the northeast as possible, enabling you to spend a few more seconds in the shadow of the moon.”

Spectacular skies

Weather conditions are highly changeable on the Faroes.

The islands have always been popular with astronomers, thanks to the low levels of light pollution that also make them an ideal spot to see the northern lights.

Some of the northern hemisphere’s most spectacular constellations – Ursa Major (Big Bear), Ursa Minor (Little Bear) and Cassiopeia – can be seen here in all their glory.

Most eclipse visitors will stay in the Faroese capital of Torshavn on the the largest and most populous island, Streymoy.

Such is the anticipation that the first stargazer booked their room 10 years ago.

It’s all rather exciting for the world’s smallest capital city, which has just three sets of traffic lights and a stadium big enough to hold 10% of the Faroes’ population.

At the last count, expected visitors numbered 3,000, which posed a slight problem, since there are only 800 hotel beds in Torshavn.

“We’re asking locals to rent out spare rooms,” explains exhausted tourism manager Susanna Sorensen. “We’ve got television crews flying in from all over the world.”

The Faroese are used to sudden influxes.

During World War II, when the population numbered just 25,000, 10,000 British soldiers descended on the islands.

Their duties – aside from building airports in ridiculous places – included keeping an eye out for invading Germans.

Crumbling forts still dot a rugged coastline shaped by millions of years of volcanic eruptions.

Volcanic eruptions

The landscape of the Faroes was created by millions of years of volcanic eruptions.

When the eclipse has passed, the Faroes, an autonomous Danish territory, are hoping to attract more visitors and even win back islanders who have moved overseas.

Sub-sea tunnels have been built at great expense between some of the islands in the hope that better mobility will encourage people to say.

A planned tunnel to the island of Sandoy, home to 1,200 people, will cost $148 million.

There’s a free bus service and a subsidized helicopter service for those on the more remote islands (17 out of 18 of the islands are inhabited, some by just two or three people).

A one-way trip costs just a few dollars.

The plan appears to be working.

Growing numbers of islanders who left to build careers elsewhere are returning with their families.

Among those returning is Poul Andrias Ziska, head chef at Koks (Oyggjarvegur 45, 100 Torshavn; +298 333 999) otherwise known as the Faroese version of Copenhagen’s legendary Noma restaurant.

Under Ziska, Koks was recently one of five venues in the running for Denmark’s “restaurant of the year” award.

The chef raves about the Faroes’ langoustines.

The islands’ are one of the world’s largest producers and are reputedly so popular with Russian President Vladimir Putin that he has weekly shipments sent to Russia.

That doesn’t stop my meal there being as disconcerting as it is delicious.

My first course is a tiny amuse-bouche placed atop a sea urchin that needs eating quickly before it slides inside the spiky shell.

That’s hard to do while I’m being distracted by the a display of northern lights.

I gaze out over Torshavn at a vast expanse that, for two minutes on March 20, will become one of the most watched pieces of sky in the world.