A roundabout under the Atlantic Ocean sounds a little unlikely, to put it mildly, but it’s a reality in the Faroe Islands, of all places. Situated roughly equidistant from Norway, Iceland and Scotland, the Faroes are not the most hospitable, in terms of climate, for most of the year. Yet, with tourism set to reach an all-time high this year, travellers should seek out the archipelago’s slower roads and newly opened sub-sea tunnels.

       Only minutes out of Sørvágur village on the island of Vágar, the road creeps towards a sheer verge above the ocean, and you pass a distinctive signpost. It isn’t marked with any numbers or words, just the image of a bright-yellow flower on a green background. Ahead, the road zig-zags, climbing past sod-roofed houses, and a field of fidgety sheep, then vanishes abruptly from sight through a dark mountain tunnel. 

       Road signs usually warn users about speed limits, hazards or the presence of livestock or wildlife, so it takes a moment or two to work out the meaning of the flower sign. The yellow flower is a marsh marigold from the buttercup family, and it’s the national flower of the Faroe Islands: With some of the strongest winds in Europe, no trees grow on the archipelago, so it is often this glossy buttercup, called sóljuleiðir in Faroese, that colours the grasses, ridges and clifftops.

       A map of the Faroes shows 13 of these Buttercup Routes routes, across the18 islands that make up the archipeligo. And, as the country continues to receive more tourists, year on year – currently around 100,000 annually, double the Faroes’ population – the idea is to bring road-trippers closer to the rare stillness that sums up life on the edge in the North Atlantic Ocean.

       The first Buttercup Route, Gásadalsleið, takes you through that dark mountain tunnel to Múlafossur waterfall, which cascades into the sea beside the village of Gásadalur. From the precipice overlooking the falls, a short walk reveals the surging channel leading to Mykines, the Faroes’ westernmost island. Shadowed by a long scarf of fog, the whole scene is wildly beautiful.

       Gásadalsleið is short in road trip terms – a 15-minute drive at most – but it encapsulates all that is wild about the Faroe Islands: sea panoramas, the molar-shaped crests of mountains, gossamer waterfalls and roads that seem to miraculously cling to cliffsides.

       In fact, all 13 “Buttercup Routes”, which cover nearly the entire country, seem to arrive abruptly at poetic destinations. Of varying length (around 3.8km to 19.5km), they encompass ocean-drop waterfalls, hanging lakes, and silent valleys, where sheep vastly outnumber people.

       One itinerary – named Saksunarleið – leads to the village of Saksun on Streymoy island, stopping short of the sea at a turf-roofed church. The water in the inlet sucks and wheezes between two sheer cliff faces. Another, on the island of Eysturoy, switchbacks above Funningsfjørður, a fjord hemmed in by a huddle of summits, before rolling down to the harbour village of Gjógv. Gjógy provides a sublime view of the island Kalsoy across the channel, whose dragon-scale ridges made it look like a leviathan lifting its body out of the deep. It’s the sort of unexpected viewpoint you dream of finding on a road trip, but so rarely do so.

       The road trips on the Faroe Islands have been further upgraded recently, and not just with the introduction of the scenic Buttercup Routes. In December 2023, a new 10.8km sub-sea tunnel opened, connecting the islands of Streymoy and Sandoy – previously a 30-minute ferry ride apart. This brings the number of sub-sea tunnels in the Faroe Islands to four: Sandoyartunnilin opens up better access to the Buttercup Routes, shortens circuitous entry and exit points, and heightens the all-round sense of road trip satisfaction.

       At a depth of more than 150m below the seabed, the new Sandoyartunnilin is no ordinary subsea tunnel. For starters, it features a folkloric art installation in red, blue and white neon that runs along the bedrock of the tunnel walls. The brushstroke-style illuminated pictographs show Catholic knights in armour, representative of the ruined church of Kirkjubøur at the tunnel’s northern entrance, as well as silhouettes of shepherds, fishermen, seals, cattle and birds created by Faorese artist, Edward Fuglø.

       These totems of the past are accompanied by an ethereal soundtrack composed by Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen. To listen to this ghostly recording, you simply have to tune your car radio to 100 FM. The idea, according to the tunnel’s CEO Teitur Samuelsen, is to celebrate Faroese folklore while also turning the journey into something entirely unexpected for visitors.

       “The first known painter in the Faroe Islands, Díðrikur á Skarvanesi, came from Sandoy in the 19th Century, and it was always our idea to connect his origin story to the tunnel,” he told me. “He painted moon pigeons, so the pictures of the birds and the other symbols on the walls break up the monotony of this long subsea tunnel.” More than that, he said, the feeling is to evoke a sense of ceremony and national memory, and less of simply motoring somewhere under the Atlantic Ocean in the dark.

       Helga Hilmarsdóttir, a local who lives on Sandoy with her husband and children, summed up this feeling. “The tunnel has given everyone new purpose and is helping create new life in villages like ours – people don’t want to spend all their lives milking cows or herding sheep anymore,” she said.

       Another important stop on a visitor’s journey is Eysturoyartunnilin, the sister tunnel to Sandoyartunnilin that opened under Tangafjørður Sound in December 2020. Connecting Streymoy to neighbouring Eysturoy, the 11.24km, three-branch subsea tunnel is currently home to the only roundabout under the Atlantic Ocean, and to drive through it feels like entering a portal to an alien world.

       Once a place where insularity was almost part of the identity, the message from today’s Faroe Islands is that they are gently evolving, but only on the terms set by their people.

       Definitely a “Bucket List” visit.

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