Island hopping in the North Atlantic

By Seth Sherman
This article appears on page 20 of the April 2016 issue.
The bay in Kulusuk, Greenland, with its still waters and icebergs.

Stretched out across the North Atlantic from North America to Europe are the amazingly beautiful destinations of Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Scotland, each separated from the next by less than 500 miles. While Iceland and Scotland see frequent visitors, the Faroe Islands and Greenland (especially eastern Greenland) are less frequently visited.
Although these destinations are relatively close to each other, flights between them are sporadic, if offered at all, and visitors frequently have to backtrack to Copenhagen or Reykjavík to reach a destination that would otherwise require a flight of only a few hours. For instance, to travel between Kulusuk and Ilulissat in Greenland (about 450 miles), one must usually fly through Reykjavík, nearly tripling the distance.
As a 5,000-hour-pilot with a well-equipped, 6-seat airplane, I decided to “cross the pond” to see these places sequentially, without the need to backtrack. I had visited Iceland and Scotland before, but Greenland and the Faroe Islands would be new for me.
My French-Canadian friend Sarto Blouin and his girlfriend, Lina Comtois, would be traveling with me, providing welcome company and help with the expenses.

Getting there

Our gateway to the North Atlantic was Goose Bay, Canada. From there, we would “step” across the Atlantic, our plan being to get to the UK as quickly as possible and then take our time coming back. We gave ourselves a maximum of eight weeks to complete our round-trip crossing.
As our plane had a maximum range of 1,400 miles, we followed a more direct route, with stops separated by up to 700 miles.
Arriving in Iceland, we found terrible weather for a flight to the Faroe Islands, our next destination. With no improvement in sight, we made the most of our time in Iceland, spending a week exploring Reykjavík and eastern Iceland by plane and rental car.
Our bases in the east included Egilsstaðir and Höfn, both great towns and somewhat less touristy than those in the west. The highlight in this area was the beautiful Sólheimajö­kull Glacier.
We also discovered another method of sightseeing; Sarto brought a drone with him, allowing us to take photographs from an entirely different perspective.
Finally the weather in the Faroe Islands appeared to clear, so we quickly grabbed our backpacks, fueled the plane, filed the necessary paperwork and departed. However, after a 2-hour flight, the weather conditions deteriorated, preventing our approach into Vágar. Three very unhappy travelers had to return to Iceland, having wasted five hours and $1,500 in fuel.
The next morning, the weather was reported as perfect, so we tried again, this time with success.

The Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands consist of 18 islands connected by roads, tunnels, bridges and ferries. There is only one airport, so we rented a car and gave the airplane a much-needed rest.
We spent the first night in the capital, Tórshavn, finding vacancies at the Bládýpi Guesthouse ($110 per night, double). The following day, we took the car ferry to Suðuroy, the group’s southernmost island, where we stayed in Vágsvegur.
Nowhere else in the Faroes was the force of the mighty Atlantic Ocean more apparent, with its strong wind and waves.
Our base of operations there was Hotel Bakkin, which cost $85 per night, double, including an incredible fish-and-chips dinner and breakfast.
After a day and a half of sightseeing, we returned to Tórshavn to explore the city. There we had back-to-back excellent dinners.

The commons building in Narsarsuaq, western Greenland.

The first was a sushi dinner at Etika (plates averaged $15 each); the second, the highlight meal of our voyage, was at KOKS. Although not Michelin rated (due to the low population), KOKS has consistently been rated the best restaurant in Scandinavia. A 17-course tasting meal, with eight different wines, set us back around $300 each.
Then we were off to explore the northern islands. We headquartered in Klaksvik, staying at the Geilin B&B ($50 per person per night).
In the two northernmost islands, the ferry is the usual mode of transportation, and the terrain there is the most desolate. On Fugloy (Bird Island), there are only two villages, each with a population of 30 to 50 people. They are separated by a 3-hour walk.
Getting on and off the ferry was challenging and potentially dangerous, due to high waves. We had to time the motion of the boat and jump!
The B&Bs in the Faroes had, by far, the best breakfasts of our voyage. As the only guests in each house, the three of us would wake up to a breakfast for 10.
The victuals would typically include at least two different styles of cooked eggs, various sausages and bacon, multiple types of freshly cooked bread and muffins, cereals, juices, coffee and tea. There was always too much to eat, and we were encouraged to make sandwiches for our lunch.
Another perk was the government-owned and -operated liquor stores, where we were able to purchase excellent-quality wines from around the world for under $20 per bottle. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, on the other hand, cost $8 a pint.

On to the UK

After a week in the Faroes we departed for Scotland’s Orkney Islands, where I temporarily parted company with my friends. They spent more time there and in the Shetland Islands while I continued southbound to meet a friend in Cardiff, Wales, and visit the islands of Lundy, Scilly and Wight, each a beautiful destination with its own airport.
Following a week in England and Wales, I flew north again to rejoin my friends in Lerwick, Shetland. They explored some more by car, and I took day trips to the islands of Fair Isle and Foula, two places I had missed on previous visits.

The cemetery overlooking the village of Kulusuk in eastern Greenland.

Fair Isle is a small but beautiful island with comfortable accommodations and a world-class reputation among birders. Foula is smaller and not quite set up for tourism, but it was equally stunning.

Returning to Iceland

It was time to start our journey back across the North Atlantic so we flew from Shetland to Reykjavík, cleared Customs and went to see what we had missed during our first week there.
Being opportunists, we took advantage of good weather where we could find it and flew south to Iceland’s Westman Islands, which reported sunny skies. There, visitors can find one of the world’s youngest islands, Surtsey, reachable by boat — a full day trip, with no landing permitted.
The highlights of our visit to these beautiful islands were climbing their highest peak and a high-speed (up to 65 mph) boat tour that took us into several of the area’s caves.
At the end of the boat ride, the driver gave each of us a piece of what he described as an Icelandic delicacy: putrefied shark. Buried under the sand for several months under the pressure of large boulders, the meat is then hung to dry for several additional months. Although I don’t regret trying it, it was probably the worst thing that I have ever eaten!
It was in Heimaey, the largest of the Westman Islands, that we had our most spectacular Icelandic meal: dinner at Slippurinn, rated among Iceland’s best restaurants. Their “Gourmet Feast” cost us $93 each, excluding wine, and it was excellent.
Our next stop was Akureyri, on Iceland’s north coast and about an hour’s flight from Westman. There, we left the plane and spent the remainder of our time touring in a 4WD rental car.
Heading west and south, we hugged the coast, viewing the beautiful terrain of Iceland’s northwest region. After reaching Reykjavík, we turned east to travel Iceland’s Golden Circle route, visiting Thingvellir (the world’s first parliament), Geysir (which gave its name to geysers worldwide) and Gullfoss (Iceland’s most majestic waterfall).
Returning to Akureyri, we took the inland route through the mountain range that we had flown over just a few days earlier.

Remote Greenland

Departing Iceland, our next major stop was Kulusuk, located on Greenland’s rugged east coast 450 miles and 2½ hours from Reykjavík. Unlike the more popular west coast, eastern Greenland has only small towns and one major airport. There is also only one hotel/restaurant, Hotel Kulusuk, a 10-minute walk from the airport.
My room cost $155 per night, including breakfast. Lunch and dinner were also taken there, primarily due to the lack of alternatives.
The local village was a 20-minute walk south of the hotel, with a well-stocked general store and an active community center.

Sarto showing his drone to a family in Nars­arsuaq.

In addition to hiking to town to interact with the locals, we elected to take a motorboat trip through the fjords ($70 per person, booked through our hotel), meandering among the glaciers and icebergs.
Our last major stop in Greenland was Ilulissat, on the west coast, 400 miles across a relatively featureless glacier dotted with granite peaks.
Ilulissat is what comes to mind when one thinks of Greenland — beautiful, colorful houses, extensive glaciers and icebergs and an infrastructure designed for visitors. Hotels vary from the 4-star Hotel Arctic to the Ilulissat Youth Hostel, with an equal diversity in restaurants.
There were at least three agencies providing excursions for all tastes. We opted for a “touristy” whale-watching trip and a ferry ride to Disko Island for some mountain trekking.
Crossing Atlantic waters for the last time, we arrived back in Goose Bay, Canada.

The details
Although we had allowed ourselves a maximum of eight weeks to complete the voyage, with efficient planning and fortuitous weather we were able to finish our trip in 6½ weeks. Local travel was made by rental car, ferry and our plane, whichever was most efficacious.
Our first choice in accommodations was always a B&B, where we could meet locals. Our second choice was a hostel, where we felt we could meet interesting fellow travelers. Otherwise, we would stay in a hotel.
The B&Bs and hostels usually provided free breakfasts. Lunches were at random, and dinners varied from self-catering, in hostels, to elaborate and pricey restaurant meals.
For many reasons, including the natural beauty of this region, the friendly people, my excellent traveling companions and the freedom of general aviation, this was one of the best trips, if not the best trip, of my life!
If anyone is looking for additional information, including advice for pilots aspiring to make a similar voyage, please contact me c/o ITN.