The wilder shores

The whale-hunters of the Faeroes have their own style of living, well adapted to these rugged, bird-haunted northern islands.
Huge basalt cliffs towered 600 metres above us as the fishing boat careered up and down in the swell. The waves crashed, the spray flew, the drizzle kept on coming. High on the cliffs the puffins preened, guillemots sat motionless in the crevices, and hundreds of gulls wheeled and squawked.

As the sea, racing in from the Atlantic, swept the boat towards the seaweed- covered rocks, the rugged beauties of nature proved too much for at least three of our land-lubberly sightseers. One threw up into a strategically placed bucket; one could only manage to return his lunch to its picnic box; the third thrust me aside to puke precisely into the black waters.

For them, the magic of the Faeroe Islands had temporarily lost its allure.

There is nowhere quite like the Faeroes. Set in the dark seas of the Atlantic between Scotland and Iceland, the islands come in two colours: the grey of the granite rocks and cliffs and the unreal bright green of the permanently damp grass.

To cheer everyone up, the houses are painted in vivid primary colours, yellow with bright blue window frames, red with green doors. Many have roofs made of grass, complete with their own automatic trimmers - lambs tethered on top of the houses.

There are 18 islands making up the Faeroes, only 46,000 people, but 276 breeds of birds and more than 70,000 sheep. It is a holiday destination for those who want a quiet time, in beautiful, sometimes stark scenery, and for those, perhaps tiring of our newly found tropical British temperatures, who like it cool. The hottest it gets is 10 C in August, and even during the time of the midnight sun in June you are more likely to spend your night covering up against the drizzle and the fog.

In the summer, because there is so much daylight, you can go beachcombing at one o'clock in the morning, bird-watching at two, and walking across the granite hills at any hour, watching the swans lumbering to take off over the sea or the geese screaming into land on an inlet.

This is a place for walking and quiet contemplation. The villages, all but one on the sea shore - and all dedicated to fishing of some kind - are still and inward looking. There is no sense of cafe life or of communities centred around a bar or pub. But the people are hospitable and the bed and breakfast places comfortable and relatively cheap.

You are never far from the sea, with ferries connecting one outflung island with another. And you are never far from the great whale controversy. The Faeroese, to the horror of the international community, kill whales. The process, known as the grindadrap, involves rounding up a pod of migrating pilot whales, driving them into the shore and then instituting wholesale slaughter. On the last grindadrap, in which my guide on the tour of the islands took part, 135 whales were killed in nine minutes.

The blubber is then distributed free to the villagers, to hospitals and to the old.

For the Faeroese it is part of their tradition. Not unlike, perhaps, the way we kill stags on Exmoor. But here we don't pretend that stag hunting is anything but a sport for the rich.

The controversy seems remote as you make the walk from the pretty little capital of Torshavn, with its wooden houses and grass-roofed government buildings, two big hotels and three traffic lights, over the cliff-top fields to the ancient centre of Kirkjubour.

Here you find the ancient cathedral of St Magnus, built originally in the 13th century; what claims to be the oldest wooden house in the world, complete with a huge table made from a slab of driftwood rescued from a British steamer in 1870; and a tiny, well-groomed graveyard walled off from the sea. The only sound to disturb the tranquillity is the high pitched "chip-chip" of an oyster-catcher as it protects its nest.

As you trudge back to Torshavn, scattering the sheep with their wool matted like dreadlocks, a rainbow arcs across the fiord, both ends disappearing into the water in a perfect parabola. Yes, there is nowhere quite like the Faeroesn

Faeroes facts

Flights: The Faeroe Islands are tricky to reach. The ferry service operating last summer from Scotland has been withdrawn: the Faeroe government seems to have sold the ship serving the route. Direct flights from Glasgow from 26 May to 30 August, Saturdays only (Icelandair, 0171-388 5599). The lowest fare is pounds 233 including tax, if you book seven days in advance. At other times, the islands are most easily reached from Gatwick via Copenhagen or Billund on Maersk Air (0171-333 0066).

Animal-friendly Faeroes: puffins (left) find their home on sheer sea cliffs; sheep (right) are tethered on the grass roofs of the houses