I asked the young woman in the tourist information centre in Klaksvík where the best place in the Faroe Islands is to see puffins. ‘Iceland’ comes the reply with a ready smile.
The Faroe Islands are Danish territory, but fiercely independent in everything else. They sit in the cold Atlantic between Iceland and Shetland, somehow with shared elements of both, and yet nothing like either at the same time. The language shares it origins with old Norse, and the sheep trodden landscapes can look disarmingly similar. Then you see the under-sea roundabouts, helicopter buses, James Bond’s tombstone and the strange food combinations. I’m eating a cheese, bacon and coronation chicken sandwich as I type.
It’s the puffins that have bought me to Faroe Islands, a trip that’s been delayed twice due to the Covid-19 pandemic on a ticket bought in the Atlantic Airways flight sale in January 2020. Atlantic Airways are the islands’ tiny airline, with a total of just three planes. I caught the flight from Edinburgh with glee, only a one hour hop to Vágar. The airport here was built by the British in the Second World War; they also imported a love of Cadbury’s chocolate and fish and chips (Fisk og kips signs are everywhere).
I base myself at Sørvágur, although I spent some time island hopping using the undersea tunnels and ferries. Kalsoy is a favourite; a long, thin island in the north, it’s effectively known as the flute due to the number of road tunnels drilled through it. The capital, Tórshavn, on Streymoy is decidedly underwhelming and has nothing on the buzz of Reykjavík. In the north of Streymoy is Saksun, a tiny village of turf houses above a stunning fjord. Local farmers are waging a war against trespassing instagrammers and drone users.
It Mykines that catches my heart though. The most westerly of the Faroes, it’s actually two islands, with Mykineshólmur only adjoined by a short bridge and adorned with the lighthouse whose image has become shorthand for stunning Faroese landscapes. I caught the ferry a day late the harbour at Sørvágur, the first being cancelled due to a fierce swell. Faroe Islands are not nicknamed ‘the land of maybes’ for nothing, and it’s better to be captive at Sørvágur than Mykines without sufficient supplies. An eider duck in the harbour seemingly agrees with me, hooting as he passed.
The ferry took us past the sea arch of Drangarnir and the imposing Tindhólmur a jagged, sharp tolberone triangle dropped into the sea. A set piece straight from Mordor. Apple have yet to produce a phone that captures such imposing .
Mykines slowly came into view, taller than I expected, with pronounced striations of rock and vivid green slopes, with brave Faroese sheep defiying gravity to find the freshest grass. The harbour is at the western end, and I had to jump ashore whilst the captain did battle in keeping the boat still. The boat sailed away with the Faroese flag flapping in the wind. Kittiwakes lined the harbour walls, loudly shouting their welcomes at us.
At the top of the harbour path, arrivals are charged a ‘hiking fee’. A common charge in the Faroes, they go towards upkeep of paths and amenities. I have no problem paying it, and then turn left up a steep grassed slope to an area known as Lambi. It’s my first sight of puffins this year, and I’m heart jumps. There are hundreds of them, all freshly ashore. They are getting on with business; I can hear and see couples greeting each other by ‘billing’ and I even witness a puffin fight, with two puffins so engrossed in beating the other, they roll down the grass slope whilst scratching and biting at their foe, whilst moaning their dissatisfaction. Others are mainly preening and looking out to sea; a breather before eggs and chicks become a full time occupation.
The path to the lighthouse is closed this year, ostensibly due to landslides but I suspect to further protect the puffin colony which is struggling, despite what I can see. A yellow sign and a green wire fence prevents any further access and I have to suffice with the stinking views. I should add that the weather is uncharacteristically clear, with the sun beating down, making the grass even greener and reflecting in the bright blue sea. I regret not bringing a hat, and the puffins seem to be enjoying the warmth on their backs too.
I settled down at Lambi to watch the puffins for a while, emerging from burrows and landing haphazardly, skills to be renewed after months at sea. I enjoyed seeing the small village below me, complete with helicopter landing pad.
After a wander around most of the island, simultaneously admiring the stunning views and avoiding sheep poo, I found myself in the village eating well-earned, homemade fish soup and crusty bread. The houses have turf roofs, and are mainly painted smart black, with a small stream meandering it’s way through. Most houses have a gannet or puffin adorned to them. A stone angel looks out to sea, watching over those brave souls who go out to find fish.
Back on Vágar, I finished my trip at Gásadalur, a village that was all but cut off from the rest of the world until 2004 when a tunnel was burrowed through the rock. It’s famed for its plunging waterfall right into the sea, which is hard to beat, particularly with the sun setting behind. As the pink light waned, I noticed white spots at the top of the falls. Crossing the small bridge for further inspection, I was thrilled to find a small colony of puffins had moved in. Ten or so were stood sentry outside their burrows, as the falls thundered below them. I manage to take a few snaps without disturbing them, as the sun dips below the surface of the sea for another day.
The tourist information centre in Klaksvík are talking out of their hat. Puffins are alive and well in the Faroe Islands. Let’s hope it stays that way.