The grassy island with its sheer rocky cliffs jutted from the sea, not a tree in sight.
As I hiked along a footpath, I saw the snow-capped mountains of other islands in the distance. Seabirds squawked and soared through the blue skies. From the stout red and white lighthouse perched at the end of the island — the object of my hike — the sea stretched endlessly across the horizon.
I felt like I had reached the end of the Earth.
It was merely the far tip of Kalsoy Island, one of the most northerly of the blustery Faroe Islands.
I’d come for that sense of remote wonder, but I was just one of an increasing number of people who seek out these tiny specks on the map between Scotland and Iceland. Travelers come for the panoramic vistas, waterfalls, puffins — and paradoxically, an escape from the crowds.
A few years ago, the stunning views were largely left to the islands’ 50,000 residents. But since 2013, the number of tourists has increased an average of 10% a year, according to Visit Faroe Islands. In 2018, a record 120,000 people visited the volcanic isles.
“Instagram is probably the biggest reason people come,” 25-year-old farmer Jóhannus Kallsgarð told me, lighting a cigarette. “We’re all over Instagram.”
Since 1698, his forebears have lived in Trøllanes, a village on Kalsoy with only three families who for generations have made a living by raising sheep and rappelling cliffs to collect bird eggs. The village became reachable by car when tunnels were carved through mountains in the 1980s, but it remained isolated — until tourists began arriving a few years ago, lured by dramatic images of mountain peaks from a lighthouse. Now Kallsgarð said his once secluded land gets 20,000 visitors a year, forging dirt paths that didn’t exist centuries before.
Although the farmer is now a part-time tourist guide, it hasn’t all been a boon for him. Overflow crowds park cars on his fields; some hikers litter and others leave his red gate open, allowing his sheep to escape. If a hiker is injured, Kallsgarð calls a helicopter rescue, a free service for the hiker. (A local newspaper said helicopters rescued 20 people on the Faroe Islands in 2018, half of whom were tourists.)
The volcanic islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but they are self-governed with their own flag, culture, language and distinctive landscape — a secluded paradise for visitors who can island-hop by ferry, helicopter or car through tunnels under the sea. With a few exceptions, they offer largely free, unfettered access to the scenery. But last April, the islands temporarily shut down major sites for maintenance. Some farmers are starting to impose fees to trek across their land.
Making way for travelers
While the number of travelers is a sliver of what other places draw (for instance, Iceland has surpassed 2 million visitors a year), the small Faroe Islands are trying to keep up with their growing popularity. The islands, which encompass an area half the size of Rhode Island, were voted the top destination by National Geographic Traveler’s readers in 2015.
Since then, Airbnbs have popped up. Two hotels, including the first chain hotel, a Hilton Garden Inn, were being built when I visited last spring in the capital, Tórshavn, (pronounced like “Toesh-ow-n”).
“It’s a little dot on the map, but there’s a lot of things going on here,” said David Whale, a British transplant who co-owns Heimdal Tours.
Visitors are drawn to the fresh air and dramatic mountain and North Atlantic vistas as an antidote to their fast-paced life, he said. “You come here and literally take that deep breath.”
In fact, there are only five traffic lights and more sheep than residents across the 18 main islands, known for windy and wet weather.
“It becomes the land of 10,000 waterfalls,” Whale said.
I made my solo weeklong trip before peak summer tourism. To save money and avoid driving alone through narrow, dark one-way mountain tunnels, I skipped a car rental — a challenge for sightseeing on any island, but even more so in a place with limited public transit and an emerging tourism industry. (There are also two well-lit, two-way subsea tunnels and crews are building a third one that’s slated to open in 2020.)
Instead, I booked tours with two companies, which offered excursions only on certain days, a scheduling challenge. I also relied on public ferries, buses and a helicopter, all of which had limited hours and destinations. In a pinch, I hitched rides from an American, an Irish couple and other kind strangers along the way.
Waterfalls and puffins
The sun was shimmering on the sapphire blue ocean when I boarded a ferry on the island of Vágar (pronounced “vowar”), heading to Mykines (pronounced “Me-ch-ness”), the westernmost island.
The boat passed mountains dusted with snow as the red, white and blue Faroese flag whipped in the cool wind at the stern. Other tourists and I gawked at Drangarnir, iconic sea stacks with a slanted top and doorway-shaped hole in the middle, and the islet of Tindhólmur, its five sharp peaks rising above us. In the distance, the waterfall Múlafossur plunged over a cliff into the ocean next to mountains and the tiny village of Gásadalur. (The day before, I had gotten an up-close view of the magical scene, no one else in sight.)
The ferry usually sails twice a day each way, but bad weather can halt it, as an American I met found out and was stranded overnight.
Most visitors paid the $15 fee to hike on their own. (The collected money goes toward protecting the island’s iconic bird life and nature.) But about a dozen of us joined Heini Heinesen, 67, whose father was the last lighthouse keeper. The fit retiree with a gray beard walked with a wooden hiking stick, leading us on unmarked paths as he chatted about the history and climate. He paused as if deep in thought.
“What do you hear? You’ll hear nature only,” he said in a hushed, reverent voice. “It’s beautiful.”
He pointed to white and gray fulmars flying overhead and big gannets diving into the sea. At the puffin colony, the whish-whish sound of thousands of birds filled the air. A sign urged virðing, respect, for the birds, and Heinesen hustled us past.
Eight people live year-round on Mykines, but the island now attracts 15,000 visitors a year, he said. He worries people will destroy the puffin colony and suggested limiting the number of ferry passengers or restricting walks through the area during nesting. “We just have to control it more,” he said.
According to Visit Faroe Islands, two-thirds of residents viewed tourism as a “net positive” in 2018, but a majority want legislation related to access to nature. The tourist agency has a new plan to preserve its land and said it will advocate for a “nature preservation fee” for visitors.
In Klaksvík, the second-largest city (pop. 5,000), I felt guilty as I boarded my first-ever helicopter ride.
Some locals lament visitors’ use of government-subsidized helicopters (my 15-minute trip cost $32), which is vital transportation for residents. However, the tourist board and guide books tout island hopping by helicopter. Without a car, it was an efficient way back to Tórshavn, on the island of Streymoy, gliding over the sea, villages and windmills below.
Back in the capital (pop. 20,000), I splurged on Faroese tapas at Barbara Fish House with two New Yorkers, devouring mussels, fish soup, langoustines, smoked salmon and local beers. The Danish brewery, Mikkeller, opened up next door in a 500-year-old turf-roofed, wooden house.
Nearby, Tinganes, red government buildings with grass roofs, stand in an area that was once the Vikings’ general assembly. Evidence of Irish and Viking roots are scattered across the islands — from Viking burial grounds to Kirkjubøur, a settlement from the Middle Ages.
The Faroes are also known for hunting pilot whales. One guide said about 1,000 whales of the hundreds of thousands of whales in the region are killed a year and the meat is shared among locals — more Earth-friendly than shipping food from faraway places, he said. They also rely on sheep and fish and can’t grow much beyond rhubarb and potatoes.
After a tour of Saksun, a valley overlooking a turquoise lagoon on Streymoy, we passed dried fish hanging outside buildings, rings of salmon farms in bays and potato farms on a beach. After being sprayed with mist at Fossá, the highest waterfall, we snacked on delicate pancakes topped with rhubarb jelly. Every village we passed, no matter how tiny, had two landmarks: a church and a soccer field.
As we returned to Tórshavn, the tour driver snacked on dried whale pieces as if they were chips. Gray clouds rolled in as we zipped by rowers paddling across a lake and sheep dotting fields. I marveled at waterfalls cascading down hillsides around every bend and hoped that the Faroes would find the right balance between protecting its raw landscape and welcoming visitors who come to see that very thing.