The Falkland Islands
"Hospitality is everywhere"
“Every seaman, every wanderer on the deep, has hearkened to the decoy of that ideal island, and where is the landsman with soul so dead... who in his homesick moments has never caught its enchanting echo?” Life and literature amply support Walter de la Mare’s claim, for it would be easy to list rich and poor, tycoons and beachcombers, poets, artists and scholars, naturalists and children, cut-throats, pirates and evangelists who have dreamed of an island life.
The isolation of small islands has been sought by holy men and thrust on the unholy. For ordinary mortals, the opportunity to savour the charms of such lonely outposts as the Falkland Islands are few and far between, but it was recently my good fortune to return to the Islands having sailed on royal research ship, the RRS James Clark Ross, for a short time during one of her regular ice patrols in the Antarctic. She was helping to maintain the British Antarctic Survey team’s bases on South Georgia, a scattering of other islands and on the Antarctic continent itself. The Argentinians had long been repelled from the Islands, but the Falklands had even then occupied an unusual place in the minds of many British since the 1982 conflict between England and Argentina. During the 74 days of occupation, footage of British soldiers forced to contend with an unknown enemy in a frozen landscape played out on television screens across the world.
These images of a cold and bleak land were an unfortunate introduction to the world of the Falklands. In reality, the Islands actually receive very little annual snowfall (being as close to the South Pole as London is to the North), and they are bathed in more than 15 hours of daily sunshine at the height of summer, comparable to the south coast of England.
The Falkland Islands lie in the South Atlantic on an extension of the Patagonian Continental Shelf, between latitudes 51˚S and 53˚S and longitudes 57˚30’W and 61˚30’W. They are centred about 500 kilometres northeast of the nearest point on the South American mainland, Cape San Diego in Tierra del Fuego, some 1,000 kilometres north of Elephant Island, the nearest of the South Shetlands group and about 1,550 kilometres west of South Georgia.
The first European to visit the Falkland Islands was the indefatigable Elizabethan navigator John Davis, whose vessel “Desire” was driven among the Islands on 14th August 1592. However, the French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville considered that the first sighting was made by the Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci, about 1502, but there is also the possibility that one of Ferdinand Magellan’s ships could have made the discovery, for certain islands are described in his log as the “Islas de Sansón y de los Patos” (“Islands of Samson and the Ducks”). Camargo’s expedition, which reached the Straits of Magellan in 1540, reported the finding of several islands to the northeast of Cape Horn, the descriptions of conditions, land, birds and seal being similar to the Falklands. Although these islands were probably the Jason Islands, a group to the northwest of West Falkland, the names “Islas de Sansón” (or “San Antón”, “San Son”, and “Ascensión”) were used for the Falklands on Spanish maps during this period. Nevertheless, by the end of the 17th century they were occupied by the British and named after Viscount Falkland, treasurer of the British navy.
The first British settlers arrived on 15 January 1765. However, there was already a French settlement in the Falkland Islands, for in 1701 a landing was recorded by the French navigator, Gouin de Beauchene. On that voyage he discovered the remote island which still bears his name. Spain subsequently bought out the French settlement in 1766, and the British were ejected on 15th September 1771, but British sovereignty was never ceded, and from 1833, when a few Argentinians were expelled, British settlement was continuous. Argentina still asserts its succession to the Spanish claim to the “Islas Malvinas”, but the Islanders vigorously oppose cession.
The Falkland Islands comprise two main islands, East and West Falkland, which are separated by Falkland Sound. There are now known to be 778 much smaller islands. Of these, 291 are around the northern, eastern and southern coasts of East Falkland, 58 in Falkland Sound and 397 off the northern, western and southern coasts of West Falkland, while 32 are in a scattering of lakes and ponds. The total land area is about 12,200 square kilometres, covering an area slightly less than the size of Northern Ireland. The majority of the 2,500 population live in the capital, Stanley, on East Falkland, while a small but determined populace live on isolated sheep farms in the “Camp” – the name given to the countryside which is derived from the Spanish word “el campo”. Stanley is the only real town in the archipelago and offers very modern amenities amidst signs of a lively past. Backed by the rugged hills of Mt William, Mt Tumbledown, Mt Longdon, Sappers Hill and the Two Sisters, Stanley Harbour is littered with photogenic shipwrecks and a plethora of distinctive, colourful buildings give the town a unique character.
The Falkland Islands enjoy internal self-government as an Independent Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom, financially independent for everything except Defence services – which are provided by the UK Ministry of Defence. The Commander of the British Forces South Atlantic Islands attends the Executive Council as of right. Contrary to popular belief, the cost to the UK represents less than half of one percent per annum of Britain’s overall defence budget. The Falkland Islands Government contributes to the garrison, including the provision of houses for married quarters and a swimming pool at the base.
The growth of Antarctic tourism has put the Falkland Islands firmly on the map. Wild vistas and sweeping coastlines, together with a colourful maritime past and strong farming legacy characterise a surprisingly striking archipelago, where wildlife abounds. The foremost appeal to visitors is the abundant wildlife, where the sheer numbers of penguins, seals and pelagic birds is quite staggering. Vast colonies of rockhopper, macaroni, magellanic and gentoo penguins can all be encountered along with the tall and elegant king penguins, elephant seals, sea lions, the rare fur seal and around 10,000 breeding pairs of black-browed albatross, or “Mollymawk”, as they are known to the Islanders.
The attractive scenery of Carcass Island, situated to the northwest of West Falkland is ideal for hill walking and both the magellanic and gentoo penguin nest in the soft peaty soil here. The island is also home to the powerful and handsome striated caracara, or “Johnny Rook”, one of the world’s rarest birds of prey. Nearby West Point Island boasts great numbers of breeding black-browed albatross and rockhopper penguins can be seen at a rocky, tussock-covered outcrop known as the Devil’s Nose. Scenic Saunders Island is made up of two large peaks divided by a thin sandy isthmus called the Neck. One of the archipelago’s wildlife hotspots; Saunders has over 11,000 pairs of breeding black-browed albatross, significant colonies of gentoo, magellanic and rockhopper penguins as well as elephant seals, king and rock cormorants, petrels and even a few king penguins.
Pebble Island to the east also boasts concentrations of gentoo and rockhopper penguins, plus a substantial population of sheep. It was a frontline site during the Falklands conflict and reminders of such can be seen dotted around the coastline.
Sea Lion Island is the most southerly inhabited island in the Falklands group and is home to the largest colony of elephant seals, with up to 2,000 of these grumpy animals hauled up on the beaches at the height of the breeding season. Small groups of the rare southern sea lion also breed here and can be seen on the rocky coastal ledges as well as in the plentiful tussock grass. Rockhopper, gentoo and magellanic penguins can also be observed, whilst orcas or “killer whales” are often spotted offshore. The privately owned nature reserve of Volunteer Point, an impressive peninsula to the north of East Falkland can be reached overland by 4x4 vehicle. The white sand beach of the same name is two miles long, and bordered by high grassy banks leading down to rolling greens. It provides the ideal habitat for three species of penguin to breed – most notably, over 1,200 king penguins, while gentoo and magellanic penguins also nest along the peninsula.
An ideal way to see the Islands is from the air on a Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) 9-seater Britten-Norman Islander light aircraft. Flights are operated to more than 25 settlements and tourist destinations throughout the year.
A walk around Stanley will reveal a maritime history that spans back to the 17th century. The Falkland Islands Museum provides a fascinating insight into the Islands’ past, from those first settlers to the present day. Here too, you will find the most southerly Anglican cathedral in the world, Christ Church, consecrated in 1892 by the first Bishop of the Falkland Islands, Waite Hockin Stirling. Adjacent to the cathedral is the Whalebone Arch, erected in 1933 from the jawbones of two blue whales to commemorate the centenary of continuous British administration of the Falklands. Just above Stanley Cemetery lies the Memorial Wood. This area has been set aside to commemorate members of the British forces who served and died in the 1982 Falklands War. Trees have been planted in memory of each of the British servicemen killed during the conflict, with an annex for those who have died while serving in the Islands since the war ended. Overlooking Stanley Harbour at the junction of Thatcher Drive and Cable Street you will find the imposing Liberation Monument. The memorial was built as a tribute to the British forces and civilians who lost their lives during the conflict. Each year a ceremony is held here on 14th June – Liberation Day – a time of mixed emotions and pride.
A battlefield tour of Goose Green, Darwin and San Carlos or up Tumbledown is a moving experience. Led by local people with expert knowledge, you will be guided through strategies of battle and you will glimpse the bravery of servicemen who fought in the conflict of 1982.
There is a wide range of accommodation to choose from in the Falkland Islands, each with a special homely appeal and based on the local tradition that a home should be welcoming to all, relaxing and comfortable. Stanley has an abundance of hotels, guest houses and good sized lodges, while Camp accommodation ranges from self-catering options for independent travellers in historic shepherds’ cottages, to well-kept B&Bs and full-board lodges.
The Falklands also boast some of the best seafood in the world – found on restaurant tables as far away as South Africa. As the evening falls the restaurants of Stanley start to bustle as local people and visitors enjoy an evening out and an opportunity to socialise. Depending on the season you can enjoy Falkland loligo squid, mussels, oysters, scallops and snow crab as well as local sea trout, kingclip, and Patagonian toothfish (Mero). The Falklands are also home to delicious organic meats and are famed for the lamb dishes, upland goose paté and beef and mutton, all of which has been reared on the wide plains of the Falkland Islands.
Whatever your reason for visiting the Falkland Islands, you are assured of a very warm welcome. It is said that people make places and none more so than here, where the Islanders enrich any visit, with their genuine warmth which is almost a custom; so much so that by the time you leave you will be classed as a friend. These are islands where hospitality is everywhere – providing an unforgettable experience of an otherwise inhospitable South Atlantic.
How to get there
The Falkland Islands are easily accessed by two major flight routes. LAN Airlines fly to the Falklands every Saturday morning, which are reached by air from Santiago and Punta Arenas in Chile.
The Islands can be visited as an extension to Chile or other parts of Latin America, with flights from London (Heathrow) via Madrid. Return fares start at around £982.
Direct flights are also available from the UK on an MOD-operated air service from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. Return flights are scheduled every 5 days (with approximately 6 return flights per month).
The total flying time is 18 hours, including a refuelling stop on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. For the latest information on MOD fares, see the “Getting Here” section on:
When to go
Mid-September-end of April