From Puerto Madryn we continued sailing south and east to our next destination, the Falkland Islands. Port Stanley on the East island cannot accommodate our large ship so we dropped anchor across from the port and traveled between the ship and shore in the life boats used as tenders. It was quite windy and the water was rough, splashing up along the sides of the tender.
The town of Stanley is sheltered by the bay and as you approach, the colourful buildings cascading down the hill are a pretty and welcoming sight. Before the Panama Canal was completed Port Stanley was a major port for ships travelling through the Straights of Magellan and a ship repair industry developed to service them. Later, as antarctic exploration developed, Port Stanley was the gateway to Antarctica. Today, fishing licenses and tourism are the main economic activities. With population of only about 3,000 thousands, on days when cruise ships arrive, there are more tourists than residents in town.
Ownership of the Falkland islands has been the subject of dispute between the UK and Argentina for a long time.
According to the Falkland Islands government publication the island was unoccupied and was first settled by British in 1765. A British administration was eventually formed to manage the affairs of the inhabitants and with increased population Stanley was established in 1845 where it remains to this day. The Falklands are a British overseas territory with an internal self government, economically independent from the UK. The UK though is responsible for foreign affairs and military defence of the island. In 2013 the government of the Falkland held a referendum among its citizens and a majority stated they wished to remain under the British crown.
From the Argentinian perspective the basis for the claim is that the islands were part of Spain’s South America territories before the British settled there and as such passed to Argentina in 1816 when it became an independent state free from Spanish colonialism. In terms of geography the claim is that Islands are situated on a projection of the continental shelf of Patagonia and as such are geographically integral with Argentina. Argentinians call the Falkland Islands Isla Malvina, a Spanish name derived from a name given to the island in 1764 by a French explorer.
This conflict of perspectives and interests came to a head in 1982 with the Falkland Islands war. A 1000 lives, 649 of which were Argentinians, were lost in this battle. Relations with the UK were eventually repaired but to this day the Argentinians do not recognized the self governing administration of the Falklands and travelling around the country you see signs in Argentina saying “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” (the Malvinas are Argentina). That conflict is also very much evident when visiting the Falkland islands. My British guide did not hesitate to share his opinion on the conflict and large signs are posted on main street buildings saying that no dialogue is possible until Argentina gives up its claim to the islands.
Apart from Politics, the islands are an interesting place to visit. Situated at about latitude 51ºS in the southern hemisphere, they are almost at the same latitude as where we live in the Okanagan. However, this is where the similarity between the two places ends. The Falklands feel pretty well off the beaten track with the tree-less landscape more similar to Iceland than the Okanagan. What to do on the island? Since we were there on a ship and only had one day I opted for a hike through the countryside with a naturalist, then a walk through the historical downtown on my own and of course find a place to have lunch.
Most visitors come to the Falklands to see nature and wildlife and in these categories there is plenty to see. The islands are home to the albatros and rockhopper penguins, the unique King penguins at Volunteer Point and abundance of sea life everywhere. You can also take a a tour of the battlefields of the 1982 war and travel to the other islands comprising the Falkland archipelago, totalling some 700 islands in all.
We hiked from Port Stanley along Hadassah Bay to Ordinance Point and to York Bay on the open tandra without a clear track. The unique vegetation was low with a surprising variety of flowers and bushes. We saw the ubiquitous red crowberry a.k.a Diddle-Dee berry bushes with ripe red clusters of berries ready for picking. They taste slightly bitter when picked but are made into a delicious sweet jam with just a trace of bitter. It is a local favourite and sold at the gift shops around the port. Teaberries are another type of berry, pinkish white berries that are added to batters of cakes or sweet breads without cooking them first. We also saw a special flower called scurvy grass, a name given to it by sailors as it is rich in vitamin C and helped preventing scurvy. The island is home to a wide variety of birds and we saw plenty of them along the shore. One unique species is the steamer duck, a large flightless duck and one of the two species endemic to the Falklands (the other is Cobb’s Wren). It uses its wings and feet to propel itself along the surface of the water like a paddle steamer, hence the name.
A few low hills rise in the moderate landscape, breaking down to the coast with cliffs above the water. There are no trees at all. Free from predators, one can hike anywhere without worrying about snakes or larger predators. The weather was warm but on a windy day there is be nothing to break the wind across the flat lands.
York Bay took me completely by surprise. White sand and shallow turquoise water belong in the Caribbean and I did not expect to see them here. We had to view the beach from the cliffs above as beach access is blocked because of undetonated mines from the 1982 war. The trail is fenced with plenty of signs warning you not to get off the trail as the area is not considered safe. Below, on the white sand there were small colonies of penguins lounging around not worrying about triggering any of these mines. Before the 1982 war this area was popular with locals for summer beach fun, although I doubt the water is ever warm.
Going back to town I was on my own exploring the historical downtown. There are a few well known sights to see. Christchurch Cathedral is the church Parish of the island, built with local stone and brick in late 1800s. It is the southernmost Anglican church in the world. The structure has a cathedral tower with five bells, stained glass windows and two pipe organs built in Wales. A picture of the church is featured on local currency. The interior of the church contains several hassocks depicting life and historical events on the island, all made by local parishioners. Of special interest is the Banner of the Order of Garter, known as the Shackleton banner hanging inside the cathedral. The banner was bequeathed to the Falklands Cathedral by Shackleton’s son, an explorer in his own right.
In front of the church is the famous whale bone arch made from the jaw bones of two blue whales, created in 1933 to commemorate 100 years of British rule. The jawbones were brought from antarctic South Shetland Island in 1922 and form an arch like sculpture in front of the cathedral. For preservation, they are now coated with protective white material.
Walking along the seafront avenue is fun and interesting. Most of the government buildings are located on this street, including the old fashioned post office and the Governor’s mansion. The flag at the Governor’s mansion was at half mast indicating the governor is not in residence. He was spending a few days at nearby South Georgia Island of which he is apparently fond. The mast of the SS Great Britain is laying horizontally along the beach, a memorial to times past. A police station is right in front of the bank and a 10 cell prison in not far. The museum down the street offers good information about the history of the island, the 1982 conflict, naval history and natural history. Across from the port you see names of British naval ships designed in stone on the hillside, clearly seen from the main street. Some of the name, such as the Beagle, refer to British naval ships, not the historical expedition ships. There are two war memorial, one for WWI and the other called Liberation Memorial for the 1982 Falkland war with Argentina, with a monument of Margaret Thatcher who was the PM at the time.
The one and only grocery store was also on the main street and was a bit sad with not much fresh produce and a lot of pre-packaged foods. I stopped at a couple of the gift shops to stock up on the Diddle-Dee jam made from the local berries that we saw on our hike and pick up a couple of hand-knitted tukes in anticipation of the cold weather awaiting us as we continue south towards our next destination, Cape Horn.
It was time for lunch and I started heading back towards the centre of the little town. There are few pubs and restaurants around the center and if I had time I would have stopped at each of them. The Teaberry cafe at the museum was closed or I would have stopped there for tea. The Waterfront Cafe on the main street also looked interesting, part of the Waterfront hotel.
According to my food inquiries the best thing to eat on the island is local calamari they say is far superior to calamari anywhere else. Of course, it being a British island, fish and chips were also on my list. The best place for calamari I was told is at the Malvina House hotel at the end of the main street but apparently it was too late to have it there as it was past normal lunchtime.
The alternative was Bittersweet, a trendy restaurant just up the road from the port. I walked back and found the restaurant with a sign upfront promising local beer, local calamari and a few more items I could have fun with. The restaurant had a bakery-like front room and a a cafeteria-like dining room. I settled by the window and the friendly server took great care of me, telling me that I was lucky, as this is the only place on the island at the moment to have calamari. The thing is, you know, I am a foodie so I had to order more than I could eat. I ordered both fish and chips and calamari but looking around I believe I had an appetizer order of the calamari which was fine. It truly was delicious, even for one who is more of a vegetarian in normal life. Light-battered, fresh, sea-fragrant and very tender, a squirt of lemon was all it needed. The fish and chips were crisp and tender, I forget what kind of fish it was but I know it was local. I ordered the Iron Lady craft beer made locally by Falkland Beerworks. It was a big bottle of the bitter blond ale which was delicious but I couldn’t do it justice being mostly a non drinker.
Other foods to try are the Diddle-Dee jam made from local berries and the Falkland ‘smoko’, a plate stacked with cakes, cookies and scones served with plenty of coffee or tea. Alas, I could only eat so much.
A little more walking and shopping concluded our short visit to the Falklands. I hope to stop by again for more hiking and exploring when we go to Antarctica on another adventure. It’s only 600 km from the islands.