Do you know someone who has visited the nature-filled & faraway Falkland Islands? If so, chances are good they arrived by cruise ship and not by air. In fact, the vast majority of travelers who visit the Falklands are on their way to or from Antarctica or South Georgia, or are passengers on a South American cruise.
The Falkland Islands have become increasing popular as a destination for cruise ships and charter yachts, with more than 30 companies now offering visits. It’s no surprise because the Falklands have a lot to offer nature enthusiasts, photographers, birders and travelers alike. You can visit bustling penguin and albatross colonies, tour the charming British-like capital, as well as meet friendly locals who thrive in this beautiful but remote environment.
Falkland Islands Geography
The Falkland Islands are an archipelago of more than 750 small islands and islets in the South Atlantic Ocean, approximately 400 miles off the southeastern tip of South America. East Falkland, the largest island, contains the capital Stanley, and has more than 80% of the country’s population. West Falkland, the other main island, is home to an abundance of wildlife and many fewer people.
All cruise ships include a port stop in Stanley (formerly known as Port Stanley). Many of the smaller ships (expedition cruise types) will also visit one or more of the outlying islands, using zodiac craft for transport from ship to shore. These visits offer fantastic wildlife viewing plus scenic walks along hills, cliff-tops or around the shoreline.
The Falkland’s Rich Wildlife
Because of the Falkland’s unique sub-Antarctic ecosystem, the islands are home to more than 220 species of identified birds, including over 60% of the world’s black-browed albatross population. They are truly a magnificent seabird! Five species of the always-adorable penguins breed here – the gentoo, king, macaroni, Magellanic and rockhopper. Marine life also includes seals and dolphins.
My Falklands Visit
My visit to the Falkland Islands took place in early March 2017, as part of a 18-day expedition cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia Island. My 230-passenger Hurtigruten ship, the MS Fram, was my cruise home for this grand adventure. The sexy itinerary title was: “Antarctica, Falklands & South Georgia: In the Realm of the Great Explorers.”
The Falkland Islands were our last port of call before sailing north to Montevideo, Uruguay. We spent 2 ½ fascinating days in the Falklands, which included a full day for exploring Stanley. We then sailed to nearby West Falkland – and over the next two days, visited three of the outer islands. It was a wonderful nature and wildlife experience, filled with cute penguins and other exotic birds.
In this blog post, I will focus primarily on my 8-hour visit to Stanley since there’s a lot to share. I will soon write a separate post about our experiences on the three smaller outer Falklands islands. With both posts, I hope to give you a good idea of what to expect when you visit the delightful Falkland Islands. You may also be trying to decide whether to include the Falklands on an Antarctica expedition cruise, so I hope this will help. First, just a little more background…
The 1982 Falklands War
Alternately settled and claimed by France, Spain, Britain and Argentina, the Falklands have been a British Overseas Territory since 1833. However, it was a status the Argentines had long fought (usually verbally!) and still contest to this day. The Falklands are known to the Argentines as the Islas Malvinas.
Like me, you may not have heard or known much about the Falkland Islands until 1982. That’s when the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina brought this disputed island territory to worldwide attention. The war began on April 2, 1982 when the Argentine military government invaded the nearly undefended Falklands. Thanks to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s decisive and rapid response, the war lasted only eleven weeks with Britain emerging as the victor.
In 1990, Argentina and Britain finally restored diplomatic relations. In addition, following the war, Britain showed a greatly renewed interest in the islands and the Falklanders received full British citizenship. As you tour the Falkland Islands, you will note the distinctly British feel, owing from almost two centuries of their influence!
The People of the Falklands
Many inhabitants of the Falkland Islands are descendants of English sheepherders during the 1800s. In fact, about 60% of Falklanders are native born, some tracing their ancestry back six or more generations.
They have a long tradition of raising sheep for wool, stretching over 160+ years. The island’s rural settlements consisted of tiny hamlets built near sheltered harbors where coastal shipping could collect the wool from the large sheep stations.
Today, the Falkland’s main industries are commercial fishing, agriculture (primarily sheep-farming with over 500,000 sheep), and tourism. As you might expect, the island is known for its wool products. Certainly, Stanley’s tourist-oriented shops sell lots of wool sweaters and other woolen products.
Stanley – Falkland’s Charming Capital
As our ship entered into Stanley’s protected harbor, we were greeted with the view of colorfully-painted houses with bright rooftops, in contrast to the more muted colors of the surrounding moorlands. This small, compact town of around 3,000 people is located alongside picturesque Stanley Harbor.
Stanley is a delightful town to spend a few hours exploring by foot. Despite rapid growth since 1982, the old part of town retains its colorful charm. You will definitely feel like you’ve stepped into merry ol’ England! There are UK-styled red telephone booths, cute little homes with flower-filled gardens, and other buildings with a uniquely architectural British/Falklands blend.
For visitors, the town offers good shops, pubs, restaurants, hotels, and an excellent museum. The local currency is the Falkland Islands pound. However, locals will usually accept U.S. dollars and euros – and of course, there’s always the universally-accepted credit card!
Guided Tours of Stanley & East Falkland
When visiting Stanley, there is a wide variety of things to see and do. Formal shore excursions can be booked on board ship, which is the recommended option for anyone keen to take a guided tour. Offerings include trips to penguin colonies and farms, Stanley highlights by bus, battlefield and walking tours, bird-watching and/or other nature walks.
My ship offered a wide variety of tours, which we needed to pre-book. However, a few cruise-savvy passengers on our ship booked their own Falkland tours ahead of time, working directly with local tour operators. I don’t have personal experience with the local operators, but I have read good reviews about Estancia Excursions.
Following is a list of common tours offered in Stanley – to give you a flavor of the different tour options. However, know that different cruise ships offer different tours, plus the tours may also differ depending on the time of year.
Stanley Highlights Tour
This is the 2-hour guided bus tour that I took. We drove around the outer environs of Stanley, including a stop at Whalebone Cove for good views towards town. We also visited a peat bog before driving back into town where we stopped at the Liberation Monument. The tour ended at the excellent Historic Dockyard Museum. (There are many more photos & information in the Photo Section below.)
This pretty cove is located 11km (6.8 miles) from Stanley. It’s the best wildlife site close to town. If your ship doesn’t offer a tour there, you can take a taxi or even walk (which takes ~1.5 hours), as my friends Nadia & Alan did. They went there to visit the Magellanic penguin colony, which can be seen during the spring & summer months. The wildlife area also features many other bird species.
Scenic Air Flight
Some of my travel mates opted for this 1.5-hour tour, which included a 35-minute flight over East Falkland. They all seemed to really enjoy the flight.
Bluff Cove Lagoon
Like many of the tours to more distant points around the island, this 3-hour tour involves some off-road driving in 4WD jeeps across bumpy peat beds. At the lagoon, you can see penguins in their natural environment on a sandy white beach. There are approximately 1,000 pairs of gentoo penguins, plus a growing colony of king penguins. The Sea Cabbage Café, which is heated by a traditional peat stove, offers freshly baked treats. Our ship’s tour offering that day was a “Welcome to Africa” geology-focused tour, which also included a visit to Bluff Cove (shown here in the photos by our ship’s excellent photographer Esther).
Long Island Farm Tour
This 4-hour tour visits a 23,000-acre sheep farm, located about 20 miles from Stanley. The 6th generation Watson family lives and farms in the traditional way. They offer a peat-cutting demo, sheep shearing and other examples of their sheep and horse-gearing work.
This desolate, long white sand beach at Volunteer Point is a popular tourist destination. That’s because it is home to the largest king penguin colony in the Falkland Islands – and the largest outside of Antarctica and South Georgia. There are over 1,000 breeding pairs of these regal birds. The Point also has numerous gentoo and Magellanic penguins. The tour usually takes around 6-6.5 hours in total, because of the two hours of travel in each direction.
In the next section, I will be sharing photos (with text captions) from the Stanley Highlights Tour and my own walking tour of the town. These visuals will hopefully paint the picture of the interesting things to see in Stanley.
Stanley Highlights Tour
I loved these rich colors seen at Whalebone Cove – at the east end of Stanley Harbor. The name of this small cove comes from the large number of whale bones that can be seen at low tide. Whaling and sealing contributed to the early economic growth of the Falkland Islands.
Another view of Whalebone Cove & the Lady Elizabeth shipwreck. “Lady Liz” was built in the UK in 1879. In 1913, she suffered damage whilst rounding Cape Horn. She limped into Stanley for repairs, which due to costs, were never carried out. After serving as a floating warehouse for many years, she was blown into her current position by a violent gale in 1936. You can also see my ship, the MS Fram (just behind, to her left / white, red, black ship)
Peat bog demo – Our guide demonstrating how they “harvest” the omnipresent peat from peat bogs all over the island. In fact, the Falklands are made up almost entirely of peat bogs with mountains rising up through the bog.
In the past, peat was the main fuel used for cooking and heating all the homes on the island. Now there are just around 10-12 homes still using peat. The peat is formed into bricks and dried.
We stopped at two homes that displayed whale bones. This is the huge head & jawbone of a Sperm Whale.
The Falkland Islands were used as a base for whaling ships hunting the southern right whale and sperm whale from the 1770s until British authority was established over the islands and surrounding seas. Whaling was briefly revived with the establishment of a whaling station on New Island from 1909 to 1917 until whaling operations moved to South Georgia.
The sign says it all. The whaling continued on South Georgia Island until 1965.
Liberation Monument for the Falklands War. It says “In Memory of Those Who Liberated Us – June 14, 1982.” On April 2nd, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Experienced British troops soon landed. The war lasted 11 weeks, ending on June 14, 1982 with victory for the Brits. A total of 635 Argentines and 255 Britons died in the war.
Historic Dockyard Museum – This excellent two-story museum is really worth a visit! The museum shows off Falkland’s social and maritime sailing history, flora, fauna and geology. There are special exhibits on the 1982 war and one entitled “Gateway to Antarctica.” Having just visited Antarctica and South Georgia, I found this exhibit particularly fascinating. It included great information on the White Continent, the Shackleton Endurance expedition and a full-size replica of a refuge hut.
View of the museum exterior and main entrance. The buildings that form the museum complex are some of the oldest in Stanley, dating from the founding of the capital in the 1840s and include recreations of the old printing office, telephone exchange, smithy and a wash-house.
My Walking Tour of Stanley
Government House – Government House is both the home and the workplace of the Governor of the Falkland Islands. This frequently photographed building has been home to the London-appointed governors since 1845. Government House is not open to the public so exterior photos will have to suffice. I liked the pretty flower garden fronting the glassed-in conservatory.
Christ Church Cathedral – This iconic, massive brick-and-stone Anglican cathedral opened in 1892. It is the world’s southernmost cathedral. The Whalebone Arch was made from the jawbones of two blue whales, the largest animals ever known to have lived on Earth! The arch was built in 1933 to commemorate the centenary of British rule in the Falklands.
Interior of the Christ Church Cathedral
St. Mary’s Catholic Church
View of Ross Street – the main street than runs along the water of Stanley Harbor – and a small park with cannons.
Another view of Ross Street and the typical Falkland buildings. The “Penguin News” office is first building on the left.
Stanley Post Office. There’s no mistaking that the Falklands have been a British Overseas Territory!
Another charming Stanley home with its corrugated roof. I love the blue accents & flower boxes & the brown picket fence!
Jubilee Villas – Typical English 19th C. brick terrace houses. They were built in 1887 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. They are roofed in Falkland style with corrugated iron since English slate was unable to be transported to the faraway Falkland Islands.
Bittersweet Café – I spent some time in this charming little café, along with quite a few of my shipmates. I ordered the decadently delicious teaberry cheesecake (above), with the freshly picked teaberries. We enjoyed wonderful conversation with the two delightful staff, including the woman Jules who was a proud 5th generation Falklander.
From talking with them, we learned that the tourist season was coming near to the end, sometime in April. Our MS Fram was the only ship in port today, with none yesterday. But, soon they were expecting 5 ships – which could easily put the whole small town on tourist alert. “All hands on deck”!
Victory Pub – There are approximately six pubs in town, with the Victory Pub being possibly the most popular one with the locals. While inside, you definitely feel like you’re in the UK, complete with flying British flags, a game of darts, and fish & chips on the menu.
While in the pub, make sure to try some locally-brewed beer from Falkland Beerworks. You can choose from the “Peat Cutter” and the“Rockhopper.” (above)
Falkland Islands Visitor Centre – The excellent Visitor Centre is the ideal starting point for any visit, providing information about the city and connecting visitors with tours and transport.
The Visitor Centre (left with the red telephone booth in front) is conveniently located right off Ross Street near the public jetty where ship tenders can dock. Note the large sign (in middle) saying “Welcome to The Falkland Islands.” Christ Church Cathedral is also visible.
I came across these cute juvenile Flightless Steamer Ducks. I’m not really a “birder” but the Falklands have amazing bird life!
From the Visitor Centre, we were able to catch the courtesy shuttle bus transport (above left) back to our ship moored at Stanley’s floating dock facility (right). Time to settle in for dinner as the ship took off at 6pm to head to tomorrow’s destination. Story to be continued….
Stanley & Falkland Islands Resources
Climate & Weather
The Falkland’s South Atlantic climate is considered temperate, however with frequent high winds. Even on the coldest winter days, the temperature is usually above freezing – but that is, of course, before adding in the wind chill! Summers can reach into the mid-20s C (around 70°F). In UK-relativity-speak, the Falklands are cooler than London in the summer, but warmer in the winter.
We had “typical” weather during our early March visit. It was usually overcast and quite windy at times. Our temps ranged from 5-8°C (41-46°F). So, in comparison to Antarctica, it was definitely balmy! I’ve also read that the Falklands can “enjoy” all 4 seasons in one day so travelers there need to be prepared with warm layers.
Airline Travel to Stanley
Adding to the remoteness of the Falklands is the fact of their infrequent international flights. There is only one weekly scheduled airline flight to Stanley. Every Saturday, LAN flies from Santiago, Chile with a stop in Punta Arenas, Chile – a total travel time of 6 hours. There are also flights from the UK with Britain’s Royal Air Force. Apparently, it makes 6 flights per month, with a limited number of seats (like 28) for non-military folks.
Falkland Islands Tourist Board Website – excellent information
To read more about my Antarctica / South Georgia / Falkland Islands expedition, check out my blog post: Falling In Love With Antarctica – Highlights of My Recent Polar Expedition
COMMENTS: Have you visited the Falkland Islands? How did you get there and what did you think? What was your favorite part?