Even though the Falkland Islands – one of the UK’s southernmost overseas territories – briefly came to global prominence in 1982 after its sovereignty was contested by Argentina, they aren’t on the radar for most travelers. This South Atlantic archipelago consists of more than 700 islands, is about the size of Connecticut (or half the size of Wales), and is home to some 3200 people, half a million sheep and a million penguins.
Visitors will find deserted, pristine beaches of sugary-white sand lapped by cold cerulean waters, with black-and-white Commerson’s dolphins playing in the surf; bleakly beautiful, treeless landscapes; shipwreck and plane wreck sites; and elephant seal colonies. Venture to this remote and fascinating destination to unravel the islands’ mystique for yourself.
Colony of Rockhopper Penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) on the cliffs above The Neck on Saunders Island in the Falkland Islands © JeremyRichards / Lonely Planet
Stanley and East Falkland
On one of the two largest islands, East Falkland, the compact, appealing capital of Stanley, home to much of the islands’ population, is an attraction in its own right and a good place to base yourself for several days. Check out the excellent Historic Dockyard Museum and the Whalebone Arch in front of the cathedral; do a day tour to Volunteer Point to see the world’s most accessible king penguin colony; take a long walk to Whalebone Cove, with its rusted hulk of the Lady Elizabeth; and meander along the nature trails of Gypsy Cove.
The wrecked Lady Elizabeth sits in the water outside Stanley © Raphael WOLLMANN/Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images
Besides wildlife tours, Stanley-based Falkland Island Tours & Travel and Penguin Travel do customized war tours of East Falkland. The Falklands War of 1982 lasted 74 days, during which over 900 people lost their lives. Both Stanley and the surrounding countryside bear scars from the war. Mount Tumbledown, Mount Harriet and Two Sisters were sites of fierce fighting, and islanders were held hostage at the town hall at Goose Green by Argentinian soldiers. Signs around Gypsy Cove beach warn of buried mines, and the Argentine cemetery en route to San Carlos still has mass graves with unidentified remains.
In Stanley, there are more than half a dozen very good hotels and B&Bs. Lafone House is run by hospitable Arlette, who once hosted the Duke of York. Malvina House Hotel is the plushest option on the waterfront, with an excellent restaurant attached. Bennett House B&B (14 Allardyce St) allows travelers to camp in the back garden, while Shorty’s Motel is popular with military personnel and has a decent diner.
An aerial shot of a large cormorant colony on Bleaker Island © Anna Kaminski / Lonely Planet
The outlying islands
The Falklands’ biggest attraction is its wildlife. Many visitors who arrive during the peak season – between November and March, when the days are longest and the weather is more likely to be pleasant – are wildlife lovers who head straight for the outlying islands surrounding the main islands, West and East Falkland.
South of East Falkland, easily walkable Bleaker Island has gentoo and rockhopper penguin colonies, as well as a vast king cormorant colony. Farther south, tiny Sea Lion Island is home to gentoo, Magellanic and rockhopper penguins, plus large sea lion and elephant seal colonies.
North of West Falkland, Pebble Island offers a good mix of penguin colonies and Falklands War remains, as well as a stunning beach; 4WD tours reach most sites of interest. Large Saunders Island, to the west, is renowned for its enormous colonies of black-browed albatrosses and rockhopper penguins, as well as smaller colonies of gentoo, Magellanic and king penguins and elephant seals.
At the Falklands archipelago’s northwestern edge, varied birdlife and large numbers of elephant seals thrive on smaller Carcass Island; boat trips can be arranged to uninhabited Steeple Jason Island, home to the world’s largest black-browed albatross colony.
Finally, vast Weddell Island, on the southwestern edge of the Falklands, has most of the Falklands’ bird species, including all the penguins, as well as visiting birds from South America. The island is also home to Patagonian foxes. February and March are the best months for whale-watching, with killer whales, blue whales, sei whales, southern right whales and others spotted in the deep waters along the edges of the archipelago.
King penguins gather on a beach in the Falkland Islands © Anna Kaminski / Lonely Planet
Where to stay
On the islands, most wildlife lodge accommodations include all meals. On Bleaker Island, the hospitable Rendell family runs Cobb’s Cottage, featuring spacious rooms, as well as the four-room Cassard House. Sea Lion Island’s 10-room Sea Lion Lodge is known for its gourmet meals. Pebble Island’s eponymous lodge has a snug single and six large doubles. On Saunders Island you can choose between a refurbished bunkhouse or the Stonehouse in the Settlement, or private rooms at the Rookery and The Neck cabins; camping is allowed. On Carcass Island, there are six doubles and twins in the main house. Weddell Island has two cottages for rent; the accommodations were being renovated in early 2018.
To reach the Falklands, you can either fly or take a cruise ship. Year-round, the Falklands are served by weekly LATAM flights every Saturday from Santiago de Chile via Punta Arenas. On the second Saturday of every month, the LATAM flight stops at Rio Gallegos, Argentina, returning the following Saturday. From the UK, there are twice-weekly flights on Wednesdays and Sundays from the RAF Brize Norton air base via the Ascension Islands; note that this is a military flight, and is sometimes delayed for days. Some nationalities require visas to visit the Falklands.
During high season (December to February), Stanley is visited by cruise ships several times weekly, with some continuing on to South Georgia and Antarctica.
The settlement on Bleaker Island © Anna Kaminski / Lonely Planet
On East Falkland you have the option of renting a 4WD and driving the paved and gravel roads around the island (from FKP45 per day). To get to the outlying islands, you have to take a local flight with FIGAS. These little planes are the islands’ lifeline, doubling as a postal and medical service. During high season, they fly up to three times daily, and it’s possible to book flights as late as the day before you wish to travel; expect to pay FKP75-140 per flight, depending on distance. While FIGAS flies pretty much in any weather, there are occasional delays due to wind or fog.
Money, money, money
The local currency is the Falklands pound, used interchangeably with the pound sterling (£), but be warned: there isn’t a single cash machine on the Falkland Islands. The Standard Chartered Bank in Stanley is only open 9am-3pm Monday to Friday and charges FKP22.50 per cash withdrawal. Bring enough cash with you to tide you over, for the airport transfer and beyond, though it’s possible to get cash back at the West Store supermarket in Stanley if you’re stuck. Euros (€) and US dollars ($) are all welcome and accepted by most businesses and hotels. You'll be unable to use Chilean and Argentinian pesos on any of the islands. You can pay for FIGAS flights by card, and some hotels and guesthouses accept credit cards also. The FKP22/US$30 international departure tax is payable in cash.
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