Mike's England-born colleague Matt asked us to "say hello to my fellow countrymen" today in Stanley, population 2,967, and the capital of the Falkland Islands. Indeed, the Brits are very fond and proud of their Antarctic presence and their Falklands, an overseas territory of the U.K. -- meaning the islands are under the rule of a London-appointed governor who calls a rambling government house, behind a white picket fence, home.
We learned early on that the Falklands -- a chain of about 200 islands covering 4,700 square miles, about the size of Connecticut -- have a deep and complicated military history. To make a long story short, English seafarer John Davies is said to have first spotted the uninhabited islands in 1592, but ownership was disputed from the get-go among France, Spain, Argentina and the U.K. The French and Spanish claims have long been abandoned. However, the Falklands are often referred to by another name -- Islas Malvinas or "The Sheep Islands" (sheep farming was historically the basis of the economy here; today, fishing makes up 50 percent) -- because many Argentineans still believe the islands rightly belong to them. Argentina lost a brief but bitter war against British troops in 1982. On April 2 of that year, Argentinean forces invaded the islands; after 74 days of battle, British sovereignty was restored at the cost of 255 British and approximately 1,000 Argentinean lives.
Which begs the question: Why did Argentineans believe the islands to be rightly theirs, and why do they still? For over 150 years, Argentineans had claimed the island to be theirs even though they were under British sovereignty since 1833. Some historians feel the Argentineans laid claim to the islands based simply on their sheer proximity to their mainland. One article states that Argentineans had inherited the remote archipelago from Spain in the early 1800's before it was occupied by Britain. Others deem the war an ill-conceived maneuver to defeat the British military and pat the back of the Argentine dictatorship. Indeed, one positive result of the war was that Argentina's defeat discredited its military government and led to the restoration of civilian rule there in 1983.
The Falkland Islands actually played a major part in the battle for supremacy of the high seas in both world wars. On December 8, 1914, a British squadron sank a German fleet to the southeast of the Falklands. During the Second World War, the Falklands donated 50,000 GPB (today estimated at about $87,500) to buy 10 spitfires for the war effort. But that's enough of a history lesson for now!
Ships must anchor at Stanley, and because of notoriously rough seas (gales are frequent, and sunny days rare) the port is missed quite often. In fact, Celebrity's Millennium skipped its call here a few days earlier due to inclement weather. Today, we were blessed once again with a gorgeous day, but much crisper than Puerto Madryn -- it was about 60 degrees, at least 20 degrees cooler. Aside from one looming rain cloud that blew through town in the early afternoon spitting out about five drops of rain, it was an unusually bright and sunny day for Stanley.
The tender ride of about two miles takes 20 - 30 minutes. One of the first things Mike noticed was how few trees are on the island -- most of the landscape, while lush and flowering, is flat. In fact, of 150 species of plant life that grow here, only two are much higher than ground level (incessant winds prevent the growth of taller plant life; trees you do see have been imported, essentially). Trees or no trees, Stanley is just plain pretty. Where grass does not blanket the earth, many jagged rocks do, and this morning they cast postcard-perfect shadows on the rolling blue seas. As we neared the tender pier, rows of shiny corrugated roofs painted in red, green and blue grew larger and larger. Aside from one building about three stories tall just west of the tender pier, most of the timber-framed houses we saw were also short and sweet, fronted by tended-to gardens of tiny pink, purple and yellow flowers. There are bushes that grow a red berry indigenous to the area called the diddle-dee berry; you can buy the native diddle-dee's bittersweet jam in the local supermarket, The West Store. Though we didn't get a chance to sample it, legend has it if you eat diddle-dee during your visit, you will return to the Falkland Islands.
The Jetty visitor center is located right at the entrance to the tender pier; we ducked inside for a look around and a free map. Although we did not choose to book a nature-themed excursion in favor of exploring the town and immersing ourselves in the history and culture of the Falklands, the wildlife is clearly a draw here. In addition to the same magellenic penguins we saw in Puerto Madryn, there are larger king and gentoo penguins residing on bluffs and coves, and it's a birder's paradise with over 200 species recorded on the islands; many small birds, unable to maintain contact with South America proper, have developed their own subspecies, including the small brown Falkland Pipit. Sea lions can often be seen frolicking in the harbor that fronts the town (but not today, alas).
A guidebook I picked at the Jetty detailed two do-it-yourself wildlife walks. One, from the town to Gypsy Cove, promised sightings of penguins, Pipits and seabirds ... but the four-mile roundtrip walk would take about four hours at a "gentle stroll." Hoping to make our way back to the pier area with enough time for fish and chips, we decided to instead walk Ross Road along the water from the Jetty to the Falklands Island Museum -- about one mile. (You can also get there by candy-apple red double-decker bus, which is really quite neat -- but again, looking forward to fish and chips, a little bit of exercise seemed key!)
One of the first sights we saw, on the left-hand side of Ross Road heading west, was the Christ Church Cathedral, the southernmost cathedral in the world. This dubious distinction is sure to continue popping up as we make our way down and around Cape Horn; Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, is logically home to the southernmost railroad, the southernmost post office, the southernmost sub-Antarctic forest ... the list goes on. The exterior of the Cathedral is red brick, with a tall clock and bell tower under which streams of visitors were coming and going. The foundation was laid in 1890; the cathedral was consecrated by Bishop Sterling in 1982 and then renovated just before the centenary celebrations in 1992.
Assistant reverend Kathy Biles was on hand to welcome us, and as we entered we saw light streaming in rich golds and burgundies onto the pews from beautiful stained glass windows, many standing as tributes to the Falklands' history. The Post Liberation Memorial Window, for example, features the Falklands crest (sheep, a ship and the motto "Desire the Right") and the crests of the Royal Navy, the Army, the Royal Air Force, the Merchant Navy, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Royal Marines (phew!), all of which contributed to the liberation of the islands from Argentinean forces in 1982. Other than windows, plaques covered the walls to commemorate the passing of parishioners' loved ones. One in particular read that a woman had not died but "went to sleep" ... after the date and requisite niceties, it reconfirmed that "she sleepeth." I will have to ask Matt if this is a Britishism. I rather like it -- has a nicer ring to it than "rest in peace."
We passed several war memorials before rounding a bend on a modest hill toward the museum. The Falkland Islands Museum & National Trust is based in a small property known as the Brittania House, but its size is deceiving -- there is so much to see inside it was hard to take it all in. There are mockups of a Victorian kitchen and a typical Argentinean war bunker -- the latter being about the size of our cruise cabin bathroom, outfitted with canned goods, a guitar, a uniform and helmet, weapons, and an old-fashioned lantern. Also neat were artifacts from the ration packs British troops carried during the Falklands/Maldivas war (dextrose tablets in "orange flavour," Rolos, soup and drink mixes, and a can labeled "baconburgers"). A diagram and description of the Jhelum, a shipwreck that has been grounded in Stanley's harbor since the 1870's, revealed that it is the only surviving vessel of its type, a three-masted wooden barque constructed in mahogany and copper. The term "surviving" is used loosely; we passed the wreck on the way to the museum itself, and the empty shell hardly resembles a ship, though it does seem to be a well-frequented playground for the Falklands' many feathered friends.
One of the museum workers came over to crank up antique musical instruments to entertain us as we looked around. A 120-year-old Orpheus Mechanical Zither, shaped a bit like a flat-lying guitar case, played a varnished cardboard record -- each one requires being "cranked" at a particular but steady speed, and as they spin, they strike strings inside. A little more melodic (the Zither sounded a bit like dying cats) was a circa-1895 symphonium, standing in the corner like a grandfather clock playing a large, round disk labeled "The Battle of New York." This very machine once stood at the Falkland Islands' Globe Hotel as a coin-operated jukebox.
Before departing the museum, we left our regards in the guest book and picked up a few special souvenirs -- I found a handcrafted necklace (a cream-colored Falkland Pebble from neighboring Pebble Island), and Mike bought an ink bottle that was recovered from another of the many shipwrecks that have occurred in these parts over the years. Note: Another must-buy souvenir that is affordable -- and easy to pack -- is a Falklands stamp. Collectors covet Falkland Islands stamps, though they are not as rare or as valuable as they were just after the 1982 war (at one point, the sale of stamps was one of the largest earners for Islands' treasury). The post office, about a quarter of a mile from the tender pier, sells them for $1 each.
Once back in town we proceeded up the hill from the pier to the Globe Tavern, a small wooden-walled pub with round tables, wooden chairs and backless stools under a bright red roof. Though draught beers are generally offered, they were all out. Our waitress recommended John Smith's, a famous British beer that is poured into a root-beer-style mug instead of a traditional pint glass (though she promised us it still measures one liquid pint). It's a dark brew -- not quite as dark as a Guinness, but smooth and creamy. It went well with locally caught fried fish, chips, tartar sauce and peas. The tavern also features a large-screen TV for sporting events (today the Olympic Games were the highlight). Sitting among the friendly pub chatter, drinking a pint and watching the folks strolling along the waterfront just down the street, it is hard to imagine this peaceful, beautiful place having been under fire in my lifetime -- that just over 20 years ago, helicopters, surface troops and nuclear attack submarines were a part of the landscape.
Back onboard, tonight was Italian night in the main dining room, and our best meal there to date. Our waiters donned patriotic polo shirts in red and white or green and white stripes, and Italian flags sat on each table. We raved to the head waiter about the appetizer, baked eggplant parmigiana, so much that he agreed to bring us more tomorrow. He also whipped up some spicy penne arrabiata in addition to our actual main entrees (I had a superb veal chop), and, of course, creamy decadent tiramisu. We literally rolled out of the Palm Court and into the International Show Lounge for the magic show which was actually quite funny. There was, of course, sleight of hand, but the real entertainment came from the interaction between the magician/comedian and the audience. He brought a man from Sweden, Claus, up on stage for a card trick, and taught him a new word -- "bitchin'" -- which Claus proceeded to use over and over again to uproarious laughter.
There were more people out in the lounges tonight than any other night thus far during our cruise; tomorrow is a day at sea, and most passengers are planning on sleeping in. The seas have been smooth as glass -- until this evening. As I sat on my bed taking off my boots this evening, getting ready to turn in, I felt myself swaying significantly for the first time (I am generally not susceptible to seasickness, but was told by South America veterans that this would be the ultimate test of my prowess). It makes sense, as we head further and further south into famously treacherous waters. We round Cape Horn at around 5 p.m. tomorrow....