Winter is itchy feet time for me and this year I’m heading about as far south as a person can go to have a look at the icebergs of Antarctica before heading north up the west side of South America for some Latino culture and warmth. It’s also a great opportunity to continue my where2wearit blog which offers travel tips from made-to-measure experts Alice & Co.
My starting point is the windy Falkland Islands deep in the chilly South Atlantic. They’re best reached by a regular RAF flight from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. It’s 18 hours of spam fritters, no alcohol and terrible old films for officers, squaddies and us civilians (endearingly known as SLC – “self-loading cargo”). My tip: take a pillow, a picnic and a good book.
“The problem is they send fabrics printed with the wrong kind of penguins,” laments Tansey, owner of the Sew What haberdashery in the tiny capital of the Falkland Islands, Stanley. Catering to its stitchers and quilters, this is only open on Saturday afternoons because she also has a full-time day job. When Tansey arrived 20 years ago from New Zealand and complained there was no fabric shop she was told to stop moaning and open one. Stanley is that kind of place. The shop stocks more designs of fleece than I’ve ever seen, along with Union Jack-patterned lining for the patriotic. I buy a couple of metres of penguin printed ribbon and chat about my Alice & Co patterns to a cheerful young mum and a redoubtable woman running up some vestments for the clergy.
There’s some great needlework talent here – these hassocks from the Cathedral have got Falkland Islands’ life all stitched up, from the right kind of penguins (rockhoppers), to the little red planes of FIGAS (Falkland Islands Government Air Service) which provide a vital service threading East and West Falkland and all the outlying islands together.
Stanley has pretty houses with many clad in brightly-painted corrugated metal. They march up the hill from the harbour in neat rows intersected with gardens full of prizeworthy displays of lupins and cabbages – fresh fruit and veg are at a premium here as all supplies have to be shipped in. I also spot quite a few chickens and several horses but sadly I can’t find any to ride. They used to be the main means of transport but these days the islanders prefer their LandRovers.
I sport a smart and warm merino sweater from my designer friend Dawn Foxall’s company Foxology for my own ‘Defender’ style. Merino is perfect for travelling as it’s light and warm and always shakes out of my suitcase without wrinkles.
Stanley is splashed with red from its old-fashioned phone booths, post-boxes and a number 38 London bus advertising tours to the penguins. This is my bus route in London so it’s a big surprise to see one down here!
There are also some red danger signs on the beautiful white sand beaches, a few of which are still out of bounds as a legacy of the 1982 war with Argentina. Local historian Tony Smith who was a 20 year-old living on remote West Falkland at the time does an excellent half-day battlefield tour with thoughtful and balanced opinions. The last remaining mines are steadily being cleared by a team from Zimbabwe, on Sundays you can hear them sing (beautifully) in Shona at the Tabernacle Church.
The excellent Falklands Historic Docklands Museum on the waterfront has moving film of Falklanders recalling their memories of the war as well as engrossing information about the islands’ social and natural history. There is also a survey asking the locals what they feel they lack in Stanley. Among the responses are trees, a spa and some nice clothes!This seems a justifiable request as the best shopping I can find is a collection of waterproof overalls, big pants, dodgy balaclavas and some penguin toilet paper!
But I’m here to see real penguins and to do that I take to the skies and visit some of the outlying islands. A fleet of trim red, white and blue Britten-Norman Islander planes – built in the Isle of Wight in the 1980s – ferry passengers and freight around in a complex daily timetable. If you ask nicely you can sit up front and get a panoramic view at the same time as catching up with the local gossip from the friendly pilots.
From above, East and West Falkland look like the wings of a butterfly with numerous islands scattered around their tattered fringes.
I visit Sealion Island which has been a nature reserve since 2009. Here there’s so much wildlife it’s hard not to trip over it – like this elephant seal sunbathing on this pristine white beach.
You don’t want to be falling over any sealions though, the massive males weigh over 300 kilos and guard their harems and infants with a lot of thuggish brawling and barking. Many have nasty scars to show for it so are best watched from the relative safety of the cliff top.
This sharp-beaked striated caracara has definitely got an eye on my sandwiches!
At times Sealion Island is home to five varieties of penguins and I’m lucky to spot them all. As a fashion designer I have to admire their smart and stylish looks!
Here’s a handsome king penguin and a hair-gelled rockhopper (they do just that, and watching them hurtle themselves up and down the cliffs is way better entertainment than TV!). Meanwhile, the macaroni penguin sports dapper yellow head-feathers and is named after the 18th century Yankee Doodle dandies.
Magellanics like to relax comfortably in their underground burrows popping their heads up from time to time to see what’s what.
Finally, the numerous yellow-footed gentoos rush up and down their penguin highway through the tussac grass to feed their hungry offspring.
I’m hoping that if I sit here long enough I might get fed too!
In Stanley I stay at The Waterfront Boutique Hotel where I love its colourful style, super comfortable beds and delicious food especially the Patagonian toothfish!
At the lodge on Sealion Island, the cheerful Chilean chef and staff look after you very well and owner Micky Reeves and his team are full of advice and information for the best wildlife-spotting. There’s no TV or internet here – hurrah! Instead I read Nell Stevens’ Bleaker House, a new and amusing book about spending winter alone on a remote island here trying to write a novel.
Packing for this marathon three-month trip was certainly a challenge, but for my first stop I seem to have got it just about right. Now I’m putting on several extra layers and sailing south towards the Antarctic Circle – keep following this blog to find out how I get on!
All images © nigeltisdall.com
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