Dispatch: Voyage to the Bottom of the World -- The Falklands

Travel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell departed for Santiago, Chile, Jan. 3 to begin a two-week adventure to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands, sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent. He'll be transmitting on-site reports to Travel Weekly's New Jersey headquarters on a daily basis (weather and Internet access permitting).

The Explorer refuels in the Falklands. The islands are windy and bleak. There are no native trees, only a few introduced species in sheltered, settled areas. There are at least 59 species of birds there, including penguins and blackbrow albatrosses. The human population is around 3,000, with 300 of the total outside Port Stanley.

I took a tour of Port Stanley guided by a transplanted Canadian named Margaret who came to the Falklands in 1980 because, she said, I lost an argument with my husband. She was funny and a fitting guide to the place.

The islands have a quirky history. There were no native inhabitants when the Europeans first discovered them in the late 1500s. The French and the English both established settlements in the 1600s, unbeknownst to each other. The Spanish considered South America their turf and pushed out the French and then the British and renamed the islands the Malvinas. But they were so busy suppressing insurgencies on the mainland they abandoned the islands in 1811, leaving no one in charge.

The governor of Buenos Aires province (before the existence of Argentina) declared himself governor of the islands, but he made the mistake of taking over three U.S. schooners, so the U.S. government sent a fleet and knocked him out. The Americans didn't consider the islands worth claiming, and in 1833 the Brits declared them a British colony.

The islands became important as a stop on the way to Cape Horn, which was the only sea passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific before the Panama Canal. There were battles there in both World War I and II. A little more than two decades ago, the Falklands War, in which Great Britain fought back Argentinas attempt to reclaim the islands, thrust the British colony into worldwide headlines from March until June of 1982.

Now Britain uses the islands as military training grounds, so there are enough military personnel to protect against another invasion, Margaret said. The Falklands main industry now is tourism, with many little shops in Port Stanley, and wildlife tours.

After refueling, we embarked toward Antarctica about 4 a.m.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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