Tuesday, November 22, 2016

In Insular Patagonia

When it’s winter in the north, the days get shorter, and the weather gets rougher, it’s common to dream of island getaways. For many Northern Hemisphere residents, that might involve a hop to the Caribbean, but I prefer the southernmost region of the Americas. Two of South America’s biggest islands – Chiloé and Tierra del Fuego (pictured above) – arouse my own enthusiasm but, after spending a couple nights in Santiago recently, I chose to bypass the rest of the continent to spend a week in the Falkland Islands (whose tiny capital of Stanley appears in the photo below).
Air travel can be tiring, and the five-hour time difference with California didn’t help, but I arrived in the Islands by mid-afternoon on a Saturday. Staying with friends – I spent a year in the Islands three decades ago – I later enjoyed dinner with them at Waterfront Kitchen Café, where Chilean chef Alex Olmedo oversees a notably sophisticated menu. As an appetizer, the South Georgia reindeer paté deserves a story in itself, but I also chose the chimichurri-marinated local lamb rack for my main dish.
Over the next two days, I did a variety of town activities, including a visit to the professionally transformed Historic Dockyard Museum complex (pictured above), but Tuesday and Wednesday were special – I got to fly my favorite airline, the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS), to the offshore wildlife paradises of Sea Lion Island and Bleaker Island. I always enjoy the aerial views from their ten-seater Britten-Norman Islander aircraft, and I also enjoy the fact that there’s no oppressive airport security – no full body scans and feel free to take water on on-board - unless you count the fact that FIGAS weighs its passengers to be able to balance the load.
I made only a brief day visit to Sea Lion, a compact island with a modern lodge and easy access to wildlife sites that include three species of penguins and my personal favorite elephant seals. There are also orcas offshore, but none were around on this day. In the afternoon, I flew to nearby Bleaker, where wool ranchers Mike and Phyllis Rendell also encourage wildlife-oriented visitors to stay at their renovated Cobb’s Cottage and the newer Cassard House, which has four spacious bedrooms and full-board service. On a quick Land Rover tour around the island’s north end, we saw hundreds of Gentoo penguins and king cormorants, but also a solitary fur seal who had hauled himself ashore at a site where such sightings are infrequent (wool and wildlife appear to be compatible!).

At present, there’s only one flight weekly between Punta Arenas and the Islands – I’d have like to stay at least another few days - but, once you get back to the continent, you can tour Tierra del Fuego, Torres del Paine, and other thrillingly remote destinations. I’ve done that many times myself, but to me it’s also special to lodge on small offshore islands like Sea Lion and Bleaker, where you can explore the penguin-rich seashore and marine mammal colonies with just a handful of other guests around – and often you’re the only one of your kind.

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