(This is part 4 of 4 in our Antarctica series)
From the Shetland Islands, we cruised 581 miles north to the Falkland Islands arriving at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands on Day 13 of our Antarctic cruise at noon. The Falkland Islands are an archipelago located ~300 miles east of South America’s coast and 700 miles north of the northern Antarctica peninsula. They are a self governing British overseas territory with a total population of about 3500 people, 2/3 of which reside in the capital of Stanley. On cruise ship days, the tourist population can outnumber the locals. Even though our cruise ship carrying less than 400 was relatively small in comparison, my husband and I were eager to have time away from the ship crowd and booked a tour with a local tour company avoiding the ship sponsored excursions. The Falklands have some of the largest albatross colonies in the world and 5 different species of penguins, including the magnificent king penguin. When traveling this distance, I’d make sure to get on a tour that includes a chance to observe king penguins!
We chose Jimmy Curtis Touring to take us on a 6 hour adventure to Volunteer Point. I’ll describe our trip in detail below, but all you need to know is…just book this tour! It was unbelievable. After days aboard a ship with hundreds of people, it was blissful to get into a small jeep and journey out to the Point where we could watch thousands of penguins on a beautiful white sand beach without fellow tourists jostling for a photo.
Our communication with Jimmy and his wife, Tanya, prior to our tour was straightforward and they were very responsive to all our questions. In 25+ years, no Falklands tour operator has ever had a tourist miss their cruise ship, so don’t let your cruise ship deter you from booking. Our cruise ship actually was in port an hour prior to schedule and Jimmy had that information and was waiting for us as soon as we exited the gangway. We hopped into his Land Cruiser and departed. This tour consists of a short stretch on a paved road, a longer stretch on a smoother gravel road, and then the longest stretch (a bit over an hour) on a hilly countryside. In total it’s about 2 to 2.5 hours each way. It’s bumpy and you’ll cross small ditches with wooden struts acting as a bridge, bogs, hit lots of rocks, and lumber along with sheep watching from the sideline. It’s advised that this is not the tour for back/neck problems, but it wasn’t bad and the countryside is beautiful…but more importantly, it’s the only route to the king penguins!
When we arrived, we had about 1.5 hours to view the penguins on our own. There is an enormous colony of king penguins (approximately 1000) as well as smaller colonies of gentoo and magellanic penguins. You can wander unfettered throughout the point on a grassy field and down to the white sand beach where we had the pleasure of viewing a group of about 20 king penguins march along the shore, periodically taking a short dip before returning. Unlike the heavily restricted viewing on the cruise ship, there are no flags or cones marring your photos, but a request to stay 6 meters from the penguins which everyone we encountered respected. Jimmy did an excellent job of timing our arrival to the Point when the other small groups had just left, so essentially we had the entire point to ourselves for nearly an hour before we even saw a few other small groups. We took hundreds of photos and stayed on the beach just marveling at their choreography of marching, swimming, shaking…For us, it was the highlight of our wildlife viewing for the entire cruise and that’s no small accomplishment considered we just toured the Antarctic peninsula!
The tour costs 200 USD and a lunch (tuna or egg sandwich, some chips, apple, and cookie bar) was included. We’ve heard that some cruise ships charge double this but our ship didn’t offer it as an option. Our ship did offer 3 hour tours to Bluff Cove where we’ve heard there is a small group of king penguins. However, feedback from other passengers was that you had about 30 minutes only with the penguins and there were very few king penguins. In our opinion, it is worth the haul out to Volunteer Point and Jimmy was the perfect guide…able to answer questions, left us to explore independently, and even gave us a quick tour of Port Stanley on our return.
Once back to Port Stanley, we toured the Historic Dockyard Museum which has exhibits on the history of Stanley as well as it’s link to the Antarctic. It was free with our cruise card and definitely worth 30-60 minutes of exploration. As we were visiting on a Sunday, most shops and restaurants were closed by the time we returned, but we still managed to pop into the Waterfront Kitchen and Cafe for fish and chips and a beer brewed at the local brewery, Falkland Beerworks…delicious!
West Point Island
Next, our ship traveled to Carcass Island, fortunately named after a ship not actual carcasses, in the northwest of the Falkland Islands. Here there is a settlement center where cruise passengers were treated to a table full of decadent pastries and tea by the owners. We also took a 4 mile roundtrip stroll out to Leopard Beach to view more Magellanic penguins and a few Gentoos. Our final Falkland Island’s stop was at West Point Island known for it’s black browed albatrosses and rockhopper penguins. This island boasts dramatic sandstone cliffs and fields of blowing tussac grass. We were lucky enough to be the first passengers out for the day and traversed the 45 minute walk across the cruise ship landing site to the cliffs to view scores of hatched albatrosses and baby rockhopper penguins. While observing them, we heard a huge clap emanating from the water and when the noise repeated a few minutes later, we saw the source….a huge Southern Right Whale breaching! Absolutely incredible. The owner of the island personally escorted us back in his Land Rover later in the day when we had gone out to the cliffs a second time. His family has owned the island for years and they also spoiled our cruise group with a selection of desserts and tea. Our last day of the cruise was spent cruising back toward Puntas Arenas where we would board our charter flight home.
I’m incapable of summarizing such a monumental trip. We had some incredibly special encounters with wildlife and saw jaw dropping scenery. Adventure travel is all about being at the right place at the right time. There are never guarantees with the weather or the wildlife…all planning and a hefty dose of luck. We were incredibly lucky…but we’ll keep traveling for more opportunities!
The trip to Antarctica for us was THE splurge. This trip retails nearly 20K per passenger. For us, the 5K was a splurge, but also a tremendous bargain as most Antarctica trips costs a few thousand more. VacationsToGo was a huge savings. I will also note that around mid February, I did get quite a few emails about last minutes. Often these were single berths as opposed to twins, but some twins were available. If you have last minute flexibility, you could get some end of the season deals!
- Go to Volunteer Point. You will not miss your cruise ship departure from Stanley and it is the closest you will get to king penguins. It’s a privilege to see them so close with so few people. They are absolutely magnificent. Jimmy Curtis Touring, and the owners Jimmy and Tanya, made the day easy, gave us an unforgettable tour and we would highly recommend booking with them. If several cruise ships are in port, they could fill, so I would try to book early. Most accept cash only so it would be wise to have some money on hand (they are fairly flexible in the types of currency they accept, EUR, USD, GBP and their own Falkland Island Pound).
- If your suitcase is heavy, you likely could forgo your hiking boots. The waterproof boots they gave us were like new and they have an automated boot washing station for their rubber boots on your return to the ship.
- Bring your bathing suit. You HAVE to do the Antarctic polar plunge…when are you ever going to have that opportunity again?
- Bring extra SD cards. You will take THOUSANDS of photos!
- Finally, this is an expedition cruise ship, so the itinerary is unpredictable. However, there is only one landing on Antarctica daily. This does create a lot of downtime which was not typical for us. The ship is beautiful and lounging about wasn’t difficult, but you may want to consider a ship with 2 landings daily which generally involves fewer passengers. The logistics of offloading the nearly 400 we had essentially prohibited more than one daily landing.