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The Remote but Memorable Falkland Islands

After a rattling drive across wet sloppy moorlands, a traveler finally mingles with a crowd of aristocrats

ACCORDING to British history, explorer John Davis was the reluctant discoverer of the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas, as they are also known).

In 1591, while Captain Davis was navigating his good ship ''Desire'' around Tierra del Fuego, a nasty storm tore off the vessel's sails, and he drifted unceremoniously into the uninhabited Falklands.

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Upon arrival back in England, Davis claimed the string of islands for the British Crown -- a claim former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stood firm on in 1982 when Argentina reasserted its demand for the territories. (The question of who owns the islands has been a controversial issue between Britain and Argentina for well over a century.)

Mrs. Thatcher was victorious in the Falklands war, and the skirmish turned the world's spotlight on the area. I doubt if many of us could have located the islands before the conflict.

My own discovery of the islands came some 400 years after Davis's, and was under far more comfortable circumstances; plus I planned to go.

I arrived aboard the five-star luxury liner Crystal Harmony, a ship whose passenger capacity and crew approaches the total population of the Falklands.

The Harmony arrived in Stanley in mid-February -- summertime in the south Atlantic. Our call here was only about nine hours, and we had to make the most of it.

Stanley, the capital, is a modest town of small white houses with brightly painted tin roofs. It's home to about twothirds of the Falkland Islanders. The balance of the populace is scattered throughout ''the camp'' -- a term derived from an old gaucho term, el campo, meaning ''the countryside.''

Ironically, London is just as far north of the equator as this British possession is south. And there are other Britishisms: Driving is on the left; the language is English; and houses have a distinct British flavor, with charming gardens planted with roses, sweet william, phlox, and bright spikes of lupine.

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Those who chose to disembark the Harmony wandered through the quaint town shopping for woolens, diddle-dee jelly (made from a local wild cranberry-type berry), and much-sought-after postage stamps; took a three-hour bus tour; or headed off to Volunteer Point to see one of several colonies of indigenous penguins who share the islands with the hardy, mostly British stock.

The Falklands, situated 300 miles off Argentina (and 8,000 miles from Mother England), consist of two major islands, East and West Falkland, and several hundred smaller islands scattered around them. Industry comprises fishing (especially squid, which is shipped to Russia, Japan, and Korea), some simple farming, and mostly a thriving wool industry. Sheep far outnumber the people population of only 2,000 permanent residents.

The islands have never taken kindly to humans. Winter is especially unforgiving. Gale winds whip across the land with such force that no native trees exist, and 80-foot waves can bound at its shores.

In summer, however, its picturesque coves, lonely beaches, and haunting moorlands attract photographers and artists, and diverse wildlife draw nature lovers who wander the islands armed with cameras and binoculars.

I was one of the fortunate 60 passengers to sign up early enough for a tour of Volunteer Point. Many passengers were turned away as vehicles were just not available. Volunteer Point is a nature reserve just 20 miles as the crow flies from Stanley. However, it is a grueling, bumpy, 70-mile off-road, 3-1/2-hour drive over mushy peat fields. All available Land Rovers (12, in this case) were hired for our tour. And we were advised that there were no facilities -- that is, rest rooms, snack bars, film shop, or shelter. Nothing but penguins -- we hoped! But, we were warned, there was no guarantee.

Heading into the fog from Stanley there were a few ominous reminders of the '82 war. Fields were cordoned off and sinister skull-and-crossbones signs warned ''Slow -- Minefield.'' The remains of a couple of downed Argentinian helicopters were also pointed out.

Ten miles or so from town we swung off the paved road, and the ever-able Land Rovers fanned out over the sloppy peat moorlands. For more than three hours we were jounced, rattled, and shaken over a turf that has the consistency of day-old angel-food cake, stopping only to pull the occasional stranded Land Rover out of the muck.

Finally, finally -- our reward: There, at water's edge against the bleak and gray beach, were dozens of Magellan penguins padding along.

''Don't get excited,'' our guide said, ''there's more ahead.'' There, on a grassy and sandy bluff, was a crowd of more than 100 elegantly attired king penguins. ''Now don't get too close,'' our guide advised as we tumbled out of the Land Rovers heading for the flightless birds.

Most birds I've encountered have a way of avoiding human contact. Not these aristocrats. They had absolutely no fear as they came over to inspect us. They would slowly waddle over to within a few feet of our clicking cameras, give us a slow up-and-down look, as if to say, ''Excuse me? Blue jeans? At my party?'' Then they would turn and walk away slowly with their beaks in the clouds.

There's something humbling about traveling 6,543 miles to be snubbed by a bevy of 30-inch birds.

We spent only an hour among these proud penguins as they posed for pictures. And we left the group as we found them, tending their fuzzy brown football-sized young and chatting mysteriously among themselves.

We later boarded the Crystal Harmony sorry our stay here was so short. Dinner the next evening on the ship was to be a black-tie affair. And it was good to have picked up a few tips on formal dress and etiquette from, of all things, a flock of haughty penguins in, of all places, the remote but memorable Falkland Islands.

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