Charm offensive

Victoria James discovers how tourists, not soldiers, will shape the future of the Falkland Islands

"You're going there on holiday?" said the young man sitting next to me in the departure lounge.

"Why not?" I replied. "Would you rather be going to . . ." - I squinted at the next flight on the board - ". . . Basra?"

"Yeah," came the unexpected reply. "There's more to do in Iraq."

"More boring than Basra" isn't a slogan that the Falkland Islands Tourist Board will use any time soon. But although the 1,500 or so forces personnel posted to the Falklands each year regard the islands as the arse end of the world, others - wilderness lovers, and bird and wildlife enthusiasts - happily pay thousands of pounds to experience their windswept beauty. For these visitors, the Falklands are the new Galapagos: pristine and almost unvisited.

The islands are the last stop before Antarctica, and the only direct flights are military planes from RAF Brize Norton - 18 hours, with a twilight-zone stopoff on Ascension Island, a British speck in the ocean just south of the Equator.

There were more pitying looks from the military customs and immigration staff at Mount Pleasant Airport on arrival. "What the hell are you going to do for three weeks?" one of them asked as he read my disembarkation form.

What was I going to do? I wasn't entirely sure. I'd come to the Falklands for their isolation, their penguins and albatrosses, sea lions and fur seals. I'd also heard about the tradition of "smoko" - home-baked elevenses. It all sounded good. I'd be staying in a range of accommodation, from a plush lodge to a shipping container lashed to the rocks on an outlying island.

I had also come to reconnect with my first awakening to the wider world, to my dawning awareness that Britain was not just the place where I lived, but a political entity and, at that time, an actor in the theatre of war. I was seven years old when the Falklands conflict broke out. The whole family would sit, grim-faced but excited, round The Six O'Clock News. My mother and I thrilled to Maggie. And that bombast and bloodshed had all been over the Falklands. Could the islands - my adult, march-against-the-war self wondered - be worth it?

Stanley was where the war ended, and it's where almost all civilian passengers begin their visit. As the islands' only town, it is home to roughly the same number as the Mount Pleasant Airfield complex. A further 500 people live "in camp", in scattered settlements on East and West Falkland and the surrounding islands. Among them live 650,000 sheep and more than a million penguins.

Sensible travellers head to outlying islands at the first opportunity. Not to escape Stanley, with its appealing weather-boarded, tin-roofed buildings nestling beside brick terraced houses - but because at any moment the unpredictable Falklands weather may ground the Twin Otters of the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (Figas), which can require a few days' allowance to get back before the flight home.

So it was that I spent my first morning in the Falklands in the hut of Stanley's Figas ter minal. "We can't get the plane out of the hangar. The wind would bend it in half," the controller told me apologetically. When the plane finally took to the air, with just me and a pilot aboard, it proved a lurching revelation of the absur- dity of human flight. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry would have loved the Falkland Islands.

It's worth flying through a gale to see the outlying islands, though: each subtly different, all warmly welcoming. On pretty Carcass Island, the Magellanic penguins are an improbable dawn chorus, braying against a golden sea. The peaks of the island's spine are an alpine meadow. You can walk the length at altitude to the southerly Gentoo penguin colony, and then shadow, at a distance, the birds' "highway" down to the sea, ending at a greasy hollow where they squeeze under boundary wire to get to the beach.

On long Pebble Island, visitors are driven out by the knowledgeable owners of the island lodge to the southern giant petrel colony above Green Rincon Beach, where black-and-white Commerson's dolphins barrel in the shallows. In drizzling rain, we enjoyed warming smoko beneath the nest platform of red-backed hawks. On Saunders Island, I took up residence in that shipping container. My nearest neighbours were a colony of black-browed albatrosses - the noblest birds alive - and beyond them a raucous rockhopper conurbation.

Amid all this wonder are ever-present reminders that, just 25 years ago, the islands were a battlefield. In the long grass of Pebble Island lie the smashed and scattered remains of Argentinian aircraft; the now-abandoned settlement schoolhouse once billeted Argentinian officers. And as the owner Suzan Pole-Evans drives you around Saunders to the crackle of a radio transmitter, she reminisces about the radio lifeline between the isolated isles and occupied Stanley.

Would today's squaddies see the point of fighting for the Falklands? It is hard to imagine. The military authorities encourage their men to experience all that the islands have to offer. Underused trans port helicopters fly personnel across the islands for short breaks. But the group I met on Saunders preferred to stay in the settlement lodging, curtains drawn, watching the BBC with beer in hand. At Volunteer Point on East Falkland, a guide said that penguin-grabbing, albeit for no purpose more sinister than a photograph, is sport for unescorted visiting squaddies.

But then the Falklands war was anachronistic even when it began: fought by men on the ground with almost no air support, to defend a British territory at the bottom of the world. Major Ken Greenland, who lives at Darwin, will break your heart with his step-by-step tour of the struggle for Goose Green - which he likens more to the Boer war than any modern conflict.

Plummeting wool prices and 14 years of veiled hints from the Foreign Office - starting with Lord Chalfont's visit in 1968 - that Britain might one day cede sovereignty had, by 1982, left the islanders demoralised. Today, the Falklands form a thriving community. Tourism has played no small part in that: it is now the second-largest generator of income for the islands. Perhaps holiday-makers, rather than soldiers, will guarantee a prosperous - and secure - future for the Falklands.