The most accessible part of the continent, the beautiful Antarctic Peninsula extends a welcoming arm north toward South America’s Tierra del Fuego as if beckoning visitors. And intrepid travelers do come, for the Antarctic Peninsula, the warmest part of the continent (facetiously called the ‘Banana Belt’) is Antarctica’s major breeding ground for seabirds, seals and penguins.
With its dramatic landscapes of steep snow-covered peaks, often plunging straight into the sea, and with narrow iceberg-studded channels weaving between countless islands and the mountainous mainland, the Peninsula also offers some of Antarctica’s most stunning scenery.
In recent decades, tourist landings have concentrated on sites along the western coast of the central Peninsula; relatively few ships of any sort visit the Weddell Sea, on the Peninsula’s eastern side. It has, indeed, earned its reputation as an ice-choked ship-eater. Shackleton’s Endurance is only the most famous example of the half-dozen vessels crushed there.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Antarctic Peninsula.
Britain beautifully restored the original station building, Bransfield House, the main building of Base A, in 1996. Displays on the station’s history hang inside. Artifacts include clothing from Operation Tabarin, a clandestine 1944 radio transmitter, a wind-up HMV gramophone with Noel Coward 78rpm records, and wooden skis purchased from the Grytviken Whaling Station Stores on South Georgia in 1957. A scientific highlight: a restored ‘Beastie’ (an early apparatus for upper-atmospheric research).
Palmer was built in 1968 on the island’s southwest coast to honor American sealer Nathaniel B Palmer, who in 1820 was one of the first to see Antarctica. The new station replaced the prefabricated wooden huts of ‘Old Palmer,’ established in 1964 about a kilometer across Arthur Harbor from the present station. Old Palmer itself superseded Britain’s Base N, occupied from 1955 to 1958 (no longer in existence).
The Swedish South Polar Expedition’s prefabricated black-walled hut, the Antarctic Peninsula’s oldest remaining building, is a protected historic site. This dwelling, in which five Swedish and one Argentine scientist spent an unplanned two years, sits on a fragile beach terrace easily eroded by footsteps. The 6m-by-8m hut contains three double bunks, a kitchen and a central living room. Two large metal signs in Spanish describe the site’s history, as do leaflets in English inside the hut.
Argentina built this base in 1951, though a naval post was established here in 1930. Esperanza was significantly expanded in 1978 and women and children began to reside year-round as part of Argentina’s efforts to establish ‘sovereignty’ over Antarctic territory.
The UK’s Rothera, built in 1975, occupies a small peninsula on Adelaide’s southeast coast. A 900m gravel airstrip and hangar were added in 1990–91, making Rothera a regional logistics center for British Antarctic operations using Twin Otter aircraft. The station is also resupplied by ships using the 60m Biscoe Wharf built in 1990–91. Rothera accommodates up to 130 people in the summer and an average of 21 in winter.
This steep-sided channel – just 1600m (5250ft) wide – runs for 11km (7 miles) between the mountains of Booth Island and the Peninsula. So photogenic that it's been dubbed 'Kodak Gap,' the passageway is only visible once you're nearly inside it. The channel was first navigated by the Belgian de Gerlache in 1898 and named after a Belgian explorer of the Congo.
This Ukrainian base, which accommodates 24 people, is located on Galindez Island. Transferred from the UK in 1996 for £1 (look for the actual coin embedded in wood between the taps at the station bar), it was previously called Faraday (after Michael Faraday, the English discoverer of electromagnetism). The station now commemorates Vladimir Vernadsky, first president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.
On the fast ice about 400m from the low ice cliffs on Snow Hill Island’s south coast is Antarctica’s northernmost (and most accessible) emperor penguin rookery. First sighted from a small aircraft in 1997, it was finally visited in 2004 by a Russian icebreaker carrying tourists. The colony is estimated to hold more than 4000 breeding pairs.
East Base was built during aviator Richard Byrd’s third Antarctic expedition, the US Antarctic Service Expedition of 1939–41. It was also used in 1947–48 by the private Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition, which included the first women to winter in Antarctica, Edith Ronne and Jennie Darlington. Unfortunately their husbands, who were also on the expedition, quarreled, so out of loyalty they did not speak to one another either! After the Ronne expedition departed, the UK used East Base until 1975.