Visiting the Gift Shop at the End of the World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can shop for fridge magnets while curious penguins watch.
- Antarctica’s Port Lockroy, despite its remoteness, had 18,000 visitors last year.
- Natural beauty, and the gift shop, offer what can’t be had anywhere else.
On a small island in Antarctica’s Palmer Archipelago, a penguin looks in through a misted window, peering past the gingham curtains before waddling back to its nesting brethren. In the distance, an elephant seal lazes on packed ice, rolling over to expose his belly to the sun. It’s not exactly the setting where you’d expect to find a gift shop.
But encircled by snow-covered ice, mountainous glaciers and sparkling arctic water, here it stands: Port Lockroy, a wooden, one-story building with fewer than a dozen rooms. And it’s the southernmost gift shop –– and post office –– in the world.
The structure was built in 1944 as Britain’s first permanent Antarctic base during a World War II mission (code-named Operation Tabarin), and it remained in use as a research station until 1962. In 2006, the building was turned into a museum, post office and gift shop operated by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust.
There are some upmarket finds … including handmade bags and whiskey glasses embossed with Port Lockroy’s coordinates.
Despite its remote location, Port Lockroy boasted 18,000 visitors last year. “It’s the most visited place on the peninsula,” said Lauren Elliott, one of the live-in managers on the island. In her first month of work, Elliott recalled meeting tourists from the United States, Britain, Scotland, China, Thailand and India. This is no surprise –– tourist numbers to Antarctica have grown by over 50 percent since 2015, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. During the 2018-2019 season (which lasts just a few months between November and February), 56,000 people visited the continent.
Though many of them visit Port Lockroy, the small museum commemorating the British researchers who lived here is positively campy –– right down to the vintage Playboy posters hanging in the bathroom and the handmade board games in the bedroom. The kitchen, a cheery room with bright green walls, features 20th century canned food and an Antarctic cookbook with recipes like “Seal Brain Omelette” (the secret, apparently, is mixing reconstituted eggs with penguin eggs).
In the adjoining gift shop, you’ll find the standard souvenir fare: an assortment of Antarctic and penguin-related gear, pins, scarves, stamps, magnets and patches –– one patch features a penguin on red skis and the words “Antarctic Ski Club Founded 1956 Port Lockroy.” But there are also one-of-a-kind options, including something for Ernest Shackleton fans: dog leashes fashioned at the same factory that made the rigging rope for the famed Antarctic explorer’s ship. There are some upmarket finds, as well, including handmade bags and whiskey glasses embossed with Port Lockroy’s coordinates.
Antarctica has recently attracted global attention for more than its growing tourism industry — like in February, when for the first time on record, temperatures soared to almost 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The warmer weather has impacted wildlife, contributing to the decline of chinstrap penguins, which feed on krill that no longer thrive in the warmer water.
But so far, because it has been strictly controlled, tourism hasn’t posed a big problem for Antarctica’s environment, explained Sven-Olof Lindblad, CEO of Lindblad Expeditions, a tour company that partners with National Geographic to bring tourists to the continent (they’ve been doing this since 1966). However, “the increase next year and the year after is another story,” he said before the pandemic brought travel to a standstill. Some have expressed concern that more visitors could impact Antarctic fauna. For example, in May 2019, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators voted to impose nautical speed restrictions to reduce the risk of whale injuries.
However things shake out, it’s a pretty special thing to send a postcard home from the southernmost post office in the world, or buy a fridge magnet while a penguin eyes you through the window. On a continent changing rapidly, even visibly, it felt remarkable to take something home from this place, even something that didn’t necessarily originate here.
As we left the store and made our way back to our ship, a row of penguins lined up quizzically, marching over from their roosts under the building. One naturalist joked that the locals were demanding payment for our visit. “What currency would they accept?” someone asked aloud, drawing laughs. I wonder if they know they live under a gift shop.
Know Before You Go: Port Lockroy
- The gift shop prefers credit card transactions, charging in U.S. dollars, euros and British pounds. The minimum purchase is $10. All proceeds benefit the U.K. Antarctic Heritage Trust.
- The only access is via ship. Most tours to Antarctica schedule stops at Port Lockroy, but check with yours to make sure.
- While visitors can send postcards home from Port Lockroy (they’ll be accompanied by an adorable penguin stamp!), they could take a few weeks or months to reach their destination.