The world’s largest island is like a huge icicle hanging down from the Arctic, dotted around the outside by towns with unpronounceable names like Ilulissat, Qeqertarsuaq and Kangerlussuaq.
Impressions of this Arctic region developed in my formative years were of a land of icebergs, cheerful Eskimos and cute-looking polar bears. It turns out it’s not all ice but the Eskimos are cheerful.
Greenland is nine times the size of the United Kingdom, and its population of 56,000 live in the towns and settlements situated in the inhabitable crust that surrounds the island.
Recently, it has become a focal point for investigations into climate change and recognised as having huge untapped mineral resources.
However, there has also been significant emphasis on marketing the island’s tourist potential, and the Greenland Tourism and Business Council, based in the capital Nuuk, are busily promoting it as a new and different tourist destination.
Hand in hand with this development, Norwegian operator Hurtigruten now runs ‘Explorer Cruises’ through the summer months along the western coast in the purposebuilt MS Fram, allowing travellers access to parts of Greenland otherwise almost impossible to visit.
Where else can you see some of the world’s most unspoilt Arctic scenery, see glaciers up close and experience year-round whale-watching? Unique Inuit settlements like Uummannaq, Qeqertarsuaq and Ukkusissat are also rare and unspoilt gems for those who travel up the western coast.
Hurtigruten operates a variety of different trips up and down this coastline and the 10-day voyage allows access to communities and settlements that could otherwise be reached only by helicopter, skidoo or the traditional means of dog sled.
Arriving in Kangerlussuaq in the early evening from Copenhagen on the pride of Air Greenland’s fleet – an Airbus 330 – to join the Fram, we were greeted by a hungry band of mosquitoes with a wing span big enough to do credit to the old American airbase where we had landed.
Literally translated as the “long fjord,” Kangerlussuaq was developed as a World War 2 base for bombers and cargo planes flying between North America and Europe.
Transferring to the ship by its own fleet of Zodiac boats the 260 mainly European passengers were welcomed by our German host Arne and served the opening midnight buffet by the friendly Filipino crew.
The newly-built ship is excellently appointed, with a wonderful observation deck (complete with gym and outdoor Jacuzzis), where we would often find our Greenlandic guide Malik Milfeldt scanning the horizon for whales.
Before long, the ship had moved off into the midnight sun and down the 106-mile long fjord to the next day’s destination of Sisimiut, Greenland’s most northerly ice-free port. It was a cold, grey and wet day in Greenland’s second city, where the population of 5,350 souls make their living from the rich supply of Black Halibut and King Crab.
A visit to the local artisan workshops provided opportunities to purchase skilfully made items crafted from walrus, seal, musk ox and even polar bear claw. However, it’s advisable to check the CITES rules which dictate what animal products you can take back to your home country – polar bear claws are most certainly NOT welcomed by HM Customs in the UK.
Hurtigruten have worked in some excellent day trips, activities and walks, and provided an informative series of lectures on whale-watching, flora and fauna, the destinations and all you need to know about icebergs. All were conducted in several different languages so no-one had to worry they had missed something.
After Sisimiut, we journeyed 200 miles north past an increasing number of impressive icebergs and ice-floes to Qeqertarsuaq, which means ‘Big Island’ in Greenlandic and is known rather entertainingly as Disko Island by the European settlers. Icebergs and glaciers now formed the backdrop for the remainder of our voyage, with each new sighting requiring a full set of photographs taken from every possible angle as the ship passed by. So thick was the ice flow at times, we seemed to be hardly moving as we picked our way nimbly through the great house-sized blocks.
With the sun now shining, the brilliant beauty of the bergs and ice flows against the backdrop of mountains in some of the fjords will be fixed permanently in the memories of all those on board. Once anchored in the bay, we were taken ashore in the Zodiacs to the small settlement of Qeqertarsuaq itself on the southern tip of the island.
It was a quiet place, with a small fishing industry and some unemployment – and, apparently, more sled dogs than people. However, it had a fabulous air of peace and tranquillity about it with no car noise and no music to spoil the serenity.
The brightly-coloured green, red, purple and yellow houses sat dotted among rocks overlooking the bay with its thousands of mini-bergs. Hurtigruten’s intrepid band of explorers, clad in the supplied sky-blue coats, set off across the beach like a tribe of blue ants on the hike to ‘The Valley of the Winds.’ This was a two-hour walk which started along the small settlement’s beach, where we had our first experiences of the cracking sounds of icebergs ‘calving’ as they melt and break, or even flip over up completely.
Proper hiking boots were needed but the walk was fairly easy for the reasonably fit and able and rewarded with regular sightings of snow buntings, ending at a vibrant but very cold looking waterfall.
The following day we were again greeted by bright Arctic sunshine and the ever-cheerful wake-up call of compere Arne as we entered Uummannaq (‘Heartshaped mountain’), a small town situated at the base of the 3,900ft mountain where we hiked around to Santa’s Cabin, made famous in a Danish TV programme. For those less inclined to exercise, there was a small museum and church to visit.
Our next port was unique as Hurtigruten have made a special agreement with the Inuit population of Ukkusissat so we would be hosted and entertained by the large majority of the 180 population. This was one of the real highlights of this admirably prepared itinerary. To be warmly greeted at the tiny jetty by what seemed to be the whole town of smiling Inuit people was truly a memory to treasure.
A simple trestle table on the harbour side served as the local tourism ‘shop’ and it was laden with slightly sinister looking figures known as Tupilaks, handcrafted from the local soapstone, and hand-made beaded jewellery.
We were invited in groups into local homes for ‘Kaffemik,’ which is the local tradition of taking coffee and Greenlandic bread. Some braver passengers then participated in the Greenlandic Polka in the local cultural centre. This is not dissimilar to Scottish dancing and may well have been introduced by the travelling whalers of yesteryear.
It felt like a real privilege to get a glimpse into these people’s world and also, perhaps, into their future which, with the aid of such considerate tourism, could now be secure.
At 71� North, this was the closest to the North Pole we were to go. Overnight, Fram travelled south again to anchor in front of the Eqip Sermia glacier front. Transported ashore in the now-familiar Zodiacs, the crew prepared a barbeque while we marvelled at a glacier front that is 2.6 miles wide and listened for the booming sounds of calving. This is one of the few places in Greenland where it’s possible to sail up close to a glacier and the experience is highly recommended.
Greenland is not renowned for restaurants but we were lucky enough to visit the Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat the following day, where we dined on local scallops, halibut, king crab and lamb – all of which were delectable and made a nice change from the Hurtigruten fare, which, although very good, could be a little predictable at times.
As well as being an important fishing port, Ilulissat is renowned for its breathtaking 31-mile fjord (a UNESCO World Heritage site) that can be viewed by boat or, if you’re lucky, from a lowflying helicopter that miraculously misses towering icebergs and sends seals scuttling down their holes in fright.
The final day saw the return to Kangerlussuaq, where we were taken to visit to the vast inland ice cap that occupies 80% of Greenland and is the largest single body of ice in the Northern Hemisphere.
I could not, however, recommend the journey there in a rugged-looking bus that bumped along for an uncomfortable hour past small herds of native musk ox and reindeer.
Overall, this is an excellent adventure holiday for those who want a different experience in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It is certainly a cruise with a difference, so do not expect the treatment you would get on one of the major cruise lines.
But do look forward to an excellently appointed ship, wonderful staff, good food and the experience of a lifetime. As they say in Greenlandic, “Angalalluarnissannik kissaapatigit.” Or, “Have a safe trip.”