Rugged, remote, and romantic: Richard Webber discovers the magic of Greenland
Exploring Greenland, the biggest island on Earth, should be on everyone’s bucket list. It’s among those ‘once in a lifetime’ adventures that will remain etched in your memory forever.
The best way to discover this frozen land – the world’s second largest ice cap after Antarctica – is by cruise ship. There is no better time to visit than in the summer, when crossing the Arctic Circle brings perpetual daylight and plenty of hours to explore the remote settlements dotted along the rugged coastline – many only accessible by sea.
Although Greenland is not entirely covered in ice, the ice did feature heavily during the 11-day adventure I enjoyed on-board the Norwegian operator, Hurtigruten’s 276-berth MS Fram.
Travelling up the northwest coast, it wasn’t long before I was opening my curtains each morning to be greeted by huge icebergs floating past the porthole, its beauty accentuated by the backdrop of craggy, snow-streaked mountains.
By the time we reached Disko Bay – a UNESCO World Heritage Site 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, which is famous for its huge basalt cliffs – the captain had reduced the speed to a snail’s pace to weave a route around colossal-sized lumps of ice which had broken free from glaciers in the area, including the beautiful Eqip Sermia.
Time to explore
Approximately 50 miles north of Ilulissat – Greenland’s third largest town and hub of its tourist industry – I clambered into a nippy Polarcirkel Boat, which transports passengers from the ship to the tundra’s shore.
Little grows in this harsh environment, yet I noticed splashes of colour punctuating the landscape as tiny yellow Arctic cinquefoil and purple Lapland rosebay flowers blew in the breeze.
The country’s 57,000 residents live in small towns and tiny settlements – many towns with unpronounceable names like Qeqertarsuaq and Qasigiannguit – scattered along the coast.
The wild, mountainous terrain means a ‘no road network’ exists, underlining the remoteness and why travelling by cruise ship is an ideal way to explore.
A highlight of the cruise was reaching the abandoned settlement of Qullissat, a former coal-mining town. Once home to 1,200 souls, it was regarded as Greenland’s richest town, until becoming economically unviable and deserted in 1972.
Now a ghost town, I spent a morning wandering between empty wooden houses, their once shiny coats faded and chipped. Broken doors banged in the breeze and the town’s solitary tractor was a rust heap in a neglected yard.
Further along the coast, we spent the evening at Ukkusissat, a settlement of 150 people where the doctor visits every two months and the lack of crime means no policemen.
The MS Fram from Hurtigruten is reputedly the only cruise ship to visit this tiny spot – where brightly-painted houses nestle against sheer cliffs – which explained the throng of smiling, waving children greeting us as we arrived.
Over dinner each evening, I discussed the day’s highlights with fellow diners, while floor-to-ceiling windows afforded us fine views of the passing landscapes as we ate.
Designed for sailing in polar waters, MS Fram has the durability of an expedition ship, yet doesn’t skimp on style. Its walls are adorned in artwork, including commissioned paintings by Greenlandic artist Miki Jacobsen.
My journey into Arctic waters came to an end all too quickly, but I was determined it would end on a high note. For my penultimate night aboard, I chose to experience the midnight sun by swapping my cosy cabin for a camp bed and sleeping bag on an open deck with other adventurous cruisers.
The sun kept temperatures above freezing, while the highly insulated bag kept me warm and toasty. It was the crackle of the ship’s loudspeaker and the tour leader’s excited tones which awoke me, ‘Good morning, everyone, whales spotted on starboard side.’
Scanning the calm water, we waited for what seemed an eternity.
Finally, our patience was rewarded when the sight of grey blubber crashed through the water’s surface. The minke’s long-awaited appearance was brief, and within seconds, it had returned to the dark depths of the ocean.
But it provided the perfect ending to a perfect trip.
Great for spirited adventurers
Jump in a kayak and paddle around the Arctic Sea, take a boat trip to the ice fjords in Ilulissat and chat to the locals about life in this northerly land.
Great for independent explorers
If a stop at Sisimiut is on the itinerary, don your hiking boots and enjoy a walk to the top of Palassip Qaqqa, a mountain which commands a breathtaking view of the jagged coastline.
Hurtigruten offers the 12-day Arctic Wilderness Adventure on-board MS Fram. For more details, contact Hurtigruten on 020 3603 7112 or visit hurtigruten.co.uk