The Mother of the Sea is in a caring mood.
“The sea is really quite gentle today – it’s just like being
rocked to sleep like a baby!” Lars, the friendly man at the
Sarfaq Ittuk’s information booth on deck three, said.
He’s not wrong. The slow rolling – up and down and up again – is
pleasantly relaxing, all the more relief for someone who has
never been on a passenger ferry at sea before.
Admittedly, visiting in Greenland is not for everyone. While
global warming is causing a worrying (and increasingly rapid)
melting of the vast island’s ice
caps, it’s still too cold for many people’s comfort almost
year-round. There are no large cities. Because of its remoteness
high up in the North Atlantic, Greenland also has a reputation
for being incredibly expensive. Almost everything has to be
imported; a single loaf of bread in its capital, Nuuk (by far the
largest city), can cost more than $3 at a supermarket.
These photos of sled-dogs trekking
through meltwater in Greenland are a stark reminder of vanishing
Arctic sea ice
But there are ways to have the experience of a lifetime without
breaking the bank. One of the best ways: sailing up the coast on
the Arctic Umiaq Line’s M/S Sarfaq Ittuk, like I did earlier this
year for less than $400.
Sailing up and down the more populated western side of Greenland,
the ship plays an important role in connecting coastal
communities that otherwise are accessible only by plane or
helicopter – which can be even more expensive. Not only that, but
a journey aboard is a great way to meet locals outside a package
tour or cruise.
Here’s how to see Greenland in a much more intimate way for much
less than what international cruise companies charge while
supporting the local economy:
The Arctic Umiaq Line is a Greenlandic institution.
Tracing its roots back to the 18th century, its name comes from
the Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic) word for the traditional Inuit
open skin boat, the umiak (or umiaq). Today, it is a lifeline for
connecting communities big and small along the coast of western
My journey began in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland and by far the largest city. I had never seen as many fireworks as I did on New Year’s Eve there.
Not only is Nuuk the most populous city, but it’s also home to
essential services like Greenland’s largest hospital. Many fellow
passengers on the ferry were returning home after visiting family
for New Year’s. On New Year’s Eve, I had never seen so many
fireworks. Setting the sky ablaze, the lights turned the snow
into a rainbow of reds, greens, purples, and blues.
At first, I thought nearly $400 for a few days at sea was a bit much. But flights can sometimes cost $1,000 or more, and there are cheaper options that don’t include a private cabin.
I usually go for the least expensive class no matter how I
travel, but I thought with a journey of several days and no idea
what else there would be to do on the ship, it might be a good
idea to get a private cabin. It was easy to book a cabin through
the Arctic Umiaq Line’s website.
The cabin, not far from the cafeteria on deck three, was far more
luxurious than I was expecting: with three fold-down beds, one
big blue couch, and a desk in middle, there was also a dresser,
TV with several channels and movies, and a private bathroom with
shower that, thankfully, had hot water. There were three black
coat hangers and an extra cushioned blue chair for guests.
They even left towels, a coffee maker, enough packets of instant coffee to wake an army, and three little licorice and toffee-flavored hard candies with the Arctic Umiaq Line logo on them. It was like a hotel room at sea.
I had never been on a ferry at sea before, so I was concerned
about seasickness. Thankfully, there was nothing to worry about.
“Get some rest and eat some food – not too sweet, something with
good energy like cereal or bread,” recommended Lars, the
information officer who manned a small booth on deck three, in
perfect English and with a big smile. “And don’t forget to drink
I followed his advice to the letter – and come morning, I felt as
strong as an ox. I don’t know if I’ve ever slept so soundly.
The first order of business was to explore the ship. It was not large, but there was a lot more to do than I was expecting.
With five decks and capacity for fewer than 300 passengers, the
Sarfaq Ittuk is much smaller than most cruise ships. But it still
had an onboard cinema where people could watch movies for free
(some that played during my journey included a 2016 Oliver Stone
film about Edward Snowden, the 2017 Emma Watson, John Boyega, and
Tom Hanks techno-thriller “The Circle,” and a 2016 movie about
the beginnings of McDonald’s called “The Founder”; all were shown
in English), a carpeted cafeteria, and a small gift shop.
My favorite place, though, was the passenger lounge on deck four.
The cozy area at the back of the ship, with blue couches and wide
windows for viewing the sea and dramatic snow-covered coastline,
reminded me of my favorite restaurant when I was growing up near
the northern Oregon coast. It was a great spot to read and write
while looking out for whales and other wildlife.
It was late afternoon when we left Nuuk, but because it was winter and we were so far north, it had already been dark for a few hours.
While there’s plenty of daylight in Greenland in summer
(Gunnbjørn Fjeld, Greenland’s highest mountain, is said to
receive more hours of light than almost any place on earth), in
winter, it can be dark for almost the entire day – and the
farther north you go, the more darkness there is. But there were
a few hours of twilight around midday each day we were at sea –
it was easily the best time for watching the natural scenery and
Added on to the ticket I bought were three meals a day at the onboard cafeteria, Café Sarfaq. The food was as good as any restaurant.
Since nearly everything must be imported, food in Greenland can
be stomach-churningly expensive. So I thought paying a few
dollars extra for three meals a day as an add-on to the price of
my cabin was a good value. The set meals were far more diverse
than I expected and included things like fresh juices, fruit, and
vegetables that would have probably been prohibitively expensive
on their own. Everything tasted reasonably fresh. One evening we
even had steak with gravy, potatoes, and steamed vegetables that
tasted as delicious as any you’d get at a steakhouse.
As we traveled, it was obvious Greenland was a place unlike any other.
As we bobbed up and down with the swells of the Davis Strait
(which separates Greenland and the Canadian territory of
Nunavut), the inky blue darkness of the water was dotted all
around with the white caps of waves – like sprinkles on a
blueberry-glazed cake (which I read about in the magazine called
Suluk – the Kalaallisut word for “Wing” – that was left in my
Outside, the scent of salt air filled the nostrils as spray flew
all around – a real high-seas adventure! No wonder so many
children were running around pretending to be pirates.
There’s no other way to put it: It was brutally cold.
It’s one thing to say a place is very cold – it’s a whole other
thing to really experience it. Even wearing no fewer than seven
layers of long-sleeved sweaters and jackets that made it hard to
even move my arms (like something from a comedy film), I could be
outside for only a few minutes before I would lose all feeling in
my extremities and need to come inside. The constant wind did not
help. It was so cold, it literally burned the skin and made
touching things painful. No wonder so few people were outside.
Amid such freezing temperatures, taking decent photos up on the
top deck that weren’t blurry was all but impossible.
Still, it was disturbing to hear locals say there was much less snow and ice than usual for the time of year — and for the sea to be almost completely ice-free.
It’s one thing to hear about global warming – it’s a far more
powerful experience to suddenly see the changes firsthand. For
almost the entire journey, the sea – even next to the shore and
hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle in the middle of
winter – was ice-free. Even as recently as last year, the Sarfaq
Ittuk could get stuck in ice for
days at a time.
On day two, we visited Kangaamiut. Beautiful as it was, it felt strangely eerie.
As we approached the settlement, which has fewer than 400
residents, the billowing wind-blown snow obscured the brightly
painted houses like some kind of eerie fog. Amid the winter
twilight, it felt like being in a real-life mystery novel.
We were unable to dock in Kangaamiut, so passengers and cargo had to be transported to shore on a small orange motorboat.
Just thinking of being exposed to the biting wind and stinging
spray from the freezing sea on the small motorboat, easily
visible from the comfort of the well-heated passenger lounge,
made me shiver.
Every few hours, we’d stop so passengers could disembark and new ones could come on board. One of the busiest stops was in Sisimiut.
About 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of Nuuk, Sisimiut is
Greenland’s second-largest city. With a population of more than
5,000, it is also the biggest north of the Arctic Circle. It
certainly showed when we were there – the stop was one of the
longest of the voyage. Far more people got off than got on. When
we departed, the ship felt quite empty.
We usually stayed close to the shore. Still, it was difficult to spot much wildlife.
I’m sure they were out there, but I didn’t see any whales
surfacing for air. Aside from a plethora of seabirds like white-
and black-striped thick-billed murres, it was hard to glimpse any
wildlife. Lars said you could sometimes see whales, but their
sensitive underwater hearing meant they usually kept far away
from the roar of the ship’s engines.
It became even colder and darker the farther north we went. By day three, I began to spot enormous, building-sized icebergs.
I had never seen an iceberg in person before. The ship was like
an ant in comparison. Maybe we’d gone so far north we’d arrived
at the doorway to the realm of giants. We couldn’t get too close
to the icebergs, though, since only a very small portion of an
iceberg is visible above the water. It was hard to imagine they
could be many times bigger than the parts that were already
Without internet access, I was developing a relaxing routine.
Relaxing as spending time in the passenger lounge was, I tried to
see as much of the ship as I could. The fewer passengers after we
left Sisimiut meant there was plenty of space to move about
without accidentally bumping into someone. Even on the water, I
saw another ship only once, far in the distance the morning of
Enjoyable as the voyage was, all good things must eventually come to an end. It was midafternoon on day three when we approached Ilulissat, the northernmost and last stop on our journey.
About 220 miles (350 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle,
Ilulissat (formerly known as Jakobshavn) means “icebergs” in
Kalaallisut. It’s also next to Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World
Heritage Site that’s among Greenland’s most popular tourist
Disembarking was simple. I didn’t have to show ID or anything.
The remaining passengers all got off as crew members assisted
with offloading luggage and cargo. A number of taxis were already
With the ship arriving on schedule almost to the minute, I was sad it was time to leave.
Within an hour after disembarking, I was already asleep in a warm
and comfortable bed at the surprisingly affordable Hotel Icefiord
along the seashore. The voyage had tired me out more than I
It was nice to sleep on solid ground again. But I dreamed of being back at sea.
The smell of the salt air, the thrill of being up near the very
top of the world, the friendliness of everyone on board, the
marshmallow-white shore giving way to waves darker than a new
pair of denim blue jeans – it had a magical, otherworldly
Overall, it was a journey I’ll never forget — and one I’d recommend to anyone else.
Cheaper than a cruise, more opportunities to meet local people
and see local communities, a surprising level of onboard comfort,
ample privacy if one desires it, and some of the most dramatic
scenery on earth in a place that still makes people do a double
take when you tell them you’ve been there – why not go aboard for
an unforgettable high seas adventure?
Source: Read Full Article