My first sighting of Greenland was from the window of a charter plane flying last June from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Kangerlussuaq, 30 miles inside the Arctic Circle. As we neared Greenland's eastern coast, the navy blue of the North Atlantic gave way to a white-on-blue, ice-strewn chaos. A dark band of jagged coastal mountains followed, and then a monolithic whiteness: We were over the Greenlandic ice sheet, with its massive glaciers, an uninhabitable remnant of Earth's last ice age 100,000 years ago. The ice sheet still accounts for four-fifths of Greenland's territory; it's as deep as two miles, and it weighs an unfathomable 3 quadrillion tons (which creates an "isostatic depression" in Earth's crust). The ice sheet and its glaciers are now famously and alarmingly melting, which is expected to eventually raise sea levels worldwide by an unthinkable 24 feet.
I never imagined I'd be visiting a place of such uncommon beauty, strangeness, and global consequence. For good reason: Greenland, the world's largest island, is, in a traditional sense, unvisitable. Its one international airport, at Kangerlussuaq, is an airstrip (our arrival is observed from a rocky ridge by a musk ox and a reindeer). No roads link its few coastal settlements. Greenlanders (there are 57,000, the majority descendants of the Inuit who migrated here 800 years ago over the sea ice from Canada) get about by ferries in summer, propeller planes or dog sleds in winter.
My fellow soon-to-be cruisers and I, 142 in all, are here to board the Seabourn Venture expedition ship for a two-week trip along Greenland's rugged coasts and into its vast fjords, where humpback whales roam, people still hunt polar bears and seals for a living, and the ice sheet's glaciers spew edifice-size icebergs into the sea. Designed to handle the intractable environment—ice-strengthened, highly maneuverable, with a shallow draft—the ship will be the base from which our adventures will proceed: Zodiac touring, kayaking, hiking, submersible diving, and, if the spirit moves us, polar plunging.
Off-the-grid expeditions and discoveries for paying passengers are, of course, nothing new. In decades past, repurposed Russian icebreakers, Baltic car ferries, Pacific island cargo boats, and scientific research ships did the honors—sturdy vessels that delivered off-board thrills but were low on onboard frills. But these days we're talking purpose-built ships designed to deliver both—of which the Venture and its sister ship, Seabourn Pursuit, launched in August, are among the newest. We are in a golden age of expedition cruising, one that satisfies the ancient allure of the unknown and unreachable—that powerful human desire to be awed—while offering fresh insights and luxury.
Yet on my first few nights onboard, I'm not exactly getting my beauty sleep. Not because I chose wrongly from the pillow menu or dallied over too many after-dinner drinks in Deck 9's Constellation Lounge. The midnight sun is shining, and I can't bear to draw the blackout curtains on the glass door of my Veranda Suite. There is too much, and so gorgeously little, out there: the stark walls of the fjords (as Knud Rasmussen, a half-Inuit explorer from the early 20th century, wrote, "They are black and towering, and there is no pity in them"), the huge hunks of ice adrift on the frigid water, the utter emptiness. I'm taking photos at 2 a.m., at 4 a.m., barefoot in my pajamas, heedless of the 30° temperature. I'm not the only one. In addition to private verandas, the Venture has 30,000 square feet of deck space, and I spy small clusters of other wide awake souls, on the bow or astern, taking it all in.
If the Venture is our luxury base camp, its Zodiacs, kayaks, and submersibles (24, eight, and two, respectively) are, in the words of a crew member, "the tips of the spear." They are manned by an expedition team of 24, including a geologist, a botanist, two marine biologists, an ornithologist, a bear guide, two submersible pilots, and three kayaking guides.
They give talks in their areas of expertise (in the ship's Discovery Center), guard our safety in the Arctic waters (we practice getting into and out of everything, using the sailor's grip, donning the head-to-toe kayaking dry suit), and contextualize what we’re seeing.
Know Your Ice
It will shake and stir you. Here's how to call it by its name.
Greenlandic Ice Sheet The renowned melting mother lode, formed of snow compacted over more than 100,000 years. (Antarctica's is bigger but melting more slowly and with less effect on sea levels.) An early European explorer called it the "mysterious desert." Unless you're a polar pro or scientist, you will not be going on it, but even from the coast you feel it.
Icebergs Fantastically shaped hunks broken off from glaciers as they slide out from the central ice sheet into the ocean. The older and harder they are, the bluer they look. Beware: A 5-meter-tall iceberg goes down another 45 meters below the surface.
Sea ice Frozen seawater, it's softer, flatter, and murkier than icebergs. Its annual melting has no effect on sea levels.
Bergy Bits Icebergs smaller than a house.
Growlers Icebergs smaller than a car.
Brash Ice The smallest iceberg fragments. Their bubbles contain ancient air. Grab a piece for cocktails with a kick for when you're back onboard.
"These are 4-billion-year-old rocks," says geologist Brent Alloway during one of our Zodiac outings, gesturing toward the not-a-single-blade-of-grass-bare walls of a fjord. "It's rare to see this, but because of the minimal vegetation here, they are exposed." There are rocks that look like folded layers of rich, multicolor fudge. "That's evidence of the creation, 335 million years ago, of the supercontinent of Pangaea by the collision of tectonic plates." And these ones, with the wide vertical stripes? "Evidence of Pangaea's breakup, 200 million years ago, by a tectonic pulling apart, which caused the thinning of the crust and allowed magma to shoot up from the Earth's core into 'host' rocks, creating this 'intrusion.' Get up close, put your hand on them," Alloway urges. "The detail of the folding especially is very, very beautiful. And you are looking at deep geologic time."
The beauty, power, and ephemerality of icebergs (most melt within three years of calving) have an irresistible allure. When a procession of them floats by the Venture one evening during dinner, a fellow passenger can't help herself: "They’re so moving it makes me want to cry." Captain Alex Golubev and expedition leader Luciano Bernacchi take turns announcing on the ship's intercom the appearance of especially resplendent specimens with the same excitement as when they alert us to two humpback whales playing. The snows that led to the formation of the current Greenlandic ice sheet—and so to the icebergs among which we now play—began falling some 100,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens already walked the earth.
As we kayak we peer into the icebergs' aquamarine centers; the bluer the ice, the older and harder it is. (Ice absorbs red and yellow wavelengths as it compacts, while blue and green are reflected.) We're drawn closer sometimes by a crackling or hissing: ancient air, trapped in bubbles in the ice, escaping. But not too close—90 percent of every iceberg lies below the surface, and they can flip, crack, or explode without warning. Our guides calculate the safety of approach based on each iceberg's above-the-water height.
Just as impressive as the icebergs' verticality is the minimalist horizontality of Arctic flora. We encounter it on hikes on the tundra and on visits to a few settlements (including Nuuk, the world's northernmost capital). Most plants are dwarf breeds that have adapted in myriad fascinating ways to cold, wind, and polar darkness, which can last as long as six months. (Photosynthesis? What photosynthesis?) Wolfgang Wenzel, a biologist and lecturer, points out dwarf willows, dwarf birches, and dwarf trailing azaleas, abloom in June with tiny, incongruously pink flowers (reddish pigmentation helps absorb heat). The flora here doesn't so much grow as cling to the ground, husbanding energy, slowing down life's processes. "What looks like a little twig could be 50 years old," Wenzel says. "Life is hard, and everything takes a long time. Polar bears are great, but I think seeing these tiny plants try to survive is really something."
Returning to the Venture, I find that someone has drawn a hot bubble bath for me. "Relaxing Bath," says the bath pillow, in case I missed it. Profligate, I know, but I sink in gratefully, visions of minuscule but valiant azaleas dancing in my head.
Adversity, however, is part of adventure and also requires keenness of response. (Don't be mad," says Bernacchi. "Be flexible.") Our plans are sometime scrambled by the weather. We spend a blissful, blue-sky half-day bobbing in Zodiacs and kayaks in Prince Christian Sound fjord, where the southernmost tip of the ice sheet enters the water. Hordes of kittiwakes, the Arctic gulls, fly between icebergs, squawking; a whiskered seal observes us skittishly from a slab of sea ice, and, as if on cue, a building-size chunk of ice breaks off the glacier, white shards flying. But then an unexpected accumulation of ice creates a bottleneck in the fjord, and we have to turn back and retrace our route. Another day, heavy fog rolls in—so much for the Zodiac excursion. And there's a chance of a katabatic wind off the ice sheet—dense air falling from a higher elevation, sometimes at hurricane speed. I read that the Inuit word for weather, sila, also means consciousness.
On a clear afternoon I submit to a submersible dive in the idyllic bay in Brattahlid. Brattahlid is where the charismatic Norseman Erik the Red arrived circa AD 982, during the great Viking expansion (and, in the earliest known instance of destination marketing, gave Greenland its comically misleading name). Seb Coulthard, the sub's pilot, was, in a previous life, an engineer in the British Royal Navy, and he trained for Arctic survival with the Royal Marines. The submersible is a six-passenger, Dutch-made, Lloyd's Register–certified U-Boat-Worx, with a 14-inch plexiglass dome. "Okay, let's go for a little explore. No one has dived here before. This is the closest you'll get to space travel without leaving the planet. We're going down to 300 feet, past the edge of darkness.' We see starfish, sponges, sea anemones. "The beauty here is subtle," Coulthard wants us to understand. None of the razzmatazz of tropical seas.
I focus on plankton, which I have never seen before: tiny pale strands falling all around us, in a darkness illuminated for the very first time by the U-Boat's lights—strand upon strand everywhere, like a continuous underwater snowfall. "Think of it as dust kicked up by the moon, except that it’s organic," Coulthard says. "I can't emphasize enough how important it is. Plankton locks away more carbon than trees and produces oxygen. More than 30 percent of the CO2 in the world is locked up in the sea. Few pay attention to these austere environments, the bare rocks and fjords, but taking care of them is as important as taking care of rainforests, if not more."
We have exceeded our allotted 45 minutes underwater by five, "but I wanted you to really see," Coulthard says. We rise, quickly now, 30 meters per minute. "Here we go, breaking the surface. One, two, three… Welcome home."
A Few Favorites
Excursions aside, I loved these aspects of onboard life.
My Cabin The entry-level but cleverly designed Veranda Suite lacks nothing: outdoor deck, sitting area, walk-in closet, shower and tub, two full-length mirrors, heated gear locker, large flatscreen. A perfect cocoon.
The Swag Complimentary Helly Hansen polar jacket and liner (you can swap sizes onboard if you need to).
Daily Evening Recap A great way to ease into evening, prep for tomorrow, and learn about: Arctic geology, flora and fauna; Viking history; polar exploration; the role of Greenland during WWII; and more. Drink service provided.
Meal Times A la carte at every meal (and self-service except at dinner), plus opportunities to dine with crew and lecturers (who are also available to answer questions throughout the voyage).
"Cleanness" of the ship Ask for a briefing from straight-talking environmental officer Phil Neil. Revelatory.
Polar Plunge Five minutes of pain, 10 hours of endorphin-induced bliss, bragging rights forever. Do it.
This story appears in the October 2023 issue of Town & Country. Reporting for this article was made possible by Seabourn, though it had no input editorially. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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