Voyaging through Greenland’s ice world

We are floating on top of a frozen margarita.

That’s how our shipboard naturalist John Fonseca describes the slushy ice that the Silver Explorer is plowing through as we enter Greenland’s Prince Christian Sound, named after a long-ago Danish royal who became King Christian VIII. In the distance, the water surface is a smooth sheet of dark-green jade under the overcast sky.

The cruise ship suddenly feels larger as we slip into the narrow passage of the sound. Bigger and bigger chunks of sea ice float by, like huge gobs of whipped cream dropped on the surface by some quirky Norse god. The sculpted forms pass so close, it’s tempting to stretch out a finger for a poke and a taste.

At its base, the rocky shore on each side is often green with moss and lichen. But it quickly becomes less hospitable and even forbidding, its glacier-scarred face climbing steeply until disappearing into low, filmy clouds. Some patches of ice have lingered since last winter, though the August sun is converting the most exposed into waterfalls that trickle merrily into the brilliant sea.

Leaning on the observation deck at the ship’s Level 6, Fonseca tells us we’re looking at rocks that are 2 billion years old. Some of the harsh striations have been dated to the tectonic plate shifts of 65 million years ago that broke up the Earth’s landmass into the continents we know today.

There are about 50 passengers on board, most huddled among the rails at 8 am in the bright red parkas provided by the Silversea cruise line. The air temperature is 9 C-the water temperature is-12 C, expedition leader Stefan Kredel announces on a loudspeaker, just in case anybody is planning to strip off for a morning swim.

Our luxury vessel is small as cruise ships go. American TV’s Love Boat may have had a thousand cabins, sports courts and a pool-and there are massive ships like that in the next harbor with a big herd of passengers-but things are more intimate here.

Silver Explorer’s relative pettiness is key to our itinerary. At the moment, we are cruising over a channel 240 meters deep, but yesterday, winding through Skoldungen Fjord, we had scooted over depths as shallow as 69 meters. You can’t do that on the QEII.

That flexibility is essential to the “expedition” ships and cruises offered by Silversea. While the line offers the more traditional cruises focused on shipboard entertainment and port calls for shopping and nightlife, the expedition variety is targeted at more adventurous souls.

“We started these as outings to more out-of-the-way places, specifically the Arctic and the Antarctic, for active travelers who wanted to learn about and explore wilder places up-close,” says Kernel.

If parking your butt in a deck chair is your idea of a deluxe cruise, you’re on the wrong ship. Each day, Silver Explorer works its way as close to shore as possible before dropping anchor. Then we pull on our waterproof pants, jackets and boots, and climb single-file into Zodiacs-the big, motorized rubber rafts that will take us to the day’s adventure.

 

Yesterday, that was a 90-minute foray around Thrym Glacier.

Today, we zip ashore to visit the indigenous village of Nanortalik, where small oil-heated houses painted in bright colors dot a mountain valley that clings to summer’s last yellow wildflowers.

We explore an outdoor museum, watch a kayak demonstration at a traditional hunting camp, enjoy an Inuit choir performance in the church, and enjoy coffee and a folk dancing at the local culture center. Nanortalik means “place of polar bears” in the local Inuit language, but a fanged ivory skull in the museum is the closest we’ll come to seeing this fearsome creature on this voyage around southern Greenland.

Tomorrow we’re promised a landing near two thermal pools with a view of passing icebergs. Those swimming suits we packed will be used after all.

Each day, there is at least one lecture by an expert-a geologist, birder, Viking scholar, botanist, anthropologist or marine biologist. These informal talks are comfortably spaced between gourmet meals and free-flowing wine and spirits, all of which can be enjoyed in the collegiality of the restaurant or in the cozy privacy of your cabin.

The cabins are surprisingly spacious, and the butler assigned to my suite keeps the complimentary minibar stocked with my preferred beverages and snacks. He and the cabin valet will discreetly tidy up the room each day while I’m dining or sightseeing onshore.

My water bottle is always full. My shoes are always shined.

Meals are five-star hotel quality, which chef Pia-a statuesque strawberry-blonde from Germany-somehow pulls off even when the ship is days away from a market that meets her exacting standards. The sit-down dinner service (there’s no assigned seating, except at the welcome and farewell dinners hosted by Croatian captain Denis Radja) features gourmet European fare. Lunches are expansive buffets in the restaurant-though in good weather, many of us sit in the sun on the observation deck, where there is a small buffet as well as sandwiches and pastas made to order.

I’m slightly surprised to find that quite a few passengers have not only cruised with Silversea before, but rather often. At one reception, a Japanese lady gets applauded as the passenger aboard having the most cruise days with the line: 860! That’s getting close to three years at sea.

On this cruise, we are particularly pampered: There are only 56 passengers-and 119 crewmembers. There are usually 120 to 150 passengers on board, and most cruises are fully booked-popular destinations such as Antarctica and the Mediterranean as much as a year ahead.

Late summer timing and the challenge of booking return flights after disembarking at Kangerlussuaq have kept our group on the small side. We’ll all know each other pretty well at the end of our 12-day cruise.

Expedition leader Kredel observes that we’ll be extra-pampered with two crewmembers on board to every one passenger.

“But let’s not have any talk of mutiny on this ship,” he jokes. “Always remember: You are outnumbered.”

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