Greenland cruise in the Arctic: The only sensible way to see the world's biggest island

I've flown for 14 hours, followed by seven more. Overnighted in Oslo before flying another three hours north into an increasingly empty, whitened planet. Boarded an expedition ship in Longyearbyen and cruised for another 10 days on Arctic seas.

Our encounter with Greenland is supposed to be at Scoresbysund, but drifting icepack hampers our expedition ship. We nose southwards. My cold, disappointed breath is mimicked by puffs of air from surfacing humpback whales beyond the ship's railings.

I'm on an Abercrombie & Kent cruise in the Arctic. What other way is there to get here, unless you're a government-funded explorer? Greenland has few roads and lots of wilderness, making an expedition cruise almost the only sensible option. Even then, as I'm discovering, ice and seas might frustrate you. By now we're all pacing the decks, staring across the waves for a hint of land.

Finally, Greenland is in sight. Ragged mountains beneath a glowering lid of grey cloud appear. Then a cobbled shoreline and hefty glaciers pearly in the mist. Seagulls screech over icebergs slowly drifting out of Kuangerlussuaq Fiord. The landscape has an austere drama and chilly beauty. You feel as if you've arrived at the ends of the Earth.

Greenland is one of the world's most sparsely inhabited places, and the last major landmass to be settled by humans. Most of it is buried under ice. The rest is rock and tundra, a green-grey world of hard edges and great silences. You travel a long way to see emptiness, and however you try to describe Greenland afterwards it sounds feeble. You just see stone, sea, ice. Yet although there's no way to properly describe the experience, the effort of getting there is magnificently repaid.

The factual description is this. This fiord is fed by Kuangerlussuaq Glacier, the largest glacier on Greenland's east coast. Its front has retreated several kilometres since 2016 and coughs up ever increasing amounts of ice so that the fiord is patterned with ship-sized icebergs, floating ice chunks and splinters that sparkle before melting into the great grey Atlantic. The fiord is surrounded by towering cliffs and 1600-metre mountains. Inuit lived here once. You can forage among fallen-apart huts to find abandoned cast-iron stoves, crystal ashtrays and rusting nails.

Those basic facts, however, will never convey what it feels like to come ashore from a Zodiac and land amid hills scoured smooth by ice. Behind the hills rise piles of moraine and hanging glaciers, and behind those jagged mountaintops with frost-shattered summits that struggle through the icecap. The isolation is haunting. Staff, standing on perimeter guard against polar bears, making you very aware of your human frailty.

Yet Greenland is beautiful. Light shifts across its mighty icecaps. Glaciers glitter, finishing at the water's edge in pinnacles like wicked witches' ice castles. Icebergs are sometimes startlingly blue, contemporary sculptures afloat. Rocks are arranged like Zen gardens. Soft moss and brittle orange lichen are determined signs of life. Flowering plants grow improbably in rock crevices in this buffeted, broken land.

Greenland is at once exhilarating and terrifying. It evokes the same conflicted feeling you get in any remote place. It's the outback reversed, red turned to grey, flatness turned to mountain, but the same intimidating thrill. That afternoon we take a Zodiac out among the icebergs of the fiord. They're dangerous marvels, a frozen wonderland that leaves us silent in awe.

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Why travel so far? Just because Greenland is there, and because you can. Because you'll rarely ever feel this remote again. Because you'll never forget it, even though the words to explain why will simply fail you.

THE DETAILS

MORE

traveller.com.au/cruises

traveller.com.au/greenland

visitgreenland.com

CRUISE

Abercrombie & Kent has two Arctic expeditions in 2022 and another in 2023. The writer travelled on a 15-day 'In Search of the Polar Bear' cruise, which next departs on June 30, 2022, and visits Svalbard, Greenland and Iceland. Prices from $23,635 a person including meals, drinks, gratuities, airport transfers, Arctic clothing and daily excursions with the expedition team. Phone 1300 590 317. See abercrombiekent.com.au

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent abercrombiekent.com.au

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