How to break the ice

Amy Cooper explores remote villages, parties with officers and strengthens family ties on a cruise from Copenhagen to New York.

I scan the massed cruise ships at Copenhagen's Freeport terminal the way you'd search for a blind date in a crowded bar. To my relief, Eurodam's the good-looking one. Newest and largest in Holland America Line's 15-vessel fleet and its first Signature-class ship, the 86,000-tonner cuts a surprisingly elegant outline beside her ungainly neighbours with their optimistically feminine names. Eurodam's tapering bow, navy livery and teak promenade deck evoke a traditional ocean liner, rather than the ugliest building in your neighbourhood set afloat.

Boarding, I still harbour anxieties. Adventure travel suits me but cruising sounds rather regimented. When the ship's photographer cheerily immortalises my pre-fun face before I'm even aboard, my anxiety intensifies. I'm not the compliant type.

And there's another first: travelling with Mum. We coincide rarely as she lives in England and I'm in Australia but we'll be roommates for 16 days on this Northern Isles Adventure cruise through Scotland, Iceland, Greenland and Canada to New York. I've been told cruises are the new hot spot for family reunions but what if we drive each other insane? Even a 285-metre ship with 11 decks isn't much if we become the Crawfords at sea.

I have two days to settle in before Mum boards in Edinburgh and I explore our stateroom's multifarious stowage options – concealed drawers, overhead cupboards and even a hollow stool. Within 15 minutes the spewed contents of my suitcase have vanished and the stateroom looks immaculate again. I note its luxuries: flat-screen television, bathtub, DVD player, veranda. Then I note its position – port, midships, navigation deck – so I can find it after the lifeboat drill.

The drill's a chance to check out my 2103 fellow passengers, mustered and life-jacketed on the promenade deck. Many are mature and a few so much so that, for them, survival instructions seem a mere formality.

But it's not just ancient mariners – there are children, too, couples my age and multi-generation clans. HAL's people tell me they're attracting more variety in age and nationality. Here, the American majority is joined by Germans, Spaniards, Russians, Koreans, French, Brits and Aussies.

I know two crucial facts about HAL: its chief executive, Stein Kruse, has the best "aptronym" since a bloke named Gamble ran a casino; and its luxury ships attract one of the industry's highest repeat visitor rates. The crew, particularly the room stewards and the frontline staff in the seven restaurants and 11 bars, are credited with this success and, as I watch them smoothly handle the equivalent of a family of thousands moving in, I see why.

It takes a couple of days to find sea legs, says Eurodam's captain, Darin Bowland, an affable Canadian ex-serviceman. "At first you see a lot of people, then they find their favourite spaces, their own tranquillity," he says, while showing me the Starship Enterprise-style technology on the bridge. "She's a bigger ship than we're used to and the maritime equivalent of the ultimate sports car."

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He places a hand gently on the giant dashboard. "But she still feels intimate," he says. "She's elegant and ... sublime." I leave him to thoughts a man can share only with his vessel.

Mum embarks and her luggage, too, is swallowed up by our magic stateroom. She's a seasoned cruiser and quickly settles into shipboard life, finding a trivia team, friends and a scenic see-through lift that glides up and down on the exterior of the ship.

At first, I baulk a little at cruising's communality: sharing tables at dinner and joining groups to take tenders ashore feel like well-meaning assaults on my individuality. But this passes as I meet pleasant fellow passengers.

Captain Darin's right, too: this ship, just like the staterooms, has an uncanny ability to melt away her cargo. You're rarely aware there are more than 3000 souls (including 925 crew) around you and, down in the gleaming caverns of the galley, a butcher, baker and mind-boggling quantities of food. Via its five-star menus, the ship moves 23,000 eggs, 3522 kilograms of potatoes and 1600 bottles of wine into its passengers each week.

The fourth day brings our first surprise. Eurodam is heading north towards the Pentland Firth, at the tip of the Scottish mainland. I was born on this wind-buffeted coastline in an isolated town called Thurso. As we sail closer to shore than planned, we spot familiar geography.

Mum and I reach for the binoculars – and there's Thurso. Neither of us has seen it for more than 15 years and we ponder the weird momentousness of being at the place where, technically, we first met. We break out champagne, dab tears. As a mother-daughter moment, it's hard to beat.

We spend a day exploring Iceland and see geysers, volcanoes and exquisite native horses. The small, sturdy creatures with abundant rock-star manes and tails have been a pure breed since they arrived with the Vikings in the ninth century.

They're known for their unique, flowing gait, called "tolt", a smooth, more balletic version of the trot. Such is the importance of breeding that if an Icelandic horse leaves the country, it can never return. We watch these charismatic creatures work a show ring under the breeches-clad supervision of a man who looks just like that hot Nordic movie star Viggo Mortensen.

As Eurodam then heads out into the North Atlantic towards Greenland, I begin to relish the contrast between the untamed vastness outside and the refined formalities of the world within. Polite invitations arrive on headed notepaper; a gong announces dinner. Mum and I even take a napkin-folding class and I'm such a natural I learn to make towel sculptures, too. In our stateroom I fashion a sort of large reclining donkey and, as encouragement, our steward, Slamet, puts sunglasses on it.

Early next morning, there's another pleasant surprise: weather conditions will allow us to sail through Prins Christian Sund, a 58-kilometre channel winding east-west between the southern tip of Greenland's mainland and the island of Sangmissoq. Navigating the Sund (Greenlandic name Ikerasassuaq, meaning "the long channel") is a rare privilege possible only from mid-summer to late autumn, when the ice packs melt enough to allow passage. Even then, ships are subject to the ice's mercurial moods.

The crew's excitement is palpable. Few places on Earth, they say, are as beautiful as this remote wonderland of granite-hewn mountains, glaciers, waterfalls and icebergs.

From dawn, the decks are filled with rugged-up passengers sipping hot chocolate and then all chatter is silenced by the dwarfing grandeur of the Sund. Edifices formed during the Ice Age tower 1700 metres high, slashed with ancient scars and oozing blue-white glacier ice like toothpaste. Steely mist eddies down lazily from ragged peaks to glassy water, where the icebergs loom.

Some are the size of office blocks and all look man-made, with turrets, ramparts, spires and steps, but the only architects here are wind and water. We have no paint that white, no neon as blue as the bergs' refractive inner light. This is nature at her most acutely real.

We see dots on shore. It's Aappilattoq, the only settlement in this 480-kilometre network of fjords. Just 170 people live on this sliver of land hemmed in by 905-metre vertical cliffs and the fjord. Between October and July, it's frozen in, accessible only by helicopter.

Boats manned by Inuit people emerge from this village on the edge of the Earth. They circle us, fascinated by our mountain-sized vessel, and toot their horns. Eurodam replies with a resounding blast that echoes in the silent peaks long afterwards. This is Close Encounters of the Third Kind and we're in the spaceship.

Captain Darin dispatches a tender to shore bearing the head chef and pizzas from Eurodam's Slice cafe. They return with a gift of freshly caught cod. We swing slowly about and our giant home leaves the Inuits' tiny one alone again.

Next day we reach Nanortalik, Greenland's southernmost settlement and a heaving metropolis by comparison with Appilattoq. About 2000 people inhabiting its scatter of blue, red, yellow and green wooden houses. The town welcomes us with a choir and nascent commercial savvy. The post office does a roaring trade in souvenir stamps. The old people's home erects a stall selling knitted socks. We share no language with the Inuits so can only guess how it feels to be a population swollen more than twofold for just a morning by a floating United Nations wearing designer fleeces.

We set sail. The planet's oldest land melts into the horizon behind and we toast it with drinks served over glacier ice. Greenland has invigorated the mood aboard. Crew and passengers share an explorers' camaraderie. Nanortalik was a maiden call for Eurodam so we're pioneers now and our cruise is becoming an expedition.

And then it really does. Captain Darin's next announcement is in his solemn, master-of-vessel voice, not his jolly, nautical trivia one. While we're heading towards the Canadian eastern seaboard, so is Hurricane Bill, the first tropical storm in the 2009 season. This 217km/h, category-four nightmare and its 20-metre seas are too much even for Eurodam and we'll be forced to take evasive action. But the show will go on. "I hope I'll be seeing you all at tonight's black-and-white ball," Darin says. Suddenly, our voyage is laced with real adventure. Our route is to be redrawn completely in response to Bill's whims.

That evening, Mum and I dine at the chief engineer's table and our party bombards the poor chap with Titanic-inspired questions about Eurodam's unsinkability. If there is trepidation, no one betrays it. Everyone's at the ball after dinner, too, waltzing in gowns and gloves, dress whites and dinner suits. I'm convinced maritime law states somewhere that no hazard, either real or perceived, must ever silence the band on a cruise.

Next day, a special Hurricane Bill channel appears on the ship's television, with live bulletins from Captain Darin and cruise director Linda Minnikin, who tells us we'll be changing three ports of call and moving inland down the Gulf of St Lawrence. Dinner will include a complimentary champagne toast to everyone's safety.

While Bill wreaks havoc along our old route, we're dropping in on the folks of small, quiet Corner Brook in Newfoundland, who respond to the surprise with stickers bearing the slogan: Corner Brook: Explore the Unexpected.

The next unscheduled port of call is the pretty Quebec resort of Gaspe, where Mum and I browse art stores, drink freshly ground coffee and have those long, meandering chats you miss when living far apart. And then we're sailing up the Hudson into New York City, our final port.

Mum and I agree there's no finer way to arrive in a country. Flying spits you out a crumpled, exhausted husk into a city's most charmless suburbs. Cruise ships deliver you rested, buoyed by fresh air and through the magnificent main entrance rather than the grubby back door.

Our voyage is over. Mum and I have sailed 4680 nautical miles on an adventure that showed us more than foreign shores.

We're excellent travel buddies but we only know it because, together, we gazed at glaciers, dodged hurricanes, dined with officers and turned towels into donkeys. And we returned to where our family began.

The ship made it all possible. There would have been no other way. We say an unashamedly sentimental farewell to Eurodam, because now she feels like family, too.

The writer was a guest of Holland America Line.

TRIP NOTES

Holland America Line (HAL) offers a similar cruise itinerary to the Northern Isles Adventure, from August 8 to September 6, 2010, departing from Amsterdam. Phone 1300 766 566, see traveltheworld.com.au, hollandamerica.com or a travel agent.

HAL offers a family reunion program with discounts and upgrades for groups. There's a fully supervised kids' club and teen activities and areas on all HAL ships. Cruise ships make easy neutral territory for clan gatherings, especially if your family is spread around the world.

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