Aboard Seabourn's New Expedition Ship, Navigating the Wilds of Greenland
The biscuit-colored mountains of Ammassalik Fjord, in southeastern Greenland, were patched with snow and wreathed in mist. It was spitting rain, and the turquoise waters were scattered with icebergs of fantastical shapes: One looked like a shark's tooth, another like a skate park, and another like an accordion, neatly pleated. The underbellies of these chunks of faraway glaciers were of the deepest, most delicious blue.
It would be going too far to say that I've ever felt polarhullar—a wonderful Danish word meaning “a yearning for the polar regions.” I do, however, get a hankering for the cold air, empty spaces, and moody weather of the remote North. But I also value warm showers, Wi-Fi, and a well-made negroni. Exploring Greenland aboard the roomy Seabourn Venture suited my preferences perfectly.
I had another reason for a coastal tour of the world's largest island. I've spent the past four years researching and writing a book, Battle of Ink and Ice, which is partly about turn-of-the-20th-century polar explorers. I'm fascinated by what compelled them to seek out such hostile and unknown environments. Wealth and fame were motivators, as I've learned from their writings, but the Arctic itself exerted a certain magical pull—one that 21st-century luxury travelers have begun to discover. This sailing gave us access not only to these epic and unforgiving lands but also to the communities and cultures that have shaped them.
Seabourn invested a reported $200 million in its first purpose-built expedition vessel, where the onboard amenities include a heated clothes-drying cabinet in every suite. I tossed my base layer, hat, and gloves into mine after our wet Zodiac iceberg tour of Ammassalik Fjord before visiting the sauna, which had views toward the mist and mountains. This was day 3 of a planned 14, and the inauguration of a pleasant routine: a taste of the near-Arctic elements, followed by the sort of pampering that those 19th-century explorers—and even today's Greenlanders, we should acknowledge—never dreamed of.
On our first few days, we sailed west through the Christian Sound, passing towering waterfalls, and into Aappilattoq village, with a population of 100 and a cluster of red, yellow, and blue homes. We spotted whales and ogled fjords. It wasn't until reaching the 3,000-person town of Qaqortoq that we began to learn how life is lived in Greenland. At the Great Greenland Furhouse, the country's only sealskin tannery, I saw some of the fur pants, anoraks, and kamiks (boots) that 19th-century Western explorers belatedly came to recognize as superior to their own leather footwear and tight woolens. This kind of traditional Inuit winterwear is still made here, mostly for ceremonial occasions, alongside more contemporary styles aimed primarily at the Danish and Asian markets. (Importing sealskin products into the United States is illegal.) In Nuuk, Greenland's largest city and the only place on my voyage I saw a café, the National Museum tells the story of Greenland vividly, from the Viking farmers in the Middle Ages to the Inuit who outlasted them.
The Inuit developed much of the technology that enabled turn-of-the-century explorers to seek the North Pole—a quest the practical-minded natives considered pointless but aided nonetheless, in exchange for hunting rifles and other useful Western goods. Inuit kayaks and dogsleds made it possible to advance more rapidly across the Arctic Ocean ice, and the native diet of fresh, often raw meat helped foreigners to endure subzero temperatures.
Thanks to his embrace of fresh seal and walrus, the peerless Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen came back from some of his Arctic journeys weighing more than when he'd set out. On this last point, at least, many of us aboard the Seabourn Venture could relate. The Seabourn Venture didn't go near the frozen Arctic Ocean that Nansen and others braved in pursuit of the North Pole. But it did pass Umivik Bay, on the southeastern coast, Nansen's starting point in 1888, when he became the first person to cross Greenland—using skis, which was then considered a novel approach.
Unfortunately, a gale kept us from stopping there. But several days later, in Qaqortoq, the fog parted long enough for a helicopter to drop me and six other guests onto a glacier after a 20-minute flight—a wonderfully dislocating experience that felt like being on another planet.
It wasn't until Sisimiut that we entered the Arctic Circle proper and took a memorable two-hour walk along the nearly 100-mile Arctic Circle Trail, past glassy ponds ringed with Arctic scrub that was already, in mid-September, cloaked in fall colors. At the trailhead, we passed a “dog town” containing hundreds of the huskies that some Greenlanders keep for winter work.
Back in Sisimiut, a gastronomic experience had been arranged for us. Let me pause here to explain that I had eaten like a king for nearly two weeks aboard the Seabourn Venture: everything from roasted scallops and poached lobster tail to Cornish game hen. I'd benefited from the wonders of modern refrigeration and the 21st-century global supply chain, to say nothing of the skills of executive chef Ainsley Mascarenhas. But here, a simpler array was laid before us, including slick cubes of raw seal blubber and raw minke whale and darker morsels of dried minke whale. The experience helped me understand why, given the choice, most explorers preferred cooked musk oxen over anything that had recently had a harpoon pulled out.
Though Sisimiut (formerly known as Holsteinsborg) often served as an early stopping point for explorers headed farther north, it was the end of the line for us. When I flew back to Reykjavik from nearby Kangerlussuaq Airport the next day, I was well-fed, well-rested, and untouched by seasickness, snow-blindness, frostbite, anemia, scurvy, or any of the other inconveniences, including death, that plagued Arctic explorers of yore.
Apart from the bracing shock of a voluntary polar plunge, I hadn't even really been uncomfortable at any point. Even so, precious hints of a tougher and wilder Arctic experience lingered—in the memories of mist-enshrouded icebergs, the wolflike howls of the sled dogs, and the taste of raw seal blubber.
Like many Greenland cruises, Seabourn Venture's itinerary begins and ends in Iceland. We recommend tacking on at least a day in Reykjavik, on either end. Not only does this allow a great opportunity to explore a little further, but it provides a safety cushion for the arrival in case your original flight is delayed or cancelled. While in the city, check into the Reykjavik Edition one of Iceland's most dazzling hotel opening in recent years. Ian Schrager and his design team which includes New York's Roman and Williams leaned into a more natural palette with this outpost, with whites, lava and charcoal tones. Their intimate spa, which allows guests to eat and drink between soaks and massages, is reason alone to book.
A fifteen-day Glaciers, Fjords & Indigenous Cultures sailing onboard Seabourn Venture starts at $15,499.
This article appeared in the March 2023 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler