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How to go off-grid in one of the world’s last true wildernesses

The icy Greenland coast that Sara Macefield witnessed on her Seabourn Venture cruise
The icy Greenland coast that Sara Macefield witnessed on her Seabourn Venture cruise

There was no disguising the enthusiasm of our submersible pilot, Merel, as we descended in a plume of bubbles into the fjord’s mysterious depths.

“These are some of the richest waters on the planet, with lots of light and nutrients,” she exclaimed. “It’s a living landscape and no one has ever dived here before!”

I gazed, mesmerised, through the bright aquamarine expanse into the underwater world as it unfolded before us

As our seven-person craft gently floated down to the silt bed of the fjord, a lion’s mane jellyfish pulsed past us, all billowing bell and wafting tentacles, while small Arctic cod eyed us warily, and soft corals drifted on the ocean currents.

And then, suddenly, in the middle of it all, was a tiny bone shard, decorated with a uniform line of tiny holes. This sent Merel into rhapsodies. She eagerly pondered its origin, before declaring it a possible Viking relic; an unexpected finale to our underwater exploration of Hvalsey Fjord, one of the network of intricate waterways carved into the southern flank of Greenland.

The "Viking relic" that Sara Macefield saw from a submersible on the bed of Hvalsey Fjord
The "Viking relic" that Sara saw from a submersible on the bed of Hvalsey Fjord

Slowly, we rose to the surface – the waters parting Biblically as we emerged into daylight – then were taken from the electric submersible back on to an inflatable Zodiac boat, and motored back to our ship, Seabourn Venture.

It was all seamless – but then, since my 20-year-old daughter Holly and I had boarded the ship a week prior, everything had been seamless; from the service and excursions, to the hastily assembled Zodiacs, which took us closer to the action when a young male polar bear appeared on the shore.

A polar bear on the Greenland shore
A polar bear on the Greenland shore

We’d come aboard the 264-passenger vessel – one of a new generation of luxury expedition ships – in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik, then sailed northwards into the Arctic Circle en route to Scoresby Sound, high up on Greenland’s largely unpopulated and unexplored east coast.

Stretching over thousands of miles, the towering cliffs separated by icy tongues of glaciers and vast winding waterways – large parts of which are still uncharted – make this the largest fjord system in the world, dwarfing its better-known Norwegian counterparts.

The Seabourn Venture sails through the waters around Greenland's coast
The Seabourn Venture sails through the waters around Greenland's coast

This is hardly surprising when you consider the vastness of Greenland, the world’s largest island, at 836,000 square miles – nine times the size of the UK – though around 80 per cent of the landmass is covered by its ice sheet.

Yet with a population of less than 57,000, this Danish territory is also the world’s least densely populated region.

The Northeast Greenland National Park, which borders Scoresby Sound, is the world’s most expansive such space, stretching over an area almost as large as France and Spain combined, and with no permanent human settlements.

We relished these few days exploring fjords that, for much of the year, are encased by sea ice, rendering them impassable – though milder summer temperatures bring a fleeting respite, enabling ships such as ours to gently slip into this frozen inner sanctum.

The 'Discovery Centre' on board
The 'Discovery Centre' on board

When we arrived in mid-August, heavier ice floes than usual meant Seabourn Venture was the first ship of the year to access the fjords, the dramatic beauty of this stark landscape totally at odds with the swish interiors of our floating home. Each day, we’d be greeted by a panorama of jagged icebergs framed by the curved floor-to-ceiling bow windows of our penthouse suite; and in the evenings, Holly and I would creep up to The Club lounge before dinner to gorge on delicious freshly-made sushi, complemented with a glass or two of crisp Galician albarino, while admiring sienna-tinged sunsets that bathed the fjords in a golden glow.

The Seabourn Square area on the Seabourn Venture
The Seabourn Square area on the Seabourn Venture

As we headed southwards past the mountains of Prince Christian Sound, which separates the mainland from the islands of the Cape Farewell Archipelago on Greenland’s southern tip, the focus of our cruise changed from the wilderness and fauna of the east coast – with its passing pods of orcas and colossal fin whales – to the culture of its communities on the more populated western side.

A whale spotted from the Seabourn Venture
A whale spotted from the Seabourn Venture

We stopped at tiny settlements tucked into the craggy shoreline, brimming with the customs and history of Inuit tribes who have survived for centuries in this unforgiving environment, where locals welcomed us with heartwarming choir performances in rustic wooden churches and greeted us with “kaffemik” – a social gathering over coffee – and homemade cake in their community centres.

The complete contrast between their lives and ours was as fascinating as it was inescapable, but at the tiny settlement of Aappilattoq (population 70), we were stunned to discover that one of the local men had visited the UK for a month to improve his English, staying in Exeter – where Holly had graduated just a few weeks before.

The Fjords of East Greenland cruise visits Inuit settlements
The Fjords of East Greenland cruise visits Inuit settlements

Who would have thought it? It was another welcome surprise, to add to the many on this voyage, though one of the most memorable came as we sat in our suite one afternoon, taking a breather after another morning studded with natural wonders.

A giant iceberg had been drifting serenely by when, without warning, a vast wall along its side suddenly collapsed, sending hundreds of tons of ice crashing into the sea and creating a mini tsunami that rolled towards our ship, gently rocking it to and fro. We rushed to our window and watched, utterly awestruck. Apparently, Greenland’s natural spectacles don’t do intermissions.

Essentials

Sara Macefield was a guest of Seabourn (0843 373 2000; seabourn.com) which offers an 11-day Fjords of East Greenland cruise on Seabourn Venture from £6,299pp in a veranda suite or £11,999pp for a panorama penthouse suite, including meals, drinks, gratuities and most excursions. The round-trip sailing from Reykjavik departs on August 5 2024, and includes Scoresby Sound plus Umivik Bay and Skjoldungen Fjord in Greenland, and Heimaey and the Westman Islands in Iceland.

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