When hurricane force winds prevented our Princess cruise ship many years back from entering New Zealand’s majestic Milford Sound, we were disappointed but so appreciative of safety (and there was the bonus of an unexpected overnight in Hobart, Tasmania).
We had much better luck — in fact weather that defined perfection — on our recent transatlantic crossing that included Iceland and Greenland aboard Holland America’s Zuiderdam.
Meeting the ship’s third officer in the elevator for a second time, we rave over the three Iceland ports-of-call we’ve just left. He smiles knowingly and promises: “Just wait ‘til Greenland.”
For many of the ship’s 1,900 passengers – us included – the perfect introduction to this icy landmass is a full day of scenic cruising on Prins Christian Sund. On-board lecturer and Greenland expert, Jon Vidar Sigurdsson prefers to call this incredible stretch of natural beauty by its Greenlandic name – Ikerasassuaq noting, “The Danish place names in Greenland are gradually disappearing while the original names are used more and more.”
No matter its moniker, the destination impresses. “A sunny day,” the daily program says, “reveals sparkling water and white-blue ice amidst the starkness of the cliffs. A misty or fog-shrouded day only adds atmosphere to the mystery of this millions-of-years old natural phenomenon of glaciers, steep fjords and plummeting waterfalls created by the enormous force of the Greenland ice cap.”
That program has also promised: “one of the most beautiful cruise experiences on earth.” This day is living up to the billing. We later learn some on board had been here six times but never in clear weather, making us even more appreciative of those sunny skies.
For the special day, the ship allows access to Zuiderdam’s bow for close-up views of the passing wonderland. After taking in that view, we soon head to Deck 7 for a higher vantage point as Capt. Bart Vaartjes expertly maneuvers the 82,000-gross-ton Zuiderdam unbelievably close to the first glacier – Sermeq Kujalleq.
(Below right: Kathy poses with Sermeq Kujalleq glacier.)
Bundled-up cruisers happily snap photos and marvel at the sight. All await a “calving” – when pieces of a glacier break off, often with a thunderous result; several small ones materialize over the day. Two more of the glaciers that reached all the way down to the water’s surface offer even more photo opps: Sermeq Avangnarleq and Sermerunerit.
Throughout much of our daylong journey — about seven hours traversing the exquisite waterway — Sigurdsson offers periodic commentary over the ship’s loudspeaker. Explorations Central (EXC) Guide Misha Perko of Slovenia takes turns too at the microphone, adding facts and tidbits including how icebergs and their smaller cousins “bergies” and “growlers” are formed. Officially, an iceberg must rise at least 16 feet above sea level and cover at least 5,382 square feet.
Sigurdsson, a geologist and accomplished photographer, has photographed the region extensively since 1994. When he recounts how quickly the glaciers we’ve passed by are receding, we know the pronouncement is serious.
The sound is 36 miles long and only about 1,540 feet wide at its most narrow. Zuiderdam is 955 feet long.
The passing scenery is too gorgeous to break away from for lunch in the dining room, so we grab to-go from the Dive-In (the best hot dogs and French fries at sea in our opinion) and head to our stateroom balcony on the port side. We’re rewarded with icebergs passing close by — one characterized as tabular with tall sides and a flat top — plus sounds of rushing water from a myriad of waterfalls. The sunny day has reached nearly 60-degrees, so we peel off our heavy coats to enjoy the warmth on our skin.
(Right: Aappilattoq village)
An afternoon highlight is passing alongside a small village. The bright red, blue and yellow houses of Aappilattoq stand in stark contrast to the vast, rocky, gray shoreline they inhabit, precariously it seems in some spots as the mountain they’re below rises up 2,970 feet.
A handful of residents in their small boats come out to greet the ship, whistling, yelling, waving and smiling. Zuiderdam passengers line the rail and enthusiastically return the greeting. Sigurdsson tells us the villagers are hunters and fishermen living mainly from hunting seals. They also operate a small fish processing plant.
On this bright day, it seems a happy postcard, the view of their town, but a handout the commentator has prepared puts things in perspective: “It is impossible to walk farther than 1.2 miles from the settlement without coming to a dead end. From July ‘til late autumn, it is possible to get to and from the village with boats, but at other times, helicopters are the only means of transportation.”
We think about the dead of winter, the isolation, and the toughness this population must possess for this lifestyle.
After sailing by the settlement, we next reach the last part of the transit, the channel Torsukattaq, considered by many, says Sigurdsson, to be the most beautiful part with high mountains on both sides sporting sharp peaks and glaciers. Icebergs continue to dot the waters here and there.
The incredible day has us recalling glaciers we saw in Alaska. One particular mountaintop reminds us of Patagonia’s Torres del Paine, while even our Holland America Rotterdam sailing in Norway’s fjords flickered in our collective memory. Yes, we missed Milford Sound back when, but today, stunning Prins Christian Sund more than makes up for it.
It’s one of those days of world travel we simply savor and plant in our hearts forever. Yes, that just happened.
If You’re Going: In 2018, Holland America calls at both Iceland and Greenland for its 18-day “Viking Passage” cruise Rotterdam, Netherlands to Boston aboardthe Rotterdam, 20-Day "Viking Passage" Copenhagen to New York on Zuiderdam or its 38-day “Voyage of the Vikings” Boston-Boston sailing in July. Visit hollandamerica.com for details. Holland-America has 500 sailings in 2017 calling at 425 ports and 98 countries.
(Photos: M. Newbern and J.S. Fletcher)