A highlight of my recent trip to Greenland was the trip by boat from Nuuk to Ilulissat. This was a two night voyage on the Sarfaq Ittuk, a 52-cabin ship that sails along the coast of Greenland every week of the year (weather permitting). This is a transport service for the locals, but tourists are welcome; it is a unique way to discover the country and its culture.
Essential Local Transport
This is a country with no roads between settlements. To get from one place to another you go by sea, or air. I chatted to a woman who was on her way back from a business trip in Nuuk. Short local journeys are a little easier in winter, she said, because you can travel by dog sledge or snowmobile.
Sarfaq Ittuk goes from Qaqortoq in the south to Ilulissat, inside the Arctic Circle. The arrival of the ship in a port is obviously a social occasion, with people standing on the quayside waving Greenlandic flags as they wait for family and friends to disembark. We watched a girl showing off her new graduation cap and children greeting their grandparents. Arrival at a port isn’t necessarily the end of the story: the harbour at Kangaamiut is too small for the ship. All the passengers – including the smallest child – had to don a life jacket and climb into a tender before being driven to the shore. (The tender was also full of cargo, as the boat is also essential for delivery of mail, shopping and other supplies.)
Films are shown on board but generally people make their own entertainment. Board games were stacked up for the passengers’ use and families were playing cards in the lounge. There were impromptu parties, and an old man was entertaining his friends with stories in the local Inuit language.
Travelling on the Sarfaq Ittuk as a Tourist
Although Sarfaq Ittuk is a service for local people, it also caters for tourists. It is possible to sleep on a couchette, but most tourists opt for a cabin, giving them shower facilities and a sea view. There is a cafeteria for meals, but don’t expect much in the way of haute cuisine (this is a country where most food – other than fish or marine mammals – has to be imported). In good weather you can stand on the deck to admire the scenery and try to spot whales, or you can watch from the comfort of the Panorama Lounge.
In the summer months a daily itinerary is posted for those who want to make the most of their experience. Some of the port stops are very brief, but others last for an hour or two and local tours are arranged for anyone who wants to stretch their legs and explore a little. A big moment in the trip was crossing the Polar Circle (and I have a certificate to prove that I have done it…)
Coastal Scenery and the Midnight Sun
One of the main attractions of the trip was the coastal scenery. At first the ship steered a course between small islands and, apart from the settlements, the view was mostly of snow-capped mountains. There were lots of birds and I glimpsed the tip of a humpback whale in the distance. At many times of the year there is the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights, but for us it was the astonishing spectacle of the Midnight Sun (I didn’t see darkness – or even twilight – the whole time I was in Greenland).
We saw our first iceberg on the second morning. This was amazing enough but as the day went on we found ourselves surrounded by icebergs of all shapes and sizes. We were now in the ice field that took us all the way to Ilulissat, our final destination.