Crys­tal clear

Sheer in­dul­gence in the North­west Pas­sage

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - KATIE JACKSON

One hun­dred and ten years ago, Nor­we­gian ex­plorer Roald Amund­sen com­pleted the first sea voy­age through the North­west Pas­sage. Sail­ing in a lit­tle her­ring boat, it took him and his six com­pan­ions more than two years.

I’ve just done the North­west Pas­sage, too. I was aboard Crys­tal Seren­ity, and we did it in 32 days. Where Amund­sen’s team bat­tled the el­e­ments for sur­vival, I stand on my pri­vate bal­cony and In­sta­gram the sun set­ting be­hind our ice­break­ing es­cort, RRS Ernest Shack­le­ton. It car­ries two heli­copters for emer­gency evac­u­a­tions and flight­see­ing tours, perks of a trip that costs rather a lot per per­son. Our pre­de­ces­sors didn’t have cli­mate change on their side, ei­ther. Af­ter all, decades of dis­ap­pear­ing sea ice is what took Crys­tal Cruises’ idea of Anchorage to New York by sea from laugh­able to doable.

I get goose bumps think­ing of the mo­ment Crys­tal Seren­ity sails into the sea ice. While vis­it­ing the Alaskan ports is great, they are a known quan­tity. The ice, on the other hand, will ei­ther send us back home or into the his­tory books. On our eighth day at sea, Cap­tain Birger J. Vor­land’s voice booms over the loud­speaker, “We’ve reached the ice!” Lec­tur­ers stop their pre­sen­ta­tions, spa at­ten­dants pause mid-man­i­cure and even the run­ners on the fit­ness cen­tre’s tread­mills come to a halt.

A few days later, we eat the ice. “Taste this,” our Dan­ish guide says, us­ing her Swiss army knife to carve bite­sized chunks out of the ice float­ing around our small rub­ber boat. Less than 100m away, a po­lar bear lounges non­cha­lantly on its pri­vate ice is­land. The only thing that in­ter­rupts or, bet­ter put, en­hances the ex­pe­ri­ence is the bev­er­age boat zoom­ing by. I ask my­self, “Who sits in an idling Zo­diac in Arc­tic wa­ters, sip­ping hot choco­late while silently wor­ship­ping the world’s largest land preda­tor?” Ap­par­ently, I do.

I later speak to Ste­vie, our ship’s wildlife-spot­ter, an Inuit hunter who has killed six po­lar bears. His most re­cent skin has been sit­ting in a freezer for two years, wait­ing for a buyer. Over cof­fee in the ship’s cafe, Ste­vie takes me through the course of his hunt­ing ca­reer. It started more than 50 years ago, when he was seven and be­gan to ex­plore in his older broth­ers’ dogsled. Our com­mu­nity vis­its to Ste­vie’s home town and other small Inuit set­tle­ments in Canada’s North­west Ter­ri­to­ries are re­cip­ro­cal. Once Crys­tal Seren­ity drops an­chor, we are fer­ried ashore in Zo­di­acs. Those boats then take the lo­cals, who are wait­ing on the beach — ev­ery­one from in­fants to el­ders — back to the ship. On board, they teach mit­ten­mak­ing classes, com­pete at gut­tural throat-singing and tuck into Ben & Jerry’s at the all-you-can-eat ice-cream bar on Deck 12.

Yes, the ship is five-star, and with its di­a­mond stores and Dior-filled bou­tique, it feels like a float­ing Fifth Av­enue. Still, I don’t spend ev­ery night in my plush pen­t­house suite. In ad­di­tion to kayak­ing, he­li­tours and whale­watch­ing, Crys­tal Cruises of­fers overnight ex­cur­sions. In Green­land, 17 of us fly to Kanger­lus­suaq, a fjord-front town of 500 res­i­dents. Car­ry­ing packs and wear­ing cram­pons, we hike across the world’s sec­ond largest ice sheet. Af­ter hours of not be­ing able to tell where the ice ends and the hori­zon be­gins, we dine on musk-ox steaks be­fore slip­ping into two sleep­ing bags each. Never have I been so hum­bled by the mag­ni­tude of Mother Na­ture. While I leave a size­able piece of my ego on the ice­cap, that’s all I leave. We haul our waste back to town on sleds.

The en­tire voy­age is filled with com­pa­ra­ble high­lights yet to grace the pages of the guidebooks. Our cam­eras fu­tilely at­tempt to cap­ture tremen­dous glaciers, elu­sive nar­whals and the north­ern lights.

Katie Jackson was a guest of Crys­tal Cruises. THE SUN­DAY TIMES

Fjord near Kanger­lus­suaq, Green­land, top, and cot­tages in the town, left; Crys­tal Seren­ity, above; the north­ern lights, below

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