Sheer indulgence in the Northwest Passage
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