The icebergs that had filled us with awe since early morning were now our enemy. They were blocking our way into the harbour of Ilulissat. An announcement came from our ship's crew: Our port stop would have to be cancelled.
But we were only briefly disappointed. Instead, the ship offered sightseeing rides among the towering ice that surrounded us. We spent more than an hour in motorized rubber rafts marvelling at the massive, crystalline structures. The ice, suddenly, was our friend once again.
When you're cruising in the Arctic, the ice rules - not ship itineraries. And all kinds of visitors are embracing the uncertainty, making the icy waters of Greenland suddenly very hot. So far this year, 39 ships have brought 25,000 or so passengers to this island at the top of the North Atlantic. Among recent visitors: researchers interested in studying the retreating glaciers, politicians including John McCain and tourists attracted to the sheer spectacle of iceberg-filled Disko Bay.
With an even greater spike in visits expected for 2009, many cruises are filling up quickly for next year's summer high season.
On our cruise this June, my wife and I found out why. Late at night, we joined other passengers on the open deck for drinks under the midnight sun. Had we waited until late August, we might have had a chance to see the Northern Lights, shimmering powerfully in a clear, dark sky.
The type of ship determines the nature of the cruise. If you want to bob among the big bergs, pick a ship with a high ice rating. These can include former icebreakers, and some lines have ships built for polar cruising.
As a general rule, purpose-built cruise ships are newer and laid out for a more comfortable experience. Older, converted vessels may be dowdier, but often offer lower prices and may put more emphasis on hiking and other adventure activities.
Even traditional mass-market ships are getting in on the action. Two Holland America vessels, one carrying more than 2,000 passengers, will call at the southern tip of Greenland on transatlantic sailings next year. Those ships offer a wider range of services and amenities than expedition vessels. But they lack the ice capabilities needed to venture north of the Arctic Circle.
Our Greenland cruise this summer, from Halifax to Iceland, was on a ship that could make it all the way north: the MS Bremen, run by Hapag-Lloyd and specifically built for polar cruising. Along with its sister ship the Hanseatic, it has been stopping in Greenland since the early 1990s. Originally Hapag-Lloyd catered only to German speakers, but today it provides English menus, announcements and tours on certain cruises.
On our trip, the Bremen's passengers were a mixed bag: curious about the world, concerned about the environment and thirsting for soft adventure. They included Margaret Atwood's former Hollywood agent, a concert harpsichordist and an Australian couple who operate a 2,800-hectare sheep farm. It certainly made for fascinating conversations over dinner and drinks.
What drew us all to the Bremen was its flexibility. On large cruise ships, passengers know months in advance exactly when they will visit and leave each port. Not so on our small expedition ship.
Because our itinerary wasn't written in stone, the Bremen made unscheduled breaks. No sooner had Captain Mark Behrend spotted humpback whales one morning than he brought the ship to a halt and alerted the 120 passengers to the spectacle. For 90 minutes, the Bremen made lazy circles while a whale-tail ballet was performed around us.
Getting that sort of experience means giving up all the usual cruise-ship frills. On the Bremen, we found only basic comforts. There was only one seating in the dining room, one bar and one theatre, where we attended lectures on the history, culture and nature of the places we would visit.
The lectures aboard the Bremen varied in quality. A skeptical talk called What Al Gore Didn't Tell You seemed a strange choice for a cruise that showed the warming effects of climate change first-hand. Others dealt with Greenland's history, culture, whales and ice. The social problems of isolated communities, where the sun disappears for a long stretch each winter, were also covered.
But seeing coastal communities in action was even more enriching. In places like Uummannaq and Paamiut, prefab houses, each a different shade of the rainbow, cling higgledy-piggledy to the few flat surfaces on the steep and rocky terrain.
The towns burst into life when a ship is sighted. In Paamiut, a Danish policeman, posted there by the government in Copenhagen, drove a local Inuit carver around town until he sold his soapstone carvings. In Sisimiut, where we arrived on Greenland's national day, the church, museum and craft stores were unlocked just for us. And later, a choir in traditional dress serenaded us as we prepared to sail away.
Uummannaq, nestled at the foot of a heart-shaped reddish mountain, is certainly Greenland's - if not the world's - most picturesque town. And Nuuk, the capital, boasts a spiffy national museum with a macabre prize exhibit: the mummies of three women and a child who were trapped in ice back in 1475. Their preserved faces still cry out in horror.
Many passengers on our cruise were disappointed by the lack of wildlife. Whale and seal sightings are common in Greenland waters, but only in the far north and east are you likely to encounter polar bears and walruses. Most bird rookeries near settlements were long ago destroyed by hunters.
In the end, however, the biggest thrill comes from exploring a traditional way of life before it is swallowed up. Greenland may be remote, but it's not necessarily backward, as one American passenger discovered. In a small village, he spotted an elderly Greenlandic couple, all smiles and wrinkles, and asked to take their photo. When he was through, the woman asked to reciprocate. She whipped out a cellphone and captured the cruise passenger on video.
Ships include the MS Bremen, which will depart Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, on Aug. 15, 2009, for a 25-day voyage through the Northwest Passage to Nome, Alaska. Prices start at $19,528.
The Toronto operator uses the ice-strengthened MS Expedition, originally built as a ferry. A 14-day cruise from Spitsbergen to East Greenland and on to Reykjavik departs Sept. 8, 2009. Prices start at $4,070.
POLAR STAR EXPEDITIONS
Halifax-based Polar Star Expeditions uses the former icebreaker MV Polar Star. A 13-day East Greenland cruise departs Aug. 28, 2009, from Svalbard and ends in Reykjavik. Prices start at $4,389.
In July 2009, Holland America's Maasdam stops in Greenland on a 17-day cruise from Boston to Rotterdam (also available in a 35-day version). The Eurodam stops in southern Greenland during 16- and 26-day cruises from Copenhagen to New York in August, 2009. Prices start at $3,233.
Douglas McArthur was a guest of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.