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Guests of Quark Expeditions' southern Greenland cruise are taken out on smaller boats to explore.MICHELLE SOLE/Quark Expeditions

We had been hiking for an hour on a mountaintop 1,300 metres above a fjord in southern Greenland, our yellow parkas bright against the vast gray expanse, and the entire time I was feeling the same sense of wonder that had been flooring me all week. It is a feeling particular to extremely remote landscapes.

As far as the eye could see, there were views of rock and ice and bluish-green waters – no roads or stores or any sign of human activity except for us, of course, and the two helicopters taking groups from our cruise ship to the mountaintop and back again. Our group’s guide pointed out the village of 100 people we had visited the day before. It was a speck off in the distance, barely visible among the U-shaped valleys that had been carved by glacial ice over tens of thousands of years.

Standing there, the awe I’d been feeling since I boarded this cruise to southern Greenland only deepened.

On the first day, our cruise ship passed an iceberg as vibrant blue as Elsa’s dress from Frozen (ask any kid). It almost didn’t seem real. Days later, when I walked upon a Greenlandic ice sheet, I felt it again.

“How many people do you think have ever even been here before?” asked Alexandre Peers, a friend I had met on the trip, a notary from Belgium, as we walked on the ice.

He was feeling it too – that wonder that comes from being in a place where no more than probably a few hundred other people have ever stepped foot before.

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One stop on the trip is to the village of Aappilattoq, a settlement of 100 people.MICHELLE SOLE/Quark Expeditions

The other question lurking in the back of my mind, and probably on the mind of the other 155 passengers I was travelling with, especially as wildfires ran rampant in Canada and Greece and a heat wave in Spain made international headlines, was, how many more people will walk here at the rate the world is going? I also wondered, guiltily, if by flying around in helicopters, weren’t we part of the problem?

Quark Expeditions, the Canadian company running our cruise, doesn’t pretend climate change isn’t real.

During the trip, a geologist spoke to us about the changes Greenland’s environment is experiencing, including to the ice sheet we had just walked on. It covers 80 per cent of the country and has lost an average of 300 cubic kilometres of ice every year between 2003 and 2012. In all likelihood, he pointed out, that rate has accelerated in the years since.

It’s not good news but the company, which operates Arctic voyages to Greenland, the Antarctic Peninsula and Patagonia, hopes its passengers will go home more determined to help save a burning world.

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MICHELLE SOLE/Quark Expeditions

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Cruise guests can hike mountaintops, visit landmarks such as Hvalsey Church (above) and walk along ice sheets (below).MICHELLE SOLE/Quark Expeditions

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MICHELLE SOLE/Quark Expeditions

The company also has a range of sustainability initiatives to help preserve the places it visits, including a goal to reduce its carbon emissions per passenger by 10 per cent and contributing a minimum of US$500,000 each year to support polar environmental research, community engagement and sustainable development projects.

Our ship – the Ultramarine – is one of two in Quark’s fleet that thermally breaks down waste, sequesters carbon to reduce CO2 emissions and uses the heat generated to warm the ship’s interior. Quark also reduces single-use plastics on board by providing guests with a reusable water bottle (although plastic straws are still available upon request).

Eight days aboard the Ultramarine felt like being at an adventure camp – a luxurious one, with fine dining and high-thread-count sheets.

On the first day, all guests were divided into four Zodiac boat groups: Vikings, Glacier, Iceberg and Fjord. Yellow parkas and waterproof boots awaited us in locker rooms below deck.

“Good morning, Ultramarine,” expedition leader Alison Gordon announced in her Australian accent over the ship’s PA system every day, followed by an update on weather conditions.

Passengers have to roll with the weather: One-day unexpected sea ice meant slow going for the ship, giving us a lazy morning or the opportunity to go back to bed. Another day, fog meant the helicopters would have to wait until the afternoon to get in the air. And every day I marvelled at the logistical challenges involved in getting 156 people out on different activities – one group reporting to the helicopter deck to fly off for hiking, another squeezing into waterproof suits to kayak and another boarding Zodiacs shuttling them from the ship, floating in the middle of a fjord, inland for a hike.

Amazingly, it never felt rushed or stressful.

Each excursion lasted about an hour, enough to soak up the experience and work up a good appetite.

The dinner menu was never the same twice and never disappointing with dishes that included blackened Cajun-spice turkey medallions, poached paupiette of lemon sole, salmon tartar, Greenland hazelnut crusted reindeer loin and Peking duck and beer-battered fish.

After dinner, we had our choice of entertainment while the ship slowly made its way in and out of fjords to the next day’s destination: the bar near the observation deck or the briefing room theatre for presentations that ranged from a primer on Greenlandic language to how to take better photographs.

Greenland has a population of just more than 56,000 people. About 20,000 of them live in Nuuk, the capital. But the only day we saw anyone else was when we visited the village of Aappilattoq, a settlement of 100 (the name means “red” in Greenlandic, after the reddish mountain that hovers over it). We arrived by Zodiac, and the locals played soccer with us on a dirt pitch and a choir sang for us in their church.

Next, we were ushered into the school for a concert, and many more from the community crammed into one of its rooms with us. A bass player, two guitarists, a keyboard player and a drummer started playing – they sounded like Creedence Clearwater Revival, if CCR grew up in the North speaking Greenlandic. Now it was obvious why the locals were so eager to be in the room. They rocked hard.

The fluorescents had been turned off, and blue and red and green lights lit up the stage. A grandmother with deep wrinkles sat next to me and turned and smiled as we all bopped our heads. Then the band waved us to our feet and everyone began jumping up and down. A man with his daughter on his shoulders bounced and twirled. All of us in our yellow coats shimmied and smiled – the universal language of people having the time of their lives. That sense of awed wonder I felt earlier didn’t just come from the wilderness. I felt it with the people here in moments just like this one. No one wanted the music to end.

If you go

Quark Expeditions operates cruises to Greenland from July to early October. Expeditions typically range from 11 to 17 days, at a cost of $10,000 to $20,000. Costs include a mandatory transfer package (includes pre- or post-night stay, charter flights and group transfer to the ship), shipboard accommodation, meals, soft drinks and juices and a Quark Expeditions parka to keep. Make sure to attend the on-board photography talk, the tips are a huge benefit on a trip like this.

To get home from Greenland, you’ll have to transfer planes in Iceland. Stick around to soak in the famous Blue Lagoon, a geothermal bath that gets its distinctive colour from high levels of silica in the water, 32 kilometres from Keflavik International Airport. It was a 20-minute taxi ride from the hotel Quark shuttled us to upon arrival in Iceland (a one-night stay is included in the package). Buses to and from Keflavik and Reykjavik can also be booked through the Blue Lagoon website, with a one-way trip costing approximately $40. After a week of hiking and other adventures, it’s the perfect way to relax before heading home.

The writer was a guest of Quark Expeditions. It did not review or approve the story before publication.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that Quark guests travelling to the polar region can pay a small fee to offset their carbon footprint, however Quark no longer offers this service. It also incorrectly named expedition leader Alison Gordon. This version has been updated.

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