Experience the Arctic with Quark Expeditions

The last time someone yelled out “Iceberg, straight ahead!” it proved to be disastrous, but onboard the Ocean Adventurer, such an outburst only elicits a collective groan from the crowd. Especially when it is called out time and time again, with a smirk and pointing finger.

I am sailing with Quark Expeditions on an Arctic voyage to explore the valleys and fjords of Greenland. It’s August, the sun is shining, and I’m taking it all in with my iceberg-spotting shipmates.

My adventure had begun in Akureyri, Iceland, after a 45-minute flight from the country’s capital Reykjavik. The Ocean Adventurer is the smallest ship I have been on – having just one restaurant, one lounge, a library, a small shop, and an even smaller gym. The back deck has two large hot tubs, where I would later spend many afternoons relaxing with a drink while soaking up the passing scenery.

My fellow guests – 109 of them – hail mainly from the U.K., Canada, the U.S., and Europe, with a few from China, Israel, South Africa, and Down Under. Our expedition team is comprised of experts in all things Greenland, sharing their knowledge with us through lectures and casual conversations. From Vikings and glaciers to birds and geology, these informative talks help us understand the places we are visiting, and the precious environment we must protect.

Thar She Blows!

Ranking as the second most used exclamation onboard, the whale sighting cry disrupts lectures, snoozes, card games, and dinners. I have never seen ears prick up so quickly and a room empties so fast every time the PA crackles to announce that there are whales ahead. We are treated to pilot whales, orca, minke, fin, and even an out of place sperm whale, traditionally not found in these shallow waters. The stars of the show though, are humpbacks, here to enjoy the Arctic summer. One evening after dinner, we come upon a large pod and stop to observe them for over an hour. After every fluke-revealing dive, cheers and applause ring across the deck. A few playful ones breach and slap their fins on the water. Shutters click, cell phone screens blink, and zoom lenses…well, zoom.

Land, Ho!

After one and a half days of crossing the Denmark Strait, the horizon ahead finally reveals the snow-capped peaks of east Greenland. Everyone comes out on deck, all buzzing with excitement. As if on cue, the clouds lift, and the sun comes out to welcome our group of yellow-jacketed seafaring explorers. We sail past icebergs as tall as the ship, some smooth like marble sculptures, some multi-faceted like gleaming crystals. Yet others appear like towering white condos on the horizon, an ironic mirage in this remote hinterland. As the mountains get larger as we approach, we begin to truly appreciate the vastness and the expanse of the world’s largest island.

Quark does a great job of offering a variety of activities onshore. There are three or more different levels of hikes and walks at each landing site to cater to guests of different fitness levels. The keeners charge up mountains, the meanderers explore flatter ground, and the less inclined simply browse the shores. Each group is accompanied by expedition team members, identifying flora, fauna, and recounting historical significance of the area.

Those keen to explore closer to the water line can choose from two excellent kayak programs (for purchase). New paddlers can try a sit-on-top kayak on short excursions while serious paddlers take out sit-in touring kayaks for over two hours at a time, led by an expert paddling guide. I am part of the latter group, and we are lucky to be able to go out 9 times in 11 days, swishing our way along rugged coastlines, observing seabird colonies, and weaving amongst small icebergs.

While many of our landing sites are abandoned historical settlements, we eventually make landfall in civilization on the west coast, stopping in Greenland’s capital Nuuk, the ice fields at Ilulissat, and an Inuit hamlet of Itilleq. At the latter, we are invited into local residents’ homes for coffee and biscuits, and challenge the home team to a rousing game of soccer.

Scenic cruising is also a part of our daily routine, as we sail by towering fjords, jagged peaks, and pristine waters. Highlights include Skoldungen Fjord, Prins Christian Sund and Eternity Fjord. As the ship quietly slices through these waters, it’s a great time to ponder the stillness and solitude of where we are, until of course, someone spots another whale.

On our last evening sailing up the 87-mile fjord towards Kangerlussuaq, those of us who are lingering up on deck to enjoy the last smidgen of light (at 11:30 pm no less!) witness spectacular aurora borealis. The PA once again crackles to life, and soon we are joined by the pyjamas-clad masses up on deck, cameras snapping away. What a befitting grand finale!  And thank goodness, no corny one-liners.

What to Expect on a Quark Expedition

Quark Expeditions offers trips to the High Arctic, Greenland, Spitsbergen, Russia, and Antarctica. Rates include accommodations, shipboard meals, lectures, guided shore landings, scenic cruising, and an insulated, waterproofed parka which is yours to keep. Solo travellers can save by booking shared accommodations.

Expedition cruising is unlike ocean cruising, where the latter features the ship as part of the destination, with bars, lounges, casinos, shop malls, and elaborate floor shows. On an expedition cruise, the destination is your destination, and the ship is your method of conveyance. The Quark fleet consists of classic small ships that provide a comfortable environment and modern facilities, without the flash and splash. [Quark is launching a brand new ship this winter with expanded dining venues, bars, and spa.]

There is an impressive selection of food at all meals, even for such a small ship. A variety of cuisine, ranging from Indian to Asian to American, as well as vegetarian options are available at every meal, and the kitchen can also create special dishes for anyone with dietary restrictions. While alcoholic beverages are not included, there is a wide selection and prices are very reasonable. Casual dress applies throughout the voyage and at all mealtimes.

The Quark crew is very friendly and learn each guest’s name and preferences very quickly. A fellow traveller who enjoys green tea would see it brought to her every morning without having to ask, no matter where she was sitting in the dining room. Remembering that I only drink water with breakfast, my server always fills my glass as soon as I sit down. Attentive and personalized service has always been one of the big benefits of small-ship cruising, and Quark does a great job here.

While at sea, days are filled with educational lectures, photography workshops, bird and wildlife spotting. Evenings include a recap of the day, as well as a briefing of tomorrow’s forecast, sea conditions, excursions, and activities. Expect most landings to be by zodiacs and some may be wet landings which require stepping out into ankle-deep water. [Muck boots are provided for use during the expedition.] Travellers must be able-bodied and can climb gangways, stairs, and step in and out of zodiacs without difficulties.

Most of all, be aware that the expedition itinerary may be altered depending on weather, wind, ice, and sea conditions. Landing sites may be substituted and excursions may be shortened due to unforeseen circumstances. The Quark expedition team is constantly monitoring weather conditions and looks after guests’ safety and experience with the utmost care.

By Ming Tappin (Your Cruise Coach)

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