Cruising in Greenland with Rembrandt van Rijn
At the beginning of October 2013, I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the Rembrandt van Rijn on its voyage from Nuuk to Narsarsuaq in South Greenland before it ended its season. On board were 24 passengers, a captain, a chief officer, a cook, two guides, a person to assign cabins and three able seamen. The theme for the cruise was »South Greenland | Moravians, Aurora Celestis«.
The ship belongs to the Dutch company Oceanwide Expeditions, which specializes in cruises with tourists in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Embarking in Nuuk
When you live in Nuuk, like I do, embarking on one of the many cruise ships that come by every year is very exciting, especially when it is a very special ship like the Rembrandt van Rijn, which is an old, three masted sailing ship.
Everyone was given a fine cabin with a bunk bed, cupboard, private bathroom and toilet. It was in no way ostentatious, yet it met any requirements there might be. It could easily accommodate a small family with mum, dad and a child.
We left Nuuk at dusk with the mountain peaks shrouded in a beautiful mist and it quickly got cold. We warmed ourselves inside with a nice cup of tea before dinner was served and the evening was spent getting to know each other.
You wake up early on a ship and a beautiful red morning sky quickly got most of the ship’s guests out from under the covers. The ship had arrived at the old settlement of Lichtenfels, south of Qeqertarsuatsiaat (Fiskenæsset), where we saw several ruins from the Moravians who for years had a larger community in the area.
There are few records of what the site originally looked like, but the ruins bear witness to how they were designed. On the other side of the small fjord there was a surprisingly large burial site with both Inuit and Moravian graves.
We spent some hours at the site before we continued our journey. At the mouth of the fjord, we spotted a sperm whale. It was impressive to see the huge animal lie quite calmly in the water before it took a few deep breaths and again dived into the depths of the sea.
After sailing for a short time, we cast anchor in Kigutilik Fjord where we were sailed ashore in the ship’s fast rubber dinghies and went for a lovely walk in the fells. We saw some porpoises and a couple of seals, but they were too far away to catch with my camera.
The next morning we enjoyed yet another fantastic sunrise while we sailed into the very beautiful Kvane Fjord between high mountain peaks topped with snow, a little to the south of Paamiut.
We saw some ice floes close up in the fjord and you never get tired of such an imposing sight. The colours of the ice shimmered in all colours of blue while the sun’s rays played on the ice. After enjoying the sight, we went ashore on a small island where autumn colours dominated the landscape.
Afterwards, we went in to the glacier at Nigerdlikasik. The water was calm on the fjord and it was magnificent to sail between the icebergs. The closer we came to the edge of the inland ice, the better we could see its high pinnacles of ice. It was overwhelming to observe the huge icy landscape.
We were set ashore near the edge of the ice while the sun baked down on us and it turned out that the fells were full of fragrant plants. There were clear marks on the rocks from where the ice had scraped across the huge rock face. I could easily have put up a tent here and spent a few weeks exploring this divinely beautiful place.
After a wonderful three-course evening meal prepared by the ship’s Argentinean cook, the ship glided slowly out of Kvane Fjord. In the restaurant, one of the guides, Elke who is a biologist, held a lecture on the formation of glaciers in English and German.
There were different lectures during the entire voyage on various relevant topics, one of which was the terrible stories collected by Knud Rasmussen about the Inuit outlook on life in Greenland.
The other tour guide, Reinhard, told us about the northern lights which we were all eager to see.
One evening, we saw the old film »SOS Eisberg« which was shot in Ilulissat in the 1930s and shows the rescue of a polar explorer who is stranded on an ice floe. There were some impressive shots, considering how long ago they were taken.
It was snowing when we were allowed to help to hoist the sails, after which the ship moved silently forward. The captain left the helm to the guests who were allowed in turn to stand on the aft deck and steer the impressive three masted ship.
During the night we had reached the small settlement of Allutsoq, which the Moravians called Lichtenau. The settlement was once Greenland’s biggest town, with about 500 inhabitants. The best known Moravian from here was Samuel Kleinschmidt, who was born in the settlement and lived and preached here for many years. He also translated the bible to Greenlandic and created the first Greenlandic ABD, since Greenlanders did not have the letter C.
Today, the village is inhabited by an elderly couple. The place was incredibly charming, with a small church, a little museum, an old vicarage and many wooden houses in all sorts of colours with sheep grazing around them.
We had a couple of hours in the settlement and could easily have spent more time here. Some people chose to walk to Alluitsup Paa (Sydprøven) about 5km away.
Next, we visited the island of Uunartoq, where you can bathe in the hot springs. It was great to sit in 35 degree warm water while the icebergs floated in the fjord in the background. It was unusually pleasant and several of us spent almost three hours in the warm water before we returned to the ship, where there was a BBQ grill on the deck.
The next morning, we visited the »Upernarviarsuk« agricultural research station. There is a school for students learning about sheep farming and a market garden where we were shown round and told about plant cultivation in Greenland.
It was a very interesting tour where we learned a lot about the experimental cultivation of various varieties of cabbage, strawberries and tomatoes. The various trees were planted from 1958 and onwards, and we heard about the Arctic climate’s effects on growth.
On the way back from Upernarviarsuk, the captain sailed round an impressively large iceberg that had run-aground. It was probably the biggest iceberg I had ever seen. At one end, the iceberg soared up in a tower of ice which could make the Statue of Liberty jealous.
Norsemen and northern lights
The second stop was at the church ruins at Hvalsey (Qaqortukulooq), which is the best-preserved Norse ruin in the whole of Greenland. It is an impressive building with many details. The church itself formed the setting for the last account of the Norsemen in Greenland in the year 1408.
The church is impressive with its 8x16m interior. In connection with the church there is a large farm complex with a stable and a long series of other buildings. This place was absolutely well worth a visit and our experience was made special when Janet and Maurice O'Leary, a couple from USA, celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary on the cruise and chose to renew their vows in a small ceremony at the church ruins.
On the way back to the ship, the view of the Rembrandt van Rijn was worthy of a postcard, with the Greenlandic mountains and the beautiful sunset in the background.
After dinner, we were called up on deck because there were northern lights in the sky. We stood for a long time enjoying this unique experience.
There was an active workshop where they were very service-minded and invited us in. They had a wide range of hand-made jewellery with various stones, among them the beautiful Tuttupit with its characteristic pink colour. This stone is special in that, except for very small deposits in Russia, it is only found in the region around Narsaq, so it is one of the rarest rocks in the world.
Narsaq church, with its incredibly beautiful interior dominated by blue colour, was certainly also worth a visit. From the town, you could see Kvanefjeld and Kringlerne, where the first-mentioned is the subject of debate, both in Greenland and internationally, regarding the extraction of the so-called »rare earth metals« where uranium is a by-product.
From Narsaq we continued to Qassiarsuk, which was called Brattahild in the days of the Norse. This small settlement is the place where Tjodhilde’s church was built in the year 1000 and it was the first sign of the introduction of Christianity in Greenland. The church was built by Erik the Red’s wife, Tjodhilde, who converted to the Christian faith.
In addition to ruins of dwellings and farms from Norse times, there is a nice reconstruction of Tjodhilde’s Church and an Inuit dwelling as well as a long house. Proudly presiding over the town, there is a bronze statue of Leif the Lucky looking out over the fjord. From the hill where the statue stands, there is a beautiful view of the town with the airport runway in Narsarsuaq in the background.
The little settlement also has a modern church and school and, like the rest of South Greenland, the place is characterized by farming, with horses, sheep and fields. It is only a fifteen-minute boat ride to Narsarsuaq, which has several flights a week to both Denmark and Iceland in the summer.
A delicious farewell dinner was served on the last day of the cruise and there was a slide show with photos from the trip, which was a good way to sum up all the things we had experienced. Just as the dinner and the presentation were over and we were putting into port at Narsarsuaq, the northern lights exploded in a veritable firework display in the dark night sky.
I have seen northern lights in Nuuk, but I have never seen such lively northern lights with so many colours. It was overwhelming, that Greenland in this way said goodbye with a unique ending to such a fantastic cruise.