On a New Expedition Vessel in Greenland, Passengers Are Challenged to Embrace the Unknown
Greenland is a relatively new cruise destination, which means that expedition voyages, such as those being offered on the new “Scenic Eclipse II,” often find themselves sailing into uncharted territory.
We came bursting out of our cabin doors, pulling cameras from their bags faster than an Arctic gyrfalcon diving for prey. Only moments earlier, Captain Erwan Le Rouzic had come onto the ship’s loudspeaker and said, “You all must come to the outside decks. There’s not 10, not 20, not 50, not 100, but probably several hundred whales here. They’re all around us.” We had to see it.
He wasn’t exaggerating. From our perch on the Observation Deck, it looked like the Fountains at the Bellagio had been stretched across the horizon, thanks to the blowhole sprays of several hundred fin and humpback whales.
“This is so rare, even for Greenland,” an expedition guide told us, adding that whales don’t typically travel in pods anywhere near this large and that they’d likely been enticed into this bay by an abundance of food. “It makes you feel like a real explorer.”
“That’s exactly why we’ve come,” I think. In a world that’s been explored to the point of overtourism, Greenland stands out. Though it’s the planet’s largest island (roughly three times the size of Texas), the mostly Indigenous population is made up of just 57,000 residents, and prepandemic, only about 68,000 people visited annually. (For context, Times Square sees nearly twice as many total visitors on an average day.)
Granted, visitation will likely increase in the coming years—advancements in polar sailing, such as a growing number of ships with ice-breaking abilities, are making exploration of this region more accessible. In recent years, a slew of cruise companies have launched their first trips to Greenland.
What it’s like sailing on the “Scenic Eclipse II”
In fact, this was the first time the ship we were aboard, the 228-passenger Scenic Eclipse II , the latest discovery yacht in Scenic Luxury Cruises’ portfolio, which launched in April 2023, had sailed to the ice-covered isle.
The new 10-deck ship has no shortage of comforts. All cabins (which range from the two-person 344-square-foot entry-level suite to the four-person 2,745-square-foot penthouse suite) boast private balconies, mini-bars that are restocked daily, a flat-screen TV, beds with remotes that allow you to adjust pressure and position, and butler service.
Then there are the eight dining options, which include two reservation-only tasting-menu restaurants (the French-themed Lumiere, where caviar, escargot, and champagne are givens, and the Night Market, which features different Asian cuisines each night), and the invite-only Chef’s Table (which boasts a 14-course gastronomic experience, complete with wine pairings). Then there’s the main bar, on the lobby level, that features a wall of more than 100 complimentary whiskeys and bourbons. (If you tell your butler which you prefer, they’ll arrange for a decanter of it to be left in your room.)
Other amenities include a library, a gym, a spa complex (with massages, facials, and nail and hair treatments and gendered sauna, steam, and salt therapy rooms, which are always available to guests), a laundry room (free for guests to use), and a heated plunge pool. We spent much of our time in the theater, where expedition staff give daily lectures on everything from Arctic animals to how climate change is reshaping Greenland.
As amazing as the onboard areas and offerings are, the real appeal of the ship is its ability to access wilder areas.
Because the ship doesn’t need to be anchored (it holds position with stabilizers and dynamic positioning), it can tuck into areas that other, larger ships can’t. And onboard toys, like kayaks and Zodiacs (ten-person inflatable, motorized boats), get passengers even closer to nature. (Although it wasn’t available on our sailing, all future cruises will also have access to a custom-built submersible called the Scenic Neptune II, which can dive 650 feet.)
One day, in an Edenic bay off the coast of the Nansen Fridtjof peninsula, we loaded into a Zodiac to zoom between bits of glacial ice. Roughly 80 percent of Greenland is covered in ice. During the summer, when it’s warmer, large chunks break off and float along the shore. The pieces come in all sizes, ranging from massive tabular icebergs, as big as aircraft carriers, to smaller, baseball-sized bergy bits that float like corks in the choppy water. They also come in all kinds of surrealistic shapes, like a child’s winsome doodle come to life.
Another ship amenity, a pair of Airbus H130-T2 helicopters, helped us take in the landscape from on high. With Scenic Eclipse II parked before the lolling tongue of a massive tidewater glacier in the Skjoldungen Fjord, three other passengers and I were swept into the sky. From 1,000 feet, we followed the river of ice, marred with veins of crevasses hundreds of feet deep and sprinkled with pools of water so otherworldly blue that they looked like a portal into another realm through the mountain pass. Soon, we found ourselves flying over the Greenland Ice Sheet, a pure white mass that’s more than 1,200 miles long and 500 miles wide, so the horizon goes on endlessly. It’s a landscape that feels both lunar in its starkness and more dazzling than the brightest sunset.
We were lucky to have that window to fly. Later in the trip there were few opportunities for airborne pursuits; the cloud ceiling was too low.
The unpredictability of cruising in Greenland
On the first day, following a lecture on being responsible visitors (including avoiding trampling plant life, not petting wild dogs, and being respectful of local communities), expedition leader Xavier Garcia told all the passengers that flexibility would be key to having a memorable and enjoyable trip. Sure, we’d be stopping in a few towns (Narsaq, Nuuk, and Ilulissat), where activities like visiting with a local family over a meal of smoked Arctic char or touring museums to get a better idea of how locals have lived in such a harsh environment were planned. But our excursions outside of port towns would be determined somewhat on a day-to-day basis.
While that’s true of all expedition sailings, which are characterized by visiting remote regions where the weather often scrambles plans, it’s especially true on sailings to Greenland.
Unlike other expedition destinations, such as the Galápagos islands, Svalbard, and Antarctica, which have been regular offerings from cruise companies for decades, Greenland is somewhat of a newcomer to the scene. Companies are still learning where along the 27,000 miles of coastline they can stop for activities like hikes, Zodiac rides, and polar plunges. (We did a polar plunge near the spindly finger of a tidewater glacier, where the water was just above 40 degrees—most jumpers came up shivering and swearing.)
For Garcia, who’d only been to Greenland once before our sailing, that meant reading about the history of the land and ice we’d pass, looking at navigational charts, and scouting out areas with the helicopter ahead of time. They’re still learning, but those itineraries will only get better as time progresses. In 2024, this itinerary will be called the Greenland Explorer—it will start in Reykjavík before sailing to Fjallfoss in Iceland’s Westfjords and then onward to Greenland for 11 days. (Three days are in towns, while the rest could be spent anywhere along Greenland’s coast between the Fridtjof Nansen peninsula in the southeast and Upernavik in the west.) Afterward, guests will be flown to Copenhagen, where the journey will conclude.
“We’re not planning only for this voyage, we’re also researching for all the years to come,” Garcia told me, before adding that regardless of when guests come or where they stop, his hope for them is that what they leave with isn’t just a check on their bucket list, but a relationship with this vast and rugged wilderness. That they become better stewards of this fragile environment, where climate change and the effect it has on nature and wildlife is front and center. That they become modern explorers, not in the sense that they conquered, like the sailors of old, but instead, connected.