I took a ferry up the coast of Greenland for under $400, and despite being brutally cold, it was a fantastic way to see some of the most dramatic scenery on earth

1    photo of orange lifeboat being lifted from water with snow in backgroundAn lifeboat being lifted from the water.Ben Mack

  • Greenland can be cold and expensive, but a voyage aboard the Arctic Umiaq Line is a comfortable and affordable way to have an unforgettable experience.
  • The only ship in operation is the M/S Sarfaq Ittuk, which connects settlements throughout western Greenland.
  • The ferry has many of the same conveniences as a cruise ship, like an onboard cafeteria and cinema.
  • I recently sailed north on the ship to meet locals and see a side of Greenland I wouldn't have seen had I flown in an airplane, which is often more expensive anyway.
  • As much snow and ice as there was, it was troubling to hear locals say there was much less than usual for the time of year.

The Mother of the Sea is in a caring mood.

"The sea is really quite gentle today - it's just like being rocked to sleep like a baby!" says Lars, the friendly man at the Sarfaq Ittuk's information booth on deck three.

He's not wrong. The slow rolling - up and down and up again - is pleasantly relaxing, all the more relief for someone who's never been on a passenger ferry at sea before.

Admittedly, visiting in Greenland is not for everyone. While global warming is causing a worrying (and increasingly rapid) melting of the vast island's icecaps, it's still too cold for many people's comfort almost year-round. There are no large cities. Because of its remoteness high up in the North Atlantic, Greenland also has a reputation for being incredibly expensive. Almost everything has to be imported; a single loaf of bread in the capital Nuuk (by far the largest city) can cost more than $3 at a supermarket.

Read more: These photos of sled-dogs trekking through meltwater in Greenland are a stark reminder of vanishing Arctic sea ice

Yet there are ways to have the experience of a lifetime without breaking the bank. One of the best ways: sailing up the coast on the Arctic Umiaq Line's M/S Sarfaq Ittuk, like I did earlier this year for less than $400.

Sailing up and down the more populated western side of Greenland, the ship plays an important role in connecting coastal communities that otherwise are only accessible by plane or helicopter - which can be even more expensive. Not only that, but a journey aboard is a great way to meet locals outside of a package tour or cruise.

Here's how to see Greenland in a much more intimate way for much less than what international cruise companies charge while supporting the local economy:

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The Arctic Umiaq Line is a Greenlandic institution.

The Arctic Umiaq Line is a Greenlandic institution.

Tracing its roots back to the 18th century, its name comes from the Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic) word for the traditional Inuit open skin boat, the umiak (or umiaq). Today, it is a lifeline for connecting communities big and small along the coast of western Greenland.

My journey began in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland and by far the largest city. I had never seen so many fireworks as I did on New Year’s Eve there.

My journey began in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland and by far the largest city. I had never seen so many fireworks as I did on New Year’s Eve there.

Not only is Nuuk the most populous city, it is also home to essential services like Greenland's largest hospital. Many fellow passengers on the ferry were returning home after visiting family for New Year's. On New Year's Eve, I had never seen so many fireworks. Setting the sky ablaze, the lights turned the snow into a rainbow of reds, greens, purples and blues.

At first, I thought nearly $400 for a few days at sea was a bit much. But flights can sometimes cost $1,000 or more, and there are cheaper options that don’t include a private cabin.

At first, I thought nearly $400 for a few days at sea was a bit much. But flights can sometimes cost $1,000 or more, and there are cheaper options that don’t include a private cabin.

I usually go for the least expensive class no matter how I travel, but I thought with a journey of several days and no idea what else there would be to do on the ship, it might be a good idea to get a private cabin. It was easy to book a cabin through the Arctic Umiaq Line's website.

The cabin, not far from the cafeteria on deck three, was far more luxurious than I was expecting: with three fold-down beds, one big blue couch and a desk in middle, there was also a dresser, TV with several channels and movies, and a private bathroom with shower that, thankfully, had hot water. There were three black coat hangers, and an extra cushioned blue chair for guests.

They even left towels, a coffee maker, enough packets of instant coffee to wake an army, and three little liquorice and toffee-flavored hard candies with the Arctic Umiaq Line logo on them. It was like a hotel room at sea.

They even left towels, a coffee maker, enough packets of instant coffee to wake an army, and three little liquorice and toffee-flavored hard candies with the Arctic Umiaq Line logo on them. It was like a hotel room at sea.

I had never been on a ferry at sea before, so I was concerned about seasickness. Thankfully, there was nothing to worry about.

"Get some rest and eat some food – not too sweet, something with good energy like cereal or bread," recommended Lars, the information officer who manned a small booth on deck three, in perfect English and with a big smile. "And don't forget to drink enough water."

I followed his advice to the letter – and come morning, felt as strong as an ox. I don't know if I've ever slept so soundly.

The first order of business was to explore the ship. It was not large, but there was a lot more to do than I was expecting.

The first order of business was to explore the ship. It was not large, but there was a lot more to do than I was expecting.

With five decks and capacity for fewer than 300 passengers, the Sarfaq Ittuk is much smaller than most cruise ships. Yet it still had an onboard cinema where people could watch movies for free (some that played during my journey included a 2016 Oliver Stone film about Edward Snowden, the 2017 Emma Watson, John Boyega and Tom Hanks-starring techno-thriller "The Circle," and a 2016 movie about the beginnings of McDonald's called "The Founder"; all were shown in English), a carpeted cafeteria, and a small gift shop.

My favorite place, though, was the passenger lounge on deck four.

My favorite place, though, was the passenger lounge on deck four.

The cozy area at the back of the ship, with blue couches and wide windows for viewing the sea and dramatic snow-covered coastline, reminded me of my favorite restaurant when I was growing up near the Northern Oregon Coast. It was a great spot to read and write while looking out for whales and other wildlife.

It was late afternoon when we left Nuuk, but because it was winter and we were so far north it had already been dark for a few hours.

It was late afternoon when we left Nuuk, but because it was winter and we were so far north it had already been dark for a few hours.

While there's plenty of daylight in Greenland in summer (Gunnbjørn Fjeld, Greenland's highest mountain, is said to receive more hours of light than almost any place on earth), in winter it can be dark for almost the entire day – and the further north you go, the more darkness there is. But there were a few hours of twilight around midday each day we were at sea – it was easily the best time for watching the natural scenery and taking pictures.

Added on to the ticket I bought were three meals a day at the on-board cafeteria, Café Sarfaq. The food was as good as any restaurant.

Added on to the ticket I bought were three meals a day at the on-board cafeteria, Café Sarfaq. The food was as good as any restaurant.

Since nearly everything must be imported, food in Greenland can be stomach-churningly expensive. So, I thought paying a few dollars extra for three meals a day as an add-on to the price of my cabin was a good value. The set meals were far more diverse than I expected, and included things like fresh juices, fruit, and vegetables that would have probably been prohibitively expensive on their own. Everything tasted reasonably fresh. One evening we even had steak with gravy, potatoes and steamed vegetables that tasted as delicious as any you'd get at a steakhouse.

As we travelled, it was obvious Greenland was a place unlike any other.

As we travelled, it was obvious Greenland was a place unlike any other.

As we bobbed up and down with the swells of the Davis Strait (which separates Greenland and the Canadian territory of Nunavut), the inky blue darkness of the water was dotted all around with the white caps of waves – like sprinkles on a blueberry-glazed cake (which I read about in the magazine called Suluk – the Kalaallisut word for "Wing" – left in my cabin).

Outside, the scent of salt air filled the nostrils as spray flew all around – a real high seas adventure! No wonder so many children were running around pretending to be pirates.

There’s no other way to put it: it was brutally cold.

There’s no other way to put it: it was brutally cold.

It's one thing to say a place is very cold – it's a whole other thing to really experience it. Even wearing no fewer than seven layers of long-sleeved sweaters and jackets that made it hard to even move my arms like something from a comedy film, I could only be outside for a few minutes before I would lose all feeling in my extremities and need to come inside. The constant wind did not help. It was so cold, it literally burned the skin and made touching things painful. No wonder so few people were outside.

Amid such freezing temperatures, taking decent photos up on the top deck that weren't blurry was all but impossible.

Still, it was disturbing to hear locals say there was much less snow and ice than usual for the time of year – and for the sea to be almost completely ice-free.

Still, it was disturbing to hear locals say there was much less snow and ice than usual for the time of year – and for the sea to be almost completely ice-free.

It's one thing to hear about global warming – it's a far more powerful experience to suddenly see the changes firsthand. For almost the entire journey, the sea – even next to the shore and hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter – was ice-free. Even as recently as last year, the Sarfaq Ittuk could get stuck in ice for days at a time.

On day two, we visited Kangaamiut. Beautiful as it was, it felt strangely eerie.

On day two, we visited Kangaamiut. Beautiful as it was, it felt strangely eerie.

As we approached the settlement, which has fewer than 400 residents, the billowing wind-blown snow obscured the brightly-painted houses like some kind of eerie fog. Amid the winter twilight, it felt like being in a real-life mystery novel.

We were unable to dock in Kangaamiut, so passengers and cargo had to be transported to shore on a small orange motorboat.

We were unable to dock in Kangaamiut, so passengers and cargo had to be transported to shore on a small orange motorboat.

Just thinking of being exposed to the biting wind and stinging spray from the freezing sea on the small motorboat, easily visible from the comfort of the well-heated passenger lounge, made me shiver.

Every few hours, we’d stop so passengers could disembark and new ones could come on board. One of the busiest stops was in Sisimiut.

Every few hours, we’d stop so passengers could disembark and new ones could come on board. One of the busiest stops was in Sisimiut.

About 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of Nuuk, Sisimiut is Greenland's second-largest city. With a population of more than 5,000, it is also the biggest north of the Arctic Circle. It certainly showed when we were there – the stop was one of the longest of the voyage. Far more people got off than got on. When we departed, the ship felt quite empty.

We usually stayed close to the shore. Still, it was difficult to spot much wildlife.

We usually stayed close to the shore. Still, it was difficult to spot much wildlife.

I'm sure they were out there, but I didn't see any whales surfacing for the air. Aside from a plethora of seabirds like white and black-striped, thick-billed murres, it was hard to glimpse any wildlife. Lars said you could sometimes see whales, but their sensitive underwater hearing meant they usually kept far away from the roar of the ship's engines.

It became even colder, and darker, the further north we went. By day three, I began to spot enormous, building-sized icebergs.

It became even colder, and darker, the further north we went. By day three, I began to spot enormous, building-sized icebergs.

I had never seen an iceberg in person before. The ship was like an ant in comparison. Maybe we'd gone so far north we'd arrived at the doorway to the realm of giants. We couldn't get too close to the icebergs, though, since only a very small portion of an iceberg is visible above the water. It was hard to imagine they could be many times bigger even than the parts that were already visible.

Without Internet access, I was developing a relaxing routine.

Without Internet access, I was developing a relaxing routine.

Relaxing as spending time in the passenger lounge was, I tried to see as much of the ship as I could. The fewer passengers after we left Sisimiut meant there was plenty of space to move about without accidentally bumping into someone. Even on the water, I only saw another ship once, far in the distance the morning of day three.

Enjoyable as the voyage was, all good things must eventually come to an end. It was mid-afternoon on day three when we approached Ilulissat, the northernmost and last stop on our journey.

Enjoyable as the voyage was, all good things must eventually come to an end. It was mid-afternoon on day three when we approached Ilulissat, the northernmost and last stop on our journey.

About 220 miles (350 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle, Ilulissat (formerly known as Jakobshavn) means "icebergs" in Kalaallisut. It's also next to Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that's among Greenland's most popular tourist destinations.

Disembarking was simple. I didn’t have to show ID or anything.

Disembarking was simple. I didn’t have to show ID or anything.

What remaining passengers there were all got off as crewmembers assisted with offloading luggage and cargo. A number of taxis were already waiting.

Arriving almost to the minute on schedule, I was sad it was time to leave.

Arriving almost to the minute on schedule, I was sad it was time to leave.

Within an hour after disembarking, I was already asleep in a warm and comfortable bed at the surprisingly affordable Hotel Icefiord along the seashore. The voyage had tired me out more than I realized.

It was nice to sleep on solid ground again. Yet I dreamed of being back at sea.

It was nice to sleep on solid ground again. Yet I dreamed of being back at sea.

The smell of the salt air, the thrill of being up near the very top of the world, the friendliness of everyone on board, the marshmallow-white shore giving way to waves darker than a new pair of denim blue jeans – it had a magical, otherworldly quality.

Overall, it was a journey I’ll never forget – and one I’d recommend anyone else to take, too.

Overall, it was a journey I’ll never forget – and one I’d recommend anyone else to take, too.

Cheaper than a cruise, more opportunities to meet local people and see local communities, a surprising level of on-board comfort, ample privacy if one desires it, and some of the most dramatic scenery on earth in a place that still makes people do a double-take when you tell them you've been there – why not go aboard for an unforgettable high seas adventure?

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