“Ultima Thule” was the name that European geographers, beginning with the ancient Greeks, used to refer to the unknowable northern reaches of the world, beyond the navigable seas and shrouded in mystery. Some believed it was a blessed land of fertile soil and gentle breezes, more often it was imagined as a forbidding and frozen wasteland. The reality is somewhere between the two, as travelers on Ponant’s 17-day Ultima Thule expedition cruisewhich makes its way around the Baffin Sea, the body of water between the west coast of Greenland and the northeast coast of Canada, will discover.
While there are frozen glaciers and the magnetic North Pole is among the stops, the Arctic summer is a brief period when the tundra comes to life—you will soon learn a new way of looking at the world, as you keep your eyes open for small signs of life: fireweed, lupine, and sweetbroom that bloom under the pale light of the midnight sun as well as arctic foxes and hares. It’s not that all the animals here are small, however—this is also the land of musk oxen, polar bears, elephant seals, and whales.
Ponant’s expedition will take you to a world of icebergs and vast horizons and, at the height of the Arctic summer, of days that literally never end. The Far North long presented the ultimate challenge to European, as well as American and Canadian expeditions—it has been described as “the horizontal Everest.” At the same time, it has simply been home to Inuit for millennia, and the itinerary includes opportunities to learn about life in this unusual part of the world from them.
Only 500 people live in the town of Kangerlussuaq in western Greenland, but thanks to its airport, it is the country’s international transportation hub, the point of entry for most visitors to the world’s largest island. Kangerlussuaq was long the home of a U.S. military base (which later became the airport) and the Kangerlussuaq Museum, (located at the airport) recounts the history of the American base and aviation in Greenland more broadly.
Today, the town north of the Arctic Circle is the starting point for many adventurers travels in Greenland. Just a few miles from town you can see the Greenland ice sheet, the largest body of ice in the northern hemisphere. It is also one of the most biologically diverse parts of Greenland, with arctic hares, musk oxen, arctic foxes, reindeer, falcons, and eagles found here.
Your ship, L’Austral, will begin boarding at 4 p.m. and depart at 6 p.m. giving you time to explore the town and surrounding area on your own.
The first port on Ponant’s expedition cruise to the Far North is Sisimiut, founded in 1756 and, with a population of almost 5,600, the second largest town in Greenland. Its name means “the people living in a place where there are fox dens,” but these days it is better known as a base for travelers looking for adventure in the Far North. The village consists of a collection of businesses and houses, some on stilts, scattered around the slopes overlooking a small harbor. In the center of town there are a number of historic buildings from the 18th century, including Greenland’s oldest church, Bethelkirken, also known as the Blue Church.
The town’s museum includes artifacts from the Sassaq culture, which flourished between roughly 2500 and 800 B.C.E., as well as displays about contemporary Inuit life. A reconstructed peat house provides a glimpse of life in Sisimiut a century ago. The town also has a number of shops selling crafts by local artisans who will talk about their works with interested visitors.