Cruise report: Port of Qaqortoq, Greenland

Qaqortoq, Greenland was our first stop on this massive island. Greenland is a country that’s part of the Kingdom of Denmark, so theoretically and sometimes culturally European, yet also geologically located on the North American plate. It can feel vaguely similar to Iceland or Canada’s northern maritime towns, but this place really has an ambiance all its own.

Whether North America, Europe, or none of the above, I was really excited about visiting Greenland. As a destination, Qaqortoq did not disappoint!

Clouds and sun over harborside buildings visible from Nieuw Statendam

If you want to try to pronounce the name correctly, tuck your tongue against the roof of your mouth as far back as possible down your throat to make a clicking sound on every Q and keep the vowels very short. My best attempt at transliteration: Kuh-Kohr-toCK.

Our transatlantic cruise itinerary called for embarking in Boston, then calling in several Canadian ports, followed by stops in Greenland, Iceland, Greenland again, Canada again, France in the form of the island of St. Pierre, Canada third time, then Bar Harbor, Maine, and finally back to Boston for disembarkation.HAL transatlantic cruise itinerary round trip Boston

We were in Qaqortog on 9-August-2022.

I’ll speak to the specifics of being in port momentarily, but I’ll begin with a confession: I fell in love with icebergs off the coast of Greenland! This was my first time floating by these majestic chunks of sea ice, and I ran outside in my pajamas to capture my first poor photo of one.

iceberg looking like a giant white turtle floating along off my cruise stateroom balcony with hills in the distance behindI’ve got the polar cruising bug now, and I have already booked trips through this same region for each of the next two summers.

First impressions & tender to shore

This was my second time boarding a small tender boat to go ashore from the Holland America vessel, Nieuw Statendam.

Our first port at anchor was the small Canadian town of Red Bay, Labrador, in Canada, but I had no firm plans for that day, so I waited until the major crush of passengers had gone ashore before making the trip myself.

Our family opted to self-isolate for the first few days of our journey, reducing any readily avoidable risk of catching COVID as much as possible before we made it to Greenland, a must see port of call for my husband. To this day, we avoid all densely populated indoor environments.

With morning excursions planned in Qaqortoq—but not ship’s excursions early enough to warrant queue-skipping tender passes—waiting out the crowds wasn’t an option. DH and my eldest got tender tickets from the lounge where they were being offered, and my status as a Neptune Suite guest meant I could join them in the line up for the next available tender at my convenience.

Everyone aboard seemed eager to get ashore in Greenland, so those early tenders were full. HAL doesn’t cram them to maximum occupancy, but several people were seated on each available bench. I shudder to imagine being packed into one of these in its capacity as a lifeboat in an emergency with ≅20% more bodies inside!

My ride back to the ship at the end of the day offered significantly more personal space. You can compare conditions for yourself from my two tender photos.

Holland America cruise ship visible behind buildings along the edge of harbor

Nieuw Statendam anchored not far from the tender pier, making a relatively quick trip from ship to shore.

Though he had no specific plans in port, our youngest tendered ashore with us to see something of Greenland. He took a stroll around the town with me while DH and the eldest joined their shore excursion group 20 feet or so from the tender dock.

My own shore excursion started 90 minutes later from the same location; ship’s security confirmed for me that I could send my underage teen* back to the ship via tender without an adult to accompany him.

Me, in rian gear, in front of lovely view of creek running over rocks through middle of townThe only photo I have of myself in the port of Qaqortoq was taken by DS2. I found the town itself quite charming—and its natural setting majestically beautiful—even before I ventured further afield for my excursion to the ruins at Hvalsø.

Accessibility of tender pier ramp

Access to the shore excursion staging area from the tenders was level and paved after one climbed the moderately steep wooden ramp about 15 ft long up from the dock.

A working vessel looms over ship's tender disgorging cruise passengers up rampThe ramp from the tenders had sturdy metal handrails on both sides and wooden cross pieces to add traction every 18 inches or so along its surface, enhancing safety for walking, but perhaps making it harder to use for those with wheels or walkers.

Pier-side facilities minimal in Qaqortoq

There were no pier-side facilities such as chairs or shade for those awaiting tours. The ship’s excursion department worked from folding tables in the open here.

Two folding umbrellas under Greenland flags show where to find ship's representatives on shoreA huge banner proclaiming, “Welcome to Qaqortoq” indicates the nearest public toilet of which I’m aware to the dock. It’s right across the road from where our tender boats brought us ashore. This appears to be Qaqortoq’s visitor center.

Banner makes welcome center very obvious to most visitorsUnfortunately for those with mobility issues, the single toilet is up a flight of 14 wooden steps with a handrail on only one side on the left as you climb, and the stairs turned at a right angle near the base. Only the able have access to the single potty I visited in this Greenlandic port.

On the up side, that WC was a modern facility with hot running water, a flush toilet, and central heating.

Hot and cold running water taps on sink in WCWith a ship the size of Nieuw Statendam anchored offshore—passenger count ≥2,500 people—there was a constant queue to use the toilet offered here while we were in port. The single unisex room served all guests, and was perhaps the most popular site visited in Qaqortoq.

The rest of the red building was fairly accessible. It is essentially a gift shop. I believe I recall one step up to a small area within the building, as well, though, so wheelchair users may require assistance to access some items for sale inside.

Wooden ramp to building door is not too steepTours and souvenirs were offered inside per the sign, but I saw primarily the latter on offer. It was late in the day, though, by the time I entered, and I didn’t actually inquire about tours. It’s probable that they had information available behind the counter.

Unlike more built up tourist centers, it did seem like most of the merchandise for sale in the visitor center was actually locally made. I’m not someone who shops for the sake of souvenirs myself; rather, I think my first inclination is to deny myself frivolous purchases in port.

In Qaqortoq, I nudged myself toward accepting impulse buys as I didn’t know yet that I was destined to return.

3 booths thronged with tourists; one teaches Hello=aluu and Bye=Takuss in GreenlandicThere were a few vendors set up in booths next to the visitor center, and their items also appeared to be legitimately local. I said hello to a couple of these folks, but there were crowds nearby for most of our visit, and my extreme COVID caution prevented me from engaging more closely.

I also didn’t have any Danish Kroner, nor much interest in braving an indoor ATM to acquire said currency. Perhaps I could have gotten cash back in the supermarket, but I didn’t attempt to do so. I paid for my excursion on the ship, and my snacks and souvenirs in Qaqortoq were purchased with a credit card.

View across paved road of red building welcoming visitors to QaqortoqThe picnic tables here offered a place to sit and rest for a moment if one could find the rare empty seat.

Inside the red building, I found some little items (Greenland flag socks, postcards) and a few souvenirs to really suit my tastes (local herbal tea, earrings carved by hand by a sheep farmer’s wife); I made my purchases quite late in the day, however, after my excursion, when the hordes of Nieuw Statendam passengers had mostly returned to our ship.

I paid with a Visa travel credit card issued in the United States that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee for international purchases.

Artwork, book, card, tea, socks, earrings in a box, and hand carved driftwood salt scoop on desk with receiptMy son and I visited the grocery store in search of snacks. Credit cards were accepted here, too, so we got some familiar Snickers and mysterious treats. Since the teen guided my purchases and Nieuw Statendam offered us delicious and generously sized meals, it was all candy and cookies though a wide array of fresh and packaged goods was available.

Wandering its streets, the local populace of Qaqortoq appeared friendly, though the number of ships’ passengers outnumbered them. Many smiled in passing, and I felt very safe and welcome. People of all ages seemed to enjoy the ship’s visit as a bit of a novelty and holiday; the mood on the street felt upbeat and almost celebratory.

Weather & climate in Qaqortoq

We were blessed with pleasant weather in Qaqortoq. The morning was overcast, but we weren’t hit with drop of rain here. Temperatures topped out around 50° F, and the clouds cleared away by early afternoon in town; conditions may differ on shore excursions to other areas, as I experienced at the Hvalsø ruins.

The network of paved roads in town carried some minimal automobile traffic, but it was generally easy and safe to walk around. I saw no sidewalks, but never had to step off the paving to make way for an oncoming vehicle.

Qaqortoq fountain - 1Qaqortoq climbs the slope up from the sea, and roads moving away from the tender dock led uphill, but not all were equally steep.

I was able to ramble at a modest pace and see a town square with a fountain, at least one cafe, some shops, the local school, and a good sized grocery store in spite of my not-so-fully-able feet. All of this was while I tried to conserve my energy, before joining a moderately active excursion.

I’ll add here that I opted to take medication to reduce my symptoms during this trip; that, plus daily use of the ship’s Thermal Spa facilities had me in relatively good form on the day.

DH marveled at how close our enormous, anchored ship seemed to the people going about their business in town. A big, red commercial vessel, the Irena Arctica, was docked very near the ramp up from the tender pier, looming over the passengers as they disembarked. Qaqortoq is the kind of port town where one never forgets how vital the ocean shipping lanes are to local commerce.

What I wore in Greenland in summer

Wearing my rain coat and waterproof trousers over mid-weight, breathable clothing was a good choice since it cut the wind on the boat as well as at the site. We had a few sprinkles at Hvalsø, but no real rain.

Not everyone feels a full set of waterproofs is necessary for summer travel to this region, but, for me, packing these items means the difference between being comfortable outdoors all day or not. Once I get chilled, my joints tend to stiffen, and I can take longer than average to warm back up.

I had three layers on my legs and four to five on top. At some points when the sun broke through, I put the jacket or vest in my day pack. Most of my garments were lightweight and quite thin; three pieces were silk.

View from inside the head net is less blurry than I appear in photos wearing it!On top:

  • silk turtleneck,
  • silk blend, short sleeved, fine gauge sweater,
  • long sleeved merino wool blend cardigan,
  • down vest,
  • raincoat.

On the bottom:

  • silk base layer,
  • merino wool trousers,
  • waterproof pants.

I wore a lightweight infinity scarf to warm my neck and fingerless gloves as well. I routinely cover my hands even in moderate weather to keep my arthritic small joints flexible. Breathable mesh sneakers were fine for negotiating the hills here on a dry day.

Hvalsø was the first stop on this cruise where I wore my InsectShield head net. Conditions weren’t as buggy as some later stops, and I wasn’t being bitten, but annoying little gnats dive bombed my face a few times.

The head net made me more comfortable and it stayed in my day pack for every port thereafter since it weighed next to nothing and took up minimal space.

See my footnotes at the end if you want specific links for wardrobe choices like mine.

Shore Excursions by Holland America Line

Hvalsø Church Ruins excursion

I signed up for the Hvalsø Church Ruins excursion offered by HAL and paid $270 for it. It was labeled as requiring a Moderate level of activity in the excursion booklet.

Only six people plus Toni, the driver/guide could be accommodated on the boat, so it was my favorite type of group tour: intimate!

Small boat at the starting point for excursion, down 6-7 corrugated metal steps from dockThe two hour trip required boarding a small boat to motor from Qaqortoq marina across the fjord to the last place here to be inhabited by the Norse. The remains of a small church in Hvalsø are some of the best-preserved in Greenland; the house of worship was built circa 1300 CE.

Hvalsey is the anglicized spelling for the same place. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page for the site.

Contrary to the booklet, I’d argue that a moderate level of dexterity was required for this trip, but exertion could be kept fairly low if desired. The most challenging part of the Hvalsø visit was climbing into the transport vessel and back out again; one couple opted to skip the excursion when the lady, who walked with a cane, couldn’t bend her knee to the angle necessary to climb aboard.

Roughly a right angle, or a 90º maximum bend of the knee was required in Qaqortoq to enter the boat due to conditions at the time. Coming back, slightly less was required, but my experience suggests you can’t count on optimal conditions when embarking on this excursion.

There were steps required on both the Qaqortoq and Hvalsø ends of this excursion, making it unsuitable for anyone with severe mobility impediments. Partial handrails existed, but I’d rate good balance as necessary for making the trip safely.

I gratefully accepted a hand from another passenger as well as from Toni to make the large step up, but managed to heave myself aboard. I’d estimate I was the youngest passenger in our excursion group by a decade or more though our guide may have been half my age.

Because only four of us joined the guide, we all fit inside the small cabin of the boat. Had we been a maximum-size party of six tourists, I believe someone would have been seated in the open air or down on a low bench beneath the driver’s feet which wouldn’t have had any view outside. As it was, I was hip-to-hip with the people on either side of me, so conditions were snug.

Toni steering

I kept my face mask on within the boat, but not everyone did. Like most Greenlanders I saw, Toni never wore a mask in my presence. With the open windows on either side of the driver, the supply of fresh air was constant, however.

The entire group seemed to enjoy an interactive conversation with Toni about Qaqortoq, the site toward which we were headed, and Greenland in general. He was friendly and knowledgeable, but there was no prepared spiel as one sometimes encounters on a tour. Our questions led the discussion.

I was a little surprised upon arrival at the historic site of Hvalsø that Toni basically dropped us off and left us on our own. If I were rewriting the blurb for this excursion, I would describe it as transportation to the site, not a tour. He did point out the signage which provided a brief overview of the ruins before leaving to collect the next group for this excursion.

A pair of backpackers view the metal sign, roughly 12 x 24 inches in size

While surprising, I didn’t mind being dropped off and left to my own devices. We four tourists were utterly alone at the edge of the Greenlandic wilderness for about half an hour, and I found that kind of amazing.

Tiny speck as boat leaves us at HvalseyWatching Toni’s boat disappear into the distance was slightly frightening, but mostly exciting, like the kind of thrill we seek when we choose to enter a haunted house.

There are no pavements at Hvalsø. A visit here requires traversing narrow paths beaten down through tall grass, and the site is an oceanfront hill. I suspect it would be very slippery if wet, but we had a dry, overcast day.

This site has no amenities such as toilets or running water. Carry everything you’ll need for the visit with you, and make a pit stop before setting out.

Person in orange leans on the guy next to her while negotiating steep slope to dock

After the wooden dock, no aspect of the site is accessible without climbing a hill and dealing with uneven, grassy terrain studded with many large and small rocks. Even reaching the informational sign was up a bit of a hill, and many people reached out a hand if near a friend while negotiating the initial ten feet of ascent.

A different tour arrived during our visit, and, annoyingly, that RIB—Rigid Inflatable Boat—included a tourist with a drone. I was grateful for the peace and quiet we’d experienced at this remote site before its noisy intrusion. A pair of backpackers hiked in at some point, as well, so Hvalsø obviously isn’t quite as far to the edge of the world as it felt to me at first glance.

Door and windows remain though roof is long gone

The primary ruin at Hvalsø is a hall that retains all four walls and a fine arch. From this photo, you can see the dock in the distance for a sense of the minimum distance one would want to walk if visiting here.

One can step through the door and walk inside what remains of the structure. The longevity of stonework tends to fill me with awe. I appreciate the opportunity to lay my hand on work done by another human centuries ago.

Lady's hand in patterned, fingerless sun protection glove on golden stone in stacked wall

Toni returned with a new group of tourists after about an hour. That was about the right amount of time for this site. Even someone walking carefully, as I did, could get to all of the ruins. I got the photos I wanted, I reached a large boulder that felt like an upper edge of the site for some reason, and felt like I had time to reflect and take it all in.

Cover of slim booklet about Hvalsø, or Qaqortukulooq in Danish

When I got back to Qaqortoq, I purchased a pamphlet about Hvalsø in the visitor center so I could learn more. This 20 page document offers a fuller description of the site I visited, if still brief, and was well worth the $8 or so I paid for it.

Hiking Around the Great Lake excursion

DH and our eldest undertook the five hour Hiking Around the Great Lake excursion. This long walk was offered by HAL for $140 per adult. It was labeled as a Strenuous activity, and my family agreed that it was. They weren’t just hiking, there was some scrambling and clambering over rocks as well.

Discovering the actual degree of difficulty for this hike was a challenge for DH. I told him I was confident he could keep up with other Holland America Line cruisers on the toughest offerings in the excursion booklet, but he wanted reassurance. The excursion department representative was… not helpful. She repeated the statement that the hike would be “strenuous” and suggested, “not everybody makes it.”

DH came back wide eyed from that interaction, believing passengers would be dropping like flies. He made sure to carry plenty of water and some snacks in case he’d be lost forever in Greenland.

In truth, there were people in his tour group who got partway through, saw the hills they had to climb, and went back. Everyone survived the trip, however!

rock studded gravel and dirt path leading toward hillsDH described the route as having a “first hike” that everyone completed. It took about an hour to “get to the mountain,” as he put it.

From there, when the guide announced the next stage would be longer, more intense, and with a lot more climbing, about one third of the participants went back to town with another staff member. The second leg was four or five hours of high intensity activity.

Getting details from my busy husband isn’t easy, but he told me this:

“The hike was incredible. It was well worth it. There were few rest stops and the pace was steady; it wasn’t a slow walk with lots of time to take pictures.”

“The views were stunning. The wilderness was pristine.”

Boulders and pools surround Greenland lakeBecause of the pace and intensity of the hike, DH got far fewer pictures than he would have liked, but he shared some with me so I could attempt to inform others what to expect on this excursion. For obvious reasons, the hardest parts of the hike were the least photographed, so all three of these represent the early, “easy” part.

Also, DH got a lesson in judging elderly books by their covers. There were some people with walking sticks and knee braces on the Hiking Around the Great Lake excursion, and they completed the entire route. He was pretty impressed by their stamina, and hopes to be as robust when he reaches retirement age.

My teen found the going challenging, but invigorating. The excursion prompted an interest in learning rock climbing, or looking into a mountaineering club at college.

Wayfinding rock cairn atop hill in Qaqortoq, GreenlandHearing their reports, I’d say my family found Hiking Around the Great Lake inspirational, but it wouldn’t be the right choice for everybody.

Me, for example. I’m one of those who probably wouldn’t have made it!

Links to info for cruise passengers about Qaqortoq

When I asked his advice, my tour guide in Qaqortoq, Toni, suggested camping on the ice cap as his top choice for the ultimate Greenland experience. He also recommended Albatross Arctic Circle as a tour provider. While I can’t give a personal opinion about those offerings, I did find Toni himself to be a competent and enjoyable guide.

* Children may not leave the ship in port without a legal guardian accompanying them. As a member of the security team scans each passenger off the ship, a chime sounds for child passengers, and we have experienced the officer asking my teen who he’s traveling with before they let him proceed to the tender/gangway.

My hat is from Duluth Trading Company. I’ve had mine for perhaps a decade, but got another similar model, the Men’s Superior Hat, for a family member in more recent memory; it is a different color and slightly lighter weight than my old one. This style is great for windy conditions as it clings to your noggin without feeling tight, offers mid-weight warmth, and the brim keeps rain off eyeglasses. It also fits very well under a bug net.

Beneath the hat, I sometimes wore a fleece ear band as well. This was only needed while zipping across the ocean when the wind really made me feel cold. Mine is so old, I have no idea where it came from, but I don’t think there’s any way to go wrong with these simple accessories so buy whatever you like aesthetically or is affordable.

My raincoat is a ladies’ waterproof trench from defunct manufacturer, Qôr. My rain pants were made by Columbia Sportswear and are a sturdy, basic model with no pockets or zippers; I do rely upon the snap adjustment at the bottom hem because I have a short inseam.

My head net was a Sea to Summit Mosquito Head Net with InsectShield purchased at REI.

On my torso, beneath my rain wear, I layered, from skin layer on up:

On my legs, beneath my rain wear, I layered, from skin layer on up:

My accessories were:

Some of my clothing came from outdoors oriented sources, but other pieces were more fashionable selections purchased at department stores. Fabric or fiber choice can be instrumental in keeping one comfortable, but highly technical gear isn’t always necessary.

This post includes a review of a company in which I have a financial interest. I own enough shares of stock in Holland America Line’s parent company, CCL, to earn their Shareholder Benefit when I travel with any of their subsidiaries. This post is not intended to offer financial or investment advice; it represents my personal experience as a paying cruise passenger.

My cruise was booked through a travel agent at a standard, published rate.

I will never post an opinion behind which I’m unwilling to stand, but I promise to always be transparent about whether I will realize monetary gain from a reader taking my advice on a product or service.

3 thoughts on “Cruise report: Port of Qaqortoq, Greenland

  1. I was on this cruise also and was so impressed I came home and booked another similar itinerary for next summer. I enjoyed reading your detailed experience at this port and looking forward to reading additional blogs.

    • Thanks, Jill! Perhaps we will sail together again, then. Are you sticking with HAL or trying other cruise lines?

      We are going to do an expedition type of trip next summer; very different level of activity, but my husband is keen to spend more time on land and those little zodiacs are the way to see more in less time. How well I will hold up to the more intense pace is a good question, but I’m game to try!

      • This was our first HAL (we had previously sailed Royal Caribbean and Carnival to the Caribbean numerous times) and we really enjoyed it so we have booked the 35 day round trip from Boston for next summer. It includes many of these same ports but adds Norway, Holland, and 3 ports in Ireland. All of the ports is year were new to us so adding 5 new is enough adventure! I am looking forward to exploring further in these previously visited ports. I read your Red Bay blog and enjoyed that, also. I am just surprised you were able to tender with so few other passengers. Every time we tendered they seemed to fill every seat. Happy cruising! Jill

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