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Travel: Greenland cruise like no other

With deft strokes a local woman cuts open a dead seal on the ground, her knife flashing as she expertly slices the flesh.

The colourful Inuit village of Kangaamiut, western Greenland, whose residents demonstrate their traditional crafts and customs to visitors. Photograph: John Sylvester/Alamy
The colourful Inuit village of Kangaamiut, western Greenland, whose residents demonstrate their traditional crafts and customs to visitors. Photograph: John Sylvester/Alamy

As a curious crowd looks on, another Inuit crouches down, mixing something into the gory mound of raw meat with her hand before popping it into her mouth.

"There is nothing more delicious than seal brain and berries!" she declares, looking up with a Joker-like grin through lips bright red with fresh blood.

For Aaju Peter, born into an Inuit family in Greenland, a meal of raw seal is as normal as fish and chips. Now living in Canada, she is back in Greenland visiting the remote coastal community of Kangaamiut as a cultural expert with cruise specialists, Adventure Canada.

Several of the ship's passengers who are gathered around also try the seal but it is only when the youngest, Tim - a giant of a 12-year-old from Ontario - plucks up the courage that the gaggle of village boys watching by the fence brave a taste as well.

They quickly spit the flesh out, laughing. This is a first for them too. Children here are used to cooked seal, but eating it raw is an Inuit tradition which died out before their time.

Travelling down the vast, empty coastline of Greenland and northeast Canada, the changes and challenges of living here become clearer.

Kangaamiut is perched on the edge of the land, its brightly painted wooden houses on stilts facing resolutely to the sea - the residents' main link with the outside world. For generations fishing was the mainstay of the village, which was founded in 1755, but the decline of the industry caused the population to plummet, dropping by more than half in the past 50 years from around 800 to 340.

Today, a Sunday, a few young parents wheel pushchairs along, abandoning them at the bottom of the steep wooden steps to carry their babies back home. Three older men sit in a row watching the world go by, smiling consent to the occasional mimed request from a passenger for a photograph.

In 2010, after years of seeing cruise ships sailing past, villagers started a tourist association to lure this new catch. Women do demonstrations of seal skinning for visitors, who can buy handicrafts and paintings.

Inside the church the legacy of the 18th-century European missionaries who brought Christianity to these distant shores lives on. A choir dressed in traditional Inuit sealskin and fur sing in their own strange-sounding foreign tongue to the oddly familiar drone of church hymns.

The Arctic landscape is also what lures so many visitors here each year.

While most of this trip is in the subarctic, vast icebergs the size of houses (and that's just the part you can see above water) are not uncommon.

We anchor in Evighedsfjorden, the Eternity Fjord, and get into the Zodiac landing craft to see the spectacular scenery close up. Chunks of a dazzling blue glacier at the end of the fjord in front of us calve off regularly into the water below, making a distinctive boom and sending ripples across the sea.

The man driving the Zodiac is Ian Tamblyn, who describes how quickly the ice is melting here. Just over a decade ago this was glacier, he says, indicating the area in which we are now bobbing about on the sea. Tamblyn often works with Adventure Canada and studied geology, but he is better known as one of Canada's most famous singer-songwriters.

In the spirit of entertainment, the company has hired five musicians for this trip. They play at least once almost every day, in between sharing ship duties.

Like Tamblyn, the other four are all talented Canadian performers. The most noticeable is undoubtedly Washboard Hank, a one-man band whose energetic antics are frequently the centre of attention among passengers.

If you are looking for a relaxing, quiet or more seriously-minded cruise, this definitely isn't it. Adventure Canada co-founder Matthew Swan sets the tone right from the start, dressed in bear feet slippers and matching headgear as he urges guests to enjoy a mix of "fun and learning". Cue daily requests for people to make silver sheriff badges for the Hank Williams memorial gig, pen a fake whisky label mocking effusive marketing speak or volunteer for a "polar plunge" battle of the sexes.

Visits on land include a few hours exploring the L'Anse aux Meadows, the only authenticated Viking settlement in North America and a Unesco World Heritage site.

One trip ashore, to the township of Hopedale in the Canadian province of Labrador, is surreal as an organised football match with the locals becomes a circus. Things kick off with 120 passengers in multicoloured waterproofs and wellies swarming into the community whose entire population is only about 600.

The ship's team don fake ponytails while a troop of cheerleaders appear, impersonating polar bears, naturally (with shower caps on their heads and black-painted noses).

From leftfield a middle-aged man from a group of gregarious Geordie passengers reveals a penchant for cross-dressing, donning a fluorescent pink wig and a mini skirt before leading a group of local schoolgirls in an impressively lively warm-up around their school gym.

Meanwhile Jean, a regular passenger who at 95 is also the eldest here, shakes her walking stick from the sidelines in mock menacing fashion, the back of her T-shirt daubed with the monicker Blind Asesino.

Back onboard, there are informative talks on the Arctic environment by staff including eminent Canadian geologist, Denis St-Onge, a past president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

The events programme also features author Kathleen Winter, who grew up in Newfoundland and Labrador. She started a book group for fans and does readings of her work which are a treat to hear.

The people with the most fascinating stories to tell, however, are the Inuit themselves. It is moving and enlightening to be shown around abandoned Inuit settlements by someone whose parents and grandparents once eked out an existence in this harsh but beautiful land. That really does bring history to life.

The most haunting and controversial is Hebron, which became a ghost town in 1959 after the missionaries, the local government and Hudson Bay Trading Company - which ran a store selling provisions - all pulled out.

Pausing beside the ruined remains of her parents' home, the white wooden mission church still standing imposingly behind her, Inuit cultural expert Zippora Nochasak becomes emotional as she speaks.

She says: "This is the place where my mother and father met and fell in love. They got married in the church here."

Describing how her parents and the other Inuit people were told they had to leave or go it alone, Zippora adds: "The missionaries gathered the people in the church and told them they were moving.

"No-one could stand up and say anything because it was in the church."

The people were promised housing but were instead frequently ostracised when they arrived at a new community and forced to camp on the outskirts.

Almost 50 years after the last families left Hebron, the Newfoundland and Labrador premier issued a public apology to the people who were effectively forced to leave their homes by the decision to close down the site. In 2009 a monument was erected near the church inscribed with that apology and the people's response.

TRAVEL NOTES

Getting there and where to stay

Canadian Affair has return flights to Toronto from Glasgow with Air Transat from £368. See canadianaffair.com.

Adventure Canada's

13-night Greenland and Wild Labrador trip costs from £2750 per person. A flight from Toronto to Greenland costs around £677 per person. See adventure canada.com. Flights back from St John's to Toronto start at around £191 with WestJet. Julia Horton flew courtesy of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourist Board. Go to newfoundland labrador.com.

A double room at the Delta St John's Hotel, St John's, costs from £103 per room. Go to deltahotels.com.

A double room at the Holiday Inn Express Glasgow Airport costs from £49 per room.

Visit hiexpress.com.

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