After a serene voyage highlighted by glaciers and whale sightings, Greenland’s capital of Nuuk offers surprisingly civilized charms, Mike Peters discovers.
Somebody on this cruise ship has a gun. He didn’t sneak through the airport-style security at the ship’s gangplank when we boarded.
He’s part of the crew, a sort of game warden who was on this Arctic cruise ship’s earlier leg, which passed through the polar-bear habitats of northern Norway.
His job in remote ports along the Arctic Circle is both to protect shore-going passengers from polar bears and viceversa.
At this point of our cruise, which began aboard the Silversea Explorer at Reykjavik, Iceland, we have swept along Greenland’s southern coast, where the odds of seeing a polar bear are very remote — especially in summer. The wildlife sightings that lure passengers to the rails are less fearsome: whales, reindeer and seals.
The ranger’s gun is behind the bar.
This morning, after several days of stops at tiny villages and a Viking ruin, we’ve landed at Greenland’s capital, Nuuk. The population is 16,000; since there are only 53,000 people in the whole country, it’s a big city.
Our guide in the city is named Salik, but he really wants us to think of him as an average Joe.
“Life for me is like that of a city dweller anywhere,” he insists.
In many ways, this picturesque city itself is eager to be typical of the modern world. There are grocery stores, offices and coffeehouses. The finedining restaurant, Sarfalik, starts its set-menu dinner with an amuse-bouche of foie gras with gooseberry and arugula leaf on a small lava rock.
However, the hunter-gatherer life of the native community is never far below the surface.
“Seal meat is the most delicious in the world,” Salik is soon telling us.
He knows that the tour group, mostly white, retired Europeanswhoare civilized to a high sense of righteousness, may not be sympathetic to the idea of eating or wearing seal.
“We only kill what we need to eat,” he says, noting that there are 3 million seals in Greenland waters. “Studies show that the population would be sustainable if we hunted 1 million per year, but 200,000 is enough for our needs.”
He doesn’t wear seal himself —“most people here don’t”, he says, though the hides of animals hunted for food are never wasted.
Promoting the fur culture is sensitive: Seal fur is banned in most of Europe and the Americas— to discourage unsustainable levels of hunting and the slaughter of seal pups — though the oh-so-soft fur is a luxe item inmany parts ofAsia.
Videos of bloody hunts stirred global outrage decades ago— and Salik is one ofmany Greenlanders in the capital eager to assure us that such hunts are not only sustainable but a key part of the indigenous culture.
There is, in fact, little else to eat on this vast remote island, which is why locals are so fond of the taste of seal, which outsiders usually find somewhere between bland and slightly unpleasant.
“We also hunt reindeer in a sustainable way,” Salik says.
In fact, local officials say, the reindeer population is too big, posing a threat to the limited vegetation on the island.
The fishing industry dominates business here, and the education system is well-respected, including vocational training for ships’ officers. There is a 10-year waiting list for housing — perhaps one reason going to sea is attractive.
A former Danish colony, Denmark granted home rule to the huge island in 1979.
In 2008, Greenland voters approved the Self-Government Act, which transferred more power from Copenhagen toNuuk, though the country remains financially dependent on Denmark. About 10 percent of the country’s population is Danish — a bit higher in Nuuk, where many young Danes come after university for a year or two.
Having arrived by cruise ship, weare particularly aware of Nuuk’s geography.
The world’s northernmost capital — besting Rekjavyk, Iceland, by a fewkilometers— Nuuk is perched on the southwestern coast of Greenland, about 10 km from the Labrador Sea and 240 km south of the Arctic Circle. Polar bears are unlikely visitors, though everybody has a story about seeing one.
For tourists, there is plenty to see.
Lonely Planet has declared Greenland to be one of the top 10 destinations for 2016, and Nuuk is a major reason: “The heart of a nation, Greenland’s largest city and capital is fueled on fresh air, strong coffee and diverse personalities.”
Must-sees include themummies at the Greenland National Museum, which also offers insights into the indigenous culture with exhibits of colorful native clothing and other made-by-hand necessities, from kayaks to hunting knives and spears.
Glimpses of modernity come at Greenland’s largest microbrewery, where you can stop in for a tasting flight of local craft beers.
Youcan explore urban arctic living and the progress toward Greenlandic independence on a city and parliament tour—at the latter, a surprising number of local leaders in this traditionally hunter-gatherer society are women.
If you follow current events — or seek trivia for the next pub quiz night — you should know that Greenland joined the European Economic Community with Denmark in 1973, but voted to withdraw from the EEC (later the EU) in the 1980s — years before Boris Johnson embraced the idea.
On a sweeter note, you should know that in the city’s many excellent coffee shops, you will never be served a cup without a slice of cake on the side.
Clockwise from top: Tourists approach an iceberg on a raft in a harbor inlet in Greenland; the Greenland National Museum showcases the indigenous culture with exhibits of colorful native clothing and other made-by-hand necessities; the streets of Nuuk, capital city of Greenland, with a population of 16,000.