New, untamed – and not a tourist in sight
Foolish is the traveller who dares to play Scrabble with a Greenlander. They won’t say utoqqatsissutigaa (sorry) when they trounce you, for theirs is a polysynthetic language where entire ideas can be expressed in a single – often very long – word. So you don’t get heartburn, you have tarnikkutuuluni (food that hurts the soul inside the chest) and a Greenlandic woman never dates, she has qungujuttagaq (someone she smiles at). This tongue-tying combination of consonants and vowels is also used in nearby Iceland, leading many travellers to assume they’re the same. And, right now, that plays to their advantage because Greenland is starting to position itself as the new Iceland.
Happily, the timing might be right. Travellers are increasingly wary of Iceland’s reputation for being overrun. They’re in search of a new untamed environment to act as a salve for their harried city lives. And Greenland does wild in abundance.
Locals call it Kalaallit Nunaat, meaning “Land of the People”, which is ironic, because for large swathes of time the world’s largest island was uninhabited. Covered by an ice cap the size of Spain, its meagre population – still only 56,565 – clings to the fringes eking out a living mainly fishing and hunting. Here, nature rules with such an icy fist that a person’s age is measured in winters and legends of a fingerless sea goddess are still told huddled around hearths. I’d joined Discover the World’s “Essential West Greenland” tour to see what this frozen land can offer.
“Welcome to Greenland,” commented my dreadlocked guide, Lise Kallesoe, rather wryly as we passed the cemetery en route from the airport to Ilulissat, Greenland’s third-largest town. In thick mist, a small digger was scraping away plots beside rows of white crosses. “They have to pre-dig graves in the summer for those they expect to die, or the permafrost makes it impossible in winter,” said Lise. “Gallows humour,” laughed Simon, our bearded driver.
He deposited us at Hotel Arctic, the world’s most northerly four-star, which overlooks the frigid waters of Disko Bay. Aptly, Ilulissat means “icebergs” and clusters of the movable mountains waltzed slowly in the harbour. Houses, bright as Lego bricks, huddled around the slender chimney of the fish factory that puffed skeins of smoke into the high blue sky as it processed “pink gold” (prawns) and halibut. “The colours used to have meanings,” explained Lise, as we strolled around town. “A yellow hut had medical supplies, red was for traders and blue meant it was a fisherman’s house, so if you came in by boat in need of help, you knew where to go.”
Founded in 1741 as Danish colony Jakobshavn (Jacob’s Bay), townsmen traded the blubber brought by the whalers that hunted humpback and bowhead whales in their thousands to keep the street lamps of Europe burning and their ladies caged in (whale bone) corsets. Today, the town is a collection of cafés, the Pisiffik (which translates as “the place where you get stuff ”) supermarket, a superb art museum and the red clapboard house-turned-museum where polar explorer and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen was born. Half-Danish, half-Greenlandic, his drawings and noting down of local oral stories made him the Father of Inuitology.
Like the nearby Ilulissat Icefjord glacier, life here flows as slowly as cold honey. There are no roads between towns; you get around by foot, boat or helicopter. In mid-November, even the sun packs up and heads south for two and a half months, leaving the land with the lights off. And until the Fifties, locals lived in turf-roof homes not dissimilar to the pit houses the very first settlers, the Saqqaq, erected here in the Sermermiut Valley more than 4,500 years ago.
The Unesco-listed, 44-mile (70km) Icefjord is born from a pitted tongue of glacial ice that produces the most icebergs in the northern hemisphere. “Every day, it releases the same amount of freshwater as they use in New York City,” said our skipper, Claus. Once loose, the Irminger Current carries them northwards and across to Canada. It’s believed the berg that sunk the Titanic calved ed at Ilulissat.
We puttered out on n Claus’s boat Blue Jay, jigsaw pieces of ice bumping the hull ull and the dry wind clawing our cheeks and ungloved fingers. The bergs, raked with deep fissures, glowed as if someone had dribbled d blue curaçao between n the cracks. Raising my y camera to capture the reflections, I saw a black nose protruding g into the picture. “Humpbacks!” called Claus. The mother and d calf spouted fountains s of seawater before diving g A six-night Essential Greenland adventure with Discover the World (01737 888413; discoverthe-world.co.uk) costs from £3,144 per person based on two sharing and includes scheduled return flights between Reykjavik City Airport and Ilulissat with Icelandair Connect, two nights in Reykjavik on breakfast basis, two nights at Hotel Arctic with breakfast and dinner, two nights at Ilimanaq Lodge (full board), airport transfers and guided Ilulissat city walk. Optional excursions include a sunset cruise to Disko Bay from £94 and Icebergs of Sermermiut from £54. Return UK airfares start from around £100 per person. See also visitgreenland.com. beneath the boat. “Time for a drink,” declared Simon, fishing his arm into the ocean and scooping up chunks of ice that he plopped into a thumbnail of Martini Bianco. It started to crackle like Rice Krispies. “It’s the release of the high-pressure air bubbles. Some of this ice is 250,000 years old and incredibly clean because the air trapped inside comes from a time before there was any pollution – unless, perhaps, you count mammoth farts!”
I sidled around the side of the boat to find Claus hibernating in his cabin and asked him how he feels about tourism in Greenland. “Everything [especially the fishing] is so heavily subsidised, it’s unsustainable,” he lamented. “If we don’t embrace tourism what else will we do?”
Ilimanaq, a community a halfhour boat ride from Ilulissat, is doing just that. Once a traditional whaling village, today it’s redefining itself as a template for sustainable tourism and how to preserve cultural heritage. Fifteen A-frame cabins have been built along its shore and two 18th-century pine chalets – the oldest preserved examples in Greenland – have been restored to serve as the restaurant and reception for Ilimanaq Lodge.
Here, dogs outnumber the population of 48 by two to one. This is authentic frontier living. Inside the only shop, bullets are on sale next to stick-on Barbie nails, and salted whale blubber beside snowmobile gloves. Reindeer antlers are displayed in backyards in place of rotary washing lines, and working Greenlandic dogs howl for the missing moon. “No petting,” warned Lise, as we wandered past them and the 1908 church. There are no cars or pavements. In these
Villages cling to the coast, main; a humpback whale and Arctic fox, below; tasty Nordic-rustic snacks, bottom