Tip of the Icebergs and So Much More in Greenland

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 3:16 PM

Fabia Mahoney of Bethesda is the latest contributor to Your Vacation in Lights, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. You won't win a million dollars if your story is featured -- in fact, you won't win anything but the thanks and admiration of our readers. To file your own trip report, see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: 10 days in western Greenland.

WHO: My husband, John, and me.

WHEN: July 30 to Aug. 10, 2008.

WHY: We'd been to Iceland twice and on one trip had flown to Kulusuk in eastern Greenland on a one-day guided tour from Reykjavik. So we were ready for more Arctic adventures.

PLANNING: We chose the Great Canadian Travel Co. in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to create a tour for us. We selected the Taste of Greenland independent tour of three Arctic Circle towns and added two days in Nuuk, the capital.

COST: Greenland, like all of Scandinavia, is expensive. To travel more cheaply, stay at hostels, smaller hotels or B&Bs, and select a tour that goes by sea instead of by air.

ITINERARY: Air Greenland had discontinued its direct flights from BWI, so we flew Scandinavian Airlines from Dulles to Copenhagen (eight hours going east), then hopped an Air Greenland jet for four hours going west (yes, retracing our steps) to our first stop, the curious tourist town of Kangerlussuaq. We then took a prop plane to the isolated town of Sisimiut. After that, another short flight to Ilulissat, known as the Town of Icebergs and a major tourist attraction on Disko Bay. Then we were off to Nuuk, followed by our final two days back in Kangerlussuaq.

GETTING AROUND: There are no roads connecting the towns. One gets around by plane, ferryboat, helicopter, sleds (in the winter), hiking or cruise ships.

THE LANGUAGE: The native language is Greenlandic, but most commerce is conducted in Danish, since Greenland is a self-governing dependency of Denmark. However, it seems that everyone in the tourist industry speaks English.

HIGHLIGHTS: Icebergs, icebergs and more icebergs. On a morning boat trip from Ilulissat, we sailed among hundreds of towering hunks of ice, each one a different size, shape and color. Another boat tour (this one 12 hours) took us to a calving glacier that, our guide said, had given birth to the berg that sank the Titanic.

SLED DOG LIFE: One of our tours introduced us to the life of the sled dog. My animal-loving self was not prepared for the sight of hundreds of sled dogs chained (although on long chains) to the ground in people's back yards or in open fields. We soon discovered that this was a part of life in Greenland. The dogs are a special breed, almost wolflike, and spend their entire lives outdoors. Idle during the summer, the dogs soon return to the job they love, pulling "sledges" for their owners and tourists.

OLD VS. NEW: Much of Greenland (population 58,000) is quite modern, and it was startling to see Inuits cycling down village roads, talking on their cellphones. Although some Inuits still hunt and fish, living much as their ancestors did, in the mid-1900s the Danish government resettled many native people in depressing-looking concrete housing projects with such modern conveniences as indoor plumbing, kitchens and washer-dryers.

Sometimes the Danes forgot to tell the Inuits how to operate their new gadgets. Our Sisimiut guide told us that some people dried their fish in the clothes dryers.

The fish markets do give a hint of the old life: There is plenty of whale blubber (eaten raw) and, to my great sorrow, seal fins and other seal parts for sale.

HOME VISIT: In Sisimiut, our guide took us to a local home for a traditional coffee social called a kaffemik. The husband and wife served us fresh-baked cakes and coffee and let us look around their house. Interesting items included tupilaks (grotesque-looking carved figurines designed to frighten enemies) and an intricately beaded national costume made partly of dried sealskin.

LOOKING FOR MUSK OXEN: In Kangerlussuaq, we joined a musk oxen safari to see some of the thousands of mammoth-looking bovines that hang around this former American military base. But, alas, not one shaggy fellow was to be seen. As our guide sorrowfully said in English, "I'm not the boss of nature."

FAVORITE HOTEL: The four-star Hotel Arctic, gorgeously situated on a cliff overlooking the icebergs in Ilulissat harbor. Guests also can stay in free-standing metal "igloos."

CLOTHING: Although summer is quite warm in town (50 to 60 degrees), it can be very cold out on the boats, so warm layers, topped with a windbreaker jacket and pants, are essential.

DRINK TO GREENLAND: On our next trip to Greenland, we will make it a point to try Greenlandic coffee, a stronger version of Irish coffee with whiskey, Kahlua, hot coffee and whipped cream, finished off with flaming Grand Marnier.

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