Nothing else in nature adequately prepares one for the first up-close look at an iceberg.
Watching the surreal white mountain, awash in an emerald-green, frigid sea off the coast of Greenland, is humbling -- more humbling even than a first look at the Alps or the Grand Canyon, because icebergs are in motion. And all the more so, because they seem to be so accessible. From the deck of a small coastal steamer, you can reach out and almost touch them and watch with envy the flocks of birds cavorting upon them.
Even the later discovery that one's virgin view was of a pipsqueak, an iceberg fragment or the remains of a giant diminished by what passes for summer above the Arctic Circle, can't lessen the memory.
My first serious consideration of visiting the north was stirred by a view from 20,000 feet or so above the Atlantic Ocean as I was returning from Europe to New York. On a sunny, cloudless, summer day, off to the right of the airplane was Greenland, a giant white island rimmed by mountains.
From that height I could make out a little ring of greenish brown around the outside of the south coast. And there were these little chips in the water, which I knew must be icebergs, those mostly submerged giants of the deep, relatives of the slayer of the Titanic.
Now, 10 years after that aerial view of Greenland -- named by Erik the Red in the 10th century to inspire pilgrims from Iceland to follow him to the edge of the Earth -- I am walking the streets of that alien land, one of only 6,500 tourists to visit the world's largest island in 1987. And I have been in Greenland for a week and still haven't seen a real iceberg. Yes, there was a little chunk or two of ice off in the distant recesses of the old harbor front of Nuuk, the capital. But they were hardly icebergs.
Not content to wait for them to find me in Nuuk, I board the Kununguak -- one of two government-operated passenger ships that travel the west coast of Greenland -- early on a Sunday morning. I am going to take the ship north about 500 miles, to what I have been told is one of Greenland's treasures -- Disko, a large basin nearly halfway up the island's west coast. I have been attracted by pictures of the red-and-white ships and of the bay, home port for many of the world's icebergs.
In the summer, when the coastal waters aren't frozen, the ships are the only means of intercity travel in Greenland, except for the flights of Greenland Air. It will take us three days to reach Ilulissat, the biggest town on Disko Bay and the third largest in Greenland, with 4,000 inhabitants.
The passenger ferry looks to me like a cross between the ships that run between Delaware and the New Jersey shore, and an ocean liner. Although we rarely venture very far off the coast, bad weather is always a danger and the ship is clearly made to handle the elements.
The Kununguak is the older and smaller of the two ships; it carries a few hundred passengers, most of whom sleep in bunks that make up a dormitory at the back of the ship. The routes of these two ships grow in midsummer as the ice recedes and, by my mid-August journey, are beginning to shrink again.
Every town in Greenland has two names, one in Danish -- the island is a province of Denmark -- and another in Greenlandic, evidence of a growing nationalist movement. Nuuk is known to the Danes as Godthab.
Even in the national capital, where more than 20 percent of Greenland's 51,000 people live, boarding the ship is an informal affair of passing through a portable hut where my ticket is checked.
I drop my bags in an untended heap on the deck and join the crowds at the rail. No cabins will be assigned until we are under way, so I am free to mingle. It's cool and sunny, and the passengers are mostly Inuit -- "people" in their own language, Greenlandic -- with a few Danes and a small group of German and English students thrown in.
The scene is brightened by the presence of the soccer team that has just won the national youth league championship; loud horns bring forth cheers and shouts. At each port call, the scene is the same, as a few players depart to be greeted by crowds of fans and parents.
Despite earlier warnings that the ship would be crowded, I was able to secure a cabin reservation the morning before the ship sailed. The cabin is tiny but comfortable, a mahogany cocoon for two. There are no private baths on the Kununguak, an omission that has made its sister ship, the Disko, the more popular.
Refusing to carry adventurousness to ridiculous extremes, I heed the advice of the crew and begin taking Dramamine, which the cashier in the cafeteria distributes without charge. While the sky looks fine to me, the ship's bursar says the weather forecast is for heavy seas; later he points to the cloud formations, the leading edge of the advancing storm that cuts sharply across the sky.
I find it impossible to stay inside the ship, even as clouds cover the sun and the cool winds send the temperature down. The coast of Greenland is unspoiled; except for an occasional giant-sized antenna perched on a hilltop, and an occasional passing boat powered by a motor instead of sails, the 20th century has made few apparent intrusions here.
When we are near enough to the shore, I can see the thin strip of unfrozen terrain that borders the ocean. The land slopes up to a seemingly unbroken ring of mountains that acts as a border for the icecap that perpetually covers most of the island.
The mountains and the icecap seem to go on forever, and I can't help but note how little a mark man has made on this vast land. This makes a special impression upon me, since I am here primarily to do research for a biography of American arctic explorer Fred Cook, who began his journey to the North Pole by sailing these same waters.
This far north in the summer, night is a fleeting hour or two of relative darkness, so I might have watched the scenery around the clock, but the incoming storm is shooting spray up over the railing and forcing me to hold on tightly. Nature wins again. More blessed Dramamine, and then I stagger down two decks to my cabin to ride out the storm overnight.
The next day, the waters of Davis Strait are as calm as a bathtub's. Bright sun greets my early arrival on deck, as we pull into Sisimiut (Holsteinsborg in Danish); there's enough time for a long walk into this handsome town, woven through the top of a hill overlooking the port. I am struck by how out-of-place the houses look. They are quite Danish in appearance, with wooden exteriors in bright colors. The only trees in Greenland are tiny ones in the south, so all lumber is imported and expensive.
Back on board, I can tear myself away from the railing only long enough to jot some notes in a journal, or eat.
Finally, after I have burned the sights of the Greenland coast into my brain, I am ready for other social events. After dinner -- and conversations with several strangers who always politely, and in English, ask if they may join me -- I spend the evening chatting with the bursar and other crew members.
After spending the next morning watching the ship weave through the small icebergs in the harbor, I leave the Kununguak when it docks in Ilulissat (Jakobshavn), and take a jitney to the Hotel Hvide Falk, the White Falcon. Most of the rooms at this hotel look out on Disko Bay, just around the corner from the Jakobshavn Icefiord. It is into this frozen river that the Jakobshavn Glacier -- the most prolific iceberg producer in the world -- dumps its ever-creeping overflow.
After an hour of watching the show from my window, I make my way on foot and by taxi to the old town airport, which now serves only helicopters, and walk the path over rocky hills, around a big cemetery eerily bright with displays of plastic flowers. The scraggy hills are loaded with pockets of mud and stands of wildflowers, and there is an enormous resident population of hungry mosquitoes.
My reward is an incredible view down into the Jakobshavn Icefiord's valley. For as far as the eye can see, an enormous river of icebergs wends its way into Disko Bay from the edge of the Jakobshavn Glacier, looking like the end of a production line from a factory too far away to see.
There are other tourists around this day, as the Cunard Line's Vistafjord has followed the Kununguak from Nuuk to Ilulissat. The large, modern cruise ship is on a two-week "Journey to Greenland" from Hamburg, and is filled mostly with Germans, with some Brits and a few Americans.
Dinner at the hotel is very good, but I keep losing myself in the panorama out the window. The bay is full of icebergs, and with the Vistafjord in their midst, some sense of scale is restored.
It is hard to differentiate between the larger icebergs and the islands far in the distance, as their colors change from pinks to purples to grays. Although it doesn't get dark in the summer, the changing light levels, coupled with the slowly moving icebergs, create more natural drama in a day than an entire season of television fare.
The next morning, I decide there is still one way I haven't seen the icebergs: up close. Having spied a notice on the hotel bulletin board, in Danish, I am able to find a small tour boat that goes iceberg-hopping.
From the water, on their own terms, the icebergs are even more awe-inspiring. One sees the different textures and shapes, and makes out waterfalls and rivers of melting fresh water. There are caves in some of the icebergs that are nearly irresistible -- potential places to explore. The temptation is to get ever closer, to touch them.
But the ship's captain, while perhaps not much of a businessman -- he collects no fares, assuming his passengers have already paid -- keeps his eyes on his sonar, to be sure he doesn't endanger his passengers or his ship.
After a few hours of gingerly weaving around these icy behemoths, even I have had my fill.
For me, the next order of business is a pleasant Greenland Air flight to the international airport at Sondre Stromfjord (Kangerlussuaq) and a long flight north, to the U.S. Air Force Base at Thule. But nothing in my journey to the far reaches of this land will diminish the thrill of watching Ilulissat's icebergs.
Howard S. Abramson, a reporter for the Journal of Commerce, is the author of "The National Geographic Society: Behind America's Lens on the World" (Crown Publishers).
One of the nice things about traveling as one of Greenland's only 6,500 tourists a year is that it is truly an unspoiled place, with few indications that Kilroy was there before you.
But this places an additional burden on tourists to seek out help. In many instances, the local tourist offices (and there is one in every large town) don't know what foreigners want to see. So be sure to read available guidebooks, do some research before arriving and, above all, don't be bashful.
One of the especially nice things about a land as informal as this is that nearly everyone is accessible, and easy to locate. With a smile, a courteous manner and patience, nearly anything is possible in Greenland.
This is not the place to try out big-city pushiness. The first time around, many things will be impossible, or so you will be told. You can't get there from here, the flight is completely booked, there are no cabins available, so-and-so can't be located.
This seems to be a kind of national test for foreigners, since no self-respecting Greenlander would ever accept such answers. But rudeness is not the key to success; polite doggedness is. "Do you think something will turn up if I wait?" was a winner for me. GETTING THERE: The most convenient way to get to Greenland, since only one airplane change is required, is to fly to Copenhagen on any of the several airlines, including SAS and TWA, that service Denmark. Late last summer, round-trip fares from New York ranged from about $750 to $1,100. I paid close to the top of the range, but bought my ticket less than a week before the flight. Of course, the earlier you can buy your ticket, the lower the cost. (For example, TWA currently has a round-trip fare of $623 for travel in May between Washington and Copenhagen, if the ticket is purchased before Feb. 29.)
SAS flies several times a week from Copenhagen to Sondre Stromfjord and provides the kind of service on this coach-only flight that most travelers have only read about, in terms of the food and attentiveness. The round-trip fare between Copenhagen and Sondre Stromfjord is about $1,000, although the airline may offer a through fare from New York at a discount rate during the summer tourist season, which would halve the fare.
Several companies run boat tours from Copenhagen to Greenland. Information can be obtained from travel agents or the SAS tour desk.
A far different way to get to Greenland -- but longer, since it requires an overnight stay in Canada in order to catch an early-morning flight -- is to fly to Frobisher Bay in the Northwest Territories (usually via Montreal) and then across Davis Strait to Nuuk on Greenland Air. During the summer, Air Canada, which books Greenland Air in North America, offered a round-trip fare between Boston and Nuuk for about $840.
Canadian Pacific Airlines also provides frequent service between Montreal and Frobisher Bay, with connections via Greenland Air to Nuuk.
Still another way into Greenland is through Iceland, by taking Icelandair from Baltimore or New York. Icelandair currently provides service for Greenland Air from Reykjavik. If Icelandair runs discount fares this summer, this could be an adventuresome way to get to Greenland.
GETTING AROUND: From the airport at Sondre Stromfjord, Greenland Air provides service on its four-engine Dash 7s to most of Greenland's larger towns -- including Nuuk and Ilulissat -- and by helicopter to most other places. Greenland Air is a spunky, proud carrier that will get you most anywhere you could want to go, and safely, despite often hostile climate and topography.
However, its rates are apportioned by mileage, not usage, so that residents of small villages aren't penalized by the lack of business. In other words, its flights are relatively expensive but trustworthy.
The three-day, two-night trip on the ship Kununguak cost me about $325, not including the food, which was available in the ship's reasonably priced cafeteria. For this amount I got a pleasant, small cabin, with a couch and sink in addition to a bunk bed. There was a bathroom across the hall and a shower close by. The Kununguak's sister ship, the Disko, has cabins with private bathrooms. For more information, contact Greenland Cruises, 10 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016, (800) 648-2544.
WHERE TO STAY: Greenland is striving to standardize prices throughout the country, thus all of the 20 major hotels in Greenland cost about $85 a night, including breakfast.
In Nuuk, a six-story hotel, the Hans Egede, has just been constructed. The Hotel Gronland is another pleasant place to stay. And about 30 miles up the fiord at Qoorqut is the Hotel Qoorqut, which calls itself Greenland's only mountain hotel and has a reputation for fine food and accommodations.
In Ilulissat, the White Falcon is in the center of town and has a good restaurant -- but it is noisy at night until around 11 p.m. The new Arctic Hotel is plusher; it, too, offers spectacular views. It is on the outskirts of town, but it does run a shuttle bus.
There are also five Seamen's Homes in the bigger cities, including Nuuk, which charge about half the rate of the hotels. Alcoholic beverages are not permitted in these facilities.
RESERVATIONS: Once you land in Greenland, all reservations should be confirmed. One of the benefits of this socialist society is that all reservations are made through the solitary office that is maintained in each town for that purpose. But one of the problems is also this lack of competition, so reservations have a way of getting lost.
Everything seems to be run through a single computer system, so that anyone with the right connections can find you at any time. This was brought home to me when I received a telephone call aboard the Kununguak from a newspaper editor I had met in Nuuk, to whom I hadn't given my itinerary.
WHAT TO SEE: Although nature is clearly the country's greatest asset, there are many other things to see in Greenland.
In Nuuk, the provincial museum is located in the center of Colony Harbor, the city's "Old Town," dating back to its founding by Danish missionaries in 1728. Here, traditional wood houses decked in bright colors line narrow, winding streets alongside the old port. Boat tours are available around Nuuk's large fiord, some of which include stops at abandoned Inuit settlements.
There are many shops in all the larger towns that feature local crafts and those of Canadian Inuit, as well as works by Danish artists.
INFORMATION: For more information, contact the Danish Tourist Board, 655 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 949-2333. Greenland Cruises and Scantravel International (2915 Hunter Mill Rd., Suite 5, Oakton, Va. 22124, 281-3355) are two travel agencies I found particularly knowledgeable about travel in Greenland.