Originally created 12/29/96

Greenland - Sapphire blue ice shows land's true colors



There we were, floating around in a pool of geothermically heated, 85-degree water, contemplating just how far we had traveled from any place even remotely familiar.

We had stripped to our bathing suits in air that was 40 degrees, at best, in the company of Danish tourists who, like us, were taking a break from the coldness by basking in the local hot springs.

But what made the scene so surreal was feeling the warmth all around us while, at the same time, gazing out over outstretched toes and seeing massive icebergs gently bobbing by in the nearby fjord.

Only in Greenland.

The feeling recurs repeatedly in a place that is both the largest island in the world - half as big as the entire state of Alaska - and one of the most spectacularly barren. Located in the North Atlantic between northernmost Canada and Iceland, Greenland is sparsely populated with only 55,000 residents, and 85 percent of the land area is permanently covered with ice thousands of feet thick that has been accumulating for 2 million years.

There are few luxuries in a place visited every year by only 12,000 tourists. But those who come find the sapphire blue of the massive inland ice and stroll through the ruins of Norse colonies that mysteriously perished 500 years ago.

The weather is extreme, it is true - even in late August and early September, during our stay, the mercury hovered mostly between 35 and 50 degrees, and in winter, the temperatures in the north are said to reach as low as 100 degrees below zero. Getting around isn't easy either; there are no paved roads linking any two communities, and almost all travel is by boat or plane.

But the sheer majesty of the nearly omnipresent ice - whether amassed in glaciers that unfurl like fingers into mountain-lined valleys or floating by as icebergs of every imaginable shape and size - more than compensates for the challenging logistics.

Our first glimpse of the ice came, as it does for many visitors, from the air, as our plane from Iceland descended into Narsarsuaq, a community at the southernmost tip of Greenland and one of only about a half-dozen towns in Greenland with enough flat land to accommodate a runway. The airstrip was built when the U.S. military established a base here in 1941, a base the U.S. government abandoned in 1958.

Denmark, the colonial power in Greenland, later turned the base into a civilian airport, and Narsarsuaq has since become a main point of entry for visitors from abroad, mostly from Denmark.

Narsarsuaq provides a fair introduction to what a tourist can expect in terms of ``luxury.'' The troop barracks cum hotel, Hotel Narsarsuaq, has been renovated with the best of intentions, but it could never be described as more than clean and spartan. The hotel restaurant, which is more or less the only eatery in a community whose residents number a couple of hundred, is decent, nothing more. We ate a dinner of local halibut and lamb, but we discovered right away that we would be taking a vacation from fresh vegetables.

We left Narsarsuaq the next day and began a week of unforgettable vistas, breathtaking boat rides and several rigorous but rewarding hikes, the first of which came in the next community we stopped in, Narsaq. Like many places in Greenland, the town of 2,000 is named for its most prominent geographical feature, the broad plain that extends behind the town and up between two towering peaks.

For 3 miles, we followed the increasingly steep path along a stream that flowed from the glacier we were determined to reach. As we walked, we added or shed several layers of clothes as the temperature rose or fell and the rain came and went.

The path stopped at the lip of a sloping meadow whose terrain was largely made up of spongy moss and lichen-covered rocks. We could not see far because of fog in the distance, but taking the topographical maps we had purchased and our primitive compass-reading skills as our guides, we set out over the meadow toward where we thought the glacier ought to be.

We were not at great altitudes, perhaps 800 to 1,000 feet, but the higher we climbed the more enveloping the fog became.

With only enough hours of daylight for the return walk, we reluctantly abandoned the pursuit and turned back toward the town. We dined that night on authentic Greenlandic cuisine - bite-sized cubes of chewy whale blubber and a dark brown soup of seal meat - but couldn't shake the feeling we had missed an authentic Greenland experience.

Our urge to touch the inland ice was somewhat satisfied the following day, however, on a boat trip between Narsaq and our next destination, Qaqortoq. The captain navigated us into a small cove where, as it does in several spots along the coast, the inland ice spilled over a rocky promontory and into the fjord. We stepped from the boat onto the rocks to explore the ice, which sloped down from 100 feet above us.

Later that day we landed in Qaqortoq, a metropolis of 3,500 people that is the hub of southern Greenland and that afforded us the most complete picture of daily life in southern Greenland. The most well-off residents of Qaqortoq live in the brightly colored homes that dot the hillside leading down to the picturesque harbor; the majority, however, live in unattractive apartment buildings over the hill, whose only selling point is a view over the lake behind the town.

Before taking a walk to the lake on one of our three days in Qaqortoq, we stopped in a grocery store for provisions and were surprised to find the standard brand-name products of Western Europe, as well as such luxuries as French and Australian wines, all at prices made reasonable by subsidies from Denmark.

On a day trip from Qaqortoq, we also saw some of Greenland's past at the Hvalsey church, a stone structure built around 1300 in the shadow of Mount Qaqortoq. The Hvalsey church and a neighboring farm are the most well-preserved ruins from the Norse period in Greenland, which began when Eric the Red stumbled upon the territory in 982.

In what was surely one of the great marketing scams of the 10th century, Eric later persuaded other settlers to join him by telling them that he was calling the giant island by the seductive but somewhat misleading name of Greenland.

One can only imagine the look on the face of the Norseman who anticipated rolling pastures and forests but instead found himself in a land where there are almost no trees.

If you go

Even more than most vacations, a trip to Greenland will benefit from advance planning. This is especially true if you design your own itinerary rather than rely on a tour operator to make arrangements for you.

  • Getting to Greenland is complicated and can be expensive, in part because there are no direct flights from the United States. There are only three ways by air: From Reykjavik, Iceland, to Narsarsuaq or Ammassalik in eastern Greenland, on Icelandair; from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Narsarsuaq or Kangerlussuaq in western Greenland, on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS); or from Baffin Island in northeastern Canada, to Nuuk, on First Air. Count on spending well over $1,000 round trip from New York.
  • Once you're in Greenland, getting around is easy on Greenlandair (also known as Gronlandsfly), which operates both planes and helicopters. But expect the weather to play havoc with your schedule; Greenlanders use the word ``immaqa'' - ``maybe'' - when discussing flight plans.

    Also, don't count on it being cheap. A half-hour flight from Narsarsuaq to Qaqortoq, for instance, will cost about $100 and to fly from southern Greenland to Disko Bay on the west coast will set you back $700. It's cheaper to explore one region.

  • Wherever you decide to go, it also pays to find accommodations ahead of time. Most communities have only one or two hotels, and many either have only a youth hostel or enough open space to pitch a tent. We stayed at the Hotel Narsarsauq (011-299-35253), where double rooms cost about $140 a night; at the Hotel Perlen in Narsaq (011-299-31713), where double rooms cost about $140 a night; and at the Hotel Qaqortoq (011-299-38282), where double rooms cost about $175 a night. The hotels in Narsarsauq and Qaqortoq both have restaurants.
  • Travelers also need to bring the proper gear. If you go in winter, carry clothing appropriate for arctic conditions. If you go in the summer, bring waterproof hiking boots and a waterproof jacket, and plan to wear several layers that can be added or discarded as the temperature fluctuates.
  • There are very few books of any kind about Greenland available in English, and the only tour book we could find was the Lonely Planet guide for Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which proved invaluable.

  • If you do decide you want to organize your own trip, contact Greenland Travel, by mail at Gammel Mont 12, P.O. Box 130, DK-1004, Copenhagen, Denmark, by telephone at 011-45-33-13-10-11 or by fax at 011-33-13-85-92, or call the Danish tourism office in New York City, (212) 949-2333. If you're going on shorter notice, or prefer to have a company make arrangements for you, contact Arctic Adventure in Copenhagen at 011-45-33-25-32-21 or arrange a tour through an agent in the United States that deals with Greenland, such as Borton Overseas in St. Paul, Minn., (612) 883-0704.
  • Whale doesn't taste like chicken

    When you visit a country where it is nearly impossible to grow vegetables and there are only about a half-dozen land mammals that thrive in the harsh climate, you learn to celebrate seafood. And so it was that we ate mostly fresh salmon and shrimp during our visit to Greenland in September. But we also tried some of the more unusual local specialties. Here is a sampling of some dishes we tasted:

    WHALE STEAK: It is common to hear people say that unusual meats taste like chicken. Whale doesn't. The aged narwhal steak we were served in Qaqortoq bore a superficial resemblance to well-cooked beef. But both the smell and taste were more like an unusual combination of liver and seafood, good for those who like gamey meats.

    MATTAK: There is nothing quite like whale blubber, served in small cubes with a layer of skin atop a mass of white fat. At first, the blubber seemed to resist all attempts to chew it, and only after 30 seconds of applied dental work did it begin to yield. Once it did, the blubber had a rich, milky taste that lingered.

    SUAASAT: Seal meat soup, served with a brown broth of rice and onions, is the national dish of Greenland, and it is hearty enough to be the centerpiece of a meal. Biting through the chunks of seal alone took enough time for a full course; the meat we ate in Narsaq was stringy, like beef from a well-cooked stew, but tougher and less flavorful, almost bland.

    SMOKED HALIBUT: Fresh Atlantic halibut is not unknown to East Coast diners, but the whitefish we ate had been smoked for 15 hours in pits outside town, using burning grass because wood is in short supply in Greenland. The result was nearly translucent strips of halibut with a stronger smoldering flavor than most store-bought smoked fish.