Travel

Go Greenland this summer — yes, Greenland

Large icebergs floated at the sea mouth of Ilulissat Icefjord.
Francine Spiering for the boston globe
Large icebergs floated at the sea mouth of Ilulissat Icefjord.

Shortly after our plane took off in Reykjavik, an odd-shaped white dot in the sea below was the first indication that Greenland was near. Like mammoth meringue more and more icebergs floated in the dark water, growing denser together until a coastline came into view that gave way to nothing but ice.

Narsarsuaq is South Greenland’s only airport, founded in 1941 as an American base: hidden in a secluded fjord, the stretch of plain is just large enough for large aircraft to land. Today Narsarsuaq is the gateway to the municipality of Kujalleq (‘south’ in Greenlandic), home to a maze of fjords and isolated farming settlements. This is Greenland’s “garden,” the skirt of green to which the country owes its name. The climate here is subarctic. There are no trees and it makes for a stark landscape, emphasized by blue-hued fjords and the occasional white shimmering iceberg cutting in.

A short boat ride from the tiny harbor of Narsarsuaq is Qassiarsuk, the place where in the 10th century Viking Eric the Red set foot on land, marking the beginning of Norse settlements in the region.

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When we visited in August, the village seemed largely deserted and the school was closed. “In summer everyone stays in farms in the mountains,” said the young guide stationed at the wooden church, a reconstruction of the church founded by Eric the Red’s wife Thjodhild and the first Christian church on the American continent. I couldn’t stand up straight in the tiny church’s door frame, and I’m not that tall. “The door frame is this low on purpose,” the guide explained. “Anyone entering the church is thus forced to bow first.”

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Early August feed grasses had been mowed, dried, and rolled into bales, ready as winter feed for the settlements’ sheep. In summer sheep graze freely on pasture — on the boat ride toward Igaliku, I spotted a couple of them grazing precariously close to the water’s edge on a steep rocky outcrop.

In the 12th century Igaliku — originally Garðar — was the cultural and religious heart of the Norse community settled in south Greenland. Ruins remain in the tranquil village. Today’s farming community has a tiny year-round population, increasing substantially over summer with the arrival of seasonal residents who have a summerhouse here.

Igaliku is a hiker’s paradise, and it’s the start or finish of a five-day hiking trail to Qaqortoq. Three hikers were preparing backpacks and camping gear to take off the next day, while a couple hikers arrived that night, longing for a hot shower and a hearty meal.

The local woman cooking daily at the guest house arrived with a basket full of fresh rhubarb, from a neighbor’s vegetable plot. She also brought a whole bunch of Angelika, a wild herb that grows rampant in summer. She showed me jars of dried Angelika leaf that (her English-speaking colleague explained) she used as a culinary herb. It went into that evening’s stew of muskox, arctic sheep that is closer to beef in taste than it is to mutton.

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Done with chores, the local staff sat down to plates of food: dried fish and small dice of whitish meat with a black rind. It was mattak, whale blubber: the whitish part being the blubber and the black part the skin. They generously offered me a piece. Rather like a fishy, chewy lard with an impossibly tough black rind, I tried not to let on that I struggled to process it.

The boat to Qaqortoq left on a cloudy day and soon heavy rain blurred the coastline and we huddled inside the boat’s cabin to stay warm. I felt sorry for the hikers that took off early that morning on foot to Qaqortoq.

School kids at the town’s fountain in Qaqortoq.
Francine Spiering for the Boston Globe
School kids at the town’s fountain in Qaqortoq.

Qaqortoq is a bustling town with colorful houses ringed around a busy harbor. It was still raining and the local museum — a renovated old building — offered a pleasant escape from the wet chill with its collection of local Inuit art and artifacts from past era. Up in the attic two rooms displayed what life was like for arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen when he stayed here. Charles Lindbergh stayed here, too, evidenced by a photo on the wall showing his plane in the harbor just outside.

The fish market around the corner from the museum was empty when I walked in. Not a fish in sight, except for the crates near the table where the fishmonger was working. He looked up when I entered, and continued to work on the catch at hand. It was fresh seal. Skillfully he cleaned, deboned, and divided the meat into neat piles of prime cuts, organs, skin, blubber and bones. In Greenland, the Inuk guide at the tannery told me, when a protein is hunted, everything is used. We toured the tannery for some understanding of the fur trade that in Greenland is inextricably tied with hunting for food. “We hunt for necessity; and we never let anything go to waste,” said the guide.

Qaqortoq is the southernmost port of call for the ferry run by the Arctic Umiaq line. The journey on board the coastal ferry is a great way to experience Greenland’s barren scenery in all its beauty, spotting wildlife and rubbing shoulders with local families for whom this is a regular commute. Two stops before Nuuk allow for a quick stroll on shore: Paamiut, home to historic buildings, including the town’s church, a carpenter workshop and salt warehouse, and Qeqertarsuatsiaat, a colorful small fishing and hunting village on an island in a protected inlet that was established in 1754 as a Danish trading post.

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More than 150 miles above the arctic circle harbor town Ilulissat is home to the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This ice comes directly from the polar ice cap just a few miles inland, produced by one of the most active and fastest moving glacier, according to the world heritage list: the Sermeq Kujalleq. It’s mesmerizing to bear witness to the life of ice, even on a short hike from the old town to the mouth of the fjord. Like a jammed conveyor belt, ice in the fjord’s sea mouth is stacked and pushed until a piece breaks free and drifts out to sea where it joins the other gigantic icebergs dominating Disko Bay.

On the walk back to town a pack of sled dogs, chained and restless, began to howl. Soon, others followed suit, and in no time it seemed all of the city’s 4,000-plus sled dogs erupted in a howling concert that drowned out all other sounds. Summer is not their season. Their time is when all of Ilulissat is buried for months under deep snow and they get to run and pull sleds that are as common a vehicle here as cars in the United States. Everyone has one.

A long boat ride away from town Eqip Sermia is a calving glacier at least 2.5 miles wide and about 650 feet high. It wasn’t until another, similarly sized boat neared the glacier face that I realized how insignificantly tiny we were, even at a respectable distance from the massive glacier. As if it played a titanic game of Marco Polo, the glacier produced crashing booms long before the visual of falling ice, and often from opposite ends.

It also delivered the best ice I’ve ever had in a drink, fished from the ice strewn sea. “Perhaps with a little preserved Ice Age animal pee,” said the guide with a wink.

Most tourists do this as a day trip; I had booked to stay two nights at a cabin at Glacier Lodge Eqi, high up from the glacier lake with stunning views of this constantly calving glacier.

To set foot on land here is to follow in the footsteps of French arctic explorer Paul Emile Victor. Victor used the area as a starting point for expeditions to the ice cap in the late 1940s. The café was named after the arctic explorer, and in the kitchen the young chef was busy making a cake with crowberries he foraged earlier that day. For the rest, dinner was a surprise, he said: “No really, for me too: I don’t know what supplies they brought me today!” Yet in less than two hours, a feast emerged from the tiny kitchen, including fresh baked bread, mushroom risotto, braised muskox, and that crowberry cake.

In the silence of the night the thunderous sounds of the glacier seemed even louder. All night the glacier groaned and crackled, shaking the camp’s cabins when a large calving crashed.

On the flight back to Reykjavik, across the ice sheet, it was visibly clear how little of Greenland is actually green. And when the last of the icebergs disappeared from view, it wasn’t until the plane was over Iceland that green returned in the landscape.

If you go . . .

Greenland Travel (greenland-travel.com) has different option for tours in Greenland that include transportation, accommodation and a guide.

Blue Ice Explorer (blueice.gl) is the expert for travel in South Greenland, including day trips, package tours, boat tickets and accommodation.

Sagalands (sagalands.com) is a local tourist office based in Qaqortoq. Inquire about a tour of the tannery, trip to the hot springs or a kaffemik: a traditional visit with a local family for coffee and cake!

World of Greenland (worldofgreenland.com) is the expert in travel in the arctic region of Ilulissat, including multiday trips to Eqi Glacier and camp.

Narsarsuaq and Kangerlussuaq are Greenland’s two only international airports, and both serviced by direct flights from Reykjavik.

With 15,000 inhabitants, the capital Nuuk is an interesting mix of old and modern. Greenland’s parliament is seated in a modern grey building rising up from a shopping mall. Yet the old town dates back to 1721, when Lutheran pastor Hans Egede led the way to Danish settlements in Greenland. With several museums, historic sites, and cultural center, Nuuk warrants a couple days’ stay.

Francine Spiering can be reached at franfoodlane@gmail.com.