ILULISSAT, Greenland -- It’s so cold, they closed the igloos. The icebergs are shivering. Two of my toes are slightly frostbitten. Yesterday my life seriously flashed before my eyes on a dogsled ride through the mountains.
But what a trip. What a place.
Exhilarating, that’s the word.
Close your eyes and hear the sounds of Ilulissat (e-LU-li-sat). The creak of the sleds rushing across the crisp snow. The crackle of the ice breaking up against the wooden prow of tiny fishing boats in Disko Bay. The ravens — odd birds to see way up here above the Arctic Circle — flapping their black wings atop the icebergs like dots of licorice on vanilla ice cream.
From the moment you leave Reykjavik, Iceland, in a rugged propeller plane for a three-hour ride to Ilulissat to the moment you pack up your frozen little body and leave, you are in another world.
And if you are willing to come to Greenland in winter (my late February trip was called “Winter Madness” with good reason), it’s very affordable.
Almost all tourists to Greenland come from Denmark, followed by small numbers of Germans, Swedes and a tiny number from the United States. Just 429 Americans stayed overnight in Ilulissat last year. Why so few?
First, it’s hard to get here.
Second, humble Greenland gets overlooked in favor of trendy Antarctica.
Third, people tend to think of Greenland as one big, empty, melting block of ice. Wrong. Greenland is part of the Danish Kingdom and is bigger than Alaska. Most of its 57,000 people live in isolated towns along the rocky shoreline near the miles-deep ice cap. They have cars. They have schools. They have dogs. They have a life.
Ilulissat, Greenland’s most lyrical town, has just 4,606 people and 2,300 sled dogs. Most people here are Inuit or Danish, a melding of people that yields a unique and sturdy culture of fishing, shrimping, tourism and doggy paw prints.
What makes this place a star and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site is the Sermeq Kujalleq (or Jakobshavn, in Danish ) Glacier, the most active glacier outside Antarctica. Towering icebergs dot Disko Bay as the glacier sends tons of ice down the Ilulissat Icefjord into the bay each day. You don’t have to be on a boat to see the icebergs, either. You can see them from your hotel room window. Or your table at lunch over a plate of fresh halibut. Or while walking in town near the Lutheran church.
This tiny town’s zillion-dollar views are so stunning that a few years ago, some huge cruise ships included Ilulissat on their summer port stops, overwhelming the town.
“Five years ago, 63 cruises stopped here. It was too much,” says Silverio Scivoli, owner of Tourist Nature, which runs local tours. “We were not set up for that. Now we get just five, and the biggest one has 800 people.”
Visiting Greenland in the winter means you won’t encounter many other tourists, and certainly no cruise ships. I never met another American.
The first day, I spent with six tourists motoring in a small wooden boat in Disko Bay, where we saw the icebergs up close. The icebergs’ aloof and menacing grandeur dwarfed tiny fishing and seal-hunting boats nearby, not to mention us. By turns, the tourists crammed into the tiny warm cabin to sip tea, hobnob with the captain, then launch themselves back out into the beauty of the bitter cold.
Afterward, one of my toes seemed slightly frostbitten and tingly. Later, the ice in the bay got so thick that no more tourist or fishing boats could go out.
The second day, I took a two-hour dogsled ride (here, they call it a sledge) through the mountains, wearing a warm sealskin parka and leggings provided by the tour company. Greenland dogs and sleds are everywhere in Ilulissat, and the drivers are experts, so I was only mildly panicked when my sled at one point was tipped over the edge of a cliff with the dogs behind me scrabbling backward to keep the sled from plummeting headlong to our certain death.
You know that scene where the Grinch’s sled teeters on top of the precipice? Crrk … crrk … crrk … down, down, down. … Luckily, the dog team’s strength held out until we reached a gentle slope below. I was fine, absolutely fine. And after about three days, my toes defrosted, too.
Before I went to Greenland, people kept asking, are you going to stay in an igloo? And at the Arctic Hotel in Ilulissat, you can stay in one. Just not in February.
The hotel’s five igloos are beyond the place where I stayed, down a long boardwalk, past the sled dogs, near the shoreline. Made of shiny silver aluminum and looking like space pods, they are so hip that Prince Albert II of Monaco and singer Bjork have stayed in them. But they’re used only from May to September.
“Now is too cold for the igloos,” a hotel clerk explained, not grasping that this fact might be considered quite astonishing for people back in Michigan.
And I do have to mention the food. The restaurants here serve Greenlandic specialties, and I had fresh halibut three times and a very fine lamb soup. No complaints. I also enjoyed a walking tour of Ilulissat with a local guide who pointed out all the sights, plus the fitness studio where she takes Zumba classes.
You may notice I have not yet mentioned global warming, which has been the major theme of every hand-wringing travel story about Greenland in the last few years. In my defense, let’s just say that it is hard to whip up a lot of interest in the topic when you’re wearing five layers of clothes, the temperature falls to minus 19 degrees Fahrenheit and you’re freezing your eyebrows off.
And what about the northern lights? Well, I did go outside on two clear nights to look for the aurora borealis, which can easily be seen from September to April here in Ilulissat, 180 miles above the Arctic Circle. You just look north past the sled dogs and silver igloos, and there you are. But nature had other plans, for a full moon was hanging up above, shining like a winter midnight sun, blocking any other solar shows.
OK. So I stood outside in the sharp cold, listening to my jagged breath, wiggling my toes, hoping for a flash of green. Then I thought of my dad, who died last fall. I bet he’d have loved this place. I waved at the sky.