When worrying about global warming, Greenland is where the world looks for icebergs. As many already know, the icebergs here and the nearby glacier are melting far too fast. To say the obvious: "Come see them while they last."
Melting here concerns the whole world, not just the locals. They call Ilulissat Glacier "the most productive glacier in the Northern Hemisphere," meaning it creates 63 billion tons of ice yearly. If placed on Manhattan Island, they say that amount of ice would be over 1 km (.62 miles) thick. The glacier moves at about 38 meters (115 feet) a day, and is 10 km wide (6.2 miles). The ice fjord itself is 56 km long (35 miles). One result of global warming has clearly been more rain and snowfall here in winter. But fishing is easier the rest of the year, and sea transport is available for longer periods of time.
The Commune (or Community) of North Greenland, which includes eight towns and 31 settlements (17,637 people), says it is the "biggest municipality in the world," with 660,000 square kilometers (about 254,827 sq. miles, almost the size of Texas), with Ilulissat (pop. 4,500) as the capital.
Ilulissat is about 155 miles (250 km) north of the Arctic Circle on the coast of Disko Bay, at just over 69 degrees north latitude (comparable to northern Norway). Tourism is growing rapidly, rising, for instance, from just over 6,000 overnight visitors in 2003 to nearly 9,000 in 2006 (according to the most recent figures). Another 10,445 tourists came in for day trips from cruise ships in 2008.
That's a lot of numbers.
Head to the icebergs breaking off from the Ilulissat Icefjord, where you can go out on a sightseeing boat, as I did. Tickets start at 450 Dkr ($90). If you can, get a seat on the helicopters (2695 Dkr, $539); when I was here for two days, all the 90-minute helicopter rides sold out.
Our little group of seven sailed with Captain Wilhelm Gemander, who says he is a VIP (Very Independent Person). He and his assistants, including the very helpful Laali Berthelsen, serve hot coffee, tea, and homemade muffins. Gemander, who is as fluent in English as in his native German, shares his deep knowledge of the ice through entertaining stories and a flow of facts. His boat, the Maya (named for a spirit, not the Central American people), can take up to 12 passengers.
It was a thrill to motor close to the icebergs, which tower some 800 feet in the air, "though not as close as we used to," says Gemander. "They calve more quickly now, with global warming, and you don't want one falling on your head." (I appreciated this, as my sister lost two friends sailing too close to a calving glacier off Alaska some years back when an earthquake let loose an avalanche on their heads). We spotted two cavorting finback whales, whose progress among the bergs we followed for nearly 30 minutes. We also saw seals, a walrus or two, and we even got close enough to talk to two groups of local fishermen while they hauled in a big catch of gray halibut.
An important tour operator here is the World of Greenland (tel. 011/299 94-4300; www.worldofgreenland.com), which offers boat trips to the calving glacier, Eqi. Prices start at 1595 Dkr ($319). The company also runs hikes, boat trips to the Icefiord, and helicopter trips. The company, which also has an office on Ilulissat's main street, offers 11 different programs per week in the summer, several daily. You can also contact Captain Gemander through World of Greenland.
You might also enjoy hiking around town. There's an easy walk, most of it on a boardwalk, called the Yellow Hiking Trail that winds 2.7 km (about 1.7 miles) around the peninsula from the Icefiord Hotel past the power plant and with views of icebergs. An extension called the Red Hiking Trail of 1 km (about .62 miles) gets you closer to the edge of the gigantic Ilulissat Icefjord, the UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are three other hiking trails and a dog-sledding route as well.
The best meal I had in Ilulissat was at Mamartut (Sermermiut Aqq 4, 3952 Ilulissat; tel. 011-299 94-5100; www.mamartut.dk; Danish only), on a small hill with glorious views. Local products dominate the menu: for 95 DKr (about $19), I had excellent garlic-roasted shrimps in a tomato broth -- the ramekin was packed with tiny shrimp and a dollop of sauce. Next was a rather bony cutlet of Greenland halibut with a weak parsley sauce and overcooked potatoes at 185 Dkr (about $37). My colleagues said their whale carpaccio was excellent (95 Dkr, or $19), as well as the musk ox steak for 195 Dkr ($39). I was assured the whale in question was not on the endangered list.
You can dine well at the Hotel Arctic, which has views of the bergs. Service can be a tad slow, but the staff is pleasant. I'm told menu favorites include musk ox with green salsa (95 Dkr, or $19), and reindeer with beets (225 Dkr, or $45).
Where to Stay
Two hotels stand out among the dozen or so in Ilulissat: the Arctic, and the Ice Fiord. I enjoyed my stay at Hotel Icefiord (P.O. Box 458, 3952 Ilulissat; tel. 011/299 94-4480; www.hotelicefiord.gl), which is right down on the waterfront and has a close-up view of smaller icebergs floating by the windows. It's classified as a three-star property with well-heated rooms and private baths. The hotel's very own microbrewery produces pale ale and brown ale (both good, though I prefer the former). Two drawbacks for me were the lack of room phones and the lack of yogurt for breakfast. Rooms start at 1425 Dkr ($285) in summer, lower rest of the year.
The four-star Hotel Arctic (P.O. Box 1501, 3952 Ilulissat; tel. 011/299 94-4153; www.hotel-arctic.gl) is the grandest of hotels here. Sitting high on a hill overlooking the sea and a flotilla of small icebergs down below, it's a fair walk uphill from town. It's relatively new and is owned by the same quasi-governmental entity as Air Greenland. The 87 rooms here have phones, TVs, and private bathrooms. There are also six metal "igloos" down the hill a bit. Rates for a double room start 1550 DKr ($310), with breakfast.
In the few souvenir shops here, you can find local arts and crafts made of seal claws, reindeer horn, musk-ox horn, walrus tooth, soapstone, and more.
Unless you come in on a cruise ship for a day trip, you have to get here by the red turbo-props of Air Greenland (www.airgreenland.com). Flying here from Nuuk, the capital in the balmy Southland below the Arctic Circle, for instance, required a milk run with four stops en route. At the moment, Kangerlussuaq is the main international airport from outside, though Ilulissat is working on extending its runway for long-haul flights, they tell me.
Contact the Greenland Tourism & Business Council (www.greenland.com).