Travel experiences from around the world; stories of wine, food, cocktails, and friends!
Sunday, March 5, 2023
Exploring Ilulissat, Greenland
Trip date: July 2022
I met my friend Forest in the Reykjavik airport as she had just flown in from Paris. We sat and had a few drinks and a snack before boarding our flight to Ilulissat, Greenland. I knew Air Iceland Connect was a regional carrier, under the parent of Icelandair, but I didn't realize the plane would be a tiny prop plane! I'm such a nervous flyer anyway, and when I saw there were just 10 rows, I asked the flight attendant if we were all going to fit!
Luckily we all did, barely! Our seats were in row 9, so truly the back of the bus. There was actually a beverage service and the flight attendant handed out decent pretzel sandwiches. Luckily I was distracted by the gorgeous scenery on the 3 hour flight.
I was soooo excited to be going to Greenland, I'd wanted to go for a very long time and even had booked a trip years ago that I had to cancel. It wasn't a new country for me (Greenland is owned by Denmark) but Ilulissat is known as "the city of icebergs" and is 180 miles north of the arctic circle which is the farthest north I've been (before that I had visited Akaslompolo which is 110 miles north). I was also excited to experience true Midnight Sun. I'd been to Iceland and Sweden in the summer before, where the sun didn't set until 2 or 3am, but in Ilulissat the sun does not set at all from May 20th to July 20th! No sunrise, no sunset.
We landed at the tiny airport on the world's largest island, watched while a tractor loaded up our luggage, and met our shuttle driver from the Hotel Icefiord for our ride into town. We had rented an apartment from the hotel but still had to check in there first. No worries as we grabbed a glass of wine and sat outside on their terrace for our first views of Greenland... it was spectacular!
When we were ready to go to our apartment we asked for some ice and they told us it was from the icebergs! The drive to our apartment was a bit further then we had expected, it was over by the Hotel Arctic, and we were surprised by the shared kitchen and how sparse our room was. But we had a big terrace overlooking Disko Bay & the Jakobshavn glacier, the makings for martinis, and plenty of snacks. We were happy campers!
The next morning we walked about 30 minutes into town, past the main marina, on the side of the road.
The town of Ilulissat is the place you go for icebergs, in fact that is what the name means. This is the town where Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen was born. It's a small town, with just 4,500 people and about 2,500 sled dogs. Greenland doesn't have any roads connecting the towns so you go by dogsled in the winter or boat in the summer.
We made our way out to the old power plant and picked up the Yellow Route hiking trail. The setting is just so gorgeous! I could not get over how clear the water was; how you could get a glimpse of how deep these icebergs went. And as we followed the trail around a curve, we could not believe how face-to-face we were with the Jakobshavn glacier!
You may be familiar with this glacier without even knowing it as it was the source of the iceberg that sank the Titanic. But that was just the most famous berg, around 4 billion tons of ice come off this glacier! The glacier is about 40 miles long and when cracks form, or pieces cleave, the sounds that come from it are amazing!
It was interesting to get a close look at the groundscape as well. It's really just rock, no soil, and some lichen/moss and tiny wildflowers. Since there isn't any soil, water just sits on the rocks attracting mosquitos the size of bumblebees. They are no joke and I highly recommend packing a head net!
This lack of soil was even more interesting when we came upon the cemetery. We learned later that the deceased are wrapped as mummies and then are covered with rocks.
We followed the Yellow Route all the way around where it met up with the Blue Trail and then proceeded back into town, it was about 6 miles total.
Another day we hiked part of the Blue Route to Sermermiut. This is a much shorter and much easier trail as most of it is a boardwalk that starts near the heliport and the Isfjord Center. On the outskirts of town, before arriving at the trail, we passed what we had started referring to as "dog town" as all of the sled dogs in town were kenneled here.
It's a little unnerving at first; dogs everywhere, most barking, some sleeping, but mainly just out in the elements. The Greenlandic Sled Dog aren't pets, they are working animals and similar to Icelandic horses, they are a specific breed and other dogs are not allowed in Greenland in order to keep the breed pure.
On this day we saw a woman coming out of "dog town" and we said hello and asked if we could ask her some questions about the dogs. She was super nice and excitingly asked if we wanted to see her puppies. Uh, YES!
We followed her out to her kennels as she told us about her dogs. Turns out she is also a teacher in the town. The dogs went crazy when they saw her arriving back so soon; I'm sure they expected 2nd dinner! She called the momma dog out of her house and gave her some extra food to keep her busy while we held the fuzziest, cutest pups!
What an awesome experience that was! Pro tip- talk to strangers!
Onto the trail we continued and within minutes the Jakobshavn Glacier was in clear view. It's such a spectacular sight!
The boardwalk is great as it keeps everyone off the tundra, the small shrubs doing all they can in the very short growing period that they have. This area is also the site of the Sermermiut archaeological site, an ancient Inuit settlement, which is protected only by people staying on the boarwalk.
The accessible trail ends at the base of a small hill. We climbed up over some rocks to this amazing lookout!
What a sight! And the sounds of the ice cracking! Amazing! We sat up there for a while just taking it all in; we were so lucky with the sun and warm weather. It was absolutely perfect.
If you are planning on hiking these routes in Ilulissat, I highly recommend doing the yellow first and then the blue. I think this order gives you the views in an "order" that you would most appreciate! We did this section as an out-and-back, but the Blue Route continues along for a couple miles as a loop if you want a longer hike.
We made our way back to town and to the terrace of the Inuit Cafe. The smoked halibut sandwich and a local beer where both delicious! Halibut is about 80+% of Greenland's export income!
As we walked around town, we stopped into a very nice shop that was selling a lot of goods made of sealskin. As in many arctic regions, seal is still widely hunted in Greenland; there are said to be around 7 million seals found around the country. When seals are hunted (by rifle) every part of the seal is used. In fact the national dish of Greenland is Suaasat, a stew made from seal, and sealskin is the main source of income for many hunters. The skins make warm and almost waterproof clothing items.
When I was in the shop and asking about some of the products, a woman who was working asked if I was from the US and when I said yes, she let me know that sealskin was not allowed in the US. I thought that was really nice of her and not something that she had to do.
Another place we ate lunch at was Cafe Iluliaq, it's a popular place, being right in the center of town. We sat outside in the sun; I had a musk ox burger (an Arctic native animal) and a local beer. The burger was good but very gamey. The beer was delicious and also $15 for a pint!
Greenland doesn't have a lot of overnight tourists yet, most people that visit are from the cruise ships. Not like Carnival cruises, more like posh NatGeo. In talking with some locals they mentioned that the cruise ships are actually detrimental to their economy as people don't really spend money on shore. Most overnight tourists tend to be Danish since it's easy for them to fly there and they have the financial means. Most of the seasonal workers are also Danish college students.
The thing about being on an island in the middle of the Arctic Ocean is that the price of everything (if you can even get what you want) is very high. We went into a grocery store after lunch and it was quite interesting to see things like propane tanks mixed alongside milk.
There aren't a lot of places to eat and drink in Ilulissat in the evenings so one evening we decided to stay in, and dine al fresco on our balcony as the weather was incredible! Full sun at 8pm, full sun at 2am!
I had picked up these dried lamb instant meals in Reykjavik and they were tasty! Just add hot water and don your Viking cap!
We did have a lovely dinner at the Hotel Icefiord restaurant one evening. It started off rocky however as we had asked them to send a taxi to pick us up but it never arrived. After waiting for 1-hour while they unsuccessfully tried to find another, they finally picked us up themselves. It was frustrating but also interesting, being someplace that is just starting to be a tourist destination.
Our dinner was very good. They sent some lovely amuse of tapioca chips to start us off. I had a wonderful snow crab bisque and a reindeer filet. And we even had a cheese plate for dessert.
And of course you couldn't beat the view at 11pm!
The next day after coming back from an overnight at the Ilimanaq Lodge (more on that later) we checked into the Hotel Arctic, described as the world's northernmost four-star hotel. Forest had booked us into The Puisi Junior Suite which is the nicest room at the hotel and has a living room area with huge windows and a full view of the glacier. It was a fantastic last stop on our trip; we'd be leaving the next day.
This room was also the only that had proper curtains to block out the sunlight. I had heard that Greenlanders embrace the months of midnight sun since they have many months without it. I'm sure that more overnight tourism will result in more curtains but I was very happy to have a proper eye mask to sleep with!
We enjoyed some cocktails outside on the hotel's huge deck and then had a very good dinner at their casual spot Brassier Ulo. The snow crab and halibut were absolutely delicious! The hotel has a fine dining restaurant as well but it was closed when we were there for renovations I believe.
After dinner we headed back to our room to finish our wine and stayed up way too late as the view was just so gorgeous and we didn't want this trip to end. In the morning we had a transfer to the airport via the hotel and waited for our flight in the tiny 2-gate airport.
Once onboard our flight attendant announced that we would be stopping to fuel up. Hu? Aren't we at an airport? No idea why, but we made a stop in the middle of Greenland for fuel. When the small plane landed, the captain got out and left the door open and the flight attendant directed us to all unbuckle our seatbelts until fueling had finished. That doesn't leave you with the safest feeling! I'm assuming that was all in case there was a fuel explosion and we needed to make a dash for it!
That refueling stop added over an hour to our flight time which made me late for my connecting flight out of Reykjavik. I won't review all the details of how that clusterfuck went, but suffice to say Icelandair held the plane for me and I ran through the airport in order to make it home. Pretty sure they only did that as I was Saga Class.
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