For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, if you want to get away from it all, there is no better place than Greenland, affectionately called “the coolest place on earth.” Located mostly within the Arctic Circle, it is the largest island in the world and 80 percent is covered by an ice sheet. The island’s entire population, primarily located on the southwest coast, hovers around 57,000. Although it is a Danish possession, the vast majority of residents are Inuit.
Deborah Swiss and I enjoy traveling to adventurous locations. She finds inspiration for her books; I find inspiration for my songwriting. This time our destination was Ilulissat, a town of 4,500 (and 2,500 sled dogs), about 155 miles north of the Arctic Circle at the mouth of Disko Bay. Our main goal was to witness the Northern Lights. It had been on our bucket list for years. Although we had previously traveled to Iceland and Alaska, we never got lucky in seeing the aurora borealis. So, Greenland was our third crack at it, and we were hoping beyond hope that the third time would be the charm.
There are no direct flights to Greenland from the U.S. Most flights into Greenland originate in Denmark, but Air Iceland Connect begins to run weekly flights out of Reykjavik in March. Our travel agent, Anna Burdenski of Greenland Tours, is an expert in Greenland exploration, having lived and worked in the country. She provided the perfect customized itinerary for us along with invaluable advice on the appropriate gear to bring.
From Reykjavik, it’s just over a three-hour flight to Ilulissat, located on Greenland’s west coast. Flying over Greenland you begin to get a sense of the vastness of the ice cap. The snowfields expand for as far as the eye can see. Colors disappear from the earth below. It becomes a pristine blanket of white and shadows, rippled and cracked, punctuated only briefly by a black windblown peak, or the blue edge of an ancient glacier.
Be prepared, temperatures in March can easily dip to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. You are only allowed to bring a limited amount of carry-on. The best advice is to wear most of your heavy clothing and boots rather than pack them. Yes, Deborah and I looked like overstuffed pillows with our six layers of sweaters and winter gear, but we were toasty when we arrived at Ilulissat’s Hotel Icefiord, where we were greeted with breathtaking views of glaciers floating by our window.
Ilulissat is built on the edge of the ocean and is known for buildings that are whimsically painted in colorful shades of the rainbow. There are no roads between towns in Greenland. If you are traveling by land, once you hit the edge of a settlement it’s either dogsled or snowmobile.
When we arrived, the harbor had been frozen for seven days with ships locked in and the fishermen unable to go out. Staring out the window of our hotel we spotted a lone dog sled floating by on a block of broken sea ice. By the next morning, both the dog sled and the ice had disappeared.
On our first day in Ilulissat we poked around the snowy streets and visited an arts workshop where we watched native artists sculpting reindeer horn into jewelry and into “tupilak” figures, which are believed to carry an ancestor’s spirit. The next day, we hiked into the stark beauty of the Icefjord World Heritage Site with panoramic views of massive icebergs. Our friendly guide Ronni brought us to the remains of Sermermiut, an abandoned Inuit settlement reaching back 4,000 years. Later that night we lived out our dream, snowshoeing under the Northern Lights. It was the only night that week they were visible, but they were so intense that we got to see them again right outside of our hotel as they danced across the sky.
On day three we prepared for our five-hour dogsled ride into the interior. Riding in a dogsled feels like a cross between a toboggan and a roller coaster. With a dozen dogs running at full speed in front of you, it’s all about having an experienced musher. Although the scenery was stunning, the mode of travel is an acquired taste and can be a bit dangerous. While dressing up in sealskin is a fun fashion statement, I would only recommend this activity for the brave at heart.
One of the most spectacular parts of the trip was our cruise into Disko Bay. Our small fishing boat navigated its way into a field of enormous icebergs, some as tall as skyscrapers. Disko Bay is supposedly where the iceberg that sank the Titanic originated, and seeing some of these giants towering above us it’s easy to believe.
Greenland dining is expensive, but for the adventurous connoisseur it offers unusual and delicious gourmet fare. At Restaurant Mamartut, the chef himself served melt-in-your-mouth creations of cod garnished with wild mushroom mousse, reindeer pate, seal suaasat, and smoked fin whale carpaccio. The restaurant menu also showcased the quirky humor we saw among snowbound Greenlanders. A description of Chicken S- -t Chardonnay read: “This wine is a tribute to the pearl hens at the Frankland Estate. Slightly nervous, cowardish poultry, which indirectly helps to create a wonderful beverage by eating pests and creating fertilizer.”
After an action-packed trip, doing everything we had hoped, we were snowed in on our last day. Our flight back to Reykjavik was canceled and we had to spend another night in Ilulissat, which ended up being the best luck of all. But that’s another story…
Digney Fignus is a Harwich resident and award-winning singer-songwriter.
Returning To A Changed World
We had only been away a week and the world had turned upside-down.
Greenland was closing its borders and the US had issued a travel ban from Europe. Our flight back to Boston was canceled. Since our cell phones did not work for international calls from Ilulissat, the hotel lent us one. After waiting for three hours in a phone cue, Icelandair booked us on a flight to New York, where we would be required to rent a car at our own expense to get home. The next morning our flight to Reykjavik was canceled due to a blizzard so we missed the New York flight. After several hours on hold, Icelandair booked us on the next New York flight but charged us an additional $1,000 (which we are appealing).
We had packed hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves which we knew would be vital if we were tossed into the tumult at JFK. When we arrived at Keflavik Airport, we headed for Icelandair’s customer service to see if we could get our rebooking fees waived. While chatting with a couple from Worcester, they told us that our original Boston flight had been reinstated. Rather than having to travel to JFK on an overbooked flight, we were able to book ourselves on a less-than-full flight back to Boston. At Logan, only 20 people at a time were allowed to exit the plane. In contrast to the insanity that we had seen in news about JFK, Logan was organized and efficient. Each traveler was quickly examined, temperature scanned, and processed through customs. Being snowed-in and having our flight canceled had been a blessing in disguise.
– Digney Fignus