Plates are set down in front of us. On each sits a single, dismembered dove’s wing: snow white, as terrible and beautiful as a pinioned cherub. Dinner is served.
My companions and I arrived in the remote, Greenlandic village of Ilimanaq (which has a population of just 50) by sea, our vessel gliding between calving icebergs on Disko Bay, which rumbled like rolling thunder while fragments of brash ice rained against the hull with the deep thunks and crackles of distant fireworks.
Now we’ve shed our arctic outer garments, hanging up anoraks and waterproof trousers on pegs inside the 18th-Century wooden lodge in which we’re seated, and we’re dining in warmth beneath a tarred canvas ceiling. Through the distorted, blown-glass windows I can see a polar bear hide, stretched out on a drying frame beside an Inuit hunter’s cabin.
Today’s feast does not represent the scant spoils of hunt, however, nor an Inuit effort to make use of every part of the bird: the dove’s sharpened humerus serves as an elaborate canapé skewer, and this renovated historic building is the world’s northernmost Michelin-starred restaurant.
Relocated from the Faroe Islands to Greenland for two seasons, KOKS is pretty exclusive. Experimenting with local ingredients from seaweed to musk ox and whale blubber, the 20-seat restaurant actually holds two Michelin stars, offers a 20-course tasting menu at £243 per person (with wine pairings for an extra £185), and can only be reached by helicopter or boat.
“Of course, you used to be able to walk to Ilimanaq,” our 50-year-old, Inuit boat captain tells us as we make the return crossing from this tiny hamlet back to the regions’s largest town, Ilulissat (population, 4,670), which is just 14 kilometres away.
“When I was young, we used to have pack ice that we could walk on, but it’s not so solid anymore. I’ve seen the effects of climate change in just my lifetime.”
An uncrowded country
The first people to set foot in Greenland arrived from North America at around 2,500 BC, with no fewer than six different Inuit cultures subsequently immigrating in waves. In 982 AD, the Norwegian Erik the Red arrived on these shores, exiled from neighbouring Iceland for three years on charges of manslaughter. He returned home with plans to settle the white island, which he slyly named Greenland to inspire fellow pioneers. The Norse established a handful of settlements in the island’s south until the 15th Century, when they abandoned their lands to the Inuit Thule settlers who had arrived in around 1100 AD.
Greenland is more than 21 times the size of Iceland but today it has a total population of just 57,000. There’s around one sled dog to each person in Ilulissat, most houses aren’t connected to a mains water supply, and 33 per cent of its inhabitants work in the fishing industry, which accounts for 89 per cent of the island’s exports. Since the nearby Ilulissat Icefjord was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004, however, another industry has been steadily on the rise: tourism.
Although Michelin restaurants remain a singular sight in Greenland, Ilulissat — located 355 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle — is today crammed with cafés and restaurants. Places like Cafénnguaq, Cafe Tupilak and the Inuit Café, serve locals and tourists simple meals and international staples, from pizza to nachos to pints of cold beer. As the country’s top tourist destination, there are museums, gift shops, an art gallery, and an exceptional supermarket that sells anything from garlic and gherkins to guns and guitars.
Tour operators’ offices can be found throughout the town, peddling paddle excursions out to the icebergs by kayak — which is known as a qajaq in Greenland, where it was invented as an Inuit hunting vessel. Ship-based tours offer sightings of humpbacks, minke whales, fin whales, porpoises, and white-beaked dolphins on most excursions, but there are as many as 16 species of whale in the waters around Greenland in summer, including the gargantuan blue whale. Bird watchers will spot rock ptarmigans, Atlantic puffins, and Greenland’s largest breeding bird, the white-tailed eagle.
“Ilulissat is still primarily a fishing community, but the tourism sector is generating more and more jobs,” says Palle Jerimiassen, Mayor of Avannaata Municipality.
“Cruise passengers come in summer for hiking, wildlife tours, and to see the Icefjord — around which much of the town’s existence revolves — but in colder months visitors can go snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, dog-sledding, and go out on snowmobiles. The goal is to prolong the tourism season and have visitors stay a little longer.”
Greenland is not the preserve of tourists on expensive Arctic cruises, arriving in Ilulissat for day trips, anymore. From 2016 to 2018, Greenland saw a 10.8 per cent increase in overnight stays from abroad and, pre-pandemic, Greenland welcomed more than 100,000 visitors in 2019. Of those, 58,150 were land-based tourists while 46,600 were cruise passengers.
New flight connections
With the government’s current push to improve the country’s tourism infrastructure, it’s easier and cheaper than you might think to take a polar holiday here. Air Greenland already offers direct, six-hour flights from Copenhagen to the capital of Nuuk and on to Ilulissat for as little as £400, but the country is about to become much better connected.
Three new airports will be opened on Greenland’s west coast by 2025, in Ilulissat, Nuuk, and Qaqortoq. These represent the largest civilian construction projects in the country’s history. At a total construction budget of around £600m, 12.5 million cubic metres of rock is being blasted to build new runways, with the government literally moving mountains to bring new tourists to Greenland.
Upon arrival, visitors won’t need to stay in a traditional Inuit peat hut or one of the country’s emblematic, brightly-coloured prefabs either. Ilulissat has recently gained a brand new, 78-room Best Western Plus, topped with its own rooftop restaurant. WiFi is available throughout.
On the other side of the icefjord, Ilimanaq Lodge — a nearby sister business to KOKS — offers glass-fronted, solar-powered clifftop cabins that command waterside views and luxury price tags. The staff here, combined with KOKS’ chefs and waiters, swell the population of minuscule Ilimanaq by 70 per cent each summer.
There are also plans for six new visitor complexes, including the upcoming Aurora Centre in Ilulissat, which will be a place for winter visitors to view the northern lights, while the centre’s scientific instruments will also contribute to international research on the aurora borealis.
The first of these six projects is already complete: the £17.5m Icefjord Centre, just a stroll outside of Ilulissat’s town centre, opened in July 2021 and it soars through the rugged terrain like a single, disembodied wing.
“The design was inspired by the image of a snowy owl flying low over the landscape,” the building’s Danish architect, Dorte Mandrup, tells me.
Within, visitors will find a light, minimalist space, surrounding subdued screening rooms and darkened soundscape installations. Dotted around outside them, delicate exhibits — each encased in blown-glass chunks of ice — detail in miniature, the traditional Inuit culture, Greenland’s wildlife, and the rapid retreat of Jakobshavn Glacier, the world’s most active calving glacier outside of Antartica.
“Here, people come face to face with the life cycle of ice, and the impact of climate change on the fragile ecosystem of the area,” says Elisabeth Momme, the director of Ilulissat Icefjord Centre.
“It’s something we are all a part of, locals and visitors alike.”
A melting glacier
The Icefjord Centre is situated as a hub for the area’s rambling trails. With its roof sweeping down to ground level, allowing any hiker to stroll up on top, it’s also an artificial hill: a viewpoint from which to take in the surrounding wilderness before pressing on to Ilulissat Icefjord to witness, with your own eyes, the undeniable effects of climate change.
A wooden boardwalk leads tourists away from the visitor centre, winding through lumpen green and gunmetal grey landscapes. Between rocky outcrops, glimpses of the already familiar Disko Bay reveal scattered icebergs, blinding white, sometimes humming with electric-blue inner luminescence. They’re a pretty poor warm-up act for the humbling experience of the Icefjord itself.
The boardwalk ends at the sparse remains of the 19th-Century settlement of Sermermiut, but the path continues up and over a rise of iron hills that blot out the horizon.
Clambering up on foot, the looming glacier creeps up like a cardiac event: sudden, monumental, heart-stopping. In the valley where there should lie an arterial waterway, the vast fjord is clogged with frigid formations — vast, white ice floes; towering, frozen cliffs; huge, wind-carved ice sculptures.
This 60km-long fjord is one of just a handful of places where ice from the 250,000-year-old Greenland Ice Sheet enters the sea. Receding at a rate of up to 40 metres per day, Jakobshavn Glacier calves more than 46km3 of ice into the Icefjord each year with these spectacular results: beautiful and terrible.
For further information see visitgreenland.com
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