Nature at its best: Ethereal vistas of the Arctic

  • Geetika Jain, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 27, 2015 10:32 IST
Sailing in Disko Bay Ilulissat amid the icebergs. (Photo: Geetika Jain)

The giant, calving icebergs at Ilulissat, a small town in western Greenland had long captured my imagination, but there seemed to be a conspiracy to shake me off my trail. At first, I missed a flight from Reykjavik, Iceland, and the next scheduled flight was two months later! A second attempt was thwarted by stormy weather, with no guarantee of a return.

Earlier this March, across a frayed phone line was the agent's lukewarm tone: "The sea is frozen, so we can't promise sailing between the bergs. The scenic flights could be cancelled if there aren't enough people, and the local Inuit who drive the dogsleds, well, they've gone fishing."

Despite it being too late, too stormy, too cold and the locals too disinterested, I persisted and finally made it over in July, in the narrow summer window when Ilulissat, the surprisingly well-equipped town of merely four thousand souls with its painted wooden houses finally nudged its door open for me. Even if it wasn't a World Heritage Site, the constant and spectacular drama that unfolds in the waters of Disko Bay is worth experiencing.

The blue moon and the icebergs, viewed from a boat. (Photo: Geetika Jain)

As the enormous icebergs break off the Greenlandic icecap and journey down a fjord, they get stuck on a bump on the ocean floor. This inexorable parade of mountainous icebergs and millions of smaller floes create ethereal vistas that can be enjoyed from many a window, prow and promontory as they jostle and crack, swirl and somersault, constantly changing shapes.

There's plenty else to explore in town, especially in summer as several trails are open for long hikes, and the meadows are a riot of colour with the flowers in bloom. At midnight, the sun slowly slides under its blanket, and humpback, beluga and minke whales leap acrobatically in the waters, enjoying the plentiful seafood buffet with Arctic terns and seagulls.

This is the season for weddings and confirmations, when the locals come to church on Sundays wearing their spectacular national dress. Largely a blend of Inuit and European ancestry, they hold on to many traditions such as speaking their traditional language, Kallali, hunting sea mammals, kayaking and carving reindeer antlers. The only creatures that are miserable at this time are the Greenlandic sled dogs, chained to their posts outside homes, awaiting winter and snowfall when they're deployed for fishing and transport, running across the open white landscape for miles.

Ayma Siegstad, a resident of Greenland, in her national dress. (Photo: Geetika Jain)

Perhaps I'll return in the winter to see the Northern lights someday, but for now, like the midnight sun, I found it hard to turn my eyes away.

Plan your trip
How to get there: There are direct flights from Reykjavik and Copenhagen. The schedules vary throughout the year.

Best time to go: In the summer (June to August) for the warmest temperatures (average 4-10°C) and long hours of light, in the spring for dogsledding and northern lights.

Exploring the area: Sail between the icebergs, trek the Yellow and Blue trails, fly along the fjord and to the icecap on a helicopter, spend a night at Eqi, the calving glacier, go for walks in town, soak in Greenlandic life.

Where to stay: Hotel Arcticis four-star, spacious and comfortable with views of icebergs from their aluminum igloos and traditional rooms. It is a 20-minute walk to town, five minutes by their shuttle service. Best rooms are 710 and 711. Hotel Icefiord is located in town, bergs can be viewed up close from their outdoor seating area and rooms. Room 215 has the best view. Hotel Hvide Falk is central with great views, but the décor needs updating. Affordable style Hotel Avannaa is basic with clean lines.

A view of the icebergs in Ilulissat from the Kayak club. (Photo: Geetika Jain)

Where to eat: Try the exceptionally good local and European cuisine at Mamartut. Ulo and Ferdinand are good restaurants at Hotel Arctic, and a meal at Hotel Icefiord is a welcome experience, with the bergs up close.

Shopping: Jewellery and folkloric figurines made of shed reindeer antlers, narwhal horns and walrus ivory can be purchased at The Glacier Shop, the Rasmussen Museum, and at tour shops and hotel lobbies.

Nightlife: Enjoy late night music at the bar in Hotel Naleraq, and at Murphy's, which opens sporadically.

Pack: Dress in layers in adventure gear and hiking boots, as it can get very cold in the open boats even in the summer. Arctic gear, mosquito repellent, sunscreen and accessories are all available here. Sealskin clothing can be rented for excursions.

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