Our itinerary indicated we were supposed to have an information meeting and welcome dinner upon arrival so we went to the front desk to try to get some details. Before I even had a chance to ask the man at the front desk anything, he handed me the phone and said, "It's for you."
How's that for anticipation? It was our contact from the local tour company, World of Greenland. The lady on the phone said she'd arrive at the hotel in about five minutes to meet with Traci and me. She arrived with another young guy. The two of them were Danish college students. They briefed us on the tours they offer. We signed up for four tours but in Greenland this nothing to sneeze at. These four tours cost us a fortune. On top of this, World of Greenland charges a 5% fee for using a foreign credit card. Outrageous! Since we didn't come all the way to Greenland to sit in a hotel room and complain about high prices, we sucked it up and paid for the tours.
We were given a voucher for the welcome dinner at Hotel Arctic's Ulo restaurant. It was a two-course meal consisting of a creamy seafood soup for the first course (very good) and roasted duck for the second course (ok). The duck looked and tasted like beef. Traci doesn't eat red meat or anything that looks like red meat so the waiter replaced her duck with trout (very good). Traci struggled with the meals in Greenland since green vegetables were pretty much non-existent. The closest things to vegetables were normally potatoes, very skinny carrots, or asparagus which I don't care for.
roast duck meal
We retired to our room after dinner. The college students from World of Greenland had invited us to a discotheque in town but they said things don't normally get started until after midnight. This was much too late for us even if it would still be bright and sunny out at those hours. Yes, we're getting old.
The next morning, we had a Scandinavian breakfast buffet at the hotel and then caught the complimentary hourly shuttle into town for our city tour. This was the first time Traci and I have been on a tour where there were more guides than clients. Traci and I were the only clients on the excursion that day. We were led by a Danish college student and three tour guides who were in training. During the 2-hour walk through the hilly town, we were shown a variety of historical and cultural buildings such as the oldest house, the art museum, the elementary school, etc. but did not enter any of them. We were normally given an anecdote about the places we saw. One of the more memorable and unexpected stops was the video rental store. Since the store has existed, the petty crime rate has dropped significantly during the cold, dark winters in Ilulissat.
Fishing and shrimping are the main industries in Ilulissat. This was evident by the dead fish smell that filled the air as we were shown the harbor during our city walk tour. This harbor is also important because it is here that the town of 5,000 residents receives supplies from Denmark to last them through the winter when the bay remains frozen for several months. There have been times when the town has run out of basics like toilet paper and baby formula. In the case of the latter, special flights had to be arranged to refresh the town's supplies.
As we were led through the harbor area, we were advised to be careful since the workers are not likely to slow down production because tourists are in the way. However, on the day we were there, everyone was gathered around a crane that was trying to pull a sunken boat to the surface. I don't think anyone was injured since there were no emergency vehicles in the area. Although we don't know how the boat sank, the sight of an iceberg floating in the harbor did make me briefly question my decision to sign up for a midnight boat trip among the icebergs.
While we did learn some facts about Ilulissat during our tour, the real advantage was that it helped us determine which places we wanted to explore further on our own. We checked out the town's other two souvenir shops (in addition to the one in the World of Greenland tourist office). The common items were rugs and clothing made from furs such as seal, fox, reindeer, and polar bear. There were also carvings (tupilak) and jewelry made from animal bones and tusk. Some of these items such as items made from walrus, polar bear, and whales are prohibited from being brought into the U.S. unless you show proof that the animal was not poached. Therefore, we were advised to ask for a CITES certificate at the shops to verify the product will pass U.S. customs. There were some items made from certain species of whale that are flat out banned, regardless of a CITES certificate. None of this was an issue for us because Traci and I normally only buy refrigerator magnets for our collection and/or postcards.
Within an hour, we had visited the souvenir shops and most of the practical stores in town such as clothing stores, a bookstore, and the Pisifik grocery store. I was surprised at how much Greenlandic hip hop was being played in the stores we visited.
We headed to the home of Knud Rasmussen. He was Greenland's famous arctic explorer and writer who lived from 1879 to 1933. His house is now a museum where exhibits display his life, traditional Greenlandic lifestyles, and art depicting arctic scenes. We walked through the three floors of the museum in about 45 minutes.
Ilulissat Harbor. Notice the iceberg in the center.
turf house from the 1970's
cotton grass - common in the arctic
The home of Knud Rasmussen is now a museum.
By early afternoon, we felt we had seen all we wanted to see in downtown Ilulissat so we shared a Hawaiian pizza at Cafe Iluliaq. I admit this meal did not fit the Greenlandic cultural experience we were seeking but sometimes you just got to go for what you know. Since it was a gorgeous day, we decided to make the 1-mile trip back to the hotel on foot instead of waiting for the shuttle. It would have been a pleasant walk if it had not been for all the mosquitoes. The arctic is plagued by these pesky, biting insects in July and August. They are almost enough to drive a person insane. The trip documentation we received from our travel agent three weeks before departure advised we bring mosquito head nets and insect repellent containing deet. These items are sold in Greenland but I'm glad we bought them at home and not at the outrages Greenlandic prices. I paid $1.68 per mosquito head net at the Walmart up the street from my house. Mosquito head nets were being sold at the equivalent of $14 in Greenland. Unfortunately, we weren't wearing any protection during our walk. The little critters swarmed us and bit us relentlessly. We learned our lesson that day.
For dinner that evening, Traci and I took the advice of some of the World of Greenland guides and made a reservation at the Marmartut restaurant for some Greenlandic cuisine. We had the nicest hotel shuttle driver that evening. This young Greenlandic guy did not speak much English. When we arrived at the drop-off point in town, he turned to Traci and me and asked where we were going. He somehow understood my mangled pronunciation of the restaurant and motioned for us to stay in the van. He drove us several blocks up the hill to the entrance of the restaurant.
Traci and I were the first customers that evening at the restaurant. We were seated at a table that gave us a great view of the colorful town with the icebergs of Disko Bay in the background. The food was pretty good. I had the fish soup and Greenlandic lamb for my first two courses while Traci had the shrimp dish and the fish plate for hers. We shared the dessert sampler which was excellent. It was a 3-hour dinner. The time between courses was very long. This was our most expensive meal in Greenland. Its price converted to $144. However, this was not what bothered us the most since everything in Greenland is expensive. What really left a bad taste in our mouths was that the restaurant had charged us for tap water. This was the only restaurant we encountered during our trip that did this.
It was close to 10 PM when Traci and I left the restaurant and I was blown away by how bright it still was outside. During our walk to the hotel shuttle pick-up point, we saw children riding bikes, a soccer game in progress at the field, and people out and about.
dog sled crossing sign
We had the same nice, shuttle driver who gave us door-to-door service earlier. He did not head directly back to the hotel. Instead, he drove through the neighborhood and dropped off two locals. When it was just Traci and me left, he continued driving through the residential areas where we saw more of the brightly-colored houses. I thought maybe this was a different route back to the hotel but I noticed the driver would slow down or stop anytime I took out my camcorder to record the scenery. I finally realized the driver was giving us a tour. The language barrier prevented any narration.
I noticed many of the houses had either a dog sled or snowmobile in the yard. These two modes of transportation are still common when the town freezes over in the bitterly cold winter. The Greenlandic sled dogs are beasts of burden - not house pets. They are closely related to wolves and will bite if you come too close. No other breed is allowed above the Arctic Circle in Greenland. There are as many dogs as there are people in Ilulissat. By law, the adult dogs must be chained. During the summer, they are kept in large fields around the town. A small dog field even exists behind the Hotel Arctic where we were staying. No matter where we were in Ilulissat, we always knew when it was feeding time by the sound that fills the air. These dogs don't do much barking. Instead, they yelp, howl, and bow wow. I had no idea what this strange chorus was during our first afternoon in Ilulissat because I had never heard anything like it. By the end of our stay, it was a sound I had come to associate with the town.
Our driver paused in front of a big dog field where hundreds of sled dogs were lazing in the sun. He then continued driving up into the hills past more Lego-like houses until we came to an endpoint with the most gorgeous view of the town and the bay. The driver motioned us to step out of the van for better pictures. We accepted his invitation but the photos just could not capture the beauty of this place. Continue...