Greenland Has Much to Offer for Those Who Dare to Visit

Article excerpt

THERE we were, floating around in a pool of geothermally heated, 85-degree water, contemplating just how far we had traveled from any place even remotely familiar.

We had stripped to our bathing suits in air that was 40 degrees, at best, in the company of Danish tourists who, like us, were taking a break from the coldness by basking in the local hot springs.

But what made the scene so surreal was feeling the warmth all around us while, at the same time, gazing out over outstretched toes and seeing massive icebergs gently bobbing by in the nearby fjord. Only in Greenland. The feeling recurs repeatedly in a place that is both the largest island in the world - half again as big as the entire state of Alaska - and one of the most spectacularly barren. Situated in the North Atlantic between northernmost Canada and Iceland, Greenland is sparsely populated with only 55,000 residents, and 85 percent of the land area is permanently covered with ice thousands of feet thick that has been accumulating for 2 million years. But lining the perimeter are scenes of beauty without parallel: A short hike in the hills behind any of the small towns or tiny villages that hug the shoreline affords an unobstructed and majestic view over fjord after ice-choked fjord. There are few luxuries in a place visited every year by only 12,000 tourists. But those who dare come face to face with the sapphire blue of the massive inland ice and stroll through the ruins of Norse colonies that mysteriously perished 500 years ago. The weather is extreme, it is true - even in late August and early September, during our stay, the mercury hovered mostly between 35 and 50 degrees, and in winter the temperatures in the north are said to reach as low as 100 degrees below zero. Getting around isn't easy either; there are no paved roads linking any two communities, and almost all travel is by boat or plane. But the sheer majesty of the nearly omnipresent ice - whether amassed in glaciers that unfurled like fingers into mountain-lined valleys or floating by as icebergs of every imaginable shape and size - more than compensates for the challenging logistics. Our first glimpse of the ice came, as it does for many visitors, from the air, as our plane from Iceland descended into Narsarsuaq, a community at the southernmost tip of Greenland and one of only about a half-dozen towns in Greenland with enough flat land to accommodate a runway. The airstrip was built when the U.S. military established a base there in 1941, a base the U.S. government abandoned in 1958. Denmark, the colonial power in Greenland, later turned the base into a civilian airport, and Narsarsuaq - which is on roughly the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, or Oslo, Norway - has since become a main point of entry for visitors from abroad, mostly from Denmark. Narsarsuaq provides a fair introduction to what a tourist can expect in terms of "luxury." The troop barracks cum hotel, Hotel Narsarsuaq, has been renovated with the best of intentions, but it could never be des cribed as more than clean and spartan. The hotel restaurant, which is more or less the only eatery in a community whose residents number a couple of hundred, is decent, nothing more. We ate a dinner of local halibut and lamb, but we discovered right away that we would be taking a vacation from fresh vegetables. We left Narsarsuaq the next day and began a week of unforgettable vistas, breathtaking boat rides and several rigorous but rewarding hikes, the first of which came in the next community we stopped in, Narsaq. Like many places in Greenland, the town of 2,000 is named for its most prominent geographical feature, the broad plain that extends behind the town and up between two towering peaks. For three miles, we followed the increasingly steep path along a stream that flowed from the glacier we were determined to reach. Melting snow also poured down waterfalls that lined the ridges that formed the valley. …

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