I'm sitting atop a small hill of smooth rock watching centuries of history drift by. In front of me, Disko Bay is filled with icebergs - big ones, smooth ones, small ones. They seem to be waiting, glinting in the midnight sun. It's approaching 11 p.m. in this village north of the Arctic Circle, but the sun is still two arms' lengths away from the horizon and won't set for a couple of weeks.
From my perch, it's the scale of the scene, not the beauty of each iceberg, that is most impressive. The view is both peaceful and striking. It's one of those travel-earned vistas that stays in your mind: the red rooftops of Florence from the Campanile, the golden forts of Jaisalmer at sunset, and, here, the shimmering white icebergs of Greenland pausing in the bay. They are manifestations of great spans of time, formed from the yearly accumulation of snow compacted into ice over centuries. In drilling ice samples from the icepack - which swathes much of the island - scientists have dated core ice to 200,000 years or older. This is about the time when homo sapiens began to roam the African savanna.
But the icebergs' stillness, however, is an illusion. As I pull open the thick curtains at Hotel Arctic and look out onto Disko Bay, the view shifts. One morning, the change is especially dramatic. Some time through the quiet night, a thousand bergs have moved closer; the harbour is choked with small bergs known as growlers, and the larger ones - an icy mountain range - now loom near the edge of town.
While Greenland often draws a passing glance on a polar-route flight or conjures up Vikings - or the 10th-century marketing spin by Erik the Red, who came up with the island's contrary name - today, the country is becoming known as a destination at the forefront of climate change.
The ice cap on the world's largest island is melting at an alarming rate. The ice cap - which along with Antarctica holds 98 per cent of the world's reserve of fresh water - now loses 100 to 150 cubic kilometres of ice every year, more than all the glacial ice in the Alps. And this scary statement is often repeated: If Greenland's ice cap were to melt completely, oceans would rise by seven metres, flooding New York and London and submerging island nations. While this could take centuries, global warming is heating the Arctic faster than anyplace else.
The global-warming spotlight has drawn a stream of high-profile tourists: U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. senator and presidential candidate John McCain and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso. At the upscale, Scandinavian-style Hotel Arctic, I even run into Kevin O'Leary, the tough-talking businessman on the CBC reality-TV show Dragons' Den. He's here to shoot a Discovery Channel program called Ten Ways to Save the Planet, which follows experimental environmental ideas. O'Leary watched as a square acre-sized solar blanket was rolled out onto the icepack to slow the melting. (The blanket appears to work, he said, but the powerful reflection gave anyone walking on it an unusual sunburn - inside the nose.)
Greenland tourism officials, however, are hoping to attract more than politicians and reality-TV stars to this Arctic island, where visitors can track herds of muskoxen, go dog sledding, watch the northern lights or visit Viking ruins. The country recently inked an agreement with a U.K. ad agency to help brand Greenland beyond "polar bears ... and igloos." Air Greenland, meanwhile, launched its first direct flights to the United States in late May - a five-hour flight from Baltimore, Md., to Kangerlussuaq, the island's international hub - with the hopes of attracting North American tourists. The number of visitors to this former Danish colony is rising.
More cruises are stopping. Still, only around 33,000 tourists visit each year, and on the jet from Baltimore, the plane is barely a quarter full. In Greenland, there's still plenty of elbow room.
I arrive in Kangerlussuaq in early July on a warm afternoon for a five-day visit. While a signpost outside the airport points out the flight times to Copenhagen, Los Angeles and the North Pole, the village of 500 comprises little more than the airport. (It's hard to imagine this place as the 8,000-strong U.S. Army base it began as during the Second World War.) After a short wait, I follow the passengers on to the runway to the cherry-red Dash-7 for the 45-minute flight to Ilulissat. With no connecting roads - there are only two stoplights in the whole country - travel is by air or boat.
Ilulissat, whose name means "icebergs" in Greenlandic, is built on humps of glaciated rock near the Ilulissat Icefjord, or Ilulissat Kangerlua as it's called in Greenlandic. The icefjord, which is 55 kilometres long and seven kilometres wide, has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UN body pointed out the unique natural phenomenon of the icefjord - an ice sheet and a fast-moving glacial ice stream calving into an iceberg-choked fjord. The icefjord's tidewater glacier, known as Sermeq Kujalleq, has earned many kudos. It is the most productive glacier in the Northern Hemisphere; every day it calves off enough ice that, if melted, would equal what New York City consumes in a year.
The town of 5,000 (and 6,000 dogs) is also the birthplace of Knud Rasmussen, the Arctic explorer who was the first to cross the Northwest Passage by dogsled. The town is easy to navigate on foot. And although there are only 15 kilometres of roads, cars make the best of it and zip back and forth. Working off a dinner of shrimp and scallop starter, buttery halibut and cream and berry dessert, I take a walk on my first night. Exploring the town, it feels like you're in someone's backyard - the homes, painted yellow, blue or barn red, climb up the hill without the orderly space afforded southern developments. The harbour is filled with small boats and trawlers, and a giant plant for processing shrimp and halibut sits nearby. Children roam about at all hours: at 11 p.m. I pass boys on bikes, teens walking in quiet clumps, two young girls laughing and pushing one another up a hill in an old stroller. Three loose Greenlandic dogs follow each other along the harbour near the brown-painted Zion church and fields of Arctic cotton.
The next morning, I board a covered boat with a small group of fellow travellers and motor out into Disko Bay to see the icebergs up close. Almost immediately, we encounter a humpback whale. We crowd the open back deck and snap photos of its black back, its exhalation of air, and then - wait for it - the slow curve of its body and flash of its marbled tail as it dives down.
We head toward where the icebergs have slowly floated into the bay. The captain, Wilhelm Gemander, talks about the Sermeq glacier, pointing to a map showing how it has retreated - from 1850 to 2003 and, now, off the map. He points out the smooth icebergs that have flipped, the ones still dirty with sand and soil that have not. As for the effects of global warming, he says the real change people have noticed is that Disko Bay no longer freezes over in the winter. Instead of hunting by dogsled, locals go out in boats.
Gemander moved here from Germany 22 years ago, drawn by a love for the North. His love for a Sri Lankan woman, Vijayanthi, brought her here, and in the summer they run Maya Boat Adventures. In the winter, they move to Saqqaq, a village 100 kilometres north. Their daughter, now nine, is the only student in Grade 4, but she speaks five languages. Gemander sets his coffee mug through the open skylight on the roof of the boat, cuts the engine and tells us stories of survival in these cold waters, of a helicopter crash, and bergs suddenly flipping and creating massive waves that can swamp a boat. We listen, eat sandwiches and watch icebergs.
It's easy here to get swept up in the allure of the ice - and Greenland has plenty: inland ice, pack ice, glaciers, sea ice, ice floes and icebergs. On the flight from Baltimore I had been glued to the views of the sea ice off Canada's Baffin Island, reminiscent of the milky way: swirling fields of white in the blue-grey water. Up close, the icebergs alone are unique and fanciful forms soon emerge: One looks like a whale tail, another possesses smooth architectural grace, another is carved with crevasses and straight edges. When I leave Ilulissat the next day, and with my camera battery almost exhausted, I want to stop the van and say: Wait, just one more photo.
"I took over 1,000 photos; I took way too many of ice," Andrew Hyman, a traveller from Austin, Tex., confesses on the plane back home, days later. He talks about camping out at Port Victor near the Eqip Sermia glacier, a three-hour boat ride from Ilulissat, and listening to the glacier move toward the water as he fell asleep. "I had an amazing time," he says, as we watch the sun set for the first time in a week. "Probably some of the most beautiful things I've ever seen ... I was blown away."
The country itself is as I imagined it: the icebergs, the yowling sled dogs, the clouds of mosquitoes, the midnight sun. It's largely treeless, and, yes, in the towns there is grass, and in the south meadows and fields and sheep farming; wildflowers also bloom. But it's the North with a Danish twist.
Once a territory of Denmark, the country now operates on Home Rule. It is independent, but it retains many ties to Denmark: the Danish krone is used; the responsibilities of defence, policing and courts are shared. (Plus, hotel breakfasts include a spread of wholesome bread, sliced meats and soft Danish cheeses, complete with an ingenious giant cheese slicer that impressed the male guests.) Greenlandic and Danish are the primary languages.
But the indigenous culture - similar in many ways to that of the Canadian Inuit - is also present: the stocky, malamute-like Greenlandic dogs (no other breeds are allowed north of the Arctic Circle to preserve the purity of the stock); the airport seats covered not in vinyl but spotted seal skin; a kayak image stamped on the Air Greenland cockpit doors. Tupilaq - skull-like bone carvings originally created as a fetish against enemies - are sold in all the shops and worn around many necks. In the capital of Nuuk, population 15,000, where I later visit, I stop by the kalaaliaraq fish and meat market on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Tables in the open-air building are laid with fresh catches. On one, dried, smoked char tempts. On another, the red meat of a whale - complete with a black fin on display - is laid out. Locals buy, visitors take pictures, and the vendors watch the small group of tourists.
The food - connected to the land -- is a highlight. There are places to get burgers, but there's also plenty of fine dining featuring Greenlandic fare. At a rooftop restaurant in Nuuk's Hotel Hans Egede, named after the Lutheran missionary who founded the capital in 1728, we dine on foie gras, seal soup (fishy, yet with a meaty texture) and seared reindeer filet mignon.
The dining room is decorated with Scandinavian furniture - simple, square, blonde tables, and avant garde art.
As dinner and conversation winds down, the group decides to sample "Greenlandic coffee." The young waiter, dressed in a black cook's apron, explains each step and ingredient: the whipped cream represents the ice, the Grand Marnier, heated to a blue flame, will be the northern lights, and as he warms the whisky, he jokes: "And this is global warming."
Back in Ilulissat, I place headphones on my ears to silence the roar of the helicopter and lift off to fly over the famous icefjord. From above, it's possible to view just how large this frozen river of ice really is. At first, it looks looser, more liquid; as we progress inwards it thickens up. Some icebergs cast large shadows. I see pools of unbelievably clear blue water surrounding another. As we fly inwards, the fjord is so packed with bergs that it's not easy to see where the glacier is moving forward from the inland ice - even though it flows at speeds of 20 to 22 metres a day and has accelerated in recent years.
No one aboard says anything - you can't with the noise - but if they did, I think they would echo my murmurs of wonder.
The Icelandic pilot turns around and settles the helicopter on a flat outcrop near the fjord. I disembark and crunch around on the lichen and among the wildflowers. We have the glacier to ourselves. It's hard to absorb the scope of it all in the 30 minutes we have here. It's massive. It's ancient. And yes, it is melting, faster than anyone might have imagined.
Pack your bags
Air Greenland: 1-877-245-0739; . The Baltimore to Kangerlussuaq flights started in May and run until Aug. 30. The airline plans to run the twice-weekly service in May, 2008. The flights starts at $1,100 a person. (The carrier this year contracted the U.S. flights to ATA Airlines).
Flights within the country range in cost: From Kangerlussuaq to Ilulissat return, around $495; from Kangerlussuaq to Nuuk, around $543. Year-round, major airlines fly to Copenhagen (with fall flights starting at $950), and from there, it's a 4 ½-hour flight (around $1,000) on Air Greenland to Kangerlussuaq.
It's possible to travel independently; English is spoken by many in the tourism industry and towns are small enough that one can easily find one's way around. A number of companies also offer package tours. They include:
Copenhagen; 45 331-31011; Greenland-travel.com . The company organizes cruises, as well as summer and winter adventures. A four-day "Glacier Heaven" tour of Ilulissat, including flights, hotel and some meals, was priced from $3,100 this summer.
Cupertino, Calif.; 1-800-252-4910 or 408-252-4910; . Offering a 12-day "Voyage of Discovery to Warming Island, Greenland," an island in East Greenland that was discovered in 2005 to have emerged from under the ice cap. From $5,368, plus airfare.
The Great Canadian Travel Company
Winnipeg; 204-949-0199 or 1-800-661-3830; . A 12-day "Greenland Kayak Adventure Trip," including kayaking and camping around the fjords of Uummannaq, north of Ilulissat, was priced from $7,440 from Baltimore this summer.
Mississauga, Ont.; 1-800-363-7566 or 905-271-4000; . A 13-day "Greenland and Wild Labrador" cruise that follows the Vikings from Greenland to Southern Labrador is offered in September. Costs from $3,245.
Where to Stay
Ilulissat; 299 94 41 53; . A superior double room starts at $349 a night, including breakfast buffet.
Hotel Hvide Falk
Ilulissat; 299 94 33 43; . A double room starts at around $262 a night, including breakfast.
Hotel Hans Egede
Nuuk; 299 34 80 00; . A double room starts at around $310, including breakfast buffet.
The Danish kroner is used. Travelling in the country is not cheap - hotels, airfare, fine dining. A Greenlandic coffee (pumped with alcohol) costs around $25 at Hotel Hans Egede. Yet at the grocery store, you can buy a package of fusilli pasta for $1.35 or a Kinder egg for $1.50. A 12-minute hotel call back to Canada cost about $9.
Greenland guide: .