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Ilulissat means "iceberg" in Greenlandic. One look and it's obvious where the town got its name. On a clear day, the landscape is truly surreal. Hundreds of icebergs surround Ilulissat. They vary in shape from flat-topped hunks to jagged mountain peaks and in size from small doghouses to mega-cruise ships and larger. And that's just the part above the surface!
The icebergs originate from the Jakobshavn Glacier, called Sermeq Kujalleq in Greenlandic. It is the most active glacier in the world outside Antarctica. The bergs collect at the mouth of the fjord just outside the harbor.
All this ice has recently put Greenland in the news and on travelers' radar screen with concerns about global warming. The country is officially part of Denmark, though it has been self-governed since 1979. It's the largest island on earth and would stretch from New York City to Denver if tilted on its side. Roughly 85 percent of the land is covered by the polar icecap. The coastal areas, where towns like Ilulissat are located, are free of snow in summer, making exploration by cruise ship a hassle-free way to go. Beginning in 2007, this far off-the-beaten-path destination has become accessible with Hurtigruten's new ship, the Fram, spending entire summers cruising Greenland itineraries.
Ilulissat, the hub of the west coast Disko Bay region, is the country's third largest town, boasting a population of roughly 4,500 people and at least as many sled dogs. Located about 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it is the most accessible place to see both massive icebergs and the polar icecap. For this reason, tourism here is on the rise. The town offers a variety of hotel accommodations and half a dozen tour operators.
No roads lead to Ilulissat. Access is by air or local ferry service. Visiting cruise ships include Hurtigruten's Fram, which calls once a week in summer, and the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov. The midnight sun shines here from late May through July. Having daylight 24/7 is a boon for sightseeing and for navigating through a sea full of icebergs.
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Other Baltic & Northern Europe Cruise Ports:
Aarhus • Amsterdam • Bergen • Bremerhaven • Copenhagen • Flam • Gdansk • Geiranger • Helsinki • Ilulissat • Moscow • Odessa • Oslo • Reykjavik • Riga • Rostock (Warnemunde) • Spitsbergen (Svalbard) • St. Petersburg • Stavanger • Stockholm • Tallinn • Travemunde (Lubeck) • Trondheim • Visby
Greenlandic, an Inuit dialect, and Danish are the official languages. Some children learn English in school, and resident Danes usually speak English. Don't count on being understood if you stop someone on the road. Go to one of the souvenir shops instead. Greenlandic is said to be one of the hardest languages to learn. You can practice by saying "kutaa" (KO'-daa) for "hello."
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the Danish krone (DKK), about 5.5 to the U.S. dollar. Check www.oanda.com or www.xe.com for current rates. There is an ATM at the Bank of Greenland, open weekdays 6 a.m. - 6 p.m. Good news: Many restaurants and shops take Visa and Mastercard. Bad news: Most add a 5-percent service fee for credit card purchases. It's a good idea to carry some cash. Euros are generally okay. U.S. dollars are rarely accepted.
"Tupilaks" are funny little carvings of weird looking characters, usually made from caribou antler, soapstone, driftwood, walrus tusk or bone. They were once used like hex dolls to cast evil spells. Now, they are said to ward off evil spirits, and they definitely create good fortune for their makers. If you're tempted to buy one, remember it's illegal to bring home artifacts made of certain marine mammals. Be sure to ask if you will need a CITES permit for customs.
Where You're Docked
Ships anchor outside the main harbor where there's a good chance of being right next to an iceberg. The inner harbor is filled with small fishing boats, and your ship's tenders or Zodiacs must travel at slower-than-normal speeds while taking passengers ashore. From the dock, it's a fairly short climb up the wooden stairs to reach town.
Everything is a few minute's walk from the dock -- souvenir shops, hotels, museums, the bank, you name it.
This is a really small place. Walking is the best, easiest and fastest way to get around. You can circle the whole of Ilulissat in 25 minutes or less. Get a map from the ship or stop by just about any shop and ask for one. Most of the places you're likely to go are marked on the map. You don't need a street address, and you can't get lost.
Yes, there are taxis and occasional van-type buses if you can communicate with drivers who probably don't speak English, and if you have Danish money to pay the fare. Bus fare is 10 DKK (about $2).
Watch Out For
The sled dogs. They may look like pets, but these dogs are used to pull sleds in Greenland and are bred to work, not to be your best friend. You'll see them by the dozen, snoozing in front of practically every house. By law, they have to be tied up. Even so, if you get too close, they growl and snap at you. Beware of the really cute puppies. They can run free until they are five months old, and they may or may not be the friendly type.
Mosquitoes. Don't let all that ice fool you. Mosquitoes thrive in Greenland, particularly in July and August. Bring your bug spray and keep covered up.
Icebergs: The town's claim to fame is ice. You don't have to go on a tour to see the huge bergs. Just walk to any high viewpoint, and you'll see them. If you want to get up close, your ship and every local tour office offers trips out to the ice in small boats.
Museum: Displays in the Knud Rasmussen Museum show typical Greenlandic dress and tell the town's history. Ilulissat was founded in 1741 as a trading post. Whale blubber and train engine oil (from whales) were shipped to Copenhagen in exchange for coffee, tobacco and guns. Moving to the present, shrimp, halibut and tourism are the main industries. The museum occupies the large red house where Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen was born in 1879. Open 10 a.m. - 4 p.m., weekdays; 1 - 4 p.m. Sundays. Entrance: 25 DKK (about $4.65).
Souvenir shopping: For sealskin mittens, jackets, boots and toys, check out the shop in the small, unnamed red building between Spar Bank and a shop called Sara. For high-quality crafts and souvenirs, don't miss the shop with the big sign that reads "Greenland Tours, Elke Meissner." The owner, Elke Meissner, speaks excellent English and is a wealth of information about the town and local activities.
Been There, Done That
Historic site: The ancient settlement of Sermermiut was first inhabited more than 4,000 years ago by the Saqqaq people, who were the first people to migrate to Greenland. The Dorset culture moved in around 500 B.C. What you'll see here are the remains of 18th-century houses and ancient pre-Christian graves. You can walk to Sermermiut. Allow about two hours.
Art: A collection of Greenlandic art can be seen at the Emanuel A. Petersen Art Gallery. The paintings, mostly by Danish artist Emanuel Petersen, depict local scenes, which means icebergs, ships and Inuit people. The photography exhibit, in particular, is worth the visit. Open Tuesday - Friday, 1 - 4 p.m. Entrance: 25 DKK (about $4.65).
Grocery shopping: Pisiffik is a general store selling food, clothes and housewares. It's interesting to see reindeer chops in the freezer next to the halibut. Best of all is the large selection of wine. At around $20 a bottle you may want to stock up for the ship, as long as they allow you to bring alcohol onboard.
Ilulissat sits on a cliff overlooking a sea filled with spectacular icebergs, so why not pick a restaurant with windows on the waterfront? Unless you're at the far end of town, that should be a piece of cake.
Rustic with a View: Hong Kong Cafe serves both the familiar (hamburgers for about $6.50) and the new (whale curry for $12.60). If you're not feeling adventuresome, you can always order chicken or beef curry off the English menu. The cafe is open 10 a.m. - 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and noon - 8 p.m. on Sundays.
Casual Snacking: The Hotel Hvide Falk (White Falcon) is perched on a bluff overlooking the harbor. You can grab a pizza to go from $11 (small) to $18 (large).
Greenlandic Buffet Experience: Both the Hotel Hvide Falk and the Hotel Arctic (newer, nicer and on the opposite side of town) offer typical Greenlandic buffets. Check first, as these feasts don't happen every day. The Hotel Arctic's Restaurant Ulo serves their feast on Monday evenings. A few of the specialties you'll find are musk ox soup, "mattak" (whale fat), shrimp, scallops, marinated salmon and halibut, steamed catfish, smoked whale, reindeer and lamb. The price for the meal runs about $45.
Best Overall: Seeing icebergs from the ship is amazing. Seeing them up close from a small fishing boat is breathtaking. When the little boat shuts off its engine, you can hear the bergs rumble and crack. There's a chance of spotting seals and whales, too.
Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip: Climb into a helicopter for fabulous views above the polar icecap and the icebergs.
For Active Travelers: Hike to the Sermermiut settlement to see what remains of the gravesites of Greenland's first inhabitants over 4,000 years ago. A bonus of this excursion is a presentation about Greenlandic sled dogs.
Taste Sensation: A Greenlandic buffet is a feast of local, unusual fish fare, plus meats like reindeer and musk ox. If you want to be sure of getting a chance to eat like a native, book the group excursion.
Staying in Touch
The Hotel Hvide Falk, a five-minute walk from the dock, has two computers for checking your e-mail. They charge 25 DKK (about $4.60) for 30 minutes. It's easier to use your ship's Internet cafe, and the price is probably about the same.
For More Information
On the Web: Greenland Tourist Board and www.greenlandguide.gl.
--by Ginger Dingus. San Francisco-based Dingus is a cruise and train journalist, whose work has appeared in a myriad of outlets, including Cruise Travel Magazine and The New York Daily News. Her contributions to Cruise Critic include ship reviews, port profiles and destination features.
The main image appears courtesy of Manfred Horender. The image of the houses appears courtesy of the Greenland Tourist Board. The cruise ship image appears courtesy of Signe Vest. The dog sled image appears courtesy of Fililppo Barbanera. The image of Ilulissat in summer appears courtesy of Steen Karup.