“Sunday in Ilulissat, Greenland…only one restaurant open which is fully booked and only one bar open that doesn’t do snacks plus shops closed. Only one type of beer in town so that will be my liquid dinner and looks like I won’t eat til I get to Iceland about 24 hours from now. I planned for lots of problems but not a lack of food. Wish me luck cos I’m going to need it!”
That was a Facebook post from my last day in Greenland. A few hours earlier I’d arrived on the Arctic Umiaq ferry at Ilulissat, dodging giant ice bergs and whales on the way into the harbour before docking at a tiny port. The majority of tourists who come to Greenland focus their time around Ilulissat, some spending a week here exploring the area and taking excursions further into the arctic to explore the landscape and icefields. It is known to be the main visitor hotspot in Greenland and when I booked my hotel 5-months earlier I’d taken one of the last rooms left in town. So as the ferry docked I expected to find the most developed tourist infrastructure I’d seen so far. I imagined I’d disembark the ferry, find a taxi to take me to my hotel where I’d check-in at reception then head out to explore the town on foot before having dinner at one of the restaurants or cafes. I think that sounds like a fairly reasonable expectation even if it was a Sunday.
I walked down the gangway onto the busy dock where there were a handful of private cars meeting passengers as well as a few hotel shuttles but none for me. I saw one or two taxis speeding away with passengers who had disembarked before me. I walked around looking for a taxi or perhaps someone meeting me from my hotel but within a few minutes the dock turned into a ghost town. I looked for some kind of tourist information or a map to help me find where I needed to go but there was nothing. I remembered on the boat they’d given us town maps so I got mine out hoping to locate my hotel but the map had no street names on it, an interesting concept for a street map.
A mild panic was beginning to creep over me because in all my years of traveling I’d never been in a situation where there just didn’t seem to be any option nor had I ever been given a map with no street names on it thus making it impossible to find my own way. I mean at a last resort walking is always an option right? But if your map is unmarked I guess you just wander in ever increasing circles until you find what you are looking for, assuming you know what that looks like and when I looked more closely at the tiny black and white picture on my hotel confirmation I was horrified to see that this looked like a house, not a hotel. Not only that but it looked like pretty much every other house in Greenland and I couldn’t make out the color.
I recognised a group of Danish passengers I’d got friendly with on the ferry walking up a steep hill so I followed. I knew they were going to explore the town for a few hours before returning to the ferry so I figured they might help me out with finding a taxi or at least a proper map. Greenlandic is the official language followed by Danish and whilst English is widely spoken it can be a bit of a struggle so it is always handy to have a Dane around. As I caught up to them I called out and joked about being lost with a useless map. They ignored me. I was thrown by that but I was desperate now so I increased my pace up the hill (not easy with my bags), eventually thrusting myself in the middle of their group then repeated that I didn’t know how to find my hotel or a taxi. Whilst they smiled, agreed that they were a bit lost too and gave a brief attempt at being sympathetic they largely just kept talking amongst themselves in Danish before making a quick getaway. I stood in shock for a while as I’d never had that happen to me before. Usually tourists will band together to help each other out in situations like that. As I stood there contemplating this rejection I realised that my chest hurt, my head was thumping, I was sweating way more than I should have been and my throat was on fire. With horror I acknowledged that not only was I lost and abandoned but I was also sick.
Sometimes when I talk with people who don’t travel much they ask questions about my solo travels such as ‘Don’t you get scared?’ or ‘Don’t you worry about getting lost?’. I tell them that you’ll always find a way out of a jam if you just take a deep breath and calmly analyse a situation. So that is what I did. As my Danish deserters disappeared around a corner I looked for clues as to where the town centre was. Normally you’d do this by looking for signs for things like municipal buildings, taller and more concentrated buildings or where most of the traffic was heading. All of these clues were non-existent so I simply looked for the best paved roads and tried to remember which direction the taxis had gone in. Eventually I found myself at a small junction on top of a rocky hill that had a handful of cafes and a couple of tourist offices around it. I looked in vain for somewhere to buy some throat lozenges and eventually walked into a tour operator’s office-come-gift shop and asked for directions. Nobody had heard of my hotel but somebody thought they recognised the house from the photo and were able to use the map with no street names to give me a vague idea of where to go. So off I went.
It turned out to be a 15-minute walk and now that I had a more specific idea of where I was going I relaxed a bit and took in the town of Ilulissat. It was extremely pretty with quaint wooden houses, streets at odd angles that were built simply to find the path of least resistance around the rocks, and lots of wildflowers poking through bright green grass. Here and there a gap between the houses gave a lovely view of the harbour and whilst my health was deteriorating by the second my mood was lifting.
I got to the road where my hotel was supposed to be which was opposite Hotel Icefjord, one of the main hotels in Ilulissat. I’d already begun to accept that this wasn’t a hotel but a house and was just hoping that it wouldn’t be run by some creepy guy who wanted to take advantage of solo travellers. I walked up and down the patch of road where it was supposed to be a few times as there was no sign and no street number I could distinguish. I’d stand outside houses and compare them to the miniature grainy photo on my confirmation and this eventually lead to me clambering up some wooden steps and over children’s toys before knocking on someone’s back door. There I found a woman doing some laundry who thankfully seemed to be expecting me.
My ‘hotel’ turned out to be a kind of annexe in her house that she’d converted into a pleasant 2-bedroom apartment with a kitchen and bathroom. She rented the rooms individually so I would be sharing my little house with another person but the place was modern, clean and comfortable with no creepy guys in sight. I asked about shops and it turns out I’d pretty much already found the only ones in town and they would be closed in an hour anyway. I had no food or water as I’d been expecting to find that on arrival but she said I could eat at the hotel over the road which also had a bar. Great. So I took my sick self off to bed for a few hours intending to eat a hearty meal that evening before spending the rest of the night sleeping off my cold.
I woke at about 6pm and made my way to the hotel which looked very nice, especially the restaurant which was next to a small bar that lead onto a huge deck with magnificent harbour views. There didn’t appear to be anyone in the restaurant so I went to the bar and asked about dinner only to be told they were full. After a bit of back and forth the barman made it clear that there was absolutely no way for me to get a meal there or anywhere else in Ilulissat that night. Further to that they didn’t do bar snacks and they were the only bar open in town. He said he could get me some peanuts but other than that I’d be drinking beer for dinner. Oh and there was only one kind of beer left in Ilulissat too. At this point I hadn’t eaten anything for about 8 hours and the prospect of trying to sleep through the midnight sun whilst starving hungry and sick didn’t appeal. I could almost feel my Doctor’s disapproving gaze boring into me all the way from his surgery in New Zealand as I made the decision to just get drunk and eat peanuts. At least that way I’d get some sleep and the alcohol would dampen down my cold symptoms for a while. And besides, I was all out of options at that point.
I informed the barman of my plan to have a 5 course dinner of beer, ordered an incredibly expensive bowl of peanuts then made my way onto the deck where I sat in the warm sun whilst watching icebergs and whales make their way through the bay. I decided to switch on my cell phone data so I could make the Facebook update I opened this post with and hopefully get some sympathy from my friends around the world who didn’t disappoint.
With no sunset in sight time became distorted so I have no idea what time I left the bar but I do know that thanks to my completely empty stomach I didn’t make it all the way to five beers as I was feeling tipsy after just one. So at some point I made my way back to my room and managed a fitful sleep until about 6am when I woke to discover that a diet of beer and peanuts seems to cure the common cold and that your own arm looks appetising when you haven’t had a decent meal in a long time.
The landlady had booked a taxi to the airport the day before that I never really expected to materialize and it didn’t. So I spent half an hour wandering around this deserted part of town flagging down anything that looked like a taxi and figuring out how long it would take to walk to the airport if necessary before I finally got a ride to yet another tiny terminal. I found a small kiosk inside that sold me something resembling a sandwich that may or may not have had a rubber chicken in it but was grateful to at least have something in my stomach. Before long I had boarded an Air Iceland Q400, a large prop that was to fly us for about 4-hours to Reykyavik via a refuel in Kangarlussuaq.
As we flew back over the ice cap on our way to Iceland I had mixed feelings about leaving Greenland. I had set out to discover what on earth this remote and unpopulated place was all about. Who lived there? What did they do? What did it look like on the ground? In that sense I’d achieved my goal. I found a stunning country so remote that it felt like I’d finally reached the end of the Earth. I’d seen how Greenlanders live and learned about what they do. I was taken with the tiny remote communities they lived in along the coastline and by the friendly ever-smiling people I met. Yet I was saddened by the disruption to their traditions I’d seen in Nuuk and the resulting impact on their culture and society. Much of Greenland left me perplexed such as the lack of tourist infrastructure in their main tourist destination of Ilulissat and the fact that despite attempts to attract tourism there is a complete lack of basic things like signs and maps, even at airports. And don’t get me started on the fact that a tourist can’t get a meal on a Sunday in their main tourist destination leaving the tourist hungry and the town short of the money said tourist would have spent.
All in all I loved my experience there. In today’s world it is hard to find a place like Greenland where you still have to work hard as a visitor to find your way around. Even if you research online at sites like Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor you don’t find a whole lot of information like you would about equally undiscovered destinations in Asia, South America or Africa. Most people just don’t think to make a trip to Greenland, especially people who aren’t Danish.
My prediction (and my wish) is that Greenland will soon find its feet as a tourist destination. I don’t think it will ever be a huge one that will be overrun with backpackers and people on package holidays simply because the climate and geology won’t ever lend itself to putting in the necessary roads and other basic infrastructure needed to sustain large numbers of visitors. However, I think it can and should invest in improvements that will attract more visitors, maximise on their spending and encourage them to engage with traditional ways of life along with the environment. I am aware my tourism background might make me a little biased but I truly believe that if tourism is developed and managed in a sustainable manner that it has the potential to protect the environment and culture of a place whilst offering huge economic impact in a way that industries relying on other natural resources such as gas, oil, mining or forestry just can’t do. It would be wonderful to see Greenland take this on but in the meantime if you get the chance to go there then you should. You won’t have experienced anything quite like it before and you probably won’t again.
Greenland Travel Tips
Book early. Then book even earlier. This isn’t necessarily going to save you money as this is a pricey destination but you risk simply not being able to find availability on planes, boats and in hotels. I would suggest booking a minimum of 6 months ahead.
Don’t be shy of package trips. I didn’t use one because I couldn’t afford the single supplements but booking all of my own travel was extremely challenging even though I’ve worked in the industry my whole life. In addition to group tours the tour operators offer independent itineraries which basically just means they act as a travel agent with you still dictating the locations, pace, activities and if you want to be in a group or alone. They’ll also arrange airport transfers which can be challenging in many locations to do yourself.
You don’t need to spend more than a half a day in Nuuk although you could fill up a day with museums and shopping. Focus your time on smaller towns like Ilulissat which is beautiful and offers lots of things to do.
Do the Arctic Umiaq ferry. I thought it was excellent value for money and I got to see everything I wanted to as you can read about in this blog post. In all honesty you could come to Greenland and just do this ferry, starting in Nuuk or further south then finishing with a few nights in Ilulissat or vice-versa. If you make the most of the free shore excursions on the way you will definitely get a comprehensive Greenland experience.
Don’t buy special arctic gear if you are visiting in summer. You should be able to find the clothes you need in your own wardrobe already and be prepared to be adding and removing layers all day.
Best Websites for Booking & Researching Greenland: Greenland Tourism (a very comprehensive site with lots of handy links) | Air Greenland | Air Iceland | Arctic Umiaq Line | Booking.com (seems to be the only generic booking site with the full range of Greenland hotels)
Greenland Questions? I plan to write a post all about the difficult task of planning independent travel to Greenland at a later date but if you are organising a trip now feel free to ask me a question in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer if I can. I’d also love to hear from any English-speaking specialist Greenland retail travel agents around the world because I couldn’t find any!