Ilulissat, Greenland – A City of Icebergs
Another of our bucket list destinations (well Garth’s) is Greenland. It’s the world’s largest island with a tiny population of just 57,000 people. Incredibly about 80% of the country is covered in a thick ice cap. We have a huge map on our dining room wall, on it the massive land mass of Greenland dominates the map. The country and its remoteness has always intrigued us, so we finally decided to book a trip! We wanted to experience this country’s natural wilderness and iconic icebergs. Garth researched for weeks prices and where to go and decided on Ilulissat in the West of Greenland. We figured out the cheapest option would be to go via Iceland’s small city airport, you can also go via Copenhagen. We managed to bag some cheap flights in advance with Icelandair to get to Reykjavík first (It’s worth subscribing to their email list to get the cheapest offers) so we added a whole extra trip to see South Iceland with a few days stopover. So we didn’t actually save any money!
Flying into Ilulissat
We read the approach into Ilulissat would be good, and it certainly was. Looking out you see bright blue lakes dotted around top of a glacier, they’re called meltwater lakes. You get this view for free, instead of taking a sightseeing plane to see them!
As the approach gets lower to Ilulissat Airport it just gets better as you catch your first glimpse of Disko Bay and the icebergs, it’s really exciting! The bay looks littered with with polystyrene bits and you have no idea of the scale of them even the shadow of the airplane doesn’t really help. Until you see a few houses on the waters edge. Before you know it, touchdown! and onwards to the world’s smallest luggage conveyor belt!
Ilulissat – Love at first sight
After a 5 minute transfer from the airport we arrived at our home for the next 4 nights – Hotel Arctic. Yes it was expensive, as is everything in Greenland, but definitely worth it for the spectacular views and the experience of a lifetime! It’s the world’s most northerly 4 star hotel, as they proudly boasted.
The hotel has one incredible view of Ilulissat and Disko Bay with all its icebergs, we absolutely loved it. After checking in we quickly got a couple of Greenlandic beers and just sat outside on the terrace absorbing this alien view we were seeing. Garth’s initial reaction, apart from the icebergs asked why is it so different? then we realised there are no trees, none anywhere.
A quick note about dinner if you are going to stay at Hotel Arctic. On the day we arrived we decided to eat at 6.30pm but told we would have to make a reservation and come back after 9pm even though we were staying as half board guests. This was not mentioned when you check-in.
A Rainbow coloured city
Ilulissat lies In the west of Greenland. It’s a small town about 4,500 people live here and so do 4,000 sled dogs! You realise just how small it is when you start wandering around. Views of Ilulissat are gorgeous everywhere. With dozens of homes all painted in bright colours set against the dark mountain backdrop of the icy blue Disko Bay, it’s pretty easy getting a great photo.
The rainbow coloured wooden houses look like something out of a Pantone colour swatch book, so vivid and pretty. Their simplicity in design reminded us of the basic houses you would draw as a child in play school.
The town is full of mesmerising scenery – Summer is the best time, as the ice breaks up creating hundreds of giant and small icebergs that drift majestically through the bay. The only annoying thing was the number of mosquitos in the summer. They are everywhere, and yes you will be bitten (even on Garth’s face!) but they are not like the European ones, the bites aren’t as itchy!
Touching Icebergs at midnight
So this is Ilulissat’s must do attraction and what we’ve really come for, to get up close and personal with one of the world’s best natural wonders, icebergs! and so late at night, weird.
There are a few trips on offer with a couple of tour operators that operate out of Illulissat. We paid for a boat trip with Greenland Travel boarded at 10pm and headed out of the harbour. The boat held around 15 people and was toasty warm inside, which you need to get respite occasionally from the icy cold temperatures out at sea.
The boat trip starts with great views of Ilulissat with magnificent icebergs in the foreground.
As you travel further out into Disko Bay you meet the gigantic icebergs some more than 190 metres above the water. These ones are actually stuck on the sea bed as they are so big and could take up to over a year to move or break up. As you sit and wonder about these beauties infront of your eyes, it really is an extraordinary experience.
The icebergs are just incredible, hard to describe the colossal sight of them floating by in isolation in the bay. They are all perfectly white with hints of blue like a washing powder commercial. You’ll never notice them moving but turn your back for half an hour and the biggest ones you remember in one place will be some place else. You also forget the majority of the iceberg is probably lurking beneath the water. From a distance they also look tiny as it’s difficult to try and work out their scale until a boat sails past.
We learnt there are two types of ice – White and black. White are typical of the icebergs you see. It’s white because it has air bubbles in it, so it’s less dense, we held a piece to our ear you can hear it pop, like Rice Krispies – snap crackle and pop! Each time a bit of an ice berg melts and drop off it upsets its centre of gravity, so you get to see the different water lines on them as they move in and out of the water and at some point the whole thing can flip over to reveal rich the textures that have been hidden under the water, like in one in the photo above.
Black ice is much denser as there’s no air in it, so it’s heavier and more difficult to spot in the water as it’s crystal clear. We were lucky on a different day to see an iceberg flip over – the moment the raw power of nature happens!
So it was time for a little break, to our surprise the boat pulled up right over an iceberg, so everyone on the boat could touch an iceberg! awesome. Then Kim our guide fished out a piece of black ice, which we smashed off chunks and enjoyed a whisky and Baileys on the rocks with fresh chips of iceberg ice! How cool is that?!
There’s a golden hour where you see the icebergs change in front of you from shades of blue and white to orange. The midnight sun is really disorientating, returning to the hotel at 1am and its still daylight, you completely lose track of time. Each evening as we headed to bed in the daylight like overnight shift workers, we began to wonder how the Greenlanders handled life, living with months of daylight in the summer and then around 3 months of dark days in the winter. It’s only the dark Auroa nights that would appeal to us!
The Incredible Icefjord
Next up we took the blue trail hike from the old heliport in Ilulissat to see the icefjord at Sermermiut. When we say hike, it more of an easy walk as most of the way there is on a raised gangway to protect the flora. The icefjord is where all the icebergs gather from calvings of the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier before heading out into Disko Bay. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has to be one of the most northerly in the world.
Under the surface is the permanently frozen earth, Phil felt this permafrost, its about about 30cm down, we also passed a tsunami warning and various alpine plants just coming into flower.
You can actually smell the icebergs in the air. It’s a fresh unpolluted scent as your nostrils swell and breathe it in, quite similar to when you open your freezer at home, but on a much bigger scale. Before reaching the best view of the ice fjord you pass an old settlement where different Inuit cultures lived for 4,000 years. You could really imagine the settlers that have lived there over time, living in small communities with their huts looking out over the icebergs, women waiting for the men folk to return from the icy cold waters with food of fish and seals. While the men were fishing, the women would make things from the skins to clothe their families.
As you get closer to Sermermiut, you get the first glimpse of the icefjord and the gigantic sized icebergs in the distance, incredible.
Then big reveal – the view of the icefjord as you climb to the top of Sermermiut.
It’s absolutely breathtaking. Like someone has just dumped vast quantities of icing sugar into a massive bay. Our photos don’t do it any justice, as you can’t really get an idea of the scale of the fjord which goes on for miles. It’s a true Artic wilderness and one of the best natural sights we’ve ever seen!
We took time out just to listen to the silence and contemplate the view – an awe inspiring sight. Although you can’t see the icebergs moving, they are – they float 40 metres a day, making it the fastest moving glacier in the world.
On the way back to Illulissat town, you pass what what looks like a scene from Mad Max movie. An eerie desolate land with hundreds of little huts and water tanks – this is where some of the town’s sled dogs live.
Talking of dogs there are nearly as many dogs as there are humans in Ilulissat – about 4,000 sled dogs.
Dogs are not pets, instead they are working dogs. They live outside, and in the summer are not used. You will find large areas around Ilulissat where the dogs live. Their living conditions look harsh at first glance, as they are all on a long chains with basic food and water, can’t help thinking they should be running around doing what they love, but you have to remember in Greenland they’re not domestic animals. We did watch some get fed some large chunks of meat, in typical dog fashion they were going mad barking and wagging their tails, so they looked happy. Perhaps there may not be so many in the future, a guide told us they’re becoming expensive and some families are replacing them for snowmobiles.
Take it from us sled dogs can go really fast! Few years ago we went husky sledding in Sweden.
Day trip to the Eqi Glacier
Time for our last big natural wonder – a day trip to see the Eqip Sermia Glacier or Eqi Glacier for short. It’s located about 50 miles north of Ilulissat, best known as the calving glacier and takes about 3 to 4 hours to reach it by boat. We left early morning when the town was covered in thick fog. The weather is very changeable in Ilulissat.
To pass the time on the way to the glacier, we played a game with our guide Lisa. It was a secret card game to become a member of the Order of the Polar Bear. Phil guessed correctly how many polar bears were wait around the ice hole three times in a row which brought him instant membership and a bear hug from Lisa. Garth is still trying to understand it!
As you as you get out to sea it’s cold! really cold. We wore our thermals as it’s a long day, but you can hire seal skin jackets if you’re not prepared.
We were so lucky with the weather. Conditions were perfect, bright blue skies and sunny weather, albeit cold. As you approach the glacier you realise you are in a world far away from home life. Again you have no idea how big it is, as there’s no boats in the area to compare it to for scale, but the guide told us the glacier soars 200 metres high above the water.
We parked up 1km away for safety, to witness huge chunks of ice fall off the glacier or calving as it is known. These calvings can cause huge waves, even tsunami size at the neighbouring glacier, so the boat needs to be a safe distance to get away in an emergency.
The captain turned off the engines so everyone could hear the glacier talking, the sounds are incredibly loud, the power in the lumps of ice falling off mean you don’t want to be too close. We bought some beers sat on the deck watching in awe.
The calvings were quite frequent about every 5 minutes.. The sound as the calvings happening is just like thunder, really loud, then after a few seconds you see the chunks of ice plunge into the water. The sound is actually the release of air as it breaks from the glacier. A sight we will never forget.
For those who can afford it, you can stay in this remote location right opposite the glacier in the eco-camp called Glacier Lodge Eqi. Glaciers are amazing sights, we thought back to the week before on our stopover in Iceland when we experienced walking on the Svínafellsjökull Glacier.
You really think about climate change being here. We’ve read stories about Greenland’s ice is melting fast, but here you see it in action at the glacier. Between 1950 – 1990 the position of the glacier’s front didn’t move that much but since the late 1990’s it’s melting at a much faster rate. Scientists say this is because of global warming, the rate of melting is now increasing – it’s six times faster than what is was back in the 1980s. It’s due to the surface heating which is making the glacier less stable where the water meets the ice. Climate change is also affecting fishing in the Greenland as temperatures in the waters are changing. No one knows the long term effects of these glaciers melting quickly other than it’s adding more water to our oceans which will affect many coastal lying towns, scary stuff.
Affects of Tourism in Ilulissat, Greenland
Garth also wondered about the effect of tourism in the area, if this glacier was in Thailand the bay would be packed tight with boats. We were the only ones there, but if Greenland’s tourism increases, then what effect will more airplanes, boats and hotels have on the Greenland’s future? The balance seems good at the moment, however China has plans to build new airports in Greenland.
Finally on our long journey back to Ilulissat we spent our time on the boat’s top deck looking for humpback whales. Perfect conditions for whale watching but sadly we didn’t see one. 🙁 However we did see a few seals playing around in the water 🙂
Getting home proved interesting, because of strong winds, they could not take everyone’s cases on the small 18 seater plane. After some slight chaos at Ilulissat Airport, as no one could tell us whose cases had been boarded, so all the passengers on our flight were taken air-side and asked to identify if their bag was not on-board, so we could tell ground staff in Iceland when we land. Everyone was unpacking their cases to take out essentials they needed. Luckily for Phil his case was on-board, but Garth’s was scheduled to take a later flight! boo! Fortunately it did arrive back in the UK a week later.
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Ilulissat Tips
- Tip #1: Take plenty warm and light clothes. The weather is very changeable in summer from warm to icy cold. You need to be prepared for all conditions, especially on boat trips as they’re really cold.
- Tip #2: The sun is much lower in the atmosphere as Ilulissat is nearer the North Pole. So take plenty of sunblock and your sunglasses.
- Tip #3: Mosquitos! Yes there’s millions of them in summer, so bring plenty of protection and bite relief. You can buy it in supermarkets in Illulissat, but it’s really watery. Our recommendation is to take Jungle Formula relief we got some in Boots before we left, but it ran out!
- Tip #4: Sled dogs are not pets, instead they are working dogs, so don’t approach them. They may not be friendly as the dog you are used to back home.
- Tip #5: Don’t be surprised to see Whale and Seal on menus. It’s up to you, but tourism is said to be blamed for increasing demand.
How we did it:
- We booked flights to Reykjavik with Icelandair
- After a lot of research, we paid for a trip with the Greenland Travel agency based in Copenhagen. They organised everything from accommodation, flights from Iceland and all our tours. Everything ran very smoothly and they even had a representative meet us at the hotel to discuss our holiday. Payment had to made by an international bank transfer.