Archive for Sunday, April 28, 2002

Island adventure

Viking ruins, spectacular scenery, Arctic thrills await in Greenland

April 28, 2002


— Two huge whale bones form an arched portal outside the blue wooden church in this picturesque town surrounded by mountains in the Arctic Circle. Dogs bark impatiently as they wait to pull sleds out into the wilderness.

Down by the nearby harbor, a freshly peeled seal skin lies in the grass, waiting to be reclaimed by the hunter who killed it. Raw seal meat, especially the liver, is considered a delicacy.

Greenland offers both grandiose beauty and plain rawness. But don't expect polar bears roaming the streets. That's a myth.

Tourist officials say some 80 percent of Greenland's 55,000 habitants have never seen a real polar bear, although the animals can be found in the more inaccessible northern parts of the world's largest island.

No roads connect the towns, so transportation is limited to planes, helicopters or boats, and the tourist-friendly infrastructure is modest.

"The problem with tourism here is that it tends to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip because it is so expensive," says Jesper Kunuk Egede of the state-sponsored Greenland Tourism agency.

Roundtrips from the Danish capital of Copenhagen vary from $500 for an eight-day journey in southern Greenland to $2,260 for 11 days to Illulissat on the east coast with a boat trip and excursions, including one to the ice cap.

Unique adventures

Hence, visitors get an experience in an unspoiled environment and avoid mass tourism.

Get on a helicopter excursion to view the 11,000-foot-thick ice cap, or hop onto a boat for a whale and seal safari and cruise among icebergs. Travel by dogsled, horseback or mountain bikes for a glimpse of extraordinary wildlife or enormous blocks of ice breaking off and splashing into the sea.

Go for a walk on the ice cap, which has been frozen for up to 100,000 years, and savor the silence and the pure air.

Or just look up as the sky offers great spectacles from the midnight sun that doesn't set during the short spring-summer season, or to the Northern Lights on dark and clear autumn and winter nights.

Greenland also has specialized in extreme adventures with long-distance runs and extreme triathlons.

Pick the annual Polar Circle Marathon on the Arctic Circle, or the tougher five-day Greenland Adventure Race kayaking 25 miles, mountain biking for 30 miles, and then running 60 miles.

The island also has three golf courses, including one that is made of ice.

Cultural legacies

Tourists have 14 museums to choose from, including Greenland's National Museum in the capital of Nuuk, 186 miles south of here, displaying local history, well-preserved mummies, kayaks and other artifacts. The tiny museum in Sisimiut, behind the church, takes an archaeological approach to the Inuits, who arrived here from Siberia 4,000 years ago.

The symbols of the ancient Inuit culture are still alive, even in the larger towns. Many people build and use their own kayaks. The old drum dance is performed by a growing number of artists.

In southern Greenland, ruins from the Viking settlers 1,000 years ago are well-preserved, including the ruins of the first Christian churches on the North American continent.

Also in southern Greenland, in Narsarsuaq, what once was the headquarters of U.S. Air Force Base Bluie West One, used during the 1950-1953 Korea War, now houses a permanent exhibition on the American presence there and a cafe.

Across the fjord in Qassiarsuk is a replica of what locals call the first Christian church built in North America.

Around 990 B.C., the heathen Viking, Eric the Red the father of Norse explorer Leif Eriksson who landed in North America 500 years before Columbus built the 10-foot wooden church with a grass roof next to his home.

According to legend, his newly christened wife, Thjodhildur, refused to let him sleep in their bed until he built a church. So he did.

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