Go with the floe

In Greenland, icebergs outnumber visitors, but Cathy Packe found hamlets, harbours and huskies awaiting the rare tourist
As I looked up at the jet trail being carved across the big blue void that serves as sky in Greenland, I realised that frequent-flyer miles can do strange things to your judgement. I don't mean the way that business travellers choose expensive and inappropriate airlines in order to rack up points - I mean that when you come to claim a free flight, you choose an outlandish destination.

It was probably on a flight to San Francisco, somewhere over the vast, blank mass of Greenland, that I passed the umpteen-thousand-mile-barrier entitling me to travel to any Scandinavian Airlines destination in Europe. According to my atlas, the world's biggest island (not counting Australia) is outside Europe - but not according to the airline's rules. So I signed up for a ground-level view of what, from 40,000 feet, looks like a thick carpet of snow, being blown into exotic shapes by the polar winds. Not an obvious holiday destination, but the placenames - each resembling a losing hand at Scrabble - intrigued me. In summer, when the sun never sets, and the snow briefly melts away from the coastline, there would surely be plenty to explore. And besides, I told myself, it's a free trip.

Free it wasn't; prices are astronomical. But the chance to visit the most unworldly place on earth was priceless. There are settlements around most of Greenland's coastal strip, but the most densely populated area is the Arctic west coast. Dense is a relative term; what Greenlanders refer to as cities, most of us would call hamlets. The main international gateway to western Greenland is Kangerlussuaq, located just above the Arctic Circle, and originally built as an American airbase in the early Forties, after the Nazis invaded Denmark. When the Americans withdrew, the base became a small township. Most people live in a series of shed- like buildings around the vast runway. Kangerlussuaq has an indoor swimming pool - the only one in Greenland - and there is, rather bizarrely, an 18-hole golf course, but otherwise entertainment is limited. This is mainly a stopover point for the connecting flights. The choice is between the relatively lush landscape of southern Greenland, and the unique peculiarities of the Arctic. The helicopters and Dash 7s that fly the domestic routes are low flying, giving a fantastic view of the glacier below as you head north. It is as if flood water, coursing over everything in its way, has suddenly frozen.

The main centre of the tourist industry, such as it is, in Arctic Greenland is Ilulissat. The name means The Icebergs, and they duly poke up out of the bay like yachts at a regatta. The town is higgledy-piggledy; detached houses painted in bright colours perch on top of the rocks that form the terrain in this part of the world. The living areas are built up to protect them from the huge deposits of snow that begin to fall in October, and last well into May. A smell of drying fish hangs over every Greenlandic town; and the buildings of the Royal Greenlandic Halibut factory are a feature of every harbour. On every patch of bare land huskies lie around waiting for winter; and at night their howling is like an Arctic version of the midnight barking in 101 Dalmatians.

They looked too well fed to be hungry. Well off, too; supplies of almost everything have to be flown in from Canada or continental Europe, with the exception of locally caught produce such as shrimp, seal and whale. Accommodation is costly; most towns have a choice of one or two hotels, a youth hostel, and possibly a Seamen's Home - formerly hostels providing shelter for the itinerant sailors, now first choice for budget travellers.

Greenland's tourist industry may be starting to expand, but very little of it is geared towards independent visitors. There are plenty of hiking trails, yet there is no local transport apart from the ferries that chug up and down the coast a couple of times a week during the summer. The arrival of a boat in the harbour is an event for which most of the town will turn out, to meet relatives, collect mail or supplies, or simply to stand and stare.

As a visitor, you mostly make do with organised excursions. One of the most rewarding sets out from Uummannaq, the most northerly place with a hotel, at the centre of the Disko Bay area. The town is a monument to human ability to build on seemingly impossible terrain. A heart-shaped mountain sticks straight up out of the sea; there is a cluster of houses clinging to the hillside at one end of it, while the rest is good walking territory. The surrounding cliffs are home to a vast bird colony; few species have adapted to such harsh conditions, but those that are there are found in great numbers. A day trip from here takes you across the bay to Qilakitsoq, an area formerly used by hunters as an overnight camp. It used to be a burial place, although the area is too rocky to dig graves in it, so the bodies were placed on the ground and covered with boulders. In 1972, two ptarmigan hunters discovered the mummified bodies of six women and two children. Originally buried under the shelter of an overhanging rock, they had in effect been freeze-dried, so that the fully-clothed bodies were found nearly 500 years later, almost unmarked by the passage of time.

An exhibition about the mummies, and replicas of their costumes are found in the little museum in Uummannaq. The bodies themselves are displayed in the National Museum in Nuuk, and comprise as good a reason as any to head down south to the national capital for a day or two. But you needn't visit a museum to realise that Greenlandic traditions are freeze-dried as effectively as the Disko Bay mummies. You can still see peat houses, built out of blocks of turf and lined with seal skin, that were occupied until 15 years ago. Each Sunday, the tidy, squat churches are full, and many of the congregation wear national dress whose colours defy the dour surroundings.

The more the image of life in Greenland develops, the more tempting it becomes to look up at what has become a tangle of jet trails. As last night's flights from the West Coast weave between the morning's transatlantic departures from Europe, I vowed to use up next year's miles somewhere more mundane. But I'm glad I stopped here. Just once.

The Danish Tourist Board (0171-259 5959) can help with inquiries on Greenland.

`Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands' (Lonely Planet, pounds 11.99) contains a chunky chapter on the country.