The tip of the Iceberg

Raw, wild and beguiling, a trip to one of the most remote places on the planet reveals there’s more than meets the eye.


5 min read

“Pop! Splash! Fizz!” It’s twilight, which feels almost like midnight when you are 300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in summer, and standing at the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland, I close my eyes.

The sun’s fingers are tinting the fjord’s infinite, jagged cloak of icebergs rose gold against a bruised sky bleeding into indigo, but it’s the orchestra of the moving ice that is monopolising the senses. “Snap. Sizzle. ROAR!” While those in the nearby town of Ilulissat slumber, a clash of the Titans is underway in this UNESCO World Heritage-listed area. Icebergs ten stories tall jammed tighter than a Manhattan streetscape and shifting almost imperceptibly like drunken dinosaurs groan and grind, backed up in nature’s car park of the Icefjord.

Light dances upon the icebergs. Photo: Jason C Hill - Visit Greenland

The northern hemisphere’s fastest flowing glacier, Sermeq Kujalleq (the Jakobshavn Glacier), is one of few outlets from the Greenland ice cap, and the glacier carries its discharge towards the sea relentlessly, shoving 25 metres of ice daily into the Icefjord. It’s certainly an effective ice machine, resulting in 20 million tonnes of icebergs annually. Those are big numbers, and they are big bergs.

Huge icebergs make for a dramatic backdrop in Ilulissat.

Huge icebergs make for a dramatic backdrop in Ilulissat.

The views from Hotel Arctic are pretty special.

The views from Hotel Arctic are pretty special.

Ice songs

I’ve come tonight to hear them sing, or perhaps cry, as they sit in limbo for up to years in the fjord, struggling from their creation when calving from the glacier, to their release into Disko Bay. They finally find freedom while floating north onwards from Disko Bay, then south, scooped up by the Labrador Current all the way to Newfoundland, or picked up by menacing shipping routes (indeed, locals and experts firmly believe the iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912 originated here).

The general manager of Hotel Arctic first introduces me to this musical phenomenon one sunny afternoon as icebergs glide past the deck of my luxury igloo in Ilulissat, as we add shards of ice from a harbourside berg to glasses of vodka and lime. Icelandic singer Bjork was a previous igloo occupant, and it’s as though she appeares with a faint vibrating, subtle and mesmerising siren call. But it’s the ice, the singing ice, that makes an audible noise as it slowly bubbles and melts away.

Icebergs Floating by Your Igloo

If that was a personal serenade, then being back at the Icefjord is like attending a stadium concert in surround sound. There are growls like thunder, an elemental churning as ice and earth war in the shallow waters. Shaped more like a plethora of mountain peaks rather than actual icebergs, they move quickly. Find a faux Matterhorn-shaped berg one day, and you’ll discover it’s been transported the next. Just like magic.

The Population of Ilulissat are Almost Outnumbered by Sled Dogs.
Ilulissat – the last frontier

This extraordinary occurence is what makes visiting Ilulissat an overwhelming, almost transformative experience. It’s easy to see why Greenland’s third largest town draws celebrities, royalty and nature lovers alike. But to put the remoteness into perspective, while Greenland is the size of Western Europe, the entire population can fit inside a singular football stadium. And the population of Ilulissat (4,600) are almost outnumbered by sled dogs.

Evidence of an enduring and ancient way of life based on hunting and fishing is everywhere. Even in summer, dog sleds – the local equivalent of the family car – sit outside houses next to wooden racks where strips of halibut, hunks of reindeer meat and animal skins are being cured. Huskies lay coiled up below, dozing in the sun.

You too can try unique produce like a local beer brewed under the midnight sun at Restaurant Icefjord, whale and shrimp from the local fish factory at Restaurant Mamartut or Thai dishes (think seafood curry soup and snow crab) at Hvide Falk.

And visitors this year will see changes in the form of a new sustainable Best Western built by local investors, H8’s (a former fisherman’s warehouse turned hostel and restaurant) new stand-up paddleboard venture, and the multimillion-dollar Ilulissat Icefjord Centre.

Glaciologists have studied the surrounds for 250 years, and the brand-new centre will act as both a tourist destination and an information and climate change conversation arena for this ‘ground zero’.

An icy, otherworldly landscape. Photo: Madeleine Glindorf.

The sudden drop in temperature is like walking from a summer’s day into the freezer section at the supermarket.

Up close and personal

It’s impossible to swallow all the iceberg multi-sensory splendour in one gulp at the Icefjord. While I was there I heard it sing in concerto, and when soaring above it in a helicopter I got to appreciate its vast natural splendour. But it is out on a boat that you really feel the ice.

Over the low chugging, throaty sound of the motor, iceberg sounds are diminished, but up close it is a different sense of awe. Ice towers above us with intimidating vertical walls, and the coldness emanating from them takes me by surprise. The sudden drop in temperature is like walking from a summer’s day into the freezer section at the supermarket. To get as close as possible to a calving glacier you can boat 129 kilometres north to the prolific Eqi Glacier, but to really immerse yourself in the region you should also consider travelling across to Disko Island for summertime dog sledding, try whale watching (for humpbacks, finbacks and minkes in summer, and narwhals, belugas and bowhead whales in spring), go kayaking and, of course, fish. Test the waters of activities, then dive on in – this little town and its spectacular surrounds offer supercharged splendour on a (ice) cracking scale.

A small boat makes its way through the Ilulissat Icefjord. Photo: Madeleine Glindorf.

A small boat makes its way through the Ilulissat Icefjord. Photo: Madeleine Glindorf.

Hurtigruten Expeditions offers a number of expedition cruises that explore Greenland and beyond, and give guests an insight into this fascinating country.