It was while out fishing for cod one day that my host’s friend saw a disturbing sight. Nudging his motorboat down the finger of a fjord, he saw the sea ahead looked bright red. From a distance, it looked like an ocean of blood.
What could it be, he wondered? The remains of a whale or seal hunt? Mineral deposits leeching from the ancient rocks? As he floated closer, he realised. It was fish. Thousands of dead, floating redfish, a species common to Greenlandic waters. These tomato-hued creatures are adapted to live at such extreme depths that, if they rise to the surface, the change in pressure kills them. It seemed that a colossal iceberg had toppled, pushing the shoal up to their deaths.
Such stories of the bizarre, the surreal, the unfamiliar, come thick and fast in Greenland. After two days in Nuuk, its diminutive capital in the south-west, my host, Anika, has already introduced me to gods that dwell beneath the sea, shops selling polar bear claws, and sealskin dungarees. I’ve seen the 544-year-old mummified remains of Inuit women and babies in the national museum, so well-preserved you can see their face tattoos, and been offered mattaq – raw humpback whale skin – for lunch (I declined).
Absorbing this culture, I realise how little I knew about it before (it turns out igloos were only rarely used, during hunts; the nose-rubbing “Eskimo kiss” is not really a thing). Now we are on our way in a yellow taxi boat to experience Greenland’s other big draw, its remote wilderness.
There’s certainly a lot of it. As a country 90 per cent covered by the ice sheet, where settlements are only built around the periphery, with no roads connecting them, it’s not surprising tourism is fairly undeveloped. Yet all that may be about to change with the opening of Anika’s smart new wilderness camp, Kiattua (arctic-nomad.com/kiattua), which she runs with her husband, Jon, and friend Thure. With its wood-fired hot tub, dedicated speedboat, top chef and personal service, it is the first real luxury accommodation in Greenland.
“It’s a couple of hours to camp, depending on icebergs!” yells the skipper as we bump across slate-black water into the Nuuk Fjord system. Boat or helicopter are the only ways to arrive. I become dopily mesmerised by the parade of icebergs, nature’s sculptures: Henry Moores of animals, caverns, hunters, slide by, some as big as buses, their crevasses tinged lurid blue. “Watching icebergs is like watching clouds,” Anika murmurs.
The clarity of the dry air causes odd optical effects; black granite cliffs rearing up on either side of the fjord look closer than they are. A sea-eagle whirls overhead like a lone black paraglider. Otherwise there is no sign of life. Not a seal, not a whale, though they do sometimes come into the fjord.
By a thin waterfall, the skipper kills the engine. “Now we fish!” Cod, not redfish, and no bait needed. No sooner have we unravelled the lines than we are pulling them back up, and seven fat fish are flipping on the deck. Bjorn, the chef, grins.
Soon we are moored at a floating pontoon in an inlet with a pebbly beach littered with melting icebergs, then scrambling up a slope to the six high-spec, well-insulated, orange tepees that sit atop a green escarpment like some defiant Native American battle camp. This is Viking territory, though, and dotted around the landscape are person-sized niches cut into the earth, where hunters waited for reindeer. The stone walls of an 800-year-old ruin lie just yards from the dining tent.
These days, few people pass here – in fact, not a single boat goes by during our four-day visit. Anika, who is half-Inuit, half-Danish, supermodel beautiful and hard as nails, knew the spot through reindeer hunting – she killed her first at the age of 11.
“My dad said I was only allowed to shoot one when I knew I could kill it with a knife if I ran out of bullets, cut it up and carry it back to the boat myself. Which I did,” she tells me.
That she, Jon and Thure, both Danes, created Kiattua at all is something of a twist of fate. They were running a travel excursion company alongside regular jobs in tourism and communications (most people in Greenland have at least two jobs, it seems) when they were approached by a billionaire friend of Elon Musk, who requested they tailor a remote luxury wilderness camp for him for a vacation. Luckily, his dream aligned with theirs. They pulled it off, he paid for and let them keep everything, and they opened the camp to tourists last summer.
Indicating a new direction for Greenlandic tourism, it comes on the cusp of big change, coinciding with a massive airport expansion project intended to draw more international visitors.
Presently, the only international flights are from Reykjavik and Copenhagen, but when runways are enlarged at Nuuk and Ilulissat in the west, and a new one is built at Qaqortoq in the south, the third-largest settlement, there should be more arrivals from Europe and North America. The project received substantial funding from Denmark, of which Greenland is an autonomous territory, causing some controversy and criticism from Greenland’s independence movement.
If tourists pour in and Kiattua’s secret spot gets busier, Anika says they will simply move it somewhere more remote – but they really have a winning location here. One could justify simply sitting in a deckchair for a week, watching the icebergs float by and lolling in the hot tub by the stream, a G&T chilled by iceberg chippings in hand. And we do a fair bit of that.
But actually, there is a surprising amount to do. Each day we head out in the speedboat, Anika negotiating the icebergs at a thrilling velocity, on whatever excursions we fancy.
There’s a visit to a cheery Inuit settlement of clapboard houses, brightly coloured to interrupt the interminable white of winter, to attend a kaffemik. These Greenlandic coffee mornings are of great societal importance and the retired ladies have baked a dozen different cakes.
One day, we set out by boat for an arduous hike to see the ice cap, thrashing through thigh-high scrub and crossing bogs in clouds of mosquitoes. It’s hell, gruelling. It can’t be worth it, I think angrily. But then we ascend a rocky outcrop and... it most certainly is.
An unfathomable expanse of white, and the slow-moving power of thousands of frozen slabs breaking from the glacier into the fjord to start their journey to sea, a terrifying conveyor belt of nature. Thure passes thick packets of roast pork and baked apple sandwiches and we sit in the sun, raising our mozzie nets for each bite, trying to comprehend the ice sheet’s existence, and the possibility that it could be gone during our children’s lifetimes.
Another day, we go walking and fish for Arctic char, which you catch by hand in mountain streams, tickling their tummies then grabbing them. Anika assures us there are no polar bears around here, but has a gun just in case. A few years back, she tells us, the Nuuk police took a call from a man who reckoned he’d spotted some near town, requesting permission to shoot them (a quota allows around 150 to be culled a year).
Because it was April Fool’s Day, they took him for a hoaxer and agreed, only to then be presented with the poor beasts’ bodies when he dragged them into the city centre later. Today, we catch nothing, so instead build a big fire on a white sand beach and picnic, then return to the Scandi-chic dining tent to watch Bjorn fettle the proceeds of fishing and foraging into immaculate dishes.
Bjorn Ulrich Moi is the stand-in chef; that role usually belongs to Rune Collin, considered the founder of modern Greenlandic cuisine, Greenland’s René Redzepi, but he’s at his father’s funeral. Still, Bjorn is the real deal, a robust, tattooed Dane whose wizardly ways with wild herbs, flavour and texture produce a wonderful slow-cooked lamb – unbelievably tender thanks to all the gambolling over Arctic tundra – celery purée and blueberry panna cotta, barely sweet, served with a glass of sauternes.
He takes us foraging for mushrooms one morning among the knotty vegetation around the waterfall by the camp. We fill our baskets in minutes. “You can eat everything here!” he bellows, gathering moss, Arctic willow, Labrador tea. This is a man who makes soup from his lawn grass cuttings, and grinds mussel shells as seasoning.
We are very well looked after, and cosy as can be in our huge tepee, with a wooden floor, a wood-burning stove, fairy lights, heaps of sheepskins and a proper double bed. There’s even a separate bathroom tepee, with hot shower and flushing loo, yet it’s still living wild, with wood smoke, torches and muddy boots. It never gets dark, so our schedule is a little erratic.
Thure takes us out one evening to swim with icebergs. Like lobsters in our orange immersion suits, we leap into black water that looks like certain death, flail around in hysterics, too buoyant to swim, and slither on to the ice like inept walruses.
Our final night ends with a boat tour at 10pm, when the slow spread of pink and lavender that passes for sunset is mirrored in the silver water and given depth by the ice and rock, and is so beautiful I cry. At midnight, we clamber on to Umanak, an island with a church and village abandoned in the Fifties, where you can peer down into ancient Inuit graves and see layers of skeletons stacked up through time.
In the same way that the air clarity makes distances shrink, some force seems to be making time expand. It seems incomprehensible that we have only been in camp for four days; every moment has been electrifying and rich. I focus on letting it all soak in while I can, painfully aware that soon the yellow taxi boat will be back, and we’ll return to the normality – or rather, relative normality – of Nuuk, one of the smallest, strangest capitals in the world.
Gemma Bowes was a guest of Swoop Arctic (0117 369 0296, swoop-arctic.com), which also sells trips to Arctic Canada, Russia and Svalbard. A 10-day, tailor-made trip, including four nights at the camp, three nights in Nuuk at the Hotel Hans Egede and one night in Reykjavik, with private transfers and guides, costs from £4,500 per person. Air Iceland Connect (airicelandconnect.com) flies to Nuuk from Reykjavik.
More information: visitgreenland.com