NARSSARSSUAQ, Greenland — Thousands of people have seen the southern part of Greenland, for it lies beneath a main flight path used by transatlantic aircraft on their North America-Europe runs.
If cloud cover doesn't interfere, these airborne sightseers press close to the cabin windows to catch a glimpse of the great white north, the famous ice cap with its curving furrows of snow, the confetti of ice afloat on the waters of the coastal fiords.
As a break in the flight tedium, it's all a bit exciting. But the memory of such a view from 40,000 feet can be fleeting at best. What is it like down below, with your feet on the ground, with Greenland at eye level? Some travelers are finding out for themselves.
According to Scandinavian legend, Eric the Red had a sly scheme in mind when he gave Greenland its name. Banished from Iceland for his involvement in a series of blood feuds, Eric led a small fleet of longboats west, came to the gigantic island across the Denmark Strait and settled alongside a southwest fiord. Hoping to attract fellow Norsemen to the frigid place, he cleverly called it Greenland.
Today, summer visitors discover that Eric might not have been such a false-promising real-estate promoter after all. From June through August, flights by Icelandair connect Iceland with Narssarssuaq, site of an airfield lying just across the fiord from what remains of Brattahlid, the settlement Eric founded in the year 985.
This is indeed a green part of Greenland in the summer, the season of Eric's voyage, when daylight lingers for 20 hours. Sheep graze and ponies frolic on lush meadows that climb from the water's edge up the flanks of snowless granite mountains. Delicate wildflowers and millions of tufts of Arctic cotton grass, the fifa that once was used as wicks for Viking lamps, speckle the landscape.
The air is crisp but gentle and immaculate, the sky a gloriously bright blue. Chunks of ice populate the fiord. As they shrink in summer's warmth, they become iridescent ghosts. The real ice of Greenland, the cap covering 86% of the island, broods eastward beyond the coastal mountains.
That cap of eternal ice and snow amounts to 708,290 square miles, an expanse far larger than most nations. It's nearly two miles thick in some places and, as just one measure of its enormity, every coastal city on earth would be flooded if it were to melt.
The ice-free coastal strip is just a tiny part of Greenland, but it's equal to the combined land areas of England and Italy.
The bucolic atmosphere of the southern shore region makes it an appealing summer destination. Greenland has always attracted those who don't demand pampered comfort. Today's visitors are no exception. They welcome this striking change from the world's well-trampled tourist circuits.
SAS flights link Narssarssuaq with Copenhagen, so its passenger manifests invariably include robust Danish backpackers who regard Greenland as something of a limitless national park. Many Greenlander Eskimos also rely upon this air route for schooling and job training in Denmark.
Narssarssuaq is a focal point for such excursion activity, for two elemental reasons. It's one of West Greenland's two airfields serving commercial jet traffic (the other is Sondre Stromfjord, farther north alongside Disko Bay and used largely by SAS flights).
Second, it is the site of the Hotel Arctic, that can be headquarters for tours of at least four or five days. Icelandair flight time from Keflavik, Iceland, is only two hours.
Accommodations are merely basic. The 200-bed hotel is a spare, concrete structure that looks exactly like the barracks it once was. Narssarssuaq is on the map because it was built as the U.S. Air Force Blue West One convoy-escort base during World War II. Rooms are double-occupancy and baths are shared.
The hotel "lobby" is a modest reading room-lounge and the "front desk" is little more than a wooden counter. Yet many first-time guests are surprised that clean, heated lodging beneath a permanent roof exists here at the upper edge of the inhabited world.
Next door is a restaurant, a congenial bar and a gift shop well stocked with such Greenlandic mementos as seal skin purses and jackets, Eskimo beadwork, carvings made from walrus tusks, dolls and miniature kayaks.
Restaurant fare is predominantly Danish and therefore good, supplemented by local salmon and shrimp delicacies. Breakfast (included, along with dinner, in the room price) is served as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Lunch is a special treat for those not out on tour, because you take what you wish from a typically prodigious Danish cold table.
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