By Sharon Whitley Larsen
Coffee and "Danish" in Greenland? (More about that in a minute.)
I had no idea what to expect in this "fly-over" country, inhabited since prehistoric times, some 4,300 years. How many times flying across the Pond I've gazed from an airline window to the mass of ice below, wondering who in the world lived there.
I soon found out.
Only some 57,000 Greenlanders reside on this world's largest island, which has the lowest population density. Nearly 75 percent of it is covered in ice and uninhabitable. A constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark, the population of Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat) is about 80 percent Inuit and about 12 percent Danish. The languages spoken are Kalaallisut and Danish. The Danish influence is big here, with some 65 percent of the tourists visiting from Denmark.
We've all heard of Erik the Red (Norwegian Erik Torvaldsson, father of Leif Eriksson), who set foot on this vast land in 985 and created the first Norse settlements. He also cleverly named the land "Greenland" as a gimmick to attract potential settlers. It worked.
I was lucky to visit this vast country via a Viking trans-Atlantic cruise from Bergen, Norway, to Montreal in Canada.
Our ship anchored off the quaint town of Qaqortoq in southern Greenland (population 3,000), founded in 1775, which has no roads leading in or out. It is accessed only via helicopter (which also links to the small international airport), dogsleds, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, boats, ferries or cruise ships. It has a couple of pubs, one police station, one hotel, an inn and two youth hostels, one tourist office-souvenir shop and a few other shops, two large grocery stores, a few cafe-restaurants, one 18-bed hospital, and a few churches and schools.
But no McDonald's, Starbucks or Costco. Industries include fishing, ship maintenance and repair, fur production, service administration and tourism, including serving as a port of call for a few cruise ships.
The town also has one interesting museum in a building constructed in 1804 — a former inn where Charles Lindbergh once stayed.
One shore excursion option in Qaqortoq (which means "white" in Greenlandic — the fourth largest town on the island and regarded as this territory's most beautiful) included a visit to an Inuit woman's home for coffee and cake one morning. My husband Carl and I signed up.
After we tendered off the ship, which was anchored not too far from an iceberg, we met our local guides — two young college students — at 8:30 a.m. at the pier. Our group of 12 hailed from the United States, New Zealand and England.
It was a gorgeous, sunny September day, a crisp 50-degrees. I was awestruck by the brightly colored wood houses and shops that seemed to float up the hillsides, painted vivid red, green, purple, blue and yellow. It was magical.
Our guides, who would serve as interpreters for our home visit, led the way. Our group strode uphill, often stopping to take photos of the glorious town's bright, colorful buildings and harbor view with our cruise ship anchored in the distance. We finally got to the modest house and entered, removing our jackets and shoes, as is the custom. It's also customary to take the hostess a gift.
I didn't realize that we were participating in a Kaffemik, a Danish word for a Greenland coffee social gathering often to celebrate life's important events: a couple's engagement, weddings, baby christenings, birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, sports achievements, even to toast a child who has hunted down his or her first reindeer or seal.
We were greeted warmly by the charming widowed grandmother who met us in her home, where tables and walls displayed family photos of birthday parties, weddings, Christmas and christenings. The two bedrooms I peeked into were painted bright reddish-orange and blue. The off-white living-dining area had a breathtaking view of the town and harbor below.
The dining table was loaded with a half-dozen delicious-looking homemade desserts, which the hostess passed around for everyone to sample as she poured coffee. You must also sample the traditional Kalaalit Kaagiat — Greenland coffee cake. A Kaffemik can also include meals of reindeer, seal, whale, fish soup and other local specialties.
Our hostess later changed into a native costume, which she explained with its intricate bead work took two years to make, and seal-skin boots. A traditional costume may also include long, white furry boots and wool sweaters.
After a 90-minute visit during which we sampled the goodies and posed for photos with her we bid thank you ("Qujanaq") and walked downhill back to the town center.
Several travelers were intrigued with the 40 "Stone and Man" rock and boulder carvings around town that feature faces, whales and fish and are carved by various Scandinavian artists, so they took photos of this open-air art gallery.
We stumbled across a charming red wood church — Savior's Church, built in 1832 by Danish missionaries. The door was open so we entered. A men's chorus of 12 was rehearsing a moving rendition of "Amazing Grace" in their native tongue.
Carl and I reluctantly lined up at the tender. As our Viking ship sailed away from Qaqortoq, we stood on the top deck toasting with champagne to Greenland and its magical charm. The next time I fly over, I'll wave and do the same.
WHEN YOU GO
Visit Greenland: www.visitgreenland.com
Visit Qaqortoq: www.visitgreenland.com/destinations/qaqortoq
Qaqortoq Tourist Office and Sagalands Tours: www.sagalands.com
Greenland Travel: www.greenlandtravel.com
Viking's "In the Wake of the Vikings" cruise: www.vikingcruises.com/oceans/cruise-destinations/multi-region/in-the-wake-of-vikings/index.html?olb=true
Sharon Whitley Larsen is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Qaqortoq, a charming town of 3,000 in southern Greenland, was founded in 1775. Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen.