Come to the Disko - Greenland

Its size was remarkable. Just a stone's throw from my vantage point aboard a wooden fishing boat drifting along in a chunky soup of ice, the blue and white sculpture towered 50 metres out of the sea, and only a sixth was above the surface. Carved from the fastest moving, most productive glacier in the northern hemisphere, the iceberg glinting in the Arctic sun was as big as an island.

I was 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, halfway up Greenland's west coast, where the four-mile-wide mouth of the Ilulissat ice fjord is choked with these ice mountains. Pushed into Disko Bay by the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, they sparkle like diamonds in the dark green sea. Soon they will be carried off by currents and melt to nothing.

If there was a global warming capital of the world, this would be it. Ilulissat, a picturesque town perched on the northern bank of the ice fjord, has the most magnificent view out over Disko Bay, which is strewn with more ice than any of the 5,000 residents can remember. Climate change isn't just something you read about here. In Ilulissat, you have a front row seat.

While morbid fascination may be part of the attraction, visitors to this Greenlandic settlement are moved not only by the all-powerful force of nature but by the sheer beauty it exudes.

Greenland is an exception to the rule that the world is becoming a smaller place. The inland ice sheet covering 85 per cent of the island like a thick blanket is a relic of the Ice Age big enough to sustain a climate all of its own. The self-governing Danish territory stretches 1,659 miles north to south – the distance from Edinburgh to Africa. Yet the country's 56,000 people would not fill Murrayfield Stadium, making it one of the most sparsely populated nations in the world. No roads connect the 17 towns and other small settlements spread mostly on the west coast. Boat, plane, helicopter or dog sled is the only way to get from place to place.

Seeing the icebergs in Ilulissat would make a trip to Greenland worthwhile all on its own. But for those with a sense of adventure and a love of the great outdoors, the world's biggest island has a lot more to offer. It is the land of the midnight sun and the Northern Lights, where you can ride into the wilderness by dog sled, hike where no-one has gone before and enjoy some of the world's best seafood and game. First, though, you have to get there.

There are a limited number of flights from Iceland, but the only regular service to the principal international airport, Kangerlussuaq, is operated by Air Greenland from Copenhagen. The flight from the Danish capital takes four and a half hours, but other than a drive to the icecap or a trip to see herds of musk ox nearby, there is not much to keep you at the old American air base.

So from Kangerlussuaq, we boarded Air Greenland's 50-seater Dash-7 service bound for the capital, Nuuk. The flight south over the ice sheet and mountains lining the coast took an hour and a half, every minute of which I spent peering out the window. As the plane began its approach, the brightly hued matchbox houses typical of Greenland settlements came into view. It looked like Legoland in snow.

Nuuk, the administrative, commercial and cultural heartbeat of the land, has a population of 15,000. Perched on a peninsula, the settlement was established in 1728 by Norwegian missionary Hans Egede, whose legend lives on – we checked into the plush Hans Egede Hotel before going off to explore.

Compared to other world capitals, Nuuk is small. But compared to other towns in Greenland, it's a modern metropolis. Our starting point on a walk around town was the well-presented national museum, which details the history of an island inhabited by the Inuit since 3000BC. Its standout exhibition is of two mummified Inuit women and a six-month-old child, their bodies and clothing preserved by the ice they were buried in over 500 years ago.

Just a short walk away the town's fish market presented another set of fascinating images to digest. Alongside the fish were the bloody carcasses of reindeer, musk ox, seal and whale, all gutted, chopped and sliced in front of customers' eyes. In Greenland, fresh really does mean fresh.

The seafood, which includes Greenlandic halibut, cod, Arctic char, prawns and snow crab, is some of the best in the world. As a starter, we nibbled on strips of dried whale, reindeer and halibut. For mains, the musk ox, reindeer and lamb was divine, while the whale meat had the appearance, taste and texture of a fine sirloin steak.

Because the fjord around Nuuk does not freeze over in winter, fishing and whale watching trips are available year round. You can take a chopper trip, visit Norse and Inuit ruins, ski, even play golf on a rocky nine-hole course. But even in Nuuk, the star attraction, as it is all over Greenland, is nature.

Erik the Red, an exiled Icelandic sailor who arrived in the south of the island in 982, gave Greenland its name, and enticed others to follow him to this fertile and "green land". In the south, Greenland really does get green round the edges during summer – for dog sled rides and big icebergs you have to go north. That meant returning to Kangerlussuaq, but soon we were airborne again en route to Ilulissat.

Air Greenland, which owns Ilulissat's Hotel Arctic, considered closing it down a few years ago, but manager Erik Bjerregaard has turned things around. It's now fully booked a year in advance, and a new wing is due to open. The hotel offers modern facilities in a relaxed atmosphere. You can dine in the bar, or enjoy the Greenlandic specialities in the restaurant which boasts a panoramic view out over Disko Bay.

This view is a feature of all three hotels in Ilulissat. Whether you're eating fresh prawns and halibut in Hvide Falk Hotel, sipping Hotel Icefjord's delightful home-made angelica beer, produced using 50,000-year-old ice collected from the fjord, or relaxing in your room after a day on a dog sled, your eyes are drawn to the icebergs.

A hike of little more than an hour, past the ruined remains of an Inuit settlement hundreds of years old, is rewarded with a breathtaking mountain-top view across the mouth of the Ilulissat ice fjord, which became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004. In the three years since, it has become a magnet for scientists measuring the rate of climate change.

The glacier, stretching 30 miles from the inland ice sheet along the fjord into Disko Bay, carves off enough ice on an average day – 20 million tons – to provide New York City with running water for a year. But over the past ten years it has been speeding up at an alarming rate – it now hurtles along at up to 40 metres a day – and the tip of its giant white tongue has retreated more than six miles in five years.

Climate change may be threatening the environment, but it has mostly had a positive impact on the people of Ilulissat. Hotels are full, business is booming, and the fisherman are able to go out by boat all-year round. When the bay froze over in winter, they would go out to fish and hunt by dog sled. This traditional mode of transport remains popular, however, and with 4,000 dogs in Ilulissat there are plenty of chances for tourists to take a trip.

It's an exhilarating experience in the most serene of settings. Sitting on a sledge cushioned with reindeer hide, I felt the crisp Arctic air on my cheeks as my driver carved a path between mountains and up hills. In all, 15 of the hardiest dogs in the world – they can pull the equivalent of their own weight for 60 miles in -60C – fanned out in front of the sledge. We stopped at the top of the mountain for coffee to gaze out over the glacier creaking and grinding its way down the fjord below. There wasn't a cloud in the sky – bliss.

The tourist agencies in Ilulissat offer many other exotic activities, such as kayaking, hiking and chopper trips over the glacier. But our final adventure was a boat trip to the hunting settlement of Rodebay three hours to the north.

After a stunning journey overtaking the icebergs, we arrived to find that this bay was frozen over. That meant disembarking onto the frozen sea and walking to the hunting village of just 50 residents. It's not the type of place you'd expect to find a cosy bistro, but what we discovered inside an old wooden house was a snug and beautifully decorated little restaurant serving huge helpings of seafood and home-made apple pie.

Ingo and Uta Wolff, the proud owners, were German tourists when they arrived in this Arctic outpost ten years ago. They were so taken with the place that they decided to stay. The fresh air, divine food, unspoiled nature and tranquillity, they said, was contagious. That, it seems, is what happens when you visit Greenland. It gets into your blood. It may not be easy to get there, but when you do you just don't want to leave.

Factfile: Greenland

How to get there

• BMI (0870 607 0555, www.flybmi.com) flies from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Copenhagen, from 250.

• Air Greenland (00 45 299 34 3434, www.airgreenland.com) flies from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq, from 550 return. Connections to Nuuk from 150 return, and Ilulissat, 270.

Where to stay

• The Hans Egede Hotel, Nuuk (00 299 32 2700, www.hhe.gl/). Rooms from 125. In Ilulissat, Hotel Arctic (00 299 94 4153, www.hotel-arctic.gl). Rooms from 70.

And there's more

• Tour operators to Greenland: Regent Holidays (01983 863013, www.regent-holidays.co.uk), Arcturus Expeditions (01432, 850886, www.arcturusexpeditions.co.uk).

• Scotsman Reader Holidays offer Norwegian cruises from 998pp. Call Connoisseur Cruising, tel: 0845 130 0788 (quote The Scotsman).

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