Gemma Bowes takes family adventure to the max taking her toddlers to the wilds of Greenland for a spot of wild glamping
“I was 11 when I killed my first reindeer,” beamed Anika, our host, as she passed a plate of pan-fried scallops with sweetened pink flowers across the table in the smoky glow of the dining tipi. Around us garlands of fairy lights were hung from the tent poles, and we sat on furs heaped on benches, drinking beer whose label depicted a musk ox.
“My parents said I would be ready only once I could kill it with a knife if I ran out of bullets, gut it and cut it up myself, and carry the carcass all the way back to our boat by the shore. And I did it! I carried it on my back for five hours. By the end I was crying and swaying. My daddy said, ‘it’s OK, you can stop, you’ve proved yourself’, but… I wouldn’t give in.”
Kids grow up tough in Greenland. They have to. This is a country 80 per cent covered by ice, where temperatures drop to minus 20C, fishing is the key industry, and the few small settlements around its ice-free fringes are not connected by road. If you’re too poor to buy a boat or a flight, you may never leave town.
Such an unbelievably vast wilderness, and the most sparsely populated country in the world (population 56,000) is irresistible to the intrepid of heart, but decent accommodation is limited, with only a couple of four-star hotels, no five stars, and a smattering of hostels and lodges. And so Kiattua, launched by Anika Krogh with her husband Jon and their friend Thure Baastrup two years ago, really is a game-changer — offering luxury, devoted service, fine food and style in a fantastically remote spot. High-end tipis boast wooden floors, wood-burners, beds with electric blankets. What’s more you get your own bathroom tipi (with hot showers and flushing loo), a camp hot tub, and activities and boat trips on demand. Yet it is the location, two hours by boat into the Nuuk fjord system from Greenland’s diminutive capital Nuuk, on the west coast, that represents the true luxury these days.
It’s also family friendly, in fact Anika and Jon hoped the camp would be a way for them to be with their kids all summer. Bring them along, we said (though it’s up to guests), so Anika’s kids and niece, and Thure’s step-kids, joined us in the camp, with our toddlers – Heidi, aged four, and Hamish, just two.
Icebergs started to appear as we powered across the sea fjord from Nuuk, sculptures of milky white and pale blue that according to Heidi resembled mermaids, bears, castles, caves. Black granite cliffs rock thrust up around us. Killing the engine in an emerald lagoon by a waterfall, the skipper had announced “we just stop here to fish for dinner”.
Gulp. The kids were already peckish. How many hours would it take? But no sooner had Heidi helped to throw the plastic line over the side of the boat (no bait necessary) than she and her dad were winding it back in. Silver-white flashes rose up like glimmering ghosts through the inky water, and three 5-6 pound cod flopped onto the deck. Heidi held her hands to her mouth giggling in disbelief. Within minutes we were set for supper, with seven big cod.
Those cod of ours were fettled into something very fine that night by chef Bjorn Ulrich Moi, a Dane who is one of the country’s best, reworking native ingredients into something modern, this with pea puree and chopped nuts.
“You can eat everything here!” he beamed next morning as he strolled over to our tent, gesturing at brittle-looking heathery stuff, and lichen-covered rocks surrounding us, and brandishing baskets for mushroom foraging. “There are seven types of mushroom in Greenland, and none are poisonous!” he bellowed to the kids, who dashed about plucking huge beautiful funghi with the feverish excitement of an easter egg hunt, despite having no intention whatsoever of trying a nibble. They didn’t want to try the raw seal blubber or raw humpback whale skin we were offered in Nuuk’s fine restaurant Kalaaliaraq, either – kids eh? So fussy.
Bjorn wasn’t above toasted marshmallows over the campfire, thankfully, and even devoted himself passionately to the collection of medicinal herbs for Heidi’s “poorly” cuddly monkey — this a chef with Michelin star ambitions.
Each day we headed out in the RIB, no simple task with toddlers, who had to be wrapped up in thermals, fleece, waterproofs, hats, gloves and life jackets. It was July and the sun was shining but once the boat sped along at 30 knots, we froze. The kids sat astride the front seats as if on playground motorbikes, sea-spray whipped and ecstatic as dogs with their heads out a car window until the moment exhaustion hit and they had to curl up on our laps. Then we could absorb the view freely, spy a sea eagle overhead.
We hiked to see the unfathomably vast ice-sheet above the icefjord one day; another we built a fire and picnicked on a white sand beach. In Kapisillit, one of two tiny Inuit settlements in the fjord, we attended a kaffeenik, a traditional open-to-all social gathering with lorry-loads of cake. I mean so much cake that for the one Anika was planning for Melina’s eighth birthday party, she would have to bake, she said, 20-30 different ones. And we thought making one took effort!
The women told stories of their lives, about how as kids they would dare each other to jump from iceberg to iceberg, further and further from the shore. Their parents went crazy if they were caught. “We were always outside. We were never bored,” they said.
In Nuuk, we’d had a similar, even more cosy experience – dinner at Anika’s wonderful parents’ house. Anika’s politician mum is Inuit, her aeronautical engineer father Danish, so we learnt about the country’s dualistic culture, the tensions, and their early lives when even in the 1950s Nuuk homes had no electricity or running water. Their charming sea-front home was bursting with homely knick-knacks, pictures made from eider duck feathers, cross-stitch samplers, and we got to see the photos of Anika’s legendary reindeer hunt, a skinny girl streaked head to toe in gore, grinning madly.
Thanks in part to the midnight sun, partly because of our host’s unwillingness to rush or over-organise guests, our routine (what little semblance of one we have), swung wildly off-kilter: dinner at 9pm, bed at midnight, up at eight, lunch at 3pm. We even made a 10pm voyage to see the sunset turn ice, sea and sky pink and purple as a berry milkshake. The kids wept with tiredness, but I wouldn’t have missed it.
Learning about a thrilling new culture in the city, then experiencing the kick of the wild made the week feel like a month, so hyper-charged was every moment.
In Nuuk’s gripping museums we saw incredible traditional Inuit objects in the Nuuk National Museum, such as seal-skin anoraks, costumes, carved wooden animals and the 500-year-old Qilakitsoq mummies, so well-preserved you can see their face tattoos. The Nuutoqaq musuem about local life taught us much about the public housing estates, about Greenland today, its poverty, industry, and problems.
Having Anika to show us around, so knowledgeable, and seemingly friends with all 16,800 of Nuuk’s residents, was a huge advantage. She arranged behind-the-scenes tours with a rock star who ran the cinema; the manager of the Nuuk Art Museum, and craftsmen who carved animals and mythical beings from narwhal horn, walrus tusk, reindeer antlers. She also – so kindly – looked after the kids while we read all the notices.
Heidi and Hamish became besotted with their new Greenlandic family. Anika captivated Heidi with an Inuit folktale about a goddess under the sea who had to be appeased by having her hair combed to guarantee enough fish and animals to hunt. Lua, Thure’s younger sister, who works at Kiattua during her uni holidays, we wanted to poach as a nanny. Anika’s daughter Malina became Heidi’s new best-friend, swapping toys – a plastic unicorn for a Frozen jigsaw (surprisingly not retitled “Normal Weather” for the Greenland market) – and clambering over boulders together beside fast-running water. We let them get on with it.
One evening we left the kids playing with Lua in the tipi for 30 minutes, donning orange waterproof immersion suits which made us resemble oversized lobsters, to swim among the icebergs. In hysterics we floated and flailed like toddlers mastering doggy paddle. It was, we realised, the first time we’d done something fun alone together in six months. Essentially, this was date night.
The Nordic kids demonstrated a hardy self-sufficiency and independence, dashing over rocks with bare feet, rambling off over the rough land in little pairs late at night, uncomplainingly helping to ferry heavy supplies up from the boat, which seemed to inspire confidence in our own.
One morning I woke early to see Anika’s 14-year-old son, Tristan, powering up the smaller motorboat and setting out alone through the icebergs, not to return for several hours.
We learnt lessons in parenting, about the benefits of allowing kids more freedom to run wild, while giving them more responsibility to pull their weight.
And so it seemed ironic when on the last night, Anika shared her own parental worries. Tristan was to come to London, to attend a film-making course during the school holidays. When we offered to collect him from Gatwick her face broke into shining relief. “Thank you so much!” she gulped, “I have been so worried about him catching the train alone!”
How could we not, after all, this was our Greenlandic family now.
Swoop Arctic tailormakes trips to the camp from £4,500 per person based on two people sharing per room. Includes four nights at the camp on full board and including all activities, two nights B&B in Nuuk at the four star Hotel Hans Egede, all private transfers and guided city sightseeing. Excludes international flights.
Air Iceland Connect flies to Nuuk from Reykjavik from €661 return in summer. British Airways flies to Reykjavik from London from £39 return.
See Visit Greenland for more information