Hotel cool

Flip Byrnes sleeps in an igloo and eats whale blubber for dinner in the Arctic.

I can hear her. Bjork. In this luxury igloo perched on the iceberg-strewn Disko Bay in Greenland where the Icelandic singer also once stayed, there is a sound like a siren song. Faint, vibrating, subtle and mesmerising. I check my iPod. Nothing there.

Midnight sun illuminates a vodka on ice, shards scooped from a harbourside iceberg that afternoon. It's the ice, the singing ice. I'd been told that the ozone from the glacier ice, thousands of years old, sings when released by warmer liquid. I'm being serenaded by a drink.

This experience, in one of the most spectacular towns (Ilulissat) in one of the most unusual countries (Greenland), is what makes staying at the Hotel Arctic almost overwhelming. And then there are the five metal igloos, the calling card of the 87-room hotel.

Outside, the igloos are Futuristic Eskimo. Inside, they are nautical, modelled on space-efficient boat interiors. The bathroom is straight from a yacht - close the door and the toilet becomes a shower, a table isn't unlike what you would find in a galley, and the windows are elongated portholes.

Despite its isolated location, 300 kilometres above the Arctic Circle, the droves are coming. Last year the Hotel Arctic hosted Bjork for two weeks, 10 US senators, the Danish Prime Minister and the Chancellor of Germany. In previous years there have been members of the Japanese, Thai and Danish royal courts.

What brings them here? It's the ice. Established in 2004 as a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, Disko Bay in Ilulissat (Ilulissat means "iceberg" in Greenlandic) is fed by the northern hemisphere's most prolific tidewater glacier, the 40-kilometre Jakobshavn Icefjord. The glacier produces 20 million tonnes of ice a day, equal to the amount used by New York City in a year. Icebergs break from the glacier and lie stranded in the bay for up to a year, before moving north to Canada or south to Newfoundland.

The settlement of Ilulissat is also other-worldly, a cluster of gingerbread houses walled by icebergs. The houses are coloured in vivid red, turquoise and yellow, candy-coloured smudges on white. In previous years in Greenland, colours denoted house functions. Blue was utilities. Red was government houses and yellow, schools. Perhaps making the most of old paint, most houses are still in these colours, but sneaky ones are creeping in: turquoise here and there, grass green and a daring black.

In winter, when the snow lies thickly on the ground and darkness reigns, the 3000 residents drive snowmobiles instead of cars. In May, when the snow recedes, 10 paved roads appear, around the airport and town. If you want to go further afield the options are boat or plane. There are no roads across Greenland.

With tourism (and all those VIPs) arriving in Ilulissat, restaurants and hotels have followed. One can pick up a Hawaiian pizza from Cafe Illuliaq, Thai and a pale ale from the microbrewery at the Hotel Icefiord or whale blubber at Mammut, the best restaurant in town.

But all roads lead back to the Hotel Arctic. While the clientele is decidedly international, the hotel itself is nothing other than pure Greenland. No faux-Venetian-canal aspirations to foreign customs here. About 90 per cent of the staff is Greenlandic, the rest a smattering of Danes. The igloos, which were originally at an exhibition in the capital Nuuk, are Greenland-designed and the lobby heaves with local art by Miki Jacobsen and Rita Mortensen.

The exception is a white-tiled fireplace by a familiar name, Utzon. Not Danish Jorn Utzon of Sydney Opera House fame, but his daughter, Lin.

If you are after Greenland fare, try the Monday-night buffet at the Hotel Arctic, with floor-to-ceiling windows on the iceberg vista.

Greenlanders eat what they can catch or hunt. So there is catfish, halibut, cod eggs, cod liver, salmon and trout. It's not a buffet, it's an aquarium.

Among the ocean of food, I snag a lone piece of dark, quite tough meat. Reindeer? Husky? Wolf? No. The staff tease me and tell me it comes from the ocean and make horns like a unicorn on their heads. Um, water rhinoceros? No, a horned whale, called narwhal. It is difficult to believe there is a whale that has a horn, let alone that I am eating it. And then there is the blubber. Pure whale fat, it can't be good for you. Cut in cubes and served chilled in a glass it could be tofu. I expect it to be soft, but it's hard.

Set further up a promontory from the igloos, the Hotel Arctic is expanding. It is light and spacious with blond wood and windows to catch the light. If you opt for a room with telephone and internet (the igloos are warm but not sophisticated), head for the new wing, Umiaq, which opens next month. But for me, it's all about the igloo, what must surely be a part of one of the coolest hotels in the world.

Flip Byrnes flew courtesy of Thai Airways and SAS.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Kangerlussuaq is the main entry point into Greenland, and Copenhagen is the main gateway from Europe. Scandinavian Airlines and Air Greenland have regular flights from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq. Within Greenland, Air Greenland has the air monopoly. Fares from Copenhagen to Ilulissat via a change of aircraft in Kangerlussuaq start at 3200 Danish kroner ($707) one way. Thai Airways has a fare for $1414 to Copenhagen with a change of aircraft in Bangkok. (All fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney and do not include tax.)

Staying there

Rates for the Hotel Arctic igloos start at 1150 Danish kroner a night with breakfast, see hotel-arctic.gl.

While you're there

Tourist Nature can organise all your activities from overnight stays in settlements to kayaking, helicopter rides over the glacier and midnight iceberg cruises. See www.ilulissattn.com.

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