Navigating Oqaatsut, Greenland is straightforward in that you turn to whatever destination you’re trying to reach and literally walk straight forward that way. The settlement has 421 residents and zero streets. Even with the occasional wooden walkway, most routes cross glacially-striated bedrock and sloping terrain. Oqaatsut might be the least wheelchair-accessible inhabited place that I’ve visited in my life.2

But it’s only straightforward if you actually know where you’re supposed to go. Here’s the view of town upon our arrival, after a 12-mile hike from Ilulisat Airport:

About half the town. Click to see the whole vista.
About half the town. Click to see the whole vista.

Which of the 40-odd buildings was our hotel? The hotel’s address was “B 123,” but with neither streets nor visible house numbers, that didn’t help. Google Maps also said, falsely, that our hotel was underwater:

Bay views, indeed!
Bay views, indeed!

A more useful address might have been “the red building with solar panels.”

Once you arrive in Oqaatsut on a Saturday evening, the few dinner options are:

  1. Steal some dried fish from this drying rack:

  2. Turn around and head back to Ilulisat, either by foot (on said 12-mile hike through the tundra, crossing a bridge that is submerged underwater but definitely better than nothing!) or by boat ride across Disko Bay3 (if you can find one of the 42 residents to ferry you).

  3. Go to H8, the only restaurant in town.

We went with the restaurant.

H8 was easier to find than the hotel. It helped that their name was written on the roof in giant, high-contrast yellow characters.

Why is it named H8? Per Mads Klausen,

the US supplied Greenland during the Second World War, and they made the system of giving every town, city and settlement a letter and a number in order to identify the places from air. Oqaatsut is H8, Ilulissat H7, Ilimanaq H6 and so on

The giant, high-contrast yellow characters were on the roof so that pilots could see where the settlement was!

We were quoted an hour before our three-course dinner could start, proving that no matter where you are, if you show up at the best restaurant in town without a reservation on a Saturday night, you’re gonna wait a long time.4 Sitting outside, we ordered some oatmeal cookies, beer, and Greenlandic coffee (like Irish coffee, but more so) off of a charming menu hand-written on the back of a postcard. No QR codes here.

It was a bright and calm night. Oqaatsut is above the Arctic Circle, and sunset wouldn’t be for another month. Mosquito season, which is mid-June through July in Greenland, began days before we arrived. Arctic mosquitos, Aedes nigripes, are big and sluggish. You can grab them out of the air, and we did so many times. But there were a lot of them. We enjoyed our snacks; unfortunately, so did they.

I’ve lived most of my life in New York City. The denizens of Oqaatsut could live in a single floor of my apartment building; the entire population of Greenland could fit into the ZIP code I grew up in, 10023, with room to spare. Greenlandic phone numbers are only six digits long. But what I found most unfamiliar wasn’t the lack of density, per se, so much as the lack of boundaries. In New York, or even in the suburbs, the lines are clear. Every square foot is spoken for; one lot abuts the next abuts the next abuts the next. In Oqaatsut, one house is here, another there. Pipes sit above ground,5 exposed to the elements along with everyone else. Trash that could be many years old—two vintage Sweda cash registers, a bike with no wheels (seriously, on this terrain?)—lies outside, plopped next to dogsleds and snowmobiles, all overlooking a vast, iceberg-filled bay.

The first course was seafood: Greenlandic shrimp, topped with Greenlandic lumpfish roe, with greens grown hydroponically in Nuuk (the capital of Greenland).

The cherry tomatoes, although not Greenlandic, are intensly flavorful.
The cherry tomatoes, although not Greenlandic, are intensly flavorful.

Musk ox came in a brick that only looked like dried-out school-cafeteria meatloaf. Its taste was a little beefy, but more notable was its texture: stringy, but in a good way, it fell somewhere between carnitas and canned tuna.

Dessert: carrot cake. Cream cheese icing and lemon zest on top. Garnished with crumbled oatmeal cookies, the same ones we’d snacked on to start.

H8 was an excellent meal. It was even more impressive because the restaurant didn’t need to compete at all. Imagine a tiny airport where the only place to eat is Sbarro’s; wouldn’t you be shocked to find the best pizza of your life there?

“They don’t have to care,” one of my fellow diners said, “but they do.”

  1. Greenland population data found here

  2. It might be more accessible in the winter, when snowmobileing and dogsledding are options? 

  3. Sadly, Disko Bay is not named after the genre of music. 

  4. Who else visits Greenland? Danish people, mostly. Despite Donald Trump’s efforts to buy it for the United States, Greenland remains an autonomous region of Denmark. Greenlandic is the official language, but Danish is widespread. Our kindly hotelier, Ole, was hardly loquacious when we spoke with him in English, but he’d happily shoot the shit with you in Danish. 

  5. Another guest in our hotel, a Danish engineer specializing in Arctic construction, offered two reasons for keeping pipes aboveground. First, the cycle of freezing and thawing cracks and weathers and moves rocks; this is one of the biggest challenge in Arctic construction, so why subject your pipes to it? Second, aboveground pipes are easier for nonspecialist locals to repair, which especially matters in small, remote towns like Oqaatsut.