When you step off the airplane, there might be snow blowing sideways at 145 km/h (90 mph). You’ll just make out the eyes of airport attendants peeking out behind great fur-lined hoods as they direct you toward the banana-yellow terminal, and it looks just like the fictional Arctic substation of your imagination. For qallunaat (non-Inuit or “southerners”), Canada’s Nunavut Territory feels like another world. And its capital Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) is a rowdy, frontier-spirit town of about 6,200 hardy souls, most Inuit. It’s not scenic: a bunch of trailer-like, one-story, corrugated metal buildings fanning up the hills around Frobisher Bay. And yes, a ham-‘n-eggs breakfast costs $18. But it’s lively, simpatico and accessible, and filled with some of the most vibrant, imaginative, Inuit artwork you’ll ever see.
The real adventures happen in the 26 tiny, far-flung communities of Canada’s newest territory (there are no roads connecting them). But on your way, take some time to do Iqaluit. And say it like a local: “ee-HAH (bit of phglem)-loo-eet.” The name means “place of many fish.”
Folks are genuine and friendly. A friend-of-a-friend, Letia Obed, invited me over to her pleasant, sunny, plant-filled home atop the hill overlooking the bay. She’d baked me gingerbread cookies. We watched her baby play and sipped Labrador tea. I found out Inuit don’t like bugs or bare feet on grass, and how to raise the eyebrows for yes, crinkle the nose for no. We laughed and exchanged family photos.
“Just stepping off the plane is an experience,” said Obed, Director of Aboriginal and Circumpolar Affairs for the Government of Nunavut, “it’s exciting. Because of the geography, it’s so unlike the rest of Canada. I think people get a kick out of being somewhere few have travelled. It’s also a very unpretentious part of the world, not slick or commercial. Even if you have a miserable time, you still have those stories over dinner.”
Legislative Assembly of Nunavut, 867-975-5000.Truly a jewel and not to be missed. Established in 1999 for the creation of Nunavut Territory. The artwork is superb, and the House itself, which mimicks the traditional igloo (or iglu) structure, is fascinating. Mill around at your leisure. The central feature is a glass-encased narwhal tusk sceptre, carried by Inuit figures, with a diamond at its tip.
Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum, 867-979-5537. Gives a good overview of Nunavut, its people, art and culture, housed in an old Hudon’s Bay Company building relocated from Apex. Plus, you get to peruse the collections in your socks. The intricacy, imagination and detail in the artworks are impressive. Lots of Baffin Island artifacts. One, of whalebone, shows a man seated on an ice floe holding a sinew whip; his little toe is peeking out of his right boot. Masks, lithographs and stone-cut prints, soapstone carvings, beautiful Inuit beaded garments, dolls, textiles, fur owls, embroidery, jewelry, books. A fabulous gift shop with bargain prices. The museum’s name means “everything you need to live; all your basic belongings,” says the affable manager/curator Brian Lunger.
Take home a fish from Iqaluit Enterprises, 867-979-4458. Don’t expect any customer service: “It’s in the freezer—see fer yerself.” But do rummage around in the chest freezer for fresh-frozen or smoked, and other “country food.” Tote home a frozen-as-a-board, orange-fleshed, whole Arctic char (90-cm or 3-ft long for about $25) for some of the best, most delicate (wild) fish you’ll ever taste.
Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre, www.nunavuttourism.com, 867-979-4636. This a wonderful museum in a folksy, old-fashioned kinda way. Stuffed wildlife and models, traditional dress, sculpture and accounts of the traditional Inuit way of life. Educational and fun. Watch old movies or documentaries from the 1950s in the cozy, subterranean theatre area that looks like giant icebergs are dripping down into it.
Peruse the expansive, eclectic collection of Northern books at the bookstore upstairs at Arctic Ventures, 867-979-5992. Take home some Inuit herbal tea from the grocery downstairs.
If you want to support the traditional hunting biz, visit Rannva Design in bucolic Apex (5.5 km or 3.5 mi from town, Apex was the original Iqaluit before an airstrip opened in 1942 in today’s Iqaluit; check out the historic Hudson’s Bay Company buildings). Call first. Rannva Simonsen is a Faroe Islands (Denmark) native artist who creates wearable art and accessories from her home studio: fur and seal skin haute couture and gorgeous traditional parkas, embroidered and fur mittens, dolls. Stay in her B&B, an airy loft big on character, one of the classiest accommodations around. www.rannva.com
Nova Inn, www.novahotels.com, 867-497-6933 is new and feels like a bustling ski-resort property: 76 rooms, tasteful, British men’s-club décor with dark mahogany wood and dark greens. Large rooms with kitchenettes. Even if you don’t stay here, pop into the hotel pub for a caribou burger with cranberry-apple chutney and check out the 1800s-era black-and-white prints of Inuit life that line the walls. Or the modern, even trendy, Frobisher Inn, a giant fortress at the top of the hill (all taxis to anywhere are $6 per person). Be sure to dine here and dive into the hoppin’, multiculti bar scene. Another fun, more relaxing bar scene is at The Navigator Inn, 867-979-6201. Other B&Bs: the handsome Nunattaq Suites (fresh-baked bread and specialty coffee); Accomodations By the Sea; Beaches Bed & Breakfast, 867-979-3034.
Fish for Arctic char in the river at Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park. Depending on the time of year: picnicking by the falls, berry picking, birdwatching, dogsledding, hiking. Archaeological sites date back to the Thule Inuit.
Toonik Tyme. If you visit in April, catch some of the fun at this unpretentious community festival (since 1965) welcoming spring after a long winter that kicks off with the lighting of the qulliq (seal-oil lamp). Some 40 events: Northern Band Night with much of the music in Inuktitut; with the elders, traditional Inuit games, craft fair (bargain prices!) and the caribou stew dinner community feast; throat singing (fascinating, if you haven’t heard it), cross-country skiing on the frozen bay and ice golf. There are lots of contests: the best/worst mustache, bannock (fried bread) and tea making, seal hunting and skinning, ice carving, igloo making. A family affair, it feels like a happy confluence of the qallunaat and Inuit cultures.