SOMERSET MAUGHAM HAD HIS VILLA MAURESQUE IN Cap Ferrat. Wagner had the Grand Hotel et Des Palmes in Palermo, where he wrote most of Parsifal. Robert Louis Stevenson had Vailima, the estate in Samoa where he worked on his unfinished masterpiece, Weir of Hermiston.
Ever since junior high, I've wanted an exotic place of my own where I too could unfinish masterpieces. But where?It's tacky to squat on someone else's venue. You have to discover your own little acre of terra incognito—a place to install yourself, to drink, womanize, and otherwise debauch yourself until you have become its genius loci.
Iqaluit (pronounced ih-kah-lu-it), formerly known as Frobisher Bay, is the capital of Nunavut, Canada's fledgling Arctic territory. A 770,000-square-mile region of desolate tundra, Nunavut was carved out of the Northwest Territories to provide its demographic majority—the Eskimos, or Inuit, as they prefer to be called—a degree of autonomy. Nunavut's rates of suicide, substance abuse, and unemployment are among the highest in Canada; many of its inhabitants live in 24-hour darkness during an unimaginably frigid winter; and, in the fleeting summer, the entire territory dissolves into a vast morass of mosquito-infested muck.
I guess that's what appealed to me about Nunavut when I first read about it. It didn't seem like a place where any other writer would want to install or debauch himself, so I figured I'd have a pretty good shot at becoming the genius loci. And Iqaluit is, after all, its capital—its London, its Paris, its Vienna—implying a certain sophistication and panache. So, opting for the relative mildness of July, when temperatures range from 32 to 50 degrees and the sun shines for some 21 hours a day, I soon found myself on a First Air flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit, staring out the plane window at the successively green, brown, and ultimately pristinely white topography below—1,300 miles of visual Valium.
And there, finally, was the extraordinary Iqaluit Airport, an effulgently yellow structure standing alone on the empty tundra. It's difficult to describe how supremely yellow this airport is. It resembles an oversize, exotic piece of Caterpillar construction equipment—a vibrant modular configuration of squares, lozenges, cylinders, and corrugated surfaces. There's an exhilarating provisionality to it, as if, at any moment, the terminal might just drive off on its own.
Arriving at this strange little airport was, in some profound sense, the climactic experience of the entire trip, and the ensuing six-day sojourn merely a protracted epilogue. So completely satisfied was I by this canary-yellow anomaly idling in the Arctic tundra, I feared that lingering even an instant longer in Nunavut would actually sully what seemed an epiphanic moment, and my immediate impulse was to get on the very next plane and return home.
But I took a deep breath, dialed my hotel on an airport courtesy phone, and with a kind of burlesque alacrity—literally within 30 seconds—its shuttle van arrived to pick me up. The ride to the hotel took 15 seconds. Iqaluit may be, as my guidebook described it, "the largest metropolis" in Nunavut, but it is very, very small.
Standing at the threshold of the Discovery Lodge Hotel, with Sealift Beach on Koojesse Inlet to my right, the Baffin Gas Bar and Qikiqtani Dry Cleaning straight ahead, squinting in the blinding sunlight, already covered with dust and driven half-mad by the shrill warning signals of forklifts and bulldozers that would constitute the inescapable sound track of the next six days, there I was: the genius loci, the mondain, the flaneur. (If you think this mode of experiencing Iqaluit—by impersonating a 19th-century Parisian dandy—is ridiculous, well, duh. But look, some people need to play out elaborate fantasies to have sex. I need them to travel.)
It was immediately obvious that Iqaluit was not a "capital" or a "city" in any recognizable sense. This was an entrepôt, a frontier town, an Arctic homage to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—unpaved, grimy, dog-ridden, cluttered with construction debris. Nevertheless, it provided each of the essential elements required by my fantasy: (1) a fine hotel in which to install oneself and unfinish great masterpieces; (2) picturesque neighborhoods through which to promenade; (3) restaurants with simple, hearty fare; and (4) atmospheric bars in which to dissipate.
A Fine Hotel in Which to Install Oneself and Unfinish Great Masterpieces
The Discovery Lodge Hotel offers the toniest accommodations in Iqaluit: it's spotlessly clean, with an invariably cheerful and efficient staff. Rooms are small and relatively austere, but they include a desk for major literary work. There's no room service or mini-bar, however; you'll need to stock up at one of the local stores or supermarkets (I recommend Quickstop Convenience) so that when those creative energies are flagging, you'll have a ready cache of Skittles or Starbursts or whatever best replenishes your muse.
After unpacking, I felt too groggy and disoriented to do any major literary work or promenading. I stared for a while at the cluster of sheds outside my window, listening to the clamor of loading vehicles down at Sealift Beach, then flipped through my Nunavut Handbook while watching a Yankees—Mets game on television. (Iqaluit's cable-TV provider offers a surprisingly eclectic selection of programming in English, French, and Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.) The guidebook informed me that the term Eskimo, which is considered derogatory and no longer used in Nunavut, is a Cree Indian word meaning "eaters of raw meat." I wondered if there was a Cree word for "eaters of prosciutto-and-mozzarella heros, take-out Chinese, and pizza," which would be the appropriate derogatory term for my descendants.