Greenland isn’t like anywhere else. This is the twelfth largest country in the world but the least densely populated. It is a place dominated by its natural environment. Most of the country is covered with ice, meaning only tiny fragments around its edges are habitable by human beings. I had wanted to visit Greenland for as long as I can remember, and in 2018, I finally made it happen.
Why I Wanted To Go To Greenland
I’ve always been fascinated by northern landscapes and cultures. I visited Iceland in 1981 when it was still relatively undiscovered by tourists. I enjoyed the almost untouched landscape and the wide open spaces -- a geography that was so different from anything I had previously encountered. And I was intrigued by the isolation of the place, the feeling that people were wresting a living from hostile surroundings.
Later I went to Swedish Lapland and got the same sense of a very different way of living. But Greenland was the ultimate challenge for me, a place where people don’t have all the conveniences of modern living, where everyday existence is bound up with the physical environment.
The Challenge Of Arranging A Trip To Greenland
Of course there were challenges: Nothing worthwhile is ever entirely straightforward. The first issue was cost and logistics. Greenland is not developed as a tourist destination; there are no economy flights or budget hotels. Another factor is that you need to be prepared for the extreme cold -- even in the middle of the summer.
But the main challenge was that I like to organize my own travel arrangements, and I soon realized that this wasn’t going to be an option. In most countries, you can have contingency plans. In Greenland -- with no roads between towns, and planes and ferries often full to capacity in summer -- there would little backup if things went wrong.
In fact, when I got there, I did spot a few independent travelers heading inland with their backpacks and tents. But that is for those who are experienced in outdoor adventure. For me, it would have to be an organized tour.
Organizing The Trip
The hardest parts of arranging my trip were making the decision to go with an organized tour and persuading my husband that we should vacation in a cold place. Then it was just a matter of choosing the right tour. We decided to go with Greenland Travel (owned by the national airline), but there are other companies to choose from. Some even offer specialized activities like photography or birdwatching.
Another decision was which time of year to go. For me the answer was simple: Traveling in June meant not only slightly warmer weather but also being able to see the midnight sun (I’d seen long hours of daylight in Russia and Sweden, but I’d never been in a place where the sun didn’t set at all in summer). However, traveling to Greenland at different times of year would have offered other possibilities. When the sun goes down, there is always the chance of seeing the northern lights. And visiting in winter is a completely different experience, with deep snow, a complete lack of sunlight, and the possibility of traveling overland by dog sleigh or snowmobile.
We flew to Kangerlussuaq (Greenland’s international airport) via Copenhagen, which gave us the opportunity to enjoy a few days in the Danish capital. Alternatively, we could have chosen to fly in via Reykjavik in Iceland, which might be a better option for visitors from North America. Some cruise companies have also started to include Greenland on their itineraries.
Icebergs And Wildlife
When I finally got to Greenland I was not disappointed. It was well worth the wait. There were several elements to the tour: a visit to the ice cap; a day in Nuuk, the capital city; a two-day ferry trip along the coast; three days in Ilulissat, inside the Arctic Circle. We saw icebergs, wildlife, and the midnight sun.
The natural environment was astonishing. At least 80 percent of the island is covered by the ice cap. This is nearly two miles deep and makes the whole of the interior of the island uninhabitable (although it is possible to ski across it in winter). We walked on the edge of the ice, marveling at being surrounded by so much emptiness. And the area around the edge was far from dull: there were waterfalls and glaciers, heather and alpine flowers. We saw reindeer, arctic hares, and lots of birds.
Then there were the icebergs. As the ferry came along the coast into the Arctic Circle, we entered the ice field, where small blocks of ice gradually give way to giant structures in a variety of fantastical shapes. Some were even different colors (most were white, but others were a luminous blue). And we spotted the occasional fluke of a hastily departing whale.
A Voyage Of Discovery
Apart from the landscape, what I enjoyed most about my time in Greenland was learning a bit about how people live. I had to see the place for myself to understand the isolation. The largest town, Nuuk, has just over 15,000 residents, and there are no roads between settlements. The Greenland Coastal Ferry, which we traveled on, is an essential weekly service (summer months only) that allows people to move around for school, work, or meeting up with family. Planes fly between the larger towns, but elsewhere helicopters are needed for medical emergencies and to deliver supplies.
And food is an issue. Inevitably, much is imported, but there is a real sense of living on whatever is available. Many people spend their spare time hunting, on land or at sea. I witnessed the excitement in Ilulissat as a catch was brought into the fish market. No one ever knows when there will be a catch or what it will be. On this occasion it turned out to be seal.
But the lasting impression I have of Greenland is the light. We sailed through the icebergs at midnight, watching the sun sinking slowly toward the horizon, then rising again without ever disappearing from sight. Everything was bathed in a pale golden glow. After a lifetime of traveling to new places and seeing new things, it was in Greenland I discovered that I could still be overawed.