It’s said that once a traveller has seen the rest of the world, there’s always Greenland. But with climate change undoubtedly stirring things up in this part of the world, we don’t think you should wait that long. Nature, at its most raw and powerful, calls the shots here: the world’s biggest noncontinental island is actually more than 80% icecap, leading to the world’s sparsest population.
Few places combine such magnificent scenery, clarity of light and raw power of nature. Vast swaths of beautiful wilderness and very few roads, give adventurers the freedom to wander at will, whether on foot, by ski or dogsled.
However you travel, schedule a safety margin for unpredictable weather and leave ample time in each destination to unwind, soak up the midnight sun, watch icebergs explode, be dazzled by the magic of the aurora borealis or to try some world-beating but charmingly uncommercialised opportunities for sea kayaking, rock climbing and salmon fishing.
The towering red peak that dominates Uummannaq (Heart-shaped) Island, lords over the colourful village. Houses cling to the steep shore and wooden steps play snakes and ladders with winding roads. In winter, darkness descends for two months, but spring ushers excellent conditions for dogsledding. Many families still depend on hunting as their main source of income, and a ban on hunting and fishing by snowmobile or motorboat means that the sled and the kayak are still the primary means of transport for hunters. The authenticity of it all hits you with the smell of dogs, drying fish and stretched skins wafting through the air.
This is why you spent all that money and came to Greenland. The awesome force and beauty of Unesco World Heritage–listed Ilulissat Kangerlua, one of the most active glaciers on the planet. It is one of those places so spectacular that it makes everything else pale in comparison. Just outside Ilulissat town you will be confronted with gargantuan icebergs, some the size of small towns, which lie at the mouth of the fjord. Measuring 5km wide, the glacier annually calves more than 35 cubic kilometres of ice – that’s about 20 million tonnes per day (enough to supply New York with water for a year). And about a tenth of all icebergs floating in Greenlandic waters.
This pretty fjordside village is widely accepted to be the site of BrattahlíÐ, where Erik the Red (Eiríkur RauÐe) built his farm in the 10th century. An easy-to-miss horseshoe-shaped section of turf is where it is believed the New World’s first Christian church was built in 1000 AD. Legend has it that Eric the Red’s wife þjóÐhildur tried to convert him to Christianity by refusing him sex, until he was baptised.
While Erik never relented, he did compromise by allowing a church to be built. A number of Norse ruins, including a longhouse and church. And the re-creation of an Inuit turf hut from the 19th century are also available to visit.
The picture-perfect town of Nanortalik is like a filmset of a New England fishing village. It is Greenland’s southernmost town. And its name means place of polar bears, referring to the bear population that ocassionally pass through. It is worth strolling around the town during different tides and times of the day to enjoy it in a variety of light conditions. Climb the stairs to the curious egg-shaped flagmast rock for a bird’s-eye view of the town, or walk out to one of the town’s landmarks – a natural stone. Which at a particular angle resembles the profile of Artic explorer and national hero Knud Rasmussen.
Dogsleds & Disko Greenland
Dogsled under the midnight sun on the fabulously named Disko Island, Greenland’s largest island. One of the best ways to get around is as the locals do; by dogsled. Greenlandic mushers harness their dogs in a fan formation as opposed to the more complicated and tangle-prone inline formation used by their counterparts in Alaska and Canada. Generally, the best season to go dogsledding is March to May. When the days are longer and temperatures not so extreme, but summer sledding is available on the island, which remains the only location south of the Arctic Circle where sled dogs are permitted to be kept.
While the most dangerous criminals are exported to Denmark’s ‘real jails’, most other offenders are generally locked up only at night. By day many hold down jobs, make unescorted shopping trips and – most remarkably – even go on the annual reindeer hunt. That’s right: they’re given a gun. Well, as long as they’re not drunk. This apparently lenient system makes more sense in Greenland, where there’s effectively nowhere to run and so little incentive to escape. However, some provincial businesses dreadChristmas, when prisoners come home for the holidays. Festive raids to steal alcohol can cost store owners muchmore in repairing the structural damage than in losing the value of the stolen booze.
Food & Drink
Traditional Greenlandic fare is dominated by meat, especially whale and seal.
Caribou In September virtually everyone takes time off work to hunt caribou (tuttu), which yield superb steaks and very tasty leg-meat, which is rarely sold.
Dovekies NorthGreenlanders once survived by eating these penguin-like small birds. When stuffed in hollowed-out seal carcasses and left to rot, they form the unappetising kivioq.
Seal Cooked by boiling chunks inwater for an hour or more. The cookedmeat has a deep, chocolate-brown colour. Cuts edgedwith a centimetre of blubber taste rather like lamb chops:
Whale The best raw whaleskin (mattak) comes from beluga or narwhal, taking on a slightly nutty, mushroom-like flavour when cooked.
Kayaking the Fjords Greenland
Greenlandic qajaq are the precursors of modern kayaks, so if you don’t sea kayak in Greenland, where else would you? One of the best places to get up close to ice-choked fjords is around the village of Tasiilaq. Only 100km south of the Arctic Circle. The town is an outdoor adventurer’s dream landscape, surrounded by high mountains, green valleys. and water. Lots of water. A paddle from Tasiilaq across the fjord is an easy (!) 4km. While a trip around the fjord is a more challenging 20 to 30km. Paddle up!
Sail through south Greenland’s most magnificent fjordland scenery from Aappilattoq, a tiny fishing
village sitting on a natural inland harbour. Practically inaccessible via land, it offers some of the most
spectacular water travel anywhere in the world, including the weekly Ketil, sailing between Nanortalik and
Aappilattoq from mid-November and April, returning the same day. This unmissable voyage is full of
exceptional scenic wonders, but weather and ice conditions mean it is often cancelled.
Air Considering its climate, huge size and tiny population, Greenland is well served by air links, while public helicopters offer a unique way of seeing the scenery. Be flexible – weather conditions mean you can’t assume that a service will leave on time (or even on the scheduled day).
Boat Meet the locals while weaving between icebergs, past soaring peaks and throughmagnificent icescapes on the ferries. Ice permitting, summer services link west-coast villages, but there are no ferries on the east coast. Inwinter ferries go no further north than Ilulissat.
Dogsled Many people still get around by dogsled, and visitors can arrange trips ranging from one day to a two-week
expedition. The best season is from March to May
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