Greenland is the world’s largest island, which also happens to be a country with the lowest population density and one of the smallest capitals in the world. It’s a land of Arctic landscapes and precipitous cliffs, white ice and deep blue sea as well as lush sheep farms, hot springs and green mountains with wildflowers. Greenlanders are a versatile and welcoming people who live under the northern lights in winter and the midnight sun in summer.
For travellers visiting Greenland for the first time, there are five main themes that should not be missed. Nicknamed the ‘Big Arctic Five’, these include dog sledding, northern lights, whales, ice, and the pioneering people.
To go dog sledding is a lifetime experience that should not be missed on a visit to Greenland in winter. Dressed in warm clothes, you’ll get to ride with a Greenlandic driver out in the endless, snow-covered mountain landscapes.
Dog sledding takes place in several countries in the Arctic, including Sweden and Norway, but no other destination can match Greenland when it comes to authenticity: The dog sled and sled dogs are in fact deeply embedded in Greenlandic culture and it is just as much a part of the country’s history as the kayak. The dog sled continues to play an important role as a means of transport for hunters to hunt.
In fact, sled dog territory only encompasses areas north of the Arctic Circle in the west coast, and in all the towns of the east coast – strict breeding regulations mean that only these purebred sled dogs are allowed inside the territory.
Dog sled tours are offered north of the Arctic Circle in West Greenland and in Tasiilaq, and Ittoqqortoormiit in East Greenland. You can choose anything from day trips to week-long sled trips, staying overnight in a cabin. The season starts in February and lasts until April.
The energy level and endurance of sled dogs is unmatched, and it seems the command ‘Go’ is completely unnecessary as they are constantly in ‘Go’ mode.
Sled dogs howl and jump at the mere sight of the musher, and will instinctively pull off at speed with or without a driver. However, these dogs have the ability to read the environment, and will stop when they sense that the ice is too thin to cross.
If you want to experience Greenland at its most beautiful and dramatic, head to the east coast and the unique natural area of Liverpool Land at Ittoqqortoormiit or Tasiilaq on the island of Ammassalik. The biggest mountains and glaciers are here and it is close to the Ice Sheet.
Most people choose to go on short trips to Kangerlussuaq, Sisimiut, or Greenland’s largest tourist town, Ilulissat, which is also a destination of outstanding beauty. Ilulissat is also a little more accessible as you can fly there direct from Denmark, so you don’t have to go via Iceland (which is the only way to visit Greenland’s east coast towns).
The rolling, mythical and magical Northern Lights dancing in the night sky is a sight to behold for winter visitors, and Greenland is the perfect place to experience the phenomenon – in the middle of nature, where the mountains and the snow are illuminated by the green and red light show.
From early spring, the night sky is regularly illuminated with the Northern Lights’ emerald glow.
Over time, the Inuit have also allowed themselves to be marvelled. A famous local legend says that when the Northern Lights dance in the sky it means that the deceased are playing football with a walrus skull. Today, some people think it brings children luck if they are conceived under the magical glow of the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights – or Aurora
Borealis as it is known – actually occur year round, but it is not seen in the summer in Greenland, because of the midnight sun (when the sun stays out for 24 hours). It often appears around midnight and is best experienced on a dark, clear night sky from September until the beginning of April.
If you are travelling during that period, you can see the Northern Lights throughout the country, but in South Greenland the Northern Lights can already be seen from the end of August.
You can also catch the Northern Lights from most places, even from the capital city of Nuuk.
The very best and most easily accessible destination in Greenland to view the Northern Lights is the airport settlement of Kangerlussuaq; uniquely located inland in lee of mountains and ice, it boasts more than 300 clear nights a year.
If you’re heading out on the only gravel road in Greenland leading directly to the Ice Cap, the opportunities for seeing the Northern Lights are at their best, as there is hardly any light pollution to speak of.
To sail in Greenland is in itself a great experience and it becomes even greater when a whale appears right next to the boat. Humpback, fin and minke whales can be seen along most coastlines and often the whales swim quite close to towns and settlements.
The sea around the world’s largest island is ideal for whales, because it contains plenty of nutrition, food and offers great depths that whales can frolic in. There are lots of whales particularly in the summer months, and often you may be lucky enough to see them from the shore when certain species, such as humpback whales, often go close to the shore in search of food. Even in winter you can sometimes be lucky enough to encounter the bowhead whale which spends its whole winter in Disko Bay.
Qeqertarsuaq, located on Disko Island, is a well-known spot, especially for playful humpback whales in high summer, in addition to minke, and fin whales; many Greenland Whales also visit the site a little earlier in the year – typically from May to June.
The towns of Uummannaq, Aasiaat, Maniitsoq, Nuuk and Sisimiut, as well as the towns in South and East Greenland are also good places to see the ocean’s largest mammals.
And if you sail with a coastal ship from the Arctic Umiaq Line, the regional routes from Disko Line or a cruise with, for example, Hurtigruten, you can almost be sure to see whales during the voyage. It’s about keeping a look out and going on deck several times a day.
The ice sheet is fascinating for its magnitude and all its power and beauty. Icebergs are calved out of glaciers and embark on long journeys out at sea – unique and magnificent works of art made by the hand of nature.
Millions of large and small icebergs have been calved from the numerous glaciers that are evenly distributed all over Greenland. From historical times to the present day, icebergs have been used to distinguish the seasons and identify towns, attracting explorers, adventurers, and scientists alike.
Icebergs are the ice sheet’s unique masterpieces and they come in all imaginable shapes and sizes, and the colours shimmer from white to blue and with greenish, yellowish and reddish shades depending on the light that hits them.
The largest collection of icebergs in Greenland exists at the UNESCO-listed Ilulissat Icefjord – this “iceberg capital of the world” is home to thousands of icebergs that can be seen year round by hiking, sailing, or flightseeing.
A bit further north, Uummannaq’s iceberg changes with the season: summer sees a harbour packed with towering icebergs finding their way to sea, and in winter sea ice forms, freezing straggling iceberg in place until next year, creating a great icy maze perfect for dog sledding and ice fishing.
Blue ice – which occurs when ice has very little air in it – is rampant in South Greenland, and it appears vibrantly against a backdrop of lush green hills. Also, large sheets of pack ice are truly unique to South Greenland towns like Nanortalik and Qaqortoq.
Unlike a freshwater iceberg that calves from a glacier, this is frozen ocean water that has travelled all the way from the east coast.
Modern Greenland is a diverse, geographically extensive society with ancestry ranging from Inuits to Vikings – and locals speak Greenlandic, Danish, and English. In many ways Greenland is a country that has managed to retain its identity as an “original” country with an indigenous people.
Greenlanders are warm and hospitable; hospitality in Greenland is the foundation of any home. If you want to visit a Greenlandic home, you can go for a “Kaffemik” – Danish word for coffee get-together – in many towns and settlements. In fact, it is not coffee that is in the focal point, but being together. The hosts serve homemade cake with coffee and tea, and conversations about daily lives and the local community flow – it’s an insight that can neither be read about in books nor tourist guides.