Confusingly named, enticingly remote and increasingly popular, the chilly island of Greenland is fast becoming the dark horse of 2020 travel destinations.
Before planning their trips, most visitors know little about the Arctic destination beyond vague ideas about its misleading nomenclature — “Greenland is icy whereas Iceland is green, right?” — or its link to popular culture, namely: “It’s the one singer Bjork isn’t from.”
The truth behind the name
It’s true that Greenland is a land of icebergs and glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet, the second largest continental glacier in the world.
So why such a verdant name?
Many people know the old Nordic saga. After being exiled from Iceland, Norse explorer Erik Thorvaldsson — better known as Erik the Red — named his new home “Greenland” to attract more visitors. After all, “green” sounds more attractive than “ice-filled” for many holidaymakers.
Kulusuk, a remote island in southeast Greenland.
However, few know that Greenland actually was significantly greener around A.D. 1000, when the Vikings followed Norse custom of naming something as they saw it.
Sadly, that’s a situation that is rapidly becoming true again. Due to global warming, Greenland’s icebergs are melting at a worrying rate. As images of a remote Arctic wonderland emerging from the ice are splashed across international media, travelers are beginning to see Greenland in a new light.
Melting icebergs calved from Jakobshavn Glacier floating in Disko Bay near Ilulissat, Greenland.
Others are finding the popularity of nearby Iceland to be too much and rightfully view Greenland as a slower, quieter option.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s statement about buying Greenland in August 2019 didn’t hurt either. Greenland — which isn’t for sale — experienced a worldwide surge in Google searches because of it.
Melting Greenland morphed into a destination
A country the native Inuits know as Kalaallit Nunaat, Greenland is an “accessible Arctic” country of just 56,000 inhabitants. Tourism numbers outstripped the resident population in 2019.
CEO and co-founder of Nordic travel specialist 50 Degrees North, Tietse Stelma, said the company is experiencing 400% growth in travel bookings this year.
“Greenland is a great alternative to Iceland, with far fewer tourists and therefore, much more authentic experiences,” he said.
The colorful architecture of Greenland.
Elizabeth M. Ruggiero | iStock | Getty Images
Still, it’s not a budget holiday.
“It’s a considerable cost to visit Greenland, and flights can be expensive,” Stelma said.
For travel author, journalist and polar expedition guide David McGonigal, who has visited Greenland over 20 times in the past two decades, the Danish protectorate has always been surprisingly peaceful.
“There are shops and supermarkets, but the prices are expensive; people are friendly while naturally reserved,” McGonigal said. “It’s the landscape and the wildlife that (are) most intriguing.”
Two humpback whales swim near a small iceberg (showing signs of melting) near Ilulissat, Greenland.
While McGonigal likens neighboring Iceland to Scotland or northern Scandinavia — “a northern European country full of beautiful people and dramatic volcanic landscapes” — he spends his visits to Greenland hiking and sailing the deep fjords, taking macro photographs of wildflowers or exploring villages dotted across barren foreshores and rocky islands.
“I once asked a Greenlander why they paint their houses in bright colors,” he laughed. “The answer was: So we can find our own homes on Saturday night.”
What to do
Unsurprisingly, most visits to Greenland are spent in the wild. Intrepid visitors hike onto the otherworldly environs of the Greenland ice sheet, kayak to spot one of 15 species of whales, watch icebergs calve (or split) at Eqi Glacier and fish for Arctic char in the rivers of the Kangia fjord.
Getting around isn’t easy, given there are few roads between towns. Only one in 20 residents owns a car, with many using the Sarfaq Ittuk ferry to get around (the ship is also popular with tourists who want to wake up in front of an iceberg). Air Greenland flights are another option; they fly at low altitudes and afford excellent views.
Rafting around the icebergs of Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland.
Of Greenland’s 70 inhabited towns, only 13 have runways, which makes helicopters another popular form of transportation.
“Every visitor to Ilulissat should grit their teeth and pay for the helicopter flight over the icebergs,” McGonigal said.
A polar bear mother and two cubs in northeast Greenland.
While most visitors stick to the west coast, the wilder east coast is home to Scoresby, the world’s largest fjord. The east is also the most likely location to see a polar bear, a fact McGonigal said makes hiking in Greenland more relaxed than elsewhere in the Arctic.
“In my experience, it’s only along the east coast and other very remote areas that you have any chance of finding polar bears,” he said.
When to go
The short travel season means visitation peaks around the Northern Hemisphere’s summer months, when the midnight sun offers endless daylight (late April to late August, depending on the latitude).
Summer temperatures can reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit, while the Northern Lights can been seen as early as September.
A winter night in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital.
Whatever time of year, the “sila” (a Greenlandic concept meaning weather or state of mind) plays a key role during trips to Greenland.
“This is the Arctic … so where you go, even in midsummer, can be dictated by where the ice isn’t,” said McGonigal. “And as you head north, it’s more of an issue, of course.”
Where to stay
As the country prepares to handle an influx of tourists who want to see what Stelma described as a destination “unplagued by overtourism,” the interest hasn’t yet translated to an equally big boost in accommodations.
Airbnb options are few and far between, and many hotels are booked six months in advance.
Igloo cabins at Hotel Arctic.
Courtesy of Hotel Arctic
Those planning a visit might try the igloo-shaped cabins at Ilulissat’s four-star Hotel Arctic, a luxury hut overlooking the icebergs off the coast of Ilimanaq in the north, or an adventure usually reserved for researchers — camping on Greenland’s ice sheet.