It’s one of the most barren and inhospitable places on the planet, yet the Arctic landscape of Greenland attracts thousands of visitors each year, each marvelling at the astounding beauty of icebergs, glaciers and a vast ice cap.
The Kangia fjord, a Unesco World Heritage site outside this western Greenland town, offers one of the most dramatic views from the forces of nature in motion. Enormous blocks of ice break off with a thunderous roar from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier and into the fjord before beginning their silent 40km voyage out to the Arctic Sea. Tourists wrapped in blankets watch the spectacle from cutters, zig-zagging between the massive ice blocks, while others swoop down over the glacier in helicopters.
Greenland is attracting people who want to try something different, really different,” said Hans Peter Poulsen of the Greenland Tourism and Business Council. “There is no mass tourism here.””
Travelling to and within Greenland is expensive because of its size and remote location. The island stretches 2670km from south to north, and is four times larger than France. The vast ice cap covers 85% of the island. There are no roads connecting towns and settlements, so transportation is by plane, helicopter and dogsled, or by boat during the ice-free summer.
Daring visitors paddle in kayaks between icebergs or camp in tents in the Arctic wilderness. Others hike the 3200m-thick ice cap, or join a photo safari, hoping to snap shots of musk oxen and reindeer on land, or whales and seals at sea.
Don’t expect to cross paths with any polar bears, though. Most Greenlanders have never seen one, as the animals seldom venture into populated areas from their habitat in the more inaccessible northern parts.
In coastal towns, tourists can board a cutter or fishing boat for a late-night cruise among the icebergs. They steer you so close you can break off a small chunk of ice, frozen for 100,000 years, and slip it into your drink in the midnight sun.
Visitors can get a taste of the local culture in Kulusuk, a village of 230 people on the thinly populated, wind-swept east coast, where locals perform Inuit drum dances. The village has no paved streets, but there is a modern hotel next to a small airfield.
The tourists who come here are typically Europeans and Americans on a round trip to the Nordic countries,” says Patrick Abrahamsen, of the Hotel Kulusuk. They come via Reykjavik, the capital of neighbouring Iceland, “to get a quick feel of Greenland”.
In Qassiarsuk, a hamlet near Narsarsuaq, southern Greenland, is a replica of what has been called the first Christian church built in North America, to which Greenland geographically belongs. The Viking Eric the Red – whose son Leif Ericson is believed to have landed in North America 500 years before Columbus – built the tiny 3m wooden church with a grass roof next to his home.
Ilulissat, too, has more to offer than calving glaciers and icebergs – at the mouth of the Kangia fjord is the archaeological site of Sermermiut, where the earliest human settlement on the island was established 4400 years ago. In the Ilulissat hinterland, where the rocks are covered by soil and moss, more than 300 different species of plants, including crowberries, lousewort, marsh tea and Niviarsiaq, Greenland’s national flower, can be found.
Every town or larger village has at least one museum. Ilulissat has a museum for whaling and fishing, and one for explorer Knud Rasmussen, who documented Eskimo culture in the early 20th century. The permanent exhibit sits in a red wooden house in the middle of the town where he was born in 1879.
Nuuk, the capital 600km south of Ilulissat, houses Greenland’s National Museum, displaying local history, well-preserved mummies of Inuits, kayaks and other artefacts. Sisimiut, on the Arctic Circle, has an archaeological museum dedicated to the Inuits, who arrived here from Siberia more than 4000 years ago.”