“It’s dark 24 hours a day,” “Your eyeballs will freeze,” “I hope you like preserved whale meat,” were three of the least extreme reactions I got on announcing my plans to travel to the one of the coldest places on earth, in the middle of winter (little point going in the summer, right). I’d seen the pictures; glaciers, huskies, the sheer heart-stopping beauty of the kingdom of snow and ice and decided that I had to go.
Most of Greenland sits above the Arctic Circle and although it’s closest geographically to Canada, its political and economic ties are with Denmark. A popular way to get to Greenland from the UK is via Copenhagen and that’s the route that I decided to take advantage of. Two holidays for the price of one.
At a chilly three degrees celsius the Danish capital was positively Saharan compared to the big freeze ahead. The week before travelling I got kitted out with various layers, mostly incorporating wool, fleece and the biggest, sturdiest boots I could find. On staring out the window on the flight into Greenland’s only international airport, Kangerlussuaq, the aerial view was of a vast whiteness; stark, beguiling and not to be messed with. I pulled on another layer of ski socks.
Getting off the plane I felt a strange nasal tingle. The mucus in my nose was freezing. From Kangerlussuaq, I was transferring to the capital Nuuk and stepping on to a propeller plane I wondered if the softly falling snow would delay the flight. Not a chance. As the fleece-wearing air stewardess offered me a hard boiled sweet it became obvious Greenlanders are made of pretty stern stuff. Unlike me. As the propellers juddered into action I shook like a human milkshake and eyed the emergency exits.
Gratefully I arrived in one piece and greeted at the airport by local Nuuk expert Grace Nielsen who’d kindly agreed to show me around.
“It must be about minus 10,” I murmured.
“Yeah, it’s kind of warm isn’t it?” she smiled. She wasn’t joking.
Nuuk is south of the Arctic Circle and gets around five hours of sunlight in mid-December, not the perpetual darkness I’d been warned about. Hurrah! Grace powered up her four by four and we drove round town, past the postcard-pretty central square with its pastel coloured wooden houses, to the starkly modernist university into downtown. I was curious to see if Greenlanders did indeed subsist on fermented whale and bits of frozen reindeer so we popped into a supermarket. I was secretly disappointed to see that the shelves were instead replete with familiar foods – pasta sauces, lemons and peanut butter. There was the odd bit of blubber and a packet of caribou sausages, but examples of this more traditional fayre were vastly outnumbered by oven ready chicken and cous cous.
Culinary surprises were in store at our dinner destination.
“There are two restaurants, a casual one which does big portions of Danish-style food and the posh one which specialises in Greenlandic cuisine,” explained Grace.
“What the hell, let’s go posh,” I replied, high on cold air and strong coffee. We were soon sitting at a table in the Sarfalik restaurant.
As soon as the bread basket came I knew we’d hit the jackpot. A beautiful selection of home-made baked products were placed in front of us, including a small blackened roll flavoured with seal fat. Seven courses of gastronomic heaven followed, including musk ox tenderloin, reindeer and Atlantic red fish from the local fjord.
The meal wouldn’t have looked out of place in London or New York and signalled Nuuk’s intent to present itself as an outward looking, quietly confident city. It’s this kind of attitude that’s made it the destination for the 2016 Arctic Winter Games, something I was devastated to miss. It’s a unique mixture of the traditional – finger pull, snowsnake, stick pull and pole push – and the modern including skiing and snowboarding.
Another highlight of the capital is the imposing cultural centre. Its awe-inspiring structure is inspired by the Arctic northern lights. It’s used as a theatre, concert venue and cinema but my personal highlight was the cafe. Keen to fill up for my onward flight I ordered a dinner plate- sized croissant filled with salad and tuna. I had no idea what inspiration lay behind that marvelous invention but who cares, it was delicious.
There are no roads connecting the cities so in summer Greenlanders travel by boat and in winter they fly. My next stop, Sisiumiut was 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle and around an hours flight from Nuuk. I arrived at the Hotel Sisimiut in the early evening. It was just before Christmas and the office parties were in full swing. The raucous laughter, singing and general merriment from every corner of the room created a wonderfully warm atmosphere but despite the pull of the bar I got an early night; the morning’s activities required full concentration.
The next day I was up at 8am for a decent breakfast ahead of a trip I’d been looking forward to for weeks.
“These are your overalls,” grinned hotel manager Anette, helping me into a Michelin man version of those orange jumpsuits you see on American prison documentaries.
A short walk to my destination, a dog sledding base on the edge of town. The howls of the huskies are an ever present feature of Sisimiut where dogs outnumber humans. They’re a breed specific to Greenland, wide at the shoulder, with a discernible element of wolf. Despite this the dogs I met were playful, friendly and as for the puppies…. ridiculously cute. The musher, Sara Berthelsen has been working with huskies since she was eight.
“It’s in my blood,” she told me, whilst skillfully setting up the sledge.
Half an hour later we jumped aboard, “You need to hold on, it can bumpy, especially the Bonebreaker.”
Through padded mittens I held on for dear life.
“The worst thing that can happen is coming off the sledge and being left alone in the Backlands,” grimaced Sara.
We bumped and whizzed past Narnia style scenery, the huskies belting along over the snow, ice and occasional cluster of rocks.
When the ride ended an hour later I was given the honour of unharnessing Tyson, the 10 stone leader of the pack. A scary but once in a lifetime honour, much like the trip itself.
So far I’d experienced bone-chilling cold and pushed my boundaries, but nothing prepared me for Ilulissat, 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Don’t get me wrong, stepping on to the frozen runway at Ilulissat airport wasn’t like walking into a deep freeze naked. It was far colder than that.
Standing ramrod straight, afraid to inhale in case my lungs froze, I was finally coaxed into a minibus transfer to the appropriately named Hotel Arctic. Perched on the edge of the immense Ilulissat ice fjord, it has wonderful views from just about every corner, including the two restaurants; the renowned restaurant Ulo and the more casual cafe Ferdinand. I was in the mood for comfort food and the disko burger at the cafe was a winning combo of beautifully fresh local halibut, homemade seaweed aoili and perfectly cooked chips.
Determined to avoid a hangover I reluctantly forewent the house specialty Greenland coffee – whiskey, Kahlúa, Grand Marnier and whipped cream. Waking up in the dark the next day I was pleased to have a clear head; it was a pretty big psychological adjustment realising I wouldn’t see proper daylight.
It was in this surreal half-light that Malik from local tour company World of Greenland drove me to the harbour. With a bit of calm encouragement I clambered aboard Katak, a gorgeous wooden boat in which we’d be sailing into the ice fjord.
“It feels like a scene from Titanic,” I joked as Captain Edvard expertly found a path between the immensely beautiful but heart-stoppingly fearsome icebergs.
“The one that sunk the Titanic probably came from here,” replied Edvard cheerfully as we bobbed alongside some of the most imposing natural hazards on the planet. “What you can see is literally the tip of the icebergs, they’re about eight times that height, mostly under water.”
We pulled up next to one of the potential killers and Edvard heaved himself right on to the face and chipped away a few blocks. Must be some kind of scientific sample gathering.
“We melt it down to drink, it’s the best water you can get,” smiled Edvard.
After a few hours of adrenalin-laced awe we sailed back into harbour. A quick rest and then on to one last adventure. A night time husky ride.
“We need to wear sealskin,” said Malik matter-of-factly. In this part of the country, Greenlanders hunt and eat seals and the skin byproduct is used as the ultimate weatherproof clothing.
In Sisimiut the dog sledding was spectacular, but in the minus 35 degree cold of night it felt more like an endurance sport.
Wedging myself between Malik and certain death, I covered up my face with a ski balaclava and goggles. The dogs leapt into their stride as the musher coaxed them through the snowy wilderness on the outskirts of town. After 30 minutes we stopped to give the dogs a rest and with goggles lowered I stared at the starlit sky. Even I could pick out the constellations. A faint glow of the Northern Lights passed overhead. The conditions weren’t right for the bright greens of legend, but the gentle white glow was enough to create a magical tableau.
It was a fitting end to what a lot of people would call the trip of a lifetime. I won’t call it that because I’m definitely going again.
General Advice: a good place to start when you’re planning your trip is the tourist board. They can give you advice on travel to and around Greenland, what clothing to wear etc:
Communication: One thing to note is that although the internet is widely available it isn’t free in most places. In hotels it typically cost around £5 for half an hour.
Accommodation: Apart from hotels there’s also an increasing number of airbnb options. Some even come with snowmobiles.
Food: There’s more variety in the summer, especially fresh fruit and veg because it’s easier to ship, but you won’t go hungry in the winter. Musk ox, carabou and halibut are all must tries.
Activities: In winter it’s all about skiing, snowboarding, sailing and huskies but in the summer there’s magnificent hiking opportunities, fat biking, rollerblading in the midnight sun…. the list goes on.
Travel: There no direct flights to Greenland but you can easily transfer from Denmark and Iceland. There are also some good tour options available including an eight day backpacking trip round the south of the country.
Money: It’s not cheap but if you’re used to the UK there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises; many prices are comparable to London.
Currency is the Danish krone.