Few places in the world combine the jaw-dropping scenery, unpolluted skies, deep-rooted culture, and astonishing heritage as Greenland. But make no mistake, traveling here isn't easy — the prices are steep, there's relatively few flights and reliable roads, and the desirable seasons are short. However, one glimpse at the relatively untouched landscape and you'll be scrambling for your camera faster than you can say dancing aurora. With more and more cruise lines adding Greenland as a stop and murmurs in the travelsphere about new Northern Light tours, this unspoiled land won't be a secret much longer. That means, it's time to pack your bags and head to the Arctic's last frontier.
A primary mode of transportation along Greenland's weaving waterways for decades, kayaking is arguably one of the biggest cultural symbols of the country. As a result, you can find rental companies in almost all the major cities from Nuuk to Ilulissat. Although local residents kayak 365 days a year, the best time to hit the water is from May through September when the wildlife is out in full force and the temperatures aren't as icy. The ultimate way to get up close to the rugged glaciers, craggy icebergs and frolicking critters, keep your eyes peeled for everything from whales to seals.
Most of the stark, blue hued icebergs found scattered in the oceans surround Greenland's west coast. Concentrated near the small seaside town of Iluissat at the Icefjord (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), you can see thousands of these floating wonders protruding from the icy waters. Further north, the cluster of icebergs near Sermeq Kujalleq (the world's fastest moving glacier) makes the small town of Uummannaq a picture-perfect place to kayak. For the best contrast though, head to South Greenland, where you'll find brilliant glacial formations painted against lush green hills, turquoise waters and the colorful houses of Nanortalik and Qaqortoq.
The largest city in Greenland, Nuuk, has only 17,000 permanent residents. But despite it's size, it still offers all the charms of a larger capitol, with everything from art museums to hiking trails. Outside of Nuuk, the villages are considerably smaller, most home to just 2,000 - 4,000 permanent residents. Ilulissat is a must visit to catch a glimpse of the famous icefjord. The city sprawls along the coast of western Greenland with cobalt, red, yellow, and green homes quietly dotting the shore. A little further south, Qaqortoq offers a peaceful getaway with Danish style homes. Right outside town is one of the oldest Norse settlements with artifacts and the Hvalsey Church which dates back to the 14th century. Other villages that deserve a visit, if only for the photography opportunities, are Sisimiut, the second-largest city in the country and Aasiaat, whose buildings tower and flow down the hills and mountainside.
The Rich Culture
Living in some of the harshest climates, the people of Greenland are, not surprisingly, incredibly strong, resilient and resourceful. More than that, though, they're warm and welcoming, and embrace their unique heritage. To see what life is like in the one of northernmost places in the world, explore Qaanaaq, a tight-knit community with a deep-rooted history and passionate Inuit culture. The Thule people settled in Greenland's upper peninsula around the 9th century AD and formed what was formerly called Thule. They passed down traditions of fishing, kayaking, and dog sledding which can still be seen to this day. In other parts of Greenland, you'll find that most residents have a unique blend of Inuit and Danish blood, and both lineages can be seen in their crafts — from hunting to kaffemiks (a Danish inspired coffee house).
The Northern Lights
Thanks to its location, the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, can be seen from October through April in most parts of the country. You don't need to venture all the way up north to get the best viewing either. Some of the most dramatic skies can be seen outside of Kangerlussuaq, the town where the largest airport can be found. The vibrant colors illuminate the dark Arctic sky with radiant hues of green, purple, red and blue. To see them, simply book two to three nights and venture outside around midnight — the prime time to spot their dazzling glow. Conversely, in the warmer months, you'll be privy to the phenomenon of the Midnight Sun.
The most alluring aspect of Greenland is that you don't need to venture far to get lost in the great outdoors. The size of western Europe with barely the population of one country, the amount of backcountry exploration Greenland offers is unparalleled. What also makes this country incredibly unique is that there's no privately owned land at all - meaning anywhere is free game when it comes to hiking. If you don't want to forge your own path in the beautiful, albeit harsh nature - head to the Arctic Circle Trail, a 99-mile hike that connects Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut. The full-trip takes about 8 - 9 days and requires some challenging terrain and passages. For those in east Greenland, simply head for the icebergs in the Ammassalik area. Deep gorges, tall peaks and staggering climbs make this one of the most difficult treks in the country, but the panoramic views and Inuit villages of Kulusuk and Tasiilaq are worth it.
From expansive, sweeping horizons to towering, rugged mountain ranges overlooked by craggy icebergs, the scenery in Greenland is diverse as they come. In the east, you'll find lush flower-filled meadows and massive basalt walls. While in the North, you're met by stark, snow-capped fjords and rocky hills flanked by brightly painted villages. Regardless of where you go, head out around sunset, when the deep polar sun dips into the Arctic Circle, painting the sky a dramatic pink, purple and orange.
The vast wilderness isn't just home to spectacular scenery — it's home to an impressive array of endemic species as well. That includes polar bears, walruses, musk ox, caribou, arctic foxes, whales, hares, eagles, lemmings and the rare Arctic wolf. So how do you spot these creatures in their natural habitat? Take a small expedition cruise for the chance to watch the humpback whales breech 40 feet into the air and pods of orcas zip by. On land, a hike will likely bring sightings of polar bears, arctic foxes, and wolves, but be sure to keep your distance. A visit to Greenland National Park will introduce you to the Musk Oxen, or Ummimak. These long-bearded beauties weigh up to 400 pounds and can camouflage themselves amongst the dark rocks.
The World’s Largest National Park
Encompassing an astonishing 375,000 square miles, the Northeast Greenland National Park is an unbelievable Arctic wonderland and the largest protected area in the world. The park, which sees more animals than people, is comprised of an incredible bounty of flora, fauna and wildlife including walruses and polar bears. The scenery, which includes valleys, towering mountains and icebergs, is just as impressive. The entrance can be found in the remote coastal village of Ittoqqortoormiit, making getting here all the more challenging. To stay in the park and traverse some of the more remote areas, you'll need to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Nature & Environment.