A Few Days In

Hello, Greenland! A Responsible Trip to the Far Reaches of Earth

by Stephanie Vermillion
Greenland The mighty Ilulissat Icefjord. All photos by Stephanie Vermillion.

As we think about our future travel plans, our thoughts turn to remote destinations and the far reaches of the planet. Greenland has long stoked our imagination, and this story only reinforces why it's such a compelling travel dream. Adventure Canada has cancelled its trips for 2020 and will resume its expeditions and operations in 2021.

GREENLAND — As I woke up — groggy, very groggy — to order lukewarm airplane coffee, I opened the window shade to see the land below. My heart fluttered. My vision sharpened. And I forgot all about the tasteless java.Through that tiny IcelandAir window en route from Reykjavik to New York, I caught my first glimpse of Greenland’s massive and mountainous ice sheet. I knew I had to get there one day. But how?

That was three years ago. I’ve since spent almost 36 months researching, contemplating, and researching some more how to get to Greenland from Ohio in a responsible, low-impact way. Last summer, I finally made it happen on a small-ship High Arctic expedition with Adventure Canada with 160 fellow travelers.

This trip checked my Arctic responsibility boxes. For social responsibility, Adventure Canada teaches guests about Inuit culture and employs Inuit throughout the company (our expedition leader was an Inuk from Nunatsiavut, Canada). For sustainability, Adventure Canada operates small ships and is working toward many of the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (including carbon footprint audits and implementing climate change education programs).

My trip started in the remote northern Canadian town of Resolute before we made our way across the Davis Strait into Greenland. After 24 hours of daylight, we had our first glimpse of sunset while entering a slightly more southern stretch of Greenland. I watched a bright orange sun fall behind a massive iceberg — and knew this trip would be worth the wait.

The shores of Greenland along the Danis Strait.
Scenic views seen while traversing Disko Bay.

THE SCENE

Greenland is experiencing a tourism spike thanks to its diverse flora and fauna. People visit for wildlife like whales, walruses, and musk ox, which can be seen along the coastline. Others come for the icebergs, which are easily accessible in places like Baffin Bay, where the Jakobshavn Glacier meets the sea. And some travel to Greenland for the chance to learn about the culture of the Greenlandic Inuit, who few have been lucky enough to meet.

LAY OF THE LAND

Greenland is a massive country, with the majority of land covered by an ice sheet. My trip focused on the more accessible western coast, particularly Sisimiut and Ilulissat, Greenland’s second and third largest towns. (Nuuk in southern Greenland is the largest.)

IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING

Visit the Ilulissat Icefjord, an aquatic maze of icebergs that form from the fast-moving Jakobshavn Glacier (also called Sermeq Kujalleq). The icefjord is massive as it is — the size of 66,000 football fields — and it’s constantly growing as the nearby Jakobshavn Glacier calves icebergs. The icebergs attract diverse wildlife drawn for the nutrient-dense waters; visitors often see hungry whales while cruising through the icefjord.

WHAT TO DO

Explore on Foot
Hiking in Greenland stimulates all five senses, including taste. Our hike through the virtually untouched Mitdlôrfik was a mix of whale watching from the coastline, crowberry-picking along the hillside (they’re edible), listening to nearby gulls, and bouncing across the soft, plush tundra. This was the first time Adventure Canada landed zodiacs on this lush, uninhabited shoreline, which only added to our sense of adventure.

That said, you don’t need a boat to hike through Greenland. Ilulissat has a trail through town that takes visitors out to views of the icefjord. Greenland Outdoors also leads hikes from five hours (the Russell Glacier Hike) to ten days (the Ice Berg Lake Iluliartoq, which takes hikers through old Inuit hunting grounds with Greenland Ice Cap views).

Sisimiut.
Exploring Ilulissat Icefjord on zodiacs.

Hit the Water
Greenland’s allure centers on its Arctic ice, and the best way to view it is from the water. We spent a scenic (and chilly) morning exploring the Ilulissat Icefjord in ten-person zodiac boats and kayaks. This was an ideal way to hear the crack of calving ice and to watch for tails of feeding whales, which we saw at least three times.

Visitors traveling by land can book an Ilulissat Icefjord boat tour with guides in town. For those up to it, sunset kayaking is a terrific scenic option from June to September. Just make sure you wear every layer you packed. (More on that below.)

For a firsthand look at a popular local trade — jig fishing (catching fish with a jig lure) — join a boat tour from Sisimiut along the coastline of Greenland. (Fish are plentiful here, so no experience is required.)

Taste Greenlandic Flavors
The majority of Greenland’s population is Inuit, and the culinary flavors throughout the country reflect local traditions and Arctic cultures. Restaurant Mamartut in Ilulissat is a cozy, upscale place to try fresh Greenlandic cuisine — musk ox, reindeer, and halibut — with pretty epic views. A window seat overlooking the icefjord pairs perfectly with crowberry liqueur.

For a low-frills look at true Greenlandic culture, head to Pizza Amigos in Sisimiut, a fast-food joint with pizza, burgers, and slot machines. (Yes, slot machines.) I was one of two tourists in this dive bar — the other being my friend — but the patrons were kind enough to help me learn the slot machine tricks. (Spoiler: I didn’t win a Danish krone — which, by the way, is the currency in Greenland.)

A fish platter at Restaurant Mamartut.
The dining room at Restaurant Mamartut.
Pizza is universal. This is from Pizza Amigos.
Beer on tap at Café Iluliaq.

Guzzle Greenlandic Brews
Breweries do not abound in the hard-to-reach towns of Greenland, but the ones that do use creative approaches to make the most of their limited ingredients. Brewery Immiaq, a microbrewery in Ilulissat, brews more than ten beers fused with local spices. Among the most unique (though not always available) are Ullorissat (black crowberry beer) and the dark Qilak (Christmas ale). To sample fresh brews, stop by the Brewery Immiaq outpost in Cafe Iluliaq.

Learn Local History
With the colorful architecture, you’d think it’d be hard to miss the Sisimiut Museum, but the entire town is lined with charming LEGO-like houses that were once color-coded based on the homeowner’s profession. (Hospital workers had yellow homes; red houses were reserved for traders.) The Sisimiut Museum, located steps from the harbor, has rotating exhibits about the town’s past, including a nod to the Saqqaq people, the first to inhabit Western Greenland. Don’t miss a stop at the hilltop church, where the altar is decorated with traditional seal fur.

In Ilulissat, the quaint and year-round Ilulissat Art Museum showcases a variety of traditional and contemporary works, with an adjacent Arctic kitchen garden.

WHERE TO STAY

A small-ship expedition is one of the easiest ways to experience Greenland, as accommodations are included and you can focus your time on exploring — as opposed to checking into — various small towns. But if you’d prefer to soak up the Greenlandic culture for more than one day per town, here are a few accommodations to consider in Ilulissat and Sisimiut:

Hotel Arctic, Ilulissat
Welcome to the world’s most northerly four-star hotel. Adjacent to the Ilulissat Icefjord, Hotel Arctic offers some of the most scenic bedroom views in Greenland. It also has a brasserie and wine bar onsite. Given its Icefjord-adjacent location, the hotel is a 20-minute walk from downtown.

Hotel Ilulissat Bed & Breakfast, Illulissat
While the name says bed and breakfast, Hotel Ilulissat operates like an Airbnb, with self-service check-in where guests can come and go as they please. Hotel Ilulissat is in the heart of downtown; it’s a more affordable option for those seeking low frills and low prices.

The Seamen’s Home, Sisimiut
This three-star hotel is far from luxurious, but, in a destination like Sisimiut, you’ll hardly be spending time indoors. The Seamen’s Home has an onsite cafeteria in addition to 30 rooms and is located just a few blocks from the central Sisimiut Museum.

Hotel Sisimiut, Sisimiut
Farther from downtown is another three-star hotel, Hotel Sisimiut. This scenic outpost has a spa, restaurant, and mountain views from a variety of single to family-size rooms.

PLAN YOUR TRIP

How to Get There
When exploring Greenland’s High Arctic with Adventure Canada, your chartered flights in and out of Greenland’s busiest airport, Kangerlussuaq Airport, will be coordinated for you. If you’re on your own, it’s easiest to fly into Ilulissat directly from Reykjavik. Taxis are the more expensive option to get to and from the airport; if you can, coordinate a transfer with your hotel.

Sisimiut is slightly harder to reach than Ilulissat. Air Greenland has daily flights to Sisimiut from Nuuk and Kangerlussuaq. If your hotel doesn’t offer shuttles, an airport taxi is the best way to get to town.

If you’re traveling on your own from Ilulissat to Sisimiut, start your trip in Ilulissat then fly on one of the weekly Air Greenland flights into Sisimiut. (If you’re traveling on an expedition cruise with a company like Adventure Canada, you’ll have one day in Ilulissat and wake up the next day in Sisimiut, or vice-versa.)

Getting Around
Once you’re in Ilulissat or Sisimiut, it’s easy to get around town on foot. You can also rent bikes in Ilulissat or Sisimiut — just watch out because drivers are far from cautious. There are no roads from one Greenland town to another — only roads within settlements — so traveling by air or water is the best way to get from city to city.

When to Go
With midnight sun and the Northern Lights, Greenland offers natural wonders throughout the year. High season is June to September, when the weather is warmer (up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit) and the sun says up well into the night. From May to August, the sun doesn’t set at all in Ilulissat and Sisimiut.

The Northern Light begin to illuminate the sky in late September; the unpredictable Aurora makes intermittent appearances through April. Winter months are cold in Greenland. Expect below freezing temperatures from 20 degrees Fahrenheit and down.

Money Matters
Greenland uses the Danish krone. All prices in Greenland include gratuity, but you can always add more if the service is above and beyond.

Local Customs
As you would in any destination (ahem), don’t photograph the locals, the dogs, or private property without asking permission first. Given Greenland’s unique culture and colorful architecture, this might be easier said than done, but a good rule of thumb is don’t photograph it here if you wouldn’t photograph it at home.

Another thing to keep in mind is cultural sensitivity. The majority of residents are Greenlandic Inuit. Remove the derogatory term “eskimo” from your vocabulary, as this phrase has a controversial and racist past.

What to Pack
Even in the summer, Greenland can get chilly, so pack multiple layers including a waterproof warm outer layer along with waterproof pants and hiking boots and a hat and gloves. For winter trips, invest in high-quality technical coats and pants.

The weather in Greenland is more sporadic than ever (thanks again, global warming), so it’s best to wear at least three layers — with one waterproof jacket — on any day exploring the western coastline. Even on one four-mile hike, I had to change at least three times to acclimate to the different temperatures along the route.

If you’re hoping to catch some drool-worthy images, bring a long lens (100 to 400mm or larger) for wildlife shots and a wide-angle lens to catch the scenery.

For Your Bedside Table

In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller’s character, Walter, goes on a transformative travel experience that starts in Greenland. The scenery alone will have you ready to book that flight.

For a more immersive look at the changing Arctic culture, pick up the book Circling the Midnight Sun by writer, adventurer, and geographer James Raffan, who actually joined us as part of Adventure Canada’s expedition team in August 2019. In the book, Raffan shares what he learned about the changing Arctic culture after circumnavigating the Arctic Circle for three straight years.