For even the hardiest of travelers, Greenland has long been terra incognita, a place unreachable in any casual sense—basically, off the map. Which is a bit ironic, because, for any map lover or just those with a healthy sense of global curiosity, it’s probably that classic world map that hung across the blackboard in most North American classrooms that spurred interest in this remote northern place. A hulking, mostly unsettled landmass stretching down from the furthest reaches of the north, most of Greenland is white, except for vibrant, verdant fringes around its edges.
Greenland is indeed a curious place. Significantly larger in size than many countries, including Mexico, it’s home to fewer than 60,000 people. But it looks even larger on a map, because of something called the Mercator Projection. Created in 1569 by a Flemish cartographer named Gerardus Mercator to aid navigation, this technique uses a linear scale that distorts the size of landmasses in increasing measure, the further away they are from the equator. And those near the poles? They look way bigger than their actual size.
For example: Alaska. On the Mercator map—which shapes our common understanding of how our world looks—the 49th state is roughly the same size as Australia, despite the fact the latter is more than four times larger. It’s even more pronounced with Greenland. With its extreme northerly location, the projection blows it up to about the same size as Africa. In reality, the world’s second-largest continent is 14 times bigger, and Greenland’s landmass matches just a single country there, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
That being said, Greenland is still very sizeable, and stands as the world’s largest island, covering more than 836,000 square miles. A self-governing territory within the Danish kingdom, it is also the most sparsely populated country on earth. But, with more than 80 percent of its surface covered in the world’s second-largest ice sheet, the question remains: is it green? That’s a surprisingly complicated question. On two visits there, including one this summer, I can answer: yes. Well, sort of.
Most visits here, including both of mine, will be on board a ship. On the first, I landed at the airstrip on the west coast at Kangerlussuaq, a former U.S. air base, and sailed down the 120-mile fjord of the same name. Reaching Ilulissat to the northwest, I took a short, easy hike to the nearby glacier, the most productive in the northern hemisphere. The village’s name literally means “icebergs,” and some 20 billion tons of icebergs calve here every year, floating further south until they melt or break up in warmer climes. And more recently I spent a week aboard a brand-new ship, Quark Expeditions’ Ultramarine, exploring the extensive fjord system that carves through the southernmost tip of the island, boarding two Bell helicopters to flight-see and heli-hike on ridges that, it’s possible, no humans have trod before.
Greenland’s landscapes are, in a grand understatement, dramatic. The parts most people will visit, along the coasts, are massively mountainous, with scarcely a flat space to be spotted. Heavily glaciated, deep, steep-sided fjords cut through all that rock. White snow caps crown the peaks, even in summer. Cold, blue water flows down below, fed by more waterfalls than you can count, cascading in white veils tumbling from unseen heights.
And Erik the Red thought it was green—or, at least, that’s what he told people, in order to convince them to come with him. Banished from Iceland for the crime of manslaughter, the infamous Viking brought 14 boatloads of settlers here in 986. In “Saga of the Icelanders,” he admitted that “people would be attracted here if it had a favorable name.” So the name sprung from what was, essentially, a slick marketing plan.
Of course, people were there already. The Inuit have lived here for thousands of years, and the population remains almost 90 percent indigenous. For the record, they don’t call it Greenland, using instead the name “Kalaallit Nunaat,” which means “Land of the People” in Greenlandic Inuit. (The indigenous language has three separate dialects, spoken in the west, east, and north—the latter has just 800 or so speakers.)
On a morning visit to Aappilattoq, a small village of just 80 hardy souls protected by a rocky harbor, I learned more about day-to-day life here. Traditional practices prevail, despite fascinating amalgams with European culture. (One example: a Greenlandic rock band entertained us with drums and electric guitars, but singing tunes with local themes in the local language.) Hunting still provides food, as does fishing. The latter is also a source of income, with fish processed and shipped to Denmark and other points abroad.
Greenland is definitely beautiful in the macro. Soaring overtop in the chopper, I saw its size and grandeur and just a tiny bit of that endless snow and ice on the ice sheet. (Which is, it must be said, melting at unprecedented rates.) And in answer to that ultimate question? Yes, Greenland is green. The tundra blooms beautifully in the summer. You’ll just have to look a little closer to spot its complexity. In most places, no trees, just dwarf birch and Arctic mouse-ear and even wild blueberries, small but tasty, when they ripen in the sun. Growing far from anywhere, they are definitely worth the very big trip to get here.
If You Go
Fly: Both Icelandair and Air Greenland have direct, scheduled flights to Reykjavik and the latter, also to Copenhagen, although many casual travelers arrive in Kangerlussuaq or Sarsarsuaq by special charter (or by sea). https://www.icelandair.com
Getting Around: This is a challenging prospect in Greenland. Most visitors will travel by expedition or cruise ship, Air Greenland connects many small communities on the island, and ferries do run between some villages.
Stay: While you’ll find small, hardy hotels in some communities (especially the capital, Nuuk), most visits will be facilitated by ship. Quark Expeditions’ Ultramarine provides a cushy place to land after a big day of exploring, with staterooms that include couches, balconies, and bathrooms with heated floors, plus a full-service spa and sauna.
Take Note: The season for travel to Greenland is mostly restricted to the mild summer months, when temperatures can rise into the 60s. Because the window is narrow, book well in advance to secure your spot.