When I visited Greenland a few years back, this autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark—it’s not a country—had just begun an advertising campaign branding it as a travel destination beyond polar bears and igloos. Air Greenland had just launched its first direct flights from and to a hoped-for lucrative United States market, a five-hour flight from Baltimore, Md., to its airport at Kangerlussuaq.
My flight was about three-quarters empty—not an auspicious indicator for Greenland tourism. Pretty much the only interesting thing to do in the tiny village of Kangerlussuaq (pop. 500) where we touched down, I quickly discovered, is to board a flight to somewhere else.
We did so less than an hour after landing there, boarding a short take-off and landing turboprop-powered 50-passenger plane for a 45-minute flight further north to Ilulissat. Before boarding, I made sure to photograph an airport sign that had caught my attention. It told distances to several places and I noticed we were almost equidistant from New York and Copenhagen—and a good bit closer to the North Pole. Soon I’d be even closer.
We had had to land and change planes in tiny Kangerlussuaq, I learned, because it is one of the few airstrips in Greenland capable of handling large aircrafts, the United States having built an 8,000-strong U.S. Army base here during World War II.
I also learned that there are no connecting roads between Kangerlussuaq and Ilulissat or between most other communities in Greenland. Greenland may be the largest island in the world, but it has only a couple of stop signs! Travel from one place to another is usually by air or boat.
Now Ilulissat is interesting. It’s exactly what I had hoped for when I decided to visit Greenland. Located on its western coast some 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle, with a population of about 5,000, making it Greenland’s third-largest city, Ilulissat has more sled dogs than people. Its name means “icebergs” in Greenlandic.
The “city” is built on humps of glaciated rock. It looks out on a harbor that depending upon the time of day may be nearly empty or packed with small boats and trawlers. There’s a good-sized plant for processing shrimp and halibut. Homes sit close to one another on sloping land without discernible boundary lines and, as is the practice throughout Greenland, they’re painted colorfully—yellow, red, shades of blue. People, including even small children, are out and about late in the evening, even near midnight. This is, after all, one of the areas of the world known for its midnight sun.
About those dogs that outnumber people here: They all look alike. That’s because the Greenland Dog, a breed similar to the Alaskan Malamute, the Canadian Eskimo Dog, and the Siberian Husky, is the only breed Greenland allows north of the Arctic Circle to preserve the breed’s purity.
What makes Ilulissat so interesting is its location. Not so much that it lies a good bit north of the Arctic Circle but that it neighbors the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which runs west about 25 miles from the Greenland ice sheet. It’s the world’s second-largest ice sheet after the Antarctic ice sheet, and extends to a spot just south of Ilulissat called Disko Bay, the largest open bay in western Greenland.
At its eastern end is the most productive glacier in the northern hemisphere. Flowing at a rate of anywhere between 66–115 feet per day, each day it calves off enough ice that, were it melted, would equal all the water that the population of New York City consumes in a year. Put another way, about 20 billion tons of icebergs calve off and pass out of the fjord each year!
Often icebergs breaking from the glacier are too tall—more than 3,000 feet in height—to float down the fjord. Sometimes they lie stuck for years on the bottom of the shallower areas until eventually they are broken up by the force of the glacier and icebergs further up the fjord.
While I also visited the capital city of Nuuk (pop. 18,000, home to nearly a third of Greenland’s population), located 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle and the world’s northernmost capital, and enjoyed its museums, cultural center, and shops, it’s always Ilulissat that I think of when I look back on visiting Greenland.
Three things about Ilulissat stand out.
It was so soothing, pleasant, peaceful, impressive, striking—you name it—to just stand or sit looking out over Disko Bay and take in the vista of icebergs of all sizes gleaming in the warm glow of the midnight sun.
You don’t tend to think of this as you look at these icebergs but what you’re looking at is a scene vastly different from, say, a massive snowfall that wasn’t here yesterday. Snow compacted into ice year after year for centuries goes into the formation of a great iceberg.
You tend to think that the iceberg scene you’re looking at is static. But return to the same spot and look out to where you had looked hours earlier and what you see will look different, sometimes dramatically so. One evening I saw few; the next there must have been hundreds.
Equally as stunning as the view looking out across Disko Bay at icebergs of all sizes and shapes is the view from above, looking down at them. Lifting off from Ilulissat in a helicopter carrying a few tourists, we flew out over the world-famous Ilulissat Icefjord. Wow! What a spectacular sight to behold.
Only from high above is it possible to get a good feel for just how vast this frozen river of ice is. I noticed that some icebergs are surrounded by what I’d call the same ice-clear blue water I had seen up close in Antarctica. Also from on high, I noticed long shadows cast by some of the large icebergs. As we headed for a glacier where we were going to land and spend about a half-hour examining up close, the fjord seemed to become packed tighter and tighter.
Remarkable as it was to look out at such spectacular icebergs off in the distance or from on high above them, it was every bit as impressive to see them up close from a small covered boat in Disko Bay.
You might think that if you’ve seen one iceberg you’ve seen them all—but, no, not so. No two seem to look alike. Not when you get up close and personal with them.
Some seem about the size you expected. Others are higher, wider, and deeper than you ever imagined. Some are smooth. Others have crevasses of varying number, width and depth. Some have edges so perfectly sharp you’d think they were cut by some giant knife. And if you have much of an imagination you begin to think of odd things you swear they are shaped like.
I was thinking that one looked a bit like a whale, or at least like the tail of a whale, and then a little while later, I was rushing to the small boat’s open back deck because someone had spotted a real humpback whale not far from us.
It’s my experience from seeing whales all around the globe that no whale will do you the favor of posing so that you can get a better photo, still, I held my Nikon in hand and patiently waited. And soon I had images of the big black back of another humpback whale and its big long tail protruding high as it dived back into Disko Bay, to add to my images inventory.
More to Greenland Than Just Ice
It really is true that Iceland is much greener than Greenland, three-quarters of which is covered by a permanent ice sheet that’s exceeded in size only by the one in Antarctica. And it’s also true that Viking colonizer Floki Vilgeroarson christened Iceland with such a glum name deliberately to discourage settlement while another Viking, Eric the Red, bestowed a deliberately misleading name on Greenland to encourage colonization.
That said, so what? Greenland has more than just ice to make it worth visiting. A friend of mine traveled there to track herds of muskoxen, which are native to it and the Canadian Arctic. This large, thick-coated mammal of the Bovidae family has a name that means “the bearded one” in the language of the Inuit people.
Observing Inuit culture—including the customs and dress—of ethnically similar indigenous peoples of the Arctic region—is something many visitors enjoy. Some 89 percent of Greenland’s approximately 58,000 residents are Greenlandic Inuit.
Popular activities for tourists are dog sledding, whale-watching, visiting Viking ruins, and seeing the northern lights (aurora borealis), sometimes call the polar lights. Not to be confused with the midnight sun, the northern lights are a spectacular lighting up of the sky caused by gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere clashing against charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere that gives off great variations in color. You can see virtually the same spectacular sight at the bottom of the world, where it’s called the southern lights (aurora australis).
Me? If I were to revisit Greenland I’d be perfectly content to simply head right back to Ilulissat and once again savor the beauty of Disko Bay and the Ilulissat Icefjord. One thing would be different. There’s no longer a direct flight to and from the U.S. But going by way of Iceland is no great hardship and gives you the opportunity to combine two appealing destinations in one trip. Having enjoyed visiting each of them I can enthusiastically suggest doing this. Or you can go by way of Copenhagen, Denmark, another add-on I can enthusiastically recommend.
If You Go
Information: The website of the Tourist Board of Greenland is the best place to go for information if you’re thinking of visiting: VisitGreenland.com
Best time to visit: Most would recommend visiting Greenland in the summer months, but for skiing or viewing the northern lights, winter is the time to visit.
Getting Around: It’s possible to travel around Greenland independently but not generally recommended. Better to travel with an organized tour to avoid inconveniences.
Costs: Pretty much everything in Greenland is expensive. The Danish kroner is used.
Add-ons: Unless you’re arriving aboard a cruise ship, you will have to fly to Greenland from Iceland via Air Iceland Connect or via Air Greenland, or from Copenhagen, Denmark, via Air Greenland. Turning a planned visit to Greenland into a two-destination trip is well worth considering.
Fred J. Eckert is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress. His writings have appeared in many leading publications, including Reader’s Digest and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an award-winning photographer whose collection of images spans all seven continents. See his work at EckertGallery.com