Icy Nomad of the North Atlantic
Among those ostensibly no-man’s-landmasses that transatlantic flights pass over between North America and Europe, Greenland seems the most unlikely travel destination in and of itself. Iceland, maybe. But Greenland? It’s the world’s largest island that isn’t a continent in its own right (about a quarter of the size of Australia), with a coastline as long as the equator. The bulk of the island lies above the Arctic Circle, and for all those terrific statistics and surface area, only 57,000 people live here, almost all of them Inuit, and concentrated on the marginally hospitable west coast. Eighty-one percent of Greenland is covered by an ice sheet, and if it were to melt, sea level worldwide would rise by 7m (23 ft.).
Greenland’s greatest natural attraction is the Ilulissat Ice Fjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the west coast, where the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier meets the sea in often-spectacular fashion. Sermeq Kujalleq is one of the fastest and most active glaciers in the world, calving over 70 cubic km (17 cubic miles) of ice annually, a rate that has sped up significantly in the past decade due to climate change in the Arctic. For now, however, Greenland is still connected to the North Pole by ice, which makes it—you guessed it—the home island of Santa Claus. (Read more at www.santa.gl.)
Besides the sublime quiet and majesty of nature here, perhaps the most quintessential Greenlandic experience is going for a dog sled trip. In the east and north of Greenland, some 29,000 sled dogs (one for every two residents of the whole island) are a vital, if pungent, form of transport in the winter; dog sleds always have the right of way. A number of tour outfitters, including Greenland Holiday (see below) also go on rip-roaring journeys over the ice and snow. Greenland sled dogs, which usually work in teams of 12 to 15 dogs per sled, are a unique breed descended from wolves and cannot bark; they howl instead.
Getting into the local way of life in Greenland represents some challenges; first and foremost of course are the harsh territory and weather. Then there’s the Inuit food: The national dish of Greenland is boiled seal meat with rice and onions (suaassat), while a local gourmet deli item is mattak (raw whale skin with a thin layer of blubber).
So why is it called “Greenland” when it’s mostly covered by white? The etymology of the island’s name is a matter of debate: Some chalk it up to the Viking explorer Erik the Red, who might have given it this name as a sort of tongue-in-cheek way of attracting settlers from Iceland. More likely, Greenland is a corruption of Hronland, which meant “Land of the Whales” in ancient Norse.
Tour: Greenland Explored ( 44/2921/251515; www.greenlandholiday.com).
Kangerlussuaq, flights from Reykjavik, Iceland, and Copenhagen, Denmark.
Where you stay will depend on where your dog-sled tour takes you.