Stretching approximately 2,800 kilometers (1,750 miles) from north to south and approximately 1,000 kilometers (625 miles) from east to west, Greenland is the world’s biggest island. In a land dominated by the Ice Cap and impossibly steep mountain ranges, 3,500 people have made it their home. Their culture is born from myths and legends, often expressed in bone and rock carvings, but at the same time it is a globally connected culture with strong hunting roots and an everyday spirit of adventure.
Greenland is an autonomous Danish territory with its own parliament. The official language is West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), though many also speak Danish and English. Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, located in West Greenland is an arctic metropolis with a small-town feel, shaped by nature and known for its cultural diversity. While Nuuk is the colorful heart of this nation, the smaller communities of Paamiut south of the capital and Kapisillit in the Nuuk Fjord, are places to kick back and spend time in the outdoors.
Greenland has the most spectacular Arctic landscape with its rich diversity. Stunning remote fjords, immense icebergs and huge calving glaciers but also mountains covered in wild flowers. One of the main reasons people visit Greenland is to witness the thousands of beautiful icebergs that can be seen floating along the fjords and coast. 80% of Greenland’s landmass is covered by an ice sheet which forms glaciers. As the glaciers retreat, huge pieces of ice calve off into the water and drift out to sea. Exploring Greenland’s beauty is best through sailing, and then goes up close with zodiacs, kayaking, diving or simply through the walks on land. Sailing is an essential part of the Greenlandic culture, as the sea route is the only way to get from A to B in most areas during summer.
Greenland’s coastline is more than 44,000 kilometers or longer than the 40,000 kilometers around the Equator. A cruise there is first and foremost a nature based experience, but on top of that it is an intimate meeting with the culture, society, and history which adds a dimension not often seen in other Polar cruises. With the exception of the northernmost parts of Greenland, which are still hard to access because of sea ice, just about any inhabited place in Greenland can be reached in the peak season from June till October. For a great all round experience of Greenland, explorers can begin or end their cruise in Kangerlussuaq, at the bottom of a long, narrow fjord close to the Ice Cap which is an essential place to visit from Kangerlussuaq. When they embark in Kangerlussuaq the cruise will almost certainly involve a trip north to the Disko Bay area, typically arriving in Ilulissat and cruising along the UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Ilulissat Icefjord, before heading south to Kangerlussuaq or across the Davis Strait to Canada or back towards Iceland with further Greenlandic destinations on the itinerary. Explorers might also be arriving on a larger cruise on their way across the Atlantic and in that case they normally only have one or two stops in Greenland unless they are traveling aboard a dedicated expedition cruise ship or a schooner, both of which usually travel through fjords and explore nature and wildlife off the beaten path on fairly open itineraries. Regardless of the ship type and irrespectively of the choice of season, be it early in summer when whales are abundant or on the edge of autumn when the northern lights come out, a cruise in Greenland is the perfect way to experience the country.
Greenland is undoubtedly the most challenging cruising destination in the North Atlantic and every year a few cruises brave the elements to explore this wild and beautiful island during the all too short summer season. The deeply indented coasts offer an infinite variety of anchorages in the steep-sided fjords or among the myriad islands. By June, the west coast is clear of ice between 63°N and 69°N. It can be approached by passing well to seaward of Cape Farvel. Depending on conditions, one may have to pass as far as 160 kilometres (100 miles) offshore.
The weather is cold all year round and the winters are particularly harsh with some ports being icebound until well into the summer. Temperatures are low even in the summer months. The prevailing winds in the southern part are S or SW, while easterly winds predominate further north. Winds are light and variable in summer. Depending on latitude, the midnight sun is visible from the end of May until the end of July.
Some of the harbors are accessible all year round, but many are only accessible during the summer, and even then ice-strengthened vessels are recommended. There is ice booms placed across the harbor entrances at Jakobshavn, and one should confirm with port authorities that these booms are slackened off before entering.
Nanortalik – Greenland’s most southerly town – is unlike any other town in the country. Sat on a small island at the end of a wonderful fjord and surrounded by vast snow-topped mountains, the ‘Place of Polar Bears’ is unique. The small woodlands and prairies against a spectacular backdrop make this is a nature lover’s paradise. Polar bears live and hunt on the sea ice close to the town and are often seen from the shores of Nanortalik, while seals and whales can also be spotted in the surrounding waters. In the winter months, visitors may be lucky enough to capture the Aurora Borealis, Mother Nature’s own spectacular display, with curtains of white, yellow and green flashes lighting up the sky. Beyond its natural wonders, the town has a well preserved historic quarter where there are cafés and an unusual wooden church. Brightly colored houses line the streets, while the Nanortalik Museum has some fascinating exhibits including the oldest women’s boat ever found, which dates back to 1440 and was found by polar explorer and artist, Eigil Knuth.
Narsarsuaq – is a small settlement in the Kujalleq municipality in southern Greenland, with a population of no more than 200 inhabitants. Around Narsarsuaq, the attractions include a great diversity of wildlife, gemstones, tours to blue ice glaciers, and an airfield museum. Just outside of Narsarsuaq is Signal Hill, offering panoramic views of the fjord and the icebergs which can occasionally be seen floating past. Inland is the stunning Narsarsuaq Glacier which grows out of the ice sheet of Greenland’s interior. The stunning blue ice of the glacier is within walking distance and is reached via the picturesque Flower Valley. Based around its international airport, a former US Military Airbase, Narsarsuaq is one of Greenland’s most popular tourist destinations.
Qaqortoq – Frequently isolated by winter sea ice, the ‘White Palace’, Qaqortoq, is southern Greenland’s largest town. Founded by Norwegian traders in 1775, Qaqortoq still retains some beautiful colonial buildings from that time. The challenging landscape and harsh climate have ensured the preservation of Greenland’s traditional culture, and the many ancient Inuit skills of fishing, hunting and kayaking. Qaqortoq is very proud of its ancient fountain, for many years the only one in Greenland, which has carvings of whales spouting water out of their blowholes, and the names of all of the town burghers in brass letters around its base. The Stone and Man project is also fascinating, featuring natural rock that’s been carved by local artists into abstract shapes and figures. The charming Church of Our Savior, dating from 1832, is found in the town centre, and the two local museums are also worth seeing.
Tasiilaq – Lying between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, much of Greenland’s surface is covered in ice, with its sparse populace nestled on the ice free, fjord lined coast to the southwest. Situated largely above the Arctic Circle, the island offers stunning landscapes and natural phenomena such as the Aurora Borealis and summer’s midnight sun. Greenland may be remote, but it’s a natural masterpiece. Dramatic fjords, imposing mountains and majestic icebergs are a feature of the unspoiled landscapes here, providing a haven for an amazing array of wildlife such as whales, seabirds, seals and reindeer.
Nuuk – Greenland’s intriguing capital, the city of Nuuk offers a fascinating glimpse into Greenland’s history and future. A bustle of activity, the city at first glance offers a taste of Europe, with art galleries, cafes, and restaurants. A closer look to historic buildings from the whaling era and the excellent museum offers a deep dive into the fascinating history and culture of Greenland. The unique blend of Inuit and Danish ancestry has produced a Greenlandic culture all of its own. The ancient and modern are seen in some surprising combinations, be that dog sledding with Carlsberg or kaffemiks. A cruise to Greenland is something special and time in each destination should be taken to unwind and witness some of this land’s most dazzling natural experiences.