Most people probably know that the “Big Five” refers to five extraordinary animals on the African continent: the elephant, lion, black rhinoceros, leopard and Cape buffalo. Very few people, however, know about the ‘Big Arctic Five.’ For that we have to go to the northern hemisphere; there we find five reasons to travel to…Greenland.
If there is one thing that is particularly plentiful in Greenland, it’s space—and lots of it. In fact, the country ranks as the least populated country in the world with only three inhabitants per 100 km2 (38.6 sq miles). All you need to do is hike up the mountain in Kangerlussuaq (in Danish: Søndre Strømfjord) when arriving from Denmark or in Narsarsuaq if you arrive from Iceland: From there, you will see the ice sheet—a mere 15 miles from the small airport settlement—and beyond that mountain ranges, vast empty space, and unpopulated quiet landscapes with none of the people, hustle and bustle or any other signs of civilization as far as the eye can see.
But Greenland is so much more than a wildlife refuge offering calm and reflection in a unique natural environment just four and a half hours by plane from Copenhagen, Denmark or three hours from Iceland's capital Reykjavik. Beyond the expanse and the deafening silence, there are the five special reasons to travel to Greenland, also called the Big Arctic Five—the massive ice sheet, the mesmerizing northern lights, dog sled trips, the gigantic whales and the opportunity to meet the Greenlandic people.
Ice Cap: The Giant Behind Glaciers and Icebergs
Ice floes, ten thousands of them, are the first signs that you are approaching the east coast of Greenland from air. And then slowly but surely the dramatic mountain scenery comes into view, majestic and splendid, with its pristine mountain peaks and glaciers springing forth from the natural splendor that is the Greenlandic ice cap.
The Greenland ice cap goes back hundreds of thousands of years and has, year over year, lost weight and volume as the ice has melted and then re-gained its weight from newly fallen snow, which in turn slowly placed downward pressure on it in a seemingly perfect balance and unending cycle.
Historically and today the ice remains a mastodon that isolates several of the country’s population groups from each other. It attracts discoverers, adventurers, and scientists. And it has generated millions of large and small icebergs from its innumerable glaciers throughout Greenland.
Most visitors coming from Denmark choose to drive out to the ice near Kangerlussuaq and then hike the last bit on the ice to observe it all the way up close. This can also be done elsewhere but for that you need to sail, go by helicopter or hike to the ice sheet. Be prepared: It is a jaw-dropping, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Icebergs are unique masterpieces sculpted by the ice cap—and they come in all imaginable shapes, sizes and colors, from white to blue, with green, yellow and red nuances depending on the reflecting light, e.g. from the midnight sun that stays high in the sky 24 hour a day north of the polar circle. The higher north you travel, the longer the midnight sun.
Over the past five to ten years, however, climate change has become a serious topic of discussion as this balance has slowly shifted. Now more ice melts than new ice is formed and low-lying areas and countries around the world now have to monitor these developments closely and ideally intervene here and now, while also keeping an eye on the future.
Climate change has opened the eyes of the world community to this little island community far to the north. It is large and the Greenlandic population, about 56,000 people, has lots of space on this island, the largest in the world, with an ice-free area almost 10 times larger than Denmark and with ice more than 50 times bigger.
FACTS: At 695,000 sq mi, the ice cap is the largest outside Antarctica, 14 times the size of England, or 2.5 times the size of Texas. At its thickest it measures more than 9,800 ft. One of the most well known is the Ilulissat Icefjord (Kangia), the sea mouth of Sermeq Kujalleq (the Jakobshavn Glacier). UNESCO listed the area as a World Heritage Site in 2004 because of its glaciological uniqueness and its scenic beauty.
Northern Lights—The Best Lightshow in the Sky
Winter vacationers are very likely to experience the dancing northern lights on the night sky—a truly miraculous sight. From early fall onward; the night sky is regularly lit up in the greenish glow of the northern lights. It is a natural phenomenon that never fails to create excitement and a deep sense of awe in people seeing it for the first time. The locals, too, are often seen gazing skyward as eagerly and with as great pleasure and admiration as tourists.
Throughout the ages, the Inuit have marveled at the sight and had their fantasy challenged in the clear polar nights. A well-known legend has it that when the northern lights are moving across the sky, the ancestors are playing football with a walrus skull. Today, some people believe that children conceived under the northern lights’ magic glow will be endowed with special intelligence.
Aurora Borealis in Greenland
Northern lights—also known as Aurora Borealis—are actually a year-round phenomenon, but the midnight sun renders them invisible in the Greenland summer. They are often visible around midnight and best experienced on a dark, clear night sky from September to early April. If traveling during that period, you will be able to see the northern lights all over Greenland, and in southern Greenland you can experience the northern lights starting in late August.
FACTS: The northern lights are an intriguing natural phenomenon caused by electrically charged solar particles and molecules colliding with atoms in the earth’s atmosphere. The spectacular lightshow takes place in the upper atmosphere at a height of around 62 miles and the effect can best be compared to lit candles in the wind or fluttering curtains in greenish and yellowish hues. Greenland is one of the best places in the world to observe the northern lights.
Whales—Largest Mammals of the Sea
Most people have never seen a whale, and most probably never will. It is therefore not a coincidence that many visitors' first meeting with these giant mammals occurs on a trip to Greenland. The sea around the world’s biggest island is ideal for whales: it has plenty of sustenance, food and offers great water depths in which the whales can enjoy themselves.
There are many whales in the summer months and visitors can often spot them from the shore, since whales such as the humpback often swim quite close to land in search for food.
In the height of summer, Qeqertarsuaq (Godhavn) on Disko Island becomes a showground for playful and ravenous humpback whales and—typically from May to June—many Greenland right whales (also called bowhead whales) visit the site. But Uummannaq, Aasiaat (Egedesminde), Maniitsoq (Sukkertoppen), Nuuk (Godthåb), Sisimiut (Holsteinsborg) and the towns in South and East Greenland are also in the running when it comes to meeting the largest mammal of the sea.
And if you go by the Arctic Umiaq Line coastal ship, the Diskoline regional routes or on a cruise with e.g. Hurtigruten, you are almost guaranteed to see whales on your trip. To score big, all you need to do is to come out on the deck several times daily and stay on the lookout.
One's first meeting with a whale is unforgettable, and if you are fortunate enough to be able to follow the whale for a while, do not forget to lower your camera and enjoy the sight with your own eyes. It would be a shame to view these magnificent creatures only through a lens just to secure it for posterity.
FACTS: Whales are everywhere along the Greenland coastline. The most commonly seen ones are finback, humpback and minke whales. Other types of whales such as blue whales and killer whales are seen only rarely. During the summer months, there are excellent opportunities to come up close to whales on organized whale safaris departing from such places as Nuuk or Ilulissat.
You can go dog sledding in several countries in the Arctic, including Sweden and Norway. But no other destination can match Greenland with respect to authenticity: the dog sled and sled dogs are deeply integrated into Greenlandic culture and are as much part of the country's history as the kayak.
The dog sled still plays a vital role as a means of transportation for hunters. However, hunters are only too happy to bring along tourists on trips. You can choose between day trips and week-long sled trips with overnight stays in cabins.
If you want to experience Greenland at its most beautiful and dramatic, you should visit the east coast and the stunning natural area of Liverpool Land near Ittoqqortoormiit (Scoresbysund) or Tasiilaq on the island of Ammassalik. This is where the mountains and the glaciers are the biggest and the ice cap is close-by.
However, most people choose to go on shorter trips near Kangerlussuaq, Sisimiut, or Greenland’s biggest tourist city, Ilulissat, which are outstanding and breathtaking destinations in themselves. And they are perhaps a bit more accessible when flying straight from Denmark to Greenland and if you do not wish to swing by Iceland, which is required when going to the east coast towns.
FACTS: Sled dogs only operate north of the polar circle and in East Greenland, where a total of more than 25,000 sled dogs reside. The dog sleds in West and North Greenland are different than in the east, where the dogs are harnessed to the sled in a broad fan, especially equipped to driving on sea ice and hard snow.
Population—A People of Pioneers
In many ways Greenland is a country that has managed to maintain its identity as an “indigenous” country with an indigenous people. It is a people descended from pioneers and who in many ways remain pioneers to this day. This can equally be said of many of the adventurers coming from abroad, since the country is so big and so many areas by and large remain unexplored and untouched.
It is not surprising that, in small towns and settlements, life is lived slowly and far away from the more “vibrant” city life you can experience, on a Greenlandic scale, in the three major cities of Nuuk, Sisimiut and Ilulissat. Here, they are used to receiving guests from abroad with the open hearts and arms for which Greenlanders are so justly renowned.
Hospitality in Greenland is the cornerstone in all homes. And it especially manifests itself in people’s attitude to visitors from abroad with countless opportunities to meet the local population face-to-face, up close and personal.
For example, if you wish to visit a Greenlandic home, in many towns and settlements you can be invited to a "kaffemik," which is a Danish word for a coffee gathering. It is in fact not the coffee that is at the center but the togetherness. The host of the home will be serving homemade cake and coffee and tea, and then the chat begins. It is an opportunity to exchange experiences, good stories and a place to gain insight into the joys in day-to-day Greenland—an insight you can obtain from neither books nor tourist guides. “Kaffemiks” can be arranged through your tour operator.
FACTS: Greenland’s hospitality is well known, and if you wish to visit a Greenlandic home, in many north Greenlandic towns and settlements you can be invited to a "kaffemik." You can also meet with the population up close on dog sled or boat trips. The tourist boats are not very big and the captain will often be prepared to tell stories and answer questions if there is no guide onboard. Several towns also offer private accommodation, which provides excellent opportunities to experience a Greenlandic home.