8 fascinating things you didn’t know about Greenland

With vast swathes of wilderness, fantasy-book-worthy wildlife and a population smaller than that of a Surrey village, Greenland is a bewitching place of raw natural beauty. Here’s why you should go…

Lizzie Pook
16 October 2019
Promoted by
Polar Routes
(Ella Grødem) A typical view in Uummannaq

Located above the Arctic Circle, cradled in the mouth of the largest fjord system in the world, you’ll find the beguiling village of Ittoqqortoormiit. With its 373 inhabitants (and packs of feisty Greenlandic dogs), it is the most remote inhabited community in the Western hemisphere. Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit of a schlep to get to, accessible only via helicopter, snowmobile, boat, or dogsled (the village is also blanketed in cotton-soft snowdrifts for nine months of the year). There’s only one supermarket in town, but you’ll find everything you could possibly need, from avocados to nappies and soy sauce. 

The remote village of Ittoqqortoormiit (Dreamstime)
Keep an eye out for whales when kayaking (Michael Baynes-Rode)

The word ‘kayak’ is said to originate from Greenland. Thousands of years ago, when the Thule people arrived on its craggy shores, they brought the boats with them alongside dog sleds as their only modes of transport. Now, they’re a prime way to explore Greenland’s rich waters, which boil and bubble with breaching barnacle-encrusted humpbacks, mobs of sleuthing orcas and steam-train-sized blue whales. When you’re out on the water, keep your ears open – you might just hear the sound of approaching milk-white beluga whales, also known as ‘sea canaries’ because of their repertoire of whistles, squeals, chirrups and clicks.

Humpback whale in Nuuk Fjord jumping out of the water (Klaus Eugenius)

3.  Or soak in hot springs

A view from the hot spring spotted island of Uuunartoq (Dreamstime)

You might be surprised to spot skeins of steam rising from a landscape that’s covered in ice, but actually there are plenty of hot springs in Greenland, formed when naturally-heated ground water bubbles up to the surface. On the uninhabited island of Uunartoq, between Qaqortoq and Nanortalik in Southern Greenland, you’ll find the country’s only heated outdoor ‘spa’, complete with a view of glistening icebergs and mountain peaks soaring like clenched giants’ fists. Uunartoq is Greenlandic for ‘the very hot island’, and waters here reach a bath-like 38 degrees.

A giant iceberg floating past Uuunartoq (Dreamstime)
The sun setting over Scoresbysund (Dreamstime)

Largely unexplored, remote East Greenland is a place that likes to keep its own secrets, locking them in place with vast swathes of drift ice for up to eight months of the year. Covering 972,000 square kilometres – most of which is in made up of the internal ice cap, covering 85% of the country – it’s the world’s largest national park. Here, you’ll find some of the Arctic’s most staggering scenery, from wildflower-speckled tundras and sharp ice-cloaked peaks, to beaches scattered with petrified whale bones from centuries of Inuit hunting. East Greenland is also home to Scoresbysund, the largest fjord system on the planet, filled with staggering basalt cliffs and scores of wildlife, from mighty muskoxen to wily artic foxes. 

Look out for wonderful wildlife such as walruses (ALex Duncan)
Visit the mummies on the island on Nuuk (Dreamstime)

Tucked away in a corner of the Greenland National Museum in Nuuk, you’ll find the mummified bodies of eight ancient Greenlanders which have become some of the country’s most famous treasures. The 500-year-old mummies – six women and two children – were found in a cave in northwest Greenland in 1972 by two brothers out hunting for grouse. Due to a combination of their location on a north-facing slope, the dry air and low temperatures, the remains were preserved almost in their entirety, offering an invaluable insight into the old Inuit way of life.   

Snow-covered Nuuk (Dreamstime)
Paddling near an iceberg in the Disko Bay (Mads Pihl)

The UNESCO-listed Ilulissat icefjord in Western Greenland is home to one of nature’s most remarkable spectacles – where cathedral-sized icebergs splinter off from one of the most productive glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere, before drifting out into Disko Bay and onwards to Canada. In fact, every day the 70km-long icefjord releases the same amount of freshwater that is used in New York City, and it’s believed the very iceberg that sunk the Titanic calved at Ilulissat. These pristine icebergs make for a great photo opportunity, especially if you’re on the water in a Zodiac.

Some of the huge icerbergs of Disko Bay (Dreamstime)
Colourful houses of Saqqaq (Dreamstime)

For thousands of years the Inuit lived in turf huts, tents and igloos, made with building materials including driftwood, bones and animal furs. But Hans Egede’s arrival in Greenland in 1721 marked the new colonial style, and colourful clapboard buildings were erected – looking much like they do today. But these buildings have been colour-coded for years. Even hundreds of years ago a yellow hut had medical supplies, trading houses were red, and fisherman’s houses were blue – meaning that if you sailed in by boat and were in need of help, you knew exactly where to go.  

The colourful houses of Ilulissat reflected on the water (Dreamstime)
A giant iceberg reflects a pinky-glow from the midnight sun (Dreamstime)

Known as the ‘midnight sun’, places above the Arctic Circle, including Greenland’s northernmost towns, do not see any darkness from late April to late August. Skies still shift and shimmer, smearing stark white daylight into golden evening hues, but the sun remains ever-present, creating the impression of perpetual un-ending daytime. Hiking at this time is especially spectacular – empty trails with hardly another soul in site are lit by a beautiful, eerie light. Come mid-November, though, and the sun packs up completely and the lights go out, leaving behind a long, dark winter where the skies come ablaze with the magnificent Aurora Borealis. 

Icebergs under the midnight sun (Dreamstime)

Feeling inspired? Travel with Aurora Expeditions and Polar Routes

All of these experiences are available on trips with Aurora Expeditions – small-group specialists with over 27 years’ polar experience, and one of Polar Routes top partners. When it comes to expedition cruises, Polar Routes are the experts. They will align your preferences to the perfect polar partner, always maintaining a commitment to quality, value and sustainability. Their specialist knowledge is based on first-hand experience in the field – ensuring you have a true once-in-a-lifetime experience, whether you travel to the wilds of the Arctic or the wonders of Antarctica.


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