Greenland is 80% covered in ice, but don’t let that fool you. This magnificent, rugged land is filled with vibrant scenery, wildlife, and culture. Roam the tundra, visit historic whaling stations and trappers’ camps, witness icebergs calve and explore ice cliffs aboard zodiacs—all in this minimally inhabited corner of the globe.
Putting the green in Greenland are more than 500 species of plants. Tiny wildflowers blanket the tundra hillsides. Polar bear, musk oxen, whales and walrus are just a few remarkable creatures seen on Greenland tours. More than 100 species of birds are found here as well.
You’ll stand astonished at icebergs more than 30 meter high, surrounded by deep green tunnels and aquamarine lakes. “Grounded” icebergs and their ethereal blue glow will leave you speechless. The famous Scoresbysund Fjord, Kaiser Franz Josef Fjord, Kong Oscar Fjord and the Fjord Mountains are just a few stunning geographic highlights of Greenland cruises.
Traveling to Greenland by ship is just about the only way to enjoy the National Park—the world’s largest national park—where could be greeted by polar bears, walrus, eider duck, arctic hare and others. About 40% of the world’s population of musk oxen lives on Greenland’s eastern coast. Aboard zodiac inflatable boats, you’ll go in search of four species of seals: ringer, bearded, harp and hooded.
This area of Greenland is also home to the remote Inuit community of Itoqqortoormiit—one of the last living hunter societies on earth. Here you’ll learn firsthand about the challenges and rewards of Arctic life. Itoqqortoormiit also happens to be one of the best places in the north to view the aurora borealis, or northern lights.
A jaunt over to neighboring Iceland offers you an up-close look at a land where icy glaciers share space with volcanoes, geysers and thermal springs. Iceland cruises offer a chance to spot wildlife like arctic fox and reindeer as well as like whistling swan and eider duck.
A trip to Greenland with an accompanying Iceland adventure cruise is a “wild” experience you’ll remember long after you’ve returned home—with stunning photographs and warm memories of this icy Arctic wonderland.
Greenland was first explored by Eric the Red, a Norwegian settler in Iceland and father of the famous explorer Leif Ericson. Legend claims he dubbed the area “Greenland” to make the area sound more appealing to other settlers who might join him there. Whether or not this is true, several Icelandic settlements were established in Greenland under Eric’s leadership toward the end of the 10th century. These Norse people lived in Greenland until about 1500 before vanishing with little explanation. Evidence of their existence remains in the Viking ruins that are still visible today.
The history of humans in the area far predates Eric the Red, however. The first inhabitants likely crossed the frozen sea from Canada 4-5000 years ago. At least six waves of Inuit immigrants migrated to Greenland. However, there were long periods where Greenland was completely uninhabited because of the harsh conditions. Most of today’s modern Greenlanders are descendents of the last weave of immigrants, the Thule people.
Perhaps the Thule were at last able to survive through innovation. Inventions such as the kayak, a woman’s knife known as the ulo, soapstone lamps, harpoons, bird spears and animal hide clothing all contributed to a successful hunting and fishing culture which sustained the early inhabitants and remains alive to this day.
Greenland is the world’s largest island that is not a continent. Scientists speculate that it is actually a group of several islands joined by vast and thick layers of ice. Over 80% of Greenland is covered in ice, reaching a thickness of as much as 8000 feet in places. The amount of water currently locked in Greenland’s ice is said to be enough to raise global sea levels by 23 feet if it were released.
Most of the country’s citizens live along the fjords in the southwest. The fjords offer protection from winds and provide fertile ground for the country’s limited agricultural efforts. This area has a relatively mild climate and unusually rich fauna for Greenland, due in part because of the open water in the mouth of the fjords—with polynyas not freezing even in winter.
Despite the appearance of a few high-rise buildings, crowded airports, and busy fishing ports, Greenland remains a serene and sparsely populated country. No roads link one community to the other—all travel happens by air, ice or water. While the dogsled is gradually being replaced by the snowmobile, it is still a common and viable means of transportation. The economy is sustained by fishing (mostly shrimp), whaling, sealing, fur trapping and the byproducts of these endeavors. Greenland travel and tourism is a growing industry that could positively impact the economy in coming decades.
Greenland was under Danish control beginning in 1721, when Danish missionary Hans Egede arrived. Although Greenland was granted self-government in 1979, the country is still subsidized by Denmark and the laws of Denmark apply there.
For centuries, Greenland has been a place of interest to explorers, scientists and researchers. Early adventurers passed through the area seeking the fabled Northwest Passage in the early 15th century. Later, the likes of Henry Hudson and William Baffin navigated and studied Greenland’s western coastline. In the early 1900s, British and German expeditions made weather observations from Greenland. Today, the unique flora and fauna of the region, as well as phenomena like the aurora borealis, continue to make Greenland the site of many scientific surveys and expeditions each year. Additionally, Greenland’s Viking ruins draw interest from around the globe.
Neighboring Iceland consists largely of lava tablelands and mountains where no humans dwell. Yet this island nation offers an array of natural wonders. Geologic features include boiling mud lakes, geysers, and thermal springs. In fact, the capital city of Reykjavik uses nearby hot springs to heat homes and industrial establishments. Arctic fox and reindeer are often spotted on land, while the freshwater rivers and lakes teem with salmon and trout. The sea surrounding Iceland is rich with whales, seals, cod, haddock, halibut and herring. Over 100 species of birds inhabit the land as well—many of them aquatic species.
Norse chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson was the first permanent settler to Iceland, arriving in the late 800s. Many Norsemen who followed in his footsteps brought with them slaves of Gaelic origin. Today the population of Iceland remains almost entirely Nordic and Gaelic.
Photos: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER