Coming into Greenland is different from any other country. If you are on your way to visit Greenland you have been flying over nothing but an ice-cap for the previous 1.5hrs and then you arrive in Kangerlussuaq all excited about the new adventure and fortune you have paid to get there. If you leave the airport to see the town of 556 people it dawns on you how remote the country is when this is half of the international airports in the country! Despite this, if you visit Greenland you wont regret it.
Greenland is a very remote and harsh country but beautiful all the same and the difference between its climate and people are just as stark with the locals being very friendly and having smiles for every occasion. Whether you arrive for the Northern lights, Icebergs, dog-sledding, ice-cap or kayaking, it will be worth it. Hopefully this list of things to do in Greenland will get you on your way.
Time to Do: In total to do what is in this post takes about 7-8days. Kangerlussuaq takes a day if you are in a rush with the ice-cap but longer if you like walks. Ilulissat with the dog sledding, walks and boat tour takes a minimum of 3 days but you shouls definitely allow 5 to have more than one night with the dogs.
Things to Do in Greenland – Kangerlussuaq
(Ice-cap, glacier, musk ox)
A very small town that is a rough introduction to your visit to Greenland should you stay the night. From Kangerlussuaq trips to the ice-cap and the Russell Glacier are possible on 5hr and 4hr trips on board heavily suspensioned vehicles. These take you from the airport on the longest road in Greenland would you believe of 60km! It was built by the car maker Volkwagn and not even the government! These trips let you see the glacier and ice-cap from up close as well as walking on them to give a sense of the scale and harshness of the ice. On the way there is a crashed plane and a remains of a 50mtr deep lake that drained completely into the glacier in 12hrs only because a small crack appeared in the glacier wall initially You can also see and enter iglos that the Danish Airforce build as part of their training program.
It is also possible to do Musk Ox tours from Kanger although a guide says they are hard to see in the wild and may require binoculars to see the “Musk Rocks” because all you will see is a brown object!
Kanger is one of the few towns that is inland in Greenland and not on the coast although it is at the mouth of a meltwater river that flows into a fjord which technically is the sea but is 200km from open water. It has a bar, 2 hotels and a youth hostel as well as one restaurant that does a surprising array of Thai, burgers, fish and Mexican. Only the youth hostel (Kangerlussuaq Vandrehjem, http://www.kangvandh.gl/en/) is in town (on the road opposite the shop) with the others (Polar Lodge http://www.wogac.com/accommodation/polar-lodge, Hotel Kangerlussuaq http://www.hotelkangerlussuaq.gl/) right beside the airport. The town is an easy 15min walk on the other side of the airport. Saying it is easy means it is flat but if the weather is bad then there is a local bus that stops at the airport and does a route all around the town stopping every 200mtrs. It does the same route every 30min for the day. It cost 10DKK per trip.
Need to Know
Tours for the ice-cap, glacier, musk ox can be organised in the airport (souvenir shop) or from any hostel as they all take the ‘World of Greenland’ (www.wogac.com) tours.
The youth hostel is 60% of the price of the other two hotels for a double room but is in the town 5min drive away and not at the airport like the others.
Things to do in Greenland – Ilulissat
(dog sledding, icebergs, Disko Bay, Northern Lights)
This is most likely why you have spent a small fortune on flights to visit Greenland. On the flight in you get a small taste of the icebergs that await in Ilulissat Icefjord (Ilulissat Kangerlua). The town of 5500 people is full of brightly coloured houses that give off a legoland feel. Although small it has a compact warm feel despite the rock bottom temperatures. Speaking of which we had quite a strange night on Greenland TV in one of their bars.
During the spring when I was there dog-sledding (mushing) is the main attraction as there is still snow near the coast and the temperatures and the daylight aren’t as harsh as the winter. Most dog guides have 30 dogs or more. They are Greenlandic Dogs (also known as Greenland Husky) and not the common Husky dogs found in north America, Europe etc and are the only dogs around to stop cross breeding. Most dogs are kept in the same area out in the open in a very windy spot that seems like an environment nothing would survive in but the dogs don’t seem to mind. After the howling and whining of the dogs is over and your sleigh is ready to go approximately 15dogs pull you and your guide (one sleigh per tourist) in a fan formation (which is different from Alaska, Scandinavia) out through the wilderness. It is a thrilling experience and takes a while to get used to the bumps and cold but after a few hours, it seems like second nature. The dogs ahead are like organised chaos; moving over and back and up and down the formation, peeing and pooing, crossing ropes, all without stopping. There is always a dog or two that seems to have a rope in a very inappropriate place but sooner or later he/she gets out of it. The dogs are very strong and in 20min could have you 500mtrs up the side of a mountain and can cover over 70km in one day. The scenery is spectacular with frozen fjords and glaciers never far away.
Travelling for fun: In Greenland near Ilullisat dog sledding on an icefjord just off Disko Bay
I risked life and a frozen hand taking a video of the huskys, sled and the super scenery. Guides often set traps to catch seals which then do as dinner both for you (as an option) and the dogs. It may not have been well done but it was one way to catch your own dinner in Greenland. The accommodation is very basic with just a mat and sleeping bag provided although there is a stove to keep the hut warm. In my case bizarrely enough it was roasting. It must have been over 30deg in the hut with the stove on and we resorted to opening both windows and the door for a time to let the -15deg C air in to cool down! 30deg is extremely hot when your sleeping bag is rated ‘extreme -33deg!
Dog trips can be organised for one day or for as many days as you like but you should definitely go for at least one night so that you get the full value of the experience from the seal hunting to the size of the frozen fjords to the peacefulness of being out in the open with 15dogs. Seal skins can be rented for warmth and unless you have excellent winter clothes I would recommend them. You get boots, pants and a hoodie all from seal skins and they are extremely warm. They cost approx €2,000 if you are to buy one!
Icebergs in the Ilulissat Kangerlua (Icefjord) can be seen in two ways. There is a great walk that starts at the tall chimney at the south of the village. There are wooden steps up to higher ground and just keep following the painted rocks around. This brings you to the edge of the fjord and a first proper view of the enormity of the icebergs, as big as a small town and towering 40meters above the water, and this is only 1/8th of their size! It is possible to pay for a tour for this walk but there is definitely no need as the walk starts at the end of a tarmac road in the town and is marked all the way around. Just be careful when there is snow as the path is not clear and it will be slippy
Alternatively you could get a boat tour that brings you out into Disko Bay and up close to the big and small bergs and gives you an idea of what an icebreaker does by taking a small trip into the frozen fjord in spring or the open fjord in summer. It is a wonderfully surreal landscape of white, turquoise and blue. When you get up close to the big icebergs there is no doubt that there was only going to be one winner when the Titanic hit one.
Need to Know
Dog sledding in Ilulissat can be organised at any tour office (We used a very helpful Christian in http://www.ilulissattn.com/English/AtaaActivities.htm at the north of the town) and cost approx 1875DKK per day including food, guide, and accommodation. Dog-sledding can be done up to May depending on the snow conditions.
Seal skin clothes and boots can be rented for 250DKK per day
Boat tours are approx 500DKK per person and last for 3hrs
Kayaking can only be done during the summer months
Things to Do in Greenland – Northern Lights
The Northern lights (aurora borealis) can be seenfrom any part of Greenland depending on a few conditions. There must be clear skies or else no matter how good they are you won’t see them. It must be dark so this rules out the summer months but also any time with a full moon. No moon is better but obviously if it is only a quarter then it is not bad. Being away from street lights also helps and the bigger the town the further away you should be.
The best months each year are March and October although they can be seen for the 6months in-between. 2012-13 is the height of a solar cycle that happens every 7years so this means that 2014 is only a small bit away from the peak. You can pay for tours to see the northern lights which basically will bring you to a nice location out of town away from lights. Obviously this is possible to do yourself with some leg power but this may not be for everybody. Depending on street lights and the strength of the northern lights you can also see them from a town but they won’t be as prominent. The best time to see them is after 10pm.
If you want to take good photographs you will need a camera that can adjust the shutter speed to a minimum of 30seconds. I have a digital camera that can do this but the lights are still faint on it. For good quality photos a shutter speed of 60seconds or longer is recommended as well as a steady surface or tripod. We took some reasonable photos with f/4.6.
Despite everything I have mentioned above, even ifthe conditions are perfect and you paid money for a tour, it is still hit or miss and there is no guarantee they will appear. Predictions are decent up to 3 days in advance and can be seen on http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/NorthPolar/ although there is a lot of extra information that you need to be a scientist to understand on some sites.
One piece of advice about the northern lights is to never organise a holiday where the only thing you are going to do is see the northern lights. They are very unpredictable so you should have other activities planned so at least if it is cloudy or they just don’t appear then you still will have a good holiday. I have been on one holiday in Tromso, Norway specifically to see them and it bucketed snow every day. In Iceland I was there for a week at the right time of year and it was cloudy every day. Luckily on that trip it wasn’t based around the northern lights. For more info see the post I wrote on tips to see the northern lights.
Practicalities – About Greenland
€1 = 7.45DKK, US$1 = 5.80DKK
Language = Greenlandic and Danish. English is spoken in shops and tourist offices but not widely spoken.
Flights – Expensive, Can fly from Copenhagen with Air Greenland for approx 6500DKK return or from Iceland with Air Iceland.
Internal flights with small planes are very common and frequent and are a reasonable price considering the remoteness. Around 1000DKK per one hour flight
Accommodation – 800DKK per night for a double room average
It is possible to go to Greenland and organise all the tours yourself rather than organising everything before you get out there. Although I am always against doing a fully organised tour for a holiday, for several reasons in Greenland this is the best option.
- Organising individual tours yourself would require more time on the island and gaps between tours. As this is an expensive location you don’t want to waste much time
- Tours like the dog-sledding and boat tours must be done through an agency regardless unless you are a very shrewd negotiator
- There are only two or three tour operators in any town so the prices vary very little and it is not really worthwhile going from one to another. In some places one tour operator just uses the other one for certain tours.
- Tour Operators help with small details like getting back 2hrs early from the dog sledding so you can catch the Iceberg boat tour. Or give you shoes when you left your only pair in the dog sled hut 30km away in the mountains like I did!
Things to Do in Greenland – My Photo Gallery