How (and Why the Hell You’d Even Want) to Pull Off a Trip to Greenland
The sovereign state isn't for sale, but it's definitely open for business
Earlier this week, President Trump floated the idea of purchasing Greenland. We’re not going to dignify that strange slice of American history with too many words, but if you’re curious on the legality or logistics of his fantasy, Politico wrote an interesting piece on the precedent for sovereign state purchases. In brief: self-determination is a thing now, and countries can’t purchase autonomous regions without the express approval of the people living there.
It’s no wonder the emotions of Greenlanders ran the full amusement-to-anger spectrum this week. Imagine if another country casually described purchasing the United States. The colonial era is over; Greenland isn’t Denmark’s to sell. Trump’s dismissal of Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen is all the more ludicrous in this light.
Greenland might not be for sale, but it is open for business, as a proud state with an economy on the rise. It overcame its overly told misnomer joke (Why’s it called Greenland if 80% of the country is covered in ice?) somewhere back in the early 2000s, when Iceland took off, and now Arctic/sub-Arctic tourism has fully hit the mainstream. But Greenland is more than the melting glaciers you read about in CNN news alerts (although that’s undoubtedly a big part of the conversation), and it’s now a legitimate option for those looking to take a trip to the world’s largest island. The Trump saga has merely accelerated its coming out party.
It’s worth pointing out here that two years ago, Trump threatened “fire and the fury like the world has never seen” against North Korea. The dictatorship responded in kind, with a very specific threat: “enveloping fire at the areas around Guam with [a] medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic rocket.” While conventional wisdom would suggest potential annihilation and tourism don’t mesh, the American territory’s tourism numbers are up to about 750,000 people a year. The lesson here is that no Trump news is bad news, at least where tourism is concerned. It’s already happening with Greenland — the state’s official tourism site crashed last week, and according to Kayak, searches on flights to Greenland were up 204% this week.
People — Americans, especially — are clearly interested in visiting Greenland. But how the hell do you get there, anyway? When’s the right time of year to go? And as great as multi-colored homes next to glaciers look, is there anything else to do? Find answers to those questions, and a few others, below.
There are only two airlines that fly to Greenland. One is called Air Greenland and flies year-round from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq, a municipality at the end of a fjord in western Greenland. Air Greenland also operates a few seasonal flights, which include: Copenhagen to Narsarsuaq (a town in southern Greenland), Keflavík (Iceland’s international airport) to Nuuk (Greenland’s capital), and Keflavík to Ilulissat (a town way up there on the west coast). The other airline that services Greenland is Air Iceland Connect. It flies year-round from Reykjavik Domestic Airport to both coasts of Greenland — Kulusuk on the east, Nuuk on the west. Air Iceland can also hook you up on seasonal flights to Narsarsuaq, Ilulissat and Kangerlussuaq.
If you’re coming from the States, there isn’t really one best option. Flights to Greenland are long, sporadic and pricy. Expect multiple layovers each way, and around $2,000 all told for a round-trip flight. If you just pop “New York to Nuuk” into Kayak, for example, some results will send you to Düsseldorf on the way to Copenhagen, and to London on the way back to New York. It’s probably too late in the season to fit this trip into 2019. So book an early round-trip flight to Iceland for next summer. The round-trip from Reykjavík to Nuuk should be in the $700 range, and if you book early enough, you can get a round-trip from the States to Iceland for around $400.
You also don’t have to take a plane. Cruises to Greenland are expensive but becoming more common. Tour operators like Intrepid Travel, Arctic Umiaq Line and Disko Line will bring you on eight-day-expeditions to tour fishing villages, whale or iceberg-watch, and explore the western fjords. If you have the money and lack the patience to juggle a stressful itinerary, this is your move.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE
Just so you don’t arrive with any misconceptions, Greenland is more than 800,000 square miles, and home to just 60,000 people. Weather reports are unreliable this close to the Arctic, and there aren’t any roads (or trains) to connect different towns. If you want to move around the state, it’ll have to be via a network of boats, helicopters and small planes. For our money (well, your money), it’s wise to make the capital city of Nuuk your launchpad and then plan day-trips from there to engage with the stupefying natural environs. Most of the cruises will have you covered on day-to-day excursions, but if you’re planning this by yourself, you really don’t want to bite off more than you can chew.
Nuuk is currently enjoying a mini cultural renaissance; it’s now home to the biennial “Nordic Kulturfestival,” an arts center called Katuaq that hosts theater performances and exhibitions, and off-beat museums like the Nuuk Lokalmuseum, which features local art in an old boat-repair shop. None of these sites are the Whitney, but that’s not exactly the point. The mere fact that you can take in some art on the same landmass that’s home to the world’s largest national park (Northeast Greenland Park) is cool enough.
As for getting out and experiencing the outdoors, there’s a hike that starts in the suburb of Qinngorput which, thankfully, you can flag a bus to reach. It should take around four hours, is a great option for novice hikers, and is best attempted between the months of May and September (kind of a theme for Greenland visits). If you’re able to handle a tougher outing, hire a guide and scale Nuuk’s biggest mountain, Ukkusissat. The views are killer. As for getting in the water, get yourself on a “fjord safari.” Many operators take boats out between Nuuk and the island of Sermitsiaq, where you’re likely to see whales, eagles, waterfalls and glaciers.
On that last point: at some point in your trip, you will see melting glaciers. As we noted in our recent piece on climate change tourism, this is a reality in the Arctic, and as tempting as it may be to disseminate photos of ice-blue coastlines, it’s important to also be mindful of your role in affecting the area. Unfortunately, there isn’t an obvious solution here. The transportation needed to reach Greenland also (if indirectly) affects the health of the region. If you’re going to visit the state, look for ways to offset the carbon cost of that trip, and make an effort to educate yourself on issues in the area.
And whatever you do, don’t walk around looking for For Sale signs.
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