There was a time, not too long ago, that Iceland seemed like a whimsical, remote, and maybe a little weird place to take a vacation. When you told them about your trip, your friends would shake their heads and say things like, “WHERE are you going? But isn’t it super icy over there? (Insert a slow nod.) “OK, man, do what you want – enjoy the cold.”
Fast forward to today. Now everyone has gone to Iceland. Everybody. Or, if not everyone, a lot of people. And many showed up there this summer. Much, much more. Filling the hotel elevators and taking all the seats at the bar and crowding the buses to the Blue Lagoon. Pay exorbitant prices for a ten-minute taxi ride. Talking in thick Texas accents and trying to order mozzarella sticks and buffalo wings from places that never served them in the first place. Walk far too slowly, wherever they go. Your aunt, the one who always wears the Capri pants? I swear, she’s here right now, on the bus.
Don’t get me wrong: Iceland is a really cool place. If you haven’t already, you should probably go for it. There are volcanoes and hot springs and a geyser that goes off like clockwork. (It’s just called Geysir. It was the first one.)
It’s just that: Iceland isn’t cool anymore. All of that disappeared the moment Aunt Peggy got off the plane in her clam scoops. No, if you’re looking for Nordic cool, you’re going to have to go to Greenland.
A vast and wild place, its remoteness means it remains largely under-visited and unexplored by casual travellers. The largest island in the world, Greenland is home to less than 60,000 people. A self-governing territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, almost 90% of its population is indigenous.
It is mostly frozen, dominated by the largest ice cap in the northern hemisphere. (One that, as recent headlines have documented, is melting at an alarming rate.) The “green” in Greenland was largely a clever medieval marketing gimmick. Banished from Iceland at the end of the 10th century, Erik the Red established two Norse colonies there and felt that a salubrious name would attract more settlers to his new community. (It didn’t really work.)
But in summer, the rugged tundra along the southern coasts of Greenland does indeed bloom, verdant and lovely. Divided by deep fjords and crowned with snow-capped peaks, this seemingly endless natural wonderland is almost indescribably beautiful. Waterfalls tumble down the cliffs from unseen springs. Huge icebergs float by, dozens. And the glaciers are almost too numerous to count.
“On this trip you will experience something truly unique,” says expedition leader Alison Gordon, during a briefing on my first full day aboard Ultramarine, a brand new vessel operated by a company called Quark Expeditions. “Even in Antarctica, you visit ports frequented by other ships. Here we have the whole place to ourselves.
The route is loaded. Quark worked closely with Inuit-owned businesses and the Kommune Kujjaleq (regional government) to develop the schedule, and this is the only such trip to Greenland. Rather than mass tourism, the aim here is to focus on high-value, low-impact tourism, accommodating small vessels to engage in intimate activities and leave a minimal footprint.
And there are helicopters. Two large Airbus helicopters on the upper deck ferry hikers to remote ridgelines, as well as alpine kayakers and mountain bikers to landing sites that would be inaccessible without helicopter assistance. A fleet of zodiacs buzzes the rocky beaches, taking guests to places where few or no humans have set foot.
At the start of the trip, we make the slow turn to Prince Christian Sound, one of the main waterways in South Greenland. A morning excursion takes me near the foot of a huge glacier. I ask Adrian Boyle, a veteran guide who spent six summers in Greenland, his name. He seems surprised by the question, turning to stare at the mass of snow and ice for a second before answering, his brow furrowed a little. “Most of them here don’t have names,” he says in an Australian accent. “There are just too many.”
We stroll over the spongy ground, taking a closer look at hardy vegetation like arctic mouse ear and dwarf birch, tasting ripe wild blueberries along the way. Climbing a stony moraine, we look at the surrounding terrain. I ask him what makes Greenland so sexy. “I think it’s the unknown,” he said. “When you come here, you have the chance to find and experience things no one else has seen.”
On the way back to the boat, a big bearded seal stalks us. The next day, I take a zodiac cruise, meandering through glistening icebergs, having my photo taken with the one that has an arch all the way through. And halfway through the trip, we stop at Aappilottoq, an Inuit village in Greenland, 80 sturdy souls protected by a rocky port.
Living in brightly painted and well-weathered houses, residents maintain a largely traditional way of life. They hunt and fish and communicate in a language spoken by a relative handful. It’s a day full of activities. We take on the local team in a soccer game and dance to the rock styles of a band that plays electric guitar, but sings in the regional dialect about life in the Arctic.
At a hunting conference, I meet Freddy Christiansen, a young Inuit man from a nearby village. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, and a master’s degree in Denmark. He worked at the Danish Embassy in South Korea and spent a year in California. But he missed home and returned to start an adventure travel business. He notes that this is a rare opportunity to see a real Greenlandic community. Nothing is perfect for tourists. They are real people, living their lives. “We’ve been here for thousands of years,” he says. I ask if the residents are annoyed that we are walking around? “Oh no, they’re so excited to see you,” he said. “We have maybe six or eight ships here in a year, no more.”
The biggest thrill comes on the last full day of the trip. Climbing into the co-pilot’s seat of the helicopter, we take off from the deck, plunging into a valley and over a glacial stream. “Look to your left,” said the pilot, in his nonchalant pilot voice. Turning the head, white stretches forever. It’s like reaching the edge of a polar Sahara.
We land on the Greenland Ice Sheet, which covers 1.7 million square kilometers and stretches 2,900 kilometers from north to south. Soon I’ll be striding out, crunching on the frozen surface, seeing blue streams of ice melting too fast and narrow crevices. But for the moment I am of this opinion. Incredibly cool. Not an experience possible elsewhere in the world. And, let’s note, not a single bus ride in sight.