We’d always assumed that Greenland was one of those places that you could only easily visit as part of an organised tour, and that independent travel was either not possible or at best very expensive. Not so, on both accounts. We spent 2 weeks there in 2013 and while it wasn’t the cheapest place on earth to visit it was nowhere near as expensive as we thought it would be.
Getting there was the pricey part. We flew from Reykjavik in Iceland to Ilulissat in North West Greenland with Air Iceland. There were three of us for the trip – Cally and I and my brother Pete.
Ilulissat, at around 70 degrees north, is 300kms inside the Arctic Circle. Ilulissat Town (pop 4470) sits on Disko Bay which is the home of one of Greenland’s biggest tourist drawcards – Ilulissat Kangerlua a tidewater glacier that carves off a continuous procession of massive icebergs into the bay. It is a truly amazing site and worth the airfare alone.
We spent three days there. Cally and I opted for flash digs at the Hotel Arctic, figuring that we were not likely to come back to Greenland in a hurry. Whereas Pete was watching his budget more and stayed at a local hostel.
It was early June and approaching the longest day of the year, which in Ilulissat means that the sun does not set.
There are a couple of local travel agents in Ilulissat you can use to organise day trips. We used Tourist Nature and they were fine. Through them we arranged a half day boat trip to a fishing village, Ilimanaq as well as a midnight trip around Disko Bay weaving in and out of the icebergs and being amazed at the brightness of the sun as we hit midnight. If you have time there are all sorts of other day and longer trips that can be done in the region.
An amazing freebie is the walk from Ilulissat town to get fabulous views of the icebergs spewed off the World Heritage listed Ilulissat Kangerlua glacier. It’s just a 1 km walk from town to the old helipad site where a well-marked and often duck boarded track leads to a site called Holms Bakke. It takes about 20 minutes. This is where locals gather on 13 January each year to greet the return of the sun after a six week absence. The site is 113m high and has a commanding view of mouth of the fjord and a cacophony of icebergs of all sizes. You can return the same way or there are a couple of circuit options of different lengths.
After our three days in Ilulissat we flew to Narsarsuaq (pop 190) in Southern Greenland with a one night stopover in the capital, Nuuk.
Narsarsuaq is the gateway to Southern Greenland – mostly because it has an airport with a long run way. The runway was built by the US during WWII as a way station for transatlantic bombers and was known as Bluie West One. Little remains of the US base today but the runway has provided Southern Greenland with the means of flying in tourists in reasonable numbers during the short summer tourist season from June to September.
We had organised through local tourist operator, Blue Ice to do an 8 day walking and sightseeing trip. Prior to arrival Blue Ice suggested an itinerary and accommodation options. Through our own research we identified a couple of changes we wanted to make, such as having an extra night in Narsarsuaq at the beginning of the trip to do a walk to Iceview Plateau. This was a 16km return walk that got us up close and personal with a glacier, getting to glacier level where we could touch it.
Blue Ice provided the transport and accommodation and most meals as well as advice re the sights, but there was no guide – we were on our own, which is the way we like it most of the time.
To give you a feel for what we did our itinerary for the 8 days was:
Day 1: Flew Ilulissat to Narsarsuarq via Nuuk. Met Blue Ice rep. Checked into hotel. Afternoon visit to Qassiarsuk on the other side of the fjord, home of Erik to Red, Viking founder of Greenland.
Day 2: Walk to the Iceview Plateau and to the Kiattut Sermiat glacier – 5 to 6 hour round trip.
Day 3: Boat trip to mouth of Qooroq Icefjord weaving in amongst the iceburgs.
We were dropped off at Itilleq then walked the 4 kms along what is known as the King's Rd (a dirt track) to the pretty village of Igaliku. Wandered the Viking ruins.
Day 4: Walk to plateau behind Igaliku for spectacular views of the Qooroq Glacier and fjord (5 – 6 hours round trip).
Day 5: Boat trip to Sillisit for homestay with local sheep farming family. Walk to viewpoint.
Day 6: Relaxing morning at Sillisit. Sunny and warm so went for a dip. Bracing! Boat trip to Qaqortoq. Checked into a self catering unit, so shopping for provisions was needed.
Day 7: Day exploring Qaqortoq – the town and environs. Dinner at a Thai restaurant.
Day 8: Boat back to Narsarsuaq then afternoon flight to Reykjavik.
On our last night of the trip, which was in Qaqortoq, we had a meal at a Thai Restaurant. The food was good but the experience slightly surreal. The people who own and run the restaurant were Thai and you can’t but wonder how the hell does one end up in Greenland when you start life in Thailand. Mind you we also had a very nice meal in Ilulissat at the Inuit Café, run by a Sri Lankan family.
The 12 or so days we had were fantastic. With more time and money we could easily have stayed for double the duration. Not only did we have a great time, it was affordable and we were able to do what we wanted without having to share the experience with 40 other punters. Well worth it