I thumb through photos of endless mountains, wildflower laced fields, and deep sparkling ice fjords, all slightly unreal. The harsh light of summer at the top of the world throws everything – mountains, settlements, glaciers, even clouds – into a timeless suspense, as if God has frozen the world at a moment of perfection on a grand scale. Everything appears too real. The vibrant colors of the wind-surfing wildflowers too bright and exuberant. The glaciers in their rock-carving seas of ice too white. Icebergs too smooth and sculpted, a natural sculpture gallery as evocative as Renaissance nudes. The looming ice cap is the only unreal piece of the landscape, a sort of mirage, hazy in the distance.
Was I really there? Did I actually stand on mountain plateaus and gaze out across ice fjords and ancient Norse ruins?
The photos prove it. YES. Greenland happened. I was there. This adventurous, off-the-radar, Shangri la for hardcore travelers and restless spirits can be reached. Lived. Breathed.
But isn’t it hard to get there? And difficult to move around? Don’t you need to be some superhuman mountain climber or survivalist? Isn’t it prohibitively expensive?
It can be. If you let it.
Yes, just saying you’re going to Greenland provokes stunned, skeptical, are-you-slightly-off-your-rocker? looks from everyone you know.
But I did it. With fibromyalgia.
So here’s how:
1. Choose one region to explore. Greenland is HUGE and sparsely populated, without highways and roads outside of the capital city of Nuuk. If you hop all over by boat, plane, and helicopter, you’ll burn through your money. Instead, choose one region to explore. I selected Southwest Greenland’s Narsarsuaq region for its abundance of Norse ruins, basic accommodation infrastructure, and surprisingly accessible day hikes.
2. Work through the local tour outfitter. Most tourists go through a travel agent or tour company that charges an arm and a leg. But those very same companies hire a local outfitter in the region to organize everything for them. Be brave and cut out the middleman! Find out who the local operator is and contact them directly to set up your own personalized itinerary. In Narsarsuaq, I contacted Jacky Simoud of Blue Ice Explorer. He has an 8 day easy hike package that is affordable and perfect for independent travelers who want to meet the locals.
3. Purchase a roundtrip ticket from Reykjavik, Iceland. Reaching Greenland is easier than you think, especially from North America and Europe. If you can reach Reykjavik, Iceland, you’re only one flight away from Greenland. In the peak summer season (really the best time to see Greenland anyway!), Icelandair offers affordable flights from major hubs in the United States to Iceland, including Minneapolis, Seattle, Chicago, and New York. Relax a couple days in Iceland, then catch a flight on Air Iceland from Reykjavik to Greenland. The further you book ahead, the less money you’ll spend. (Roundtrip Minneapolis-Iceland-Greenland I spent $1200 in 2011. With rising gas costs, planning ahead is even more critical. Purchase early.)
4. Avoid hotels. Stay on sheep farms, with local families, and in hostels. You’ll meet local people, discover the rhythm of daily life, and have access to a kitchen to cook for yourself. Most local tour outfitters will help you arrange accommodation, although you can also contact sheep farms directly. My favorites in Southwest Greenland include Inneruulalik, a cozy sheep farm hosted by the gracious and warm Hendrine Lund and her family (contact me for her email), and the Fredericksen sheep farm in Qassiarsuk, only a short walk from the ruins of the Viking settlement of Erik the Red. Both can be booked through the Qassiarsuk settlement website.
5. Once you’re there, the key to seeing Greenland affordably is walking. I was nervous about hiking between settlements and sheep farms with a chronic condition, but the hikes were never more than 9 kilometers. If you can walk comfortably a couple hours and pack solid hiking boots, you can hike Southwest Greenland. Worried about your luggage? Blue Ice Explorer sent my luggage ahead, so I only needed to lug a day pack. Are there more strenuous hikes, should you choose to tackle them? Absolutely. But you can also wander comfortably among Norse ruins (smack-dab in the middle of the settlements of Qassiarsuk and Igaliku), gaze at the shifting, beautiful icebergs, and soak up the mountains and surprisingly hot summer sun without breaking a sweat.
6. Cook for yourself. Food in Greenland is expensive, as many goods must be imported from Denmark. Take a gander through the shelves of the local grocery (often a small all-inclusive general store stocking tools and underwear alongside canned fruit and digestive biscuits). Dairy items are frozen. Bread too. Stick to nonperishables. Better yet, buy nonperishable food in Iceland before your flight for a wider selection and slightly less shocking prices. Picnic on hikes and cook a simple pasta dinner at your accommodation. If you can’t find tomato sauce, use instant soup packages to make a creamy sauce. Local restaurants are thin on the ground, and where they exist, are exorbitantly priced. For a change of pace, your sheep farm host may offer to cook you a home cooked meal for a modest fee. Don’t hesitate – you’ll dine on local seafood, berries, herbs, produce, and lamb.
Yes, Greenland is an expensive destination. But if you love wildlife, Viking lore, traipsing in the outdoors, the magic of the Northern Lights, and find yourself intrigued by life in the far North, Greenland is more possible than you think. Plan ahead, budget, and explore her secrets at the sedate pace of your own two feet.