Trip Report: Endless Ice, Incredible Nature, & Traditions in Qaqortoq, Greenland

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Whew! In the 6 days since I’ve been back from Greenland, I moved all my stuff from Austin to Dallas, unpacked, and am now getting ready to head to Mexico City tomorrow for Round Two.

As soon as I arrived to Greenland, I sensed it’s a special and magical place on Earth. And immediately knew I had to go back.

Because it’s the largest island in the world that’s not a continent. The stats are vast. Greenland:

  • Is 21 times the size of Iceland
  • Has an ice sheet three times larger than the size of Texas
  • Is covered in 80% ice, which is over a mile thick in some spots
  • Has over 27,000 miles of coastline (!!!)

And yet, only 56,000 people live there. At this scale, it would take years to explore the entire country. Though I saw the tiniest sliver, it’s an incredible and challenging environment to explore.

I dare say it’s the most remote place I’ve ever visited.

visit greenland

Yours truly became an Arctic explorer at the base of the massive Greenland ice sheet

Here’s a glimpse of my time there.

Visit Greenland 2019 – Holy wow

Greenland is one of those places that isn’t on the way to anywhere. Plenty of travelers fly over it all the time, but to visit Greenland requires a concentrated effort.

Getting to Qaqortoq

You can fly there from Iceland or Denmark. I flew on Air Iceland from the Reykjavik city airport (which is different from Keflavik – it’s in the city of Reykjavik and much smaller).

My chariot to Narsarsuaq

We wanted to visit Qaqortoq, a town of ~3,000 people, located in Southwest Greenland.

Location of Qaqortoq

But there’s only one airport in that area, in Narsarsuaq, a settlement of ~150 people. Yup, you have to fly to a settlement of 150 people and then take a boat to the town of 3,000 people.

Seems counterintuitive, but you fly to the outpost to visit the largest town in Southwest Greenland

We learned there will be a brand new airport in Qaqortoq by 2024 – which is exciting news for the area. And that’ll be a big upgrade, because it took an hour and 45 minutes on a little boat to get to Qaqortoq (with a stop in Narsaq).

The flight from RVK was a bit over 2 hours. And that’s after you get to the Reykjavik city airport from Keflavik, which takes about an hour.

Even more restrictive is there are only 2 flights per week from Reykjavik to Narsarsuaq, so the timing has to be impeccable – and that’s of course if there are no delays. So you are very much at the mercy of the flight schedule and can’t be flexible with dates.

Larger towns, like Nuuk, have daily flights, which isn’t as much of an issue. But we had to get the timing absolutely right, and padded in a day on either side in case of delays getting into or out of Iceland.

Whether you fly from Iceland or Denmark, I’d recommend giving yourself at least at day to connect. Because any delay could put your connection at risk. And with limited schedules, you won’t wanna miss the only flight of the day (or week!).

Adventures around Qaqortoq

So getting there was a bit harrowing. But I found my zen and gave myself over to the experience of traveling to an extremely remote destination. Once we landed in Greenland, the magnitude of the peace there washed over me. And the beauty begins well before you land.

Stunning views on the descent into Greenland – get a window seat!

The weather was bright and “warm” – around 60 degrees during the day and 50s at night. This is because, in summer, the sun barely sets. Instead, it gets a bit less bright for a few hours and the sun rises all over again. So there’s not a chance to cool down in the evening with sunlight a near-constant factor.

In the winter, though, Greenland gets wicked cold, especially in the North where it’s above the Arctic Circle.

Once there, we set about exploring around the system of long finger-like fjords via boat. And though we only went 20 to 40 miles at a time, it takes a couple of hours to get anywhere. For round-trips of 4+ hours, it actually takes longer to get to and from a place than the time you spend there.

And you must take a boat or helicopter everywhere you go – there are no roads connecting the towns in Greenland. It’s physically impossible because of the ice sheet and extremely rugged terrain.

Staying in Qaqortoq

So there’s actually a 4-star hotel in Qaqortoq… called Hotel Qaqortoq.

It’s actually really nice! They have fast wifi, two on-site restaurants, breakfast in the morning, and house-brewed beers. By all accounts, it’s a clean and modern hotel walking distance to everything.

Not that the town is that big. There’s only one other restaurant, no coffee shops, and the only shopping is at the tourist office. Surprisingly, there are three grocery stores in town, including one with a big floor for clothes and home goods. I was impressed with the selection.

As an autonomous country still under Denmark’s rule, the selection is very Danish (and all prices are in Danish kronur). I learned they adore the King and Queen of Denmark (and keep up closely with the royal family).

Our room at the Hotel Qaqortoq – notice all the sealskin

There’s also a fur outlet in town where you can by seal and sheep products of all kinds. Hunting seal is very much alive here. They eat it and use the skin for all sorts of products. Our hotel room had sealskin blankets and throw pillows, and the hotel had fur-lined chairs and couches. Sealskin is everywhere – in the clothes, accessories, furnishings…

It’s an Inuit tradition. And the Greenlanders very much want to keep their national history alive.

Isn’t Qaqortoq so cute and idyllic?

We hit a patch of resplendent weather. While it rained here and there, we got huge gaps of sunshine and clear weather. And the sunsets were incredible!

Qaqortoq is an adorable maritime town

Our days were packed with things to do. Thankfully, the daylight hours were long.

Kaffemik

We arranged to have coffee and cakes at a local home. We arrived to our host, Sofia, with a translator, David, to partake in kaffemik, which translates to “get me a coffee!” from Danish and is a celebration gathering for any type of good news. It’s when you open your house and invite lots of people over to have a good time.

Traditionally, you’re served coffee, tea, and cakes, and just enjoy hanging out. Which is awesome!

We set up our kaffemik through the tourist office. And were graciously welcomed into a beautiful home in the center of town, full of old photos and artifacts.

At kaffemik with Sofia and David

I love her hands

Homemade orange cake

We talked about the Arctic, the future of Greenland, and modern Inuit life. Our host – and all the Greenlanders we met – were completely gracious.

It was an honor to participate in a local tradition!

Greenlandic ice sheet

All of Greenland’s towns and settlements are situated along the cost, because the interior is uninhabitable. When you visit, you simply must check out the Greenland ice sheet – it’s hard to miss. Along the way, you’ll see huge icebergs calved from the continental glacier.

It’s a humbling experience because the Greenland ice sheet is rapidly melting, There are more icebergs now than ever. Hearing our guide talk about how quickly the ice is receding was a bit of a shock. And while we only saw the tiniest portion, the scale of this change is mind-blowing.

To get there, we took a boat and hiked about an hour to the base.

Gorgeous landscapes along the fjord

Greenland doesn’t have nearly as many waterfalls as Iceland – and it’s not volcanic. The waterfalls we saw were a function of the melting ice sheet draining into the Atlantic. You can clearly see lighter rock right against darker rock where the ice sheet has receded in the past few years. Considering the rock under the ice sheet is between 1.5 and 3 billion years old, it’s literally untouched by humanity.

Seeing the changes written in the landscape is startling. It’s rugged and huge and the nature here is responding powerfully to the environmental effects.

At the base of the Greenland ice sheet

The ice sheet looks like a mountain from a distance – a gigantic mountain. And the water near it is the most beautiful blue-green color from all the minerals running into the water.

A look inside an ice cave

The melting ice forms a network of ice caves that regularly collapse under their own weight. But while they’re intact, they create the most brilliant shades of blue.

Just a few iceberg friends. They come in all sorts of interesting shapes and colors

And of course, being so close to the action, you get plenty of close-up views of iceberg friends. I imagine living here and watching them float in and out is such a meditative practice.

Uunartoq hot spring

Two hours by boat from Qaqortoq, you’ll find the Uunartoq hot spring nestled on its own island (!).

How cool is that

It’s the only hot spring in Greenland, and forms two small round pools constantly heated to bathwater temperature year-round.

You get stunning 360 views and a bay full of icebergs

The reason for this hot spring is a mystery as there are no tectonic plates here, or anything else that would seemingly cause it. In the 1500s, it was the best Viking spa in town! 😹

The ruins of a medieval nunnery/convent are nearby. And because the hot spring lies where the island is thinnest, you can easily walk from one side to the other and get amazing views like this:

Beyond gorgeous

I spent a couple of hours hiking around the area, watching the drifting icebergs, and relaxing in the most natural spa you can possibly imagine. It’s a far trek, but suffice it to say… it’s pretty private. The only peeps there were whoever could fit on the boat. In total, 5 of us. Definitely NOT overcrowded.

Hvalsey church

The oldest Viking ruins aren’t in Iceland – they’re in Greenland. Specifically, at the Hvalsey church site, which was founded in the 12th century and stood until about the 14th century. It’s thought Erik the Red died in this area after being exiled as a convict from Iceland. Today, the ruins of the church and several smaller buildings stand in what’s basically a sheep farm.

But oh, what a site/sight:

The Hvalsey church ruins are hundreds of years old. The outside still stands today

Walking around the area, we saw gravestones, a sheep pin, a smaller church for women (the larger one was for the men), and some sheep remains. The church was built over old graves.

And you can definitely picture Norse Vikings living their lives in this area. So cool to think of all the history that’s happened in this remote place.

The church held around 30 people

Greenlandic dinner

On our last night, we had a traditional Greenlandic dinner of seal meat, potatoes, pickles, and a pickled melon. And lots of spring water and coffee.

I was on the fence about trying seal, but I gotta say – it’s pretty good! It’s dark, mineral-y, flavorful and surprisingly tender. Our host, Christina, pan fried it in the oven. And the potatoes were organically grown in Greenland in a greenhouse.

Traditional Greenlandic dinner

For dessert, we had homemade lemon mousse with a blueberry sauce made from berries our host hand-picked around Qaqortaq, as well as Greenlandic cake – a cake made with brewer’s yeast instead of the regular kind.

While we had coffee, Christina modeled the traditional Greenlandic costume that’s worn for special events (like weddings) and on holidays.

Traditional outfit

It takes hours and hours of handwork to sew together and has so much intricate stitching and beading. In the olden days, it contained hundreds of pearls, but these days it’s acceptable to leave them out. And of course, sealskin boots complete the look.

Polar bear attac seal. He do not protec seal

Her home was filled with information and decorations from around Greenland. Posters explained the gems and crystals naturally present, the evolution of the national costume, and the herbs that grow in the wild.

She had photos of her large extended family – some were so old there were in black and white. I enjoyed looking at all the knick knacks, photos, and illustrations very much.

visit greenland

Lovely view of the harbor

Afterward, we watched the “sunset” and changing weather over the bay and talked. I didn’t want to leave but got so sleepy from all the adventures that I headed out around 11pm. But then went and had a pint at the local pub before finally calling it a day.

Perfect way to end an amazing trip. The next day, we got on another boat and headed back to Narsarsuaq and flew back to Reykjavik.

Bottom line

Greenland might not be on everyone’s radar for many reasons: it’s difficult and expensive to get there, travel around the island is tedious via boat, and aside from spending time in nature, there isn’t much to do. But those are the exact reasons I wanted to visit Greenland!

The beauty of the nature can’t be understated. You’ve heard of “untouched” scenery, but here it’s the literal sense of the word. The earth and water here are billions of years old. Nature awes us with its scale and humbles us in the presence of its magnitude. And in Greenland, you can feel how magical that really is.

I found Greenlanders to be some of the kindest and warmest people I’ve met. As we hiked, boated, and explored the smallest portion of the Southwest coast, I knew I wanted to see more. Next time, I’ll visit the area around Nuuk, the capital and largest town (with 18,000 people).

Those Arctic landscapes – the icebergs, rolling mountains and knife-edge cliffs, milky blue water, and colorful harbor towns – are seared into my memory.

There isn’t much tourism here, so you feel at times like you’re the only one around – because you really are the one around. I brought back a stone from Greenland and set it on my bookshelf here in Dallas. I like to think a little part of Greenland’s magic is always near me. It’s truly a special and gorgeous place on this vast and endlessly gorgeous Earth.

So what do you think? Will you ever make a trip to this wild and wonderful island? 

Thank you for reading my trip report! To see more photos, check out my Instagram (which I use as a mini-journal when I’m not writing here).

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About Harlan

Just a dude living in Dallas.

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Comments

    • Thank you, Diane! The hotel was ~$140 a night, and the flights from RVK were ~$1,000 round-trip. Your trip will depend largely on where you want to go, where you connect, if you take helicopters or boats during your visit, and how many excursions you plan. My trip was easily a couple thousand. Hope that helps!

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