Why You Should Skip Iceland and Travel to Greenland Instead

A massive iceberg with three ice caves inside of it floats off the East Greenlandic shore. Photo: Matt Reichel.

A massive iceberg with three ice caves inside of it floats off the East Greenlandic shore. Photo: Matt Reichel.

 

First of all, don't get me wrong, Iceland is stunningly beautiful-- replete with verdant cliffs, waterfalls, glaciers, thermal hot springs, aurora sightings, puffins, and ice lagoons-- the place has road trip adventure written all over it. And it's true, driving Iceland's ring road is a phenomenal trip, and not many places on Earth can compete with the beauty of Thorsmork (þórsmörk) or creeping glaciers in Vatnajökull National Park. But there's a catch, with all the attention Iceland has received in recent years, it's crowded and is turning into a must see destination on the global tourist trail. Nearby Greenland, in contrast, is an entirely different story. 

Greenland is the home of true Arctic adventure. With a total population of just under 60,000 inhabitants, the vast majority Kalaallit (Greenlandic Inuit), this massive Arctic island has some of the world's most dramatic glaciers, icebergs, blue glacial streams, and wildlife, all without the massive tourist numbers seen in Iceland. While Iceland may be "Arctic Lite," Greenland is ripe for full-on exploration. 

 
Local Tunumiut travel around icebergs by boat, Kulusuk, East Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel.

Local Tunumiut travel around icebergs by boat, Kulusuk, East Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel.

Sled dogs in the settlement of Kuummiit, East Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel

Sled dogs in the settlement of Kuummiit, East Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel

A massive iceberg rests in the Ilulissat Ice Fjord, West Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel.

A massive iceberg rests in the Ilulissat Ice Fjord, West Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel.

A local fisherman returns to the harbour in Kuummiit, Eat Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel.

A local fisherman returns to the harbour in Kuummiit, Eat Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel.

 

Iceland and Greenland both have something in common beyond their geographical locations-- they are not the cheapest places to travel around. However, with a little bit of effort, Greenland can also work for a variety of budgets. Getting to Greenland is half the battle, as flights within the island are completely monopolized by Air Greenland and ticket prices between regions are steep. Air Greenland also flies between the major hubs in West and South Greenland (Kangerlussuaq, Ilulissat, Nuuk and Narsarsuaq) and Denmark. Air Iceland (not to be confused with Icelandair) connects the island of Kulusuk in East Greenland, along with Ilulussat and Narsarsuaq with Reykjavik, and has occasional flights to Northeast Greenland from Akureyri in northern Iceland. 

To travel Greenland without breaking the bank, it's a good idea to select a region (East, South, or West) and stick within that region, as even a two-hour hopper flight over the Icecap from East Greenland to West Greenland can cost nearly $1,000 one-way. Carrying your own snacks and protein bars from home will also help you save a lot on inflated grocery costs, as most food products in Greenland, besides fish, whale and seal meat, are flown in from Denmark. 

To access icebergs and ice fjords as far as the eye can see, both East Greenland and West Greenland offer incredible options. How to choose? If you are looking for more established towns, hiking and tourist infrastructure, head west to Ilulissat. Ilulissat has a wide range of accommodation options from youth hostels to upscale hotels-- and expect to pay heavily for luxury. Hiking the camping along the ice fjord is free, while most day excursions or overnight boat trips can be expensive. Think Danish prices, but doubled.   

 
Icebergs make their way to the sea at the Ilulissat Ice Fjord in West Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel. 

Icebergs make their way to the sea at the Ilulissat Ice Fjord in West Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel. 

 

On the other hand, if you are looking to explore small settlements and use local boats to sail around icebergs and glaciers, head East, first to Kulusuk and then onwards to Tasiilaq and the settlements by boat or helicopter. The East does not have anywhere near the level of infrastructure available in the West, but to many an adventurous traveller, this situation is preferable. Homestays in the settlements is very affordable and talking with locals around the towns will easily lead to some boat excursions to explore the region. Movement between settlements however is difficult for solo travellers and is best explored with a group to save on expensive boat charters and helicopter transfers. For those who can tolerate extremely cold water, you can even go SCUBA diving below the icebergs in Tasiilaq. 

To access the famed Greenlandic Icecap, you can do this in both Kangerlussuaq in the West as well as near the settlement of Isortoq in the East. South Greenland is one of the best hiking destinations on the whole island and the only region that actually has trees. 

 
Icebergs from above-- a drone shot of icebergs in Kuummiit settlement, East Greenland. Photo: Karim Iliya. 

Icebergs from above-- a drone shot of icebergs in Kuummiit settlement, East Greenland. Photo: Karim Iliya. 

Two little girls bounce on a trampoline in Tinit, East Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel. 

Two little girls bounce on a trampoline in Tinit, East Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel. 

Standing on an iceberg off the coast of Tinit, East Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel. 

Standing on an iceberg off the coast of Tinit, East Greenland. Photo: Matt Reichel. 

 

Visiting Greenland is truly a remarkable way to experience the authentic Arctic away from the tourist trail. From cultural experiences staying with, fishing and hunting with locals, to spotting seals, humpback, minke and fin whales, walruses, and even the rare polar bear, and exploring some of Earth's last large icebergs and glaciers before they disappear is nothing short of incredible.

While Iceland provides a fantastic introduction to the north, Greenland will give you a taste of the true Arctic. 


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