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It’s All in a Name, or Is It?
You’ve probably heard the opposite is true when it comes to Iceland and Greenland. Iceland is green and Greenland is ice. But perhaps you didn’t know how these names came to be.
Story has it that settlers in Iceland wanted to trick their fellow Norsemen into keeping away from their verdant paradise. They decided to call their home “Iceland,” hoping to discourage others from coming to its shores.
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The History of Greenland
As for Greenland, Erik the Red, an Icelandic murderer who was exiled to the island, is responsible for giving this island its name. He wanted to attract settlers to the place and “Greenland” sounded inviting and desirable. However, when people got there, they found an inhospitable world of white, comprised of ice, snow and glaciers.
Knowing that almost 80% of Greenland is covered in ice, however, did nothing to deter me from visiting this destination. In fact, it was one of the primary reasons for making the trip to this Arctic nation. The country had been on my bucket list for quite some time and I finally had the opportunity to experience its splendor.
A Greenland Cruise with Albatros Expeditions
I opted to travel with Albatros Expeditions on an eight-day Disko Bay voyage in West Greenland. You might be curious why I chose to explore Greenland via ship. Despite its massive land size, there are no roads or railway systems that connect settlements to one another.
Yes, there are roads within the towns, but they end at the outskirts. All travel is basically done by plane, boat, helicopter, snowmobile or dogsled. Boats are the most popular mode of transportation.
Taking a cruise is the easiest and most convenient way to explore parts of the country in a relatively short time. Due to the country’s size, most itineraries focus on a specific geographical area.
Albatros Expeditions has been offering trips to the most remote regions in the world since 1985. The company is a pioneering polar expedition cruise operator with a stellar reputation for sustainable travel in the industry.
Its ships are modern, state-of-the-art vessels that are designed to reduce their carbon footprint and minimize their environmental impact. They are built for fuel efficiency and reduced emissions. making them a great choice for eco-conscious travelers.
Ocean Albatros Has All the Bells and Whistles
The ship I was on, Ocean Albatros, which launched this past June, is the newest of the company’s ships.
It boasts 94 staterooms and suites, all with unobstructed sea views, most with their own balcony, two restaurants (the main dining room and Hot Rocks, a specialty restaurant where you cook your meal on a hot stone), a spa, sauna, bar, lecture lounge, two hot tubs, pool, gift shop, library, fitness room and a panoramic observation lounge.
Décor is Scandinavian in design with clean lines and contemporary furnishings.
You’ll Be in Good Company on the Ship
Though the rooms had good views, most passengers spent much of the time outside on the decks or mingling in the other public spaces. There were 164 passengers on the ship and they hailed from across the globe. It was fun hearing all the different languages, making it feel like a mini U.N.
We all shared some commonalities despite our varying backgrounds: an urge to visit this Arctic destination now due to the impending disappearance of the ice; a love of nature and wildlife; a desire to seek authentic and unique experiences with varying degrees of physical activity and cultural immersion; and an appreciation for the fact that mass tourism has yet to swallow this island like it has in neighboring Iceland.
To experience such a unique and unspoiled place without crowds was very prominent in most people’s minds.
On and Off the Ship, You’ll Find Delicious Food
Mealtime on the ship was a treat. Ample buffets are the norm for breakfast and lunch. Dinner is a table service affair. There are plenty of choices for carnivores, pescatarians, vegetarians, etc. There’s also afternoon tea, with cakes and finger sandwiches.
Cookies and hot drinks are available all day. Just know you won’t go hungry! And of course, there’s always the option of eating at one of the restaurants in the more sizeable towns instead of returning to the ship at midday for lunch. I took advantage of this opportunity twice, relishing local seafood soup, fresh halibut and shrimp.
Safety Is Number One Aboard the Ship
Safety is a top priority for the company and ship protocols are introduced to passengers early on in the voyage. An entire session, for example, was devoted to Zodiac practices. Zodiacs are small inflatable boats used to ferry passengers from the ship to land when the ship can’t dock and must anchor out at sea. You’ll quickly learn there’s a right way and plenty of wrong ways to enter an exit a Zodiac!
An Outstanding Crew Makes the Voyage Special
The ship’s crew was top-notch. Everyone was friendly, hospitable and helpful. And the expedition team, which consisted of a cadre of experienced and knowledgeable leaders, was dedicated to creating an immersive and educational experience for passengers. They were passionate about showcasing the magic of the Arctic while emphasizing the importance of sustainable tourism.
What to Know About Greenland
Greenland is actually the world’s biggest island, by area, that is not a continent. At 836,330 square miles, it is larger than the following countries combined: France, Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, Italy, Greece, Switzerland and Belgium. But even though it’s so vast, it also has one of the smallest populations.
Approximately 56,000 people reside on the island, with most living in the ice-free coastal regions, due to the fact that the Ice Sheet occupies the mid-section of the country. This is the world’s largest glacier, so heavy and thick that in certain spots it has pushed part of the mainland below sea level.
Humans have inhabited Greenland for more than 4,500 years and today the majority of the island’s population are Inuit or mixed Danish and Inuit. The Inuit came from Asia in the 13th century and most Inuit Greenlanders today are their direct descendants.
A number of them continue to practice some of the centuries-old traditions and live a subsistence lifestyle, fishing and hunting to supply their main food source.
During the trip, the expedition staff gave informative talks on subjects such as the geology and history of Greenland, dogsledding, whales, volcanism, all things ice and modern Greenland.
Ice Is Nice!
I particularly enjoyed the lecture on ice – how it’s formed, types of icebergs from growlers (very small floating chunks the size of a fridge) and bergy bits (the size of a car) to tabular formations (ginormous masses shaped like sheet cake that are often larger than apartment buildings), glaciers and the holy grail of ice – the Ice Sheet.
I never tired of seeing the icebergs, as they were majestic in size and shape. Some were a vivid green/blue color, as the ice reflected the light. Ninety percent of an iceberg is submerged underwater, so you’re actually only seeing a small part of the formation. The largest berg recorded was in Antarctica and it was larger than the country of Belgium!
As we cruised, there was no shortage of ice breaking apart from the ends of glaciers, which is called calving. The sound is explosive and a constant reminder that the world’s ice is moving rapidly and melting at a similar pace. Seeing the glacier retreat was a sobering eye-opener.
The talk on modern Greenland was another one of my favorites. As this is “The People’s Country,” the concept of ownership to land doesn’t exist here. All land is common and is not owned by the municipality, government, parliament or anybody else.
Fishing is the lifeline and primary industry of Greenland, though tourism is making gradual strides. In the first three quarters of 2022, about 55,000 tourists visited the country, almost equal to the number of residents.
This figure is expected to increase with the opening of several new airports in the coming year. Though the anticipated swell of visitors will bring a welcome boon to Greenland’s revenues, they also present a challenge given the island’s delicate and melting ecosystem. And then there’s the matter of creating the necessary infrastructure to support this growth.
Good Luck Trying to Master Greenlandic!
The spoken languages in Greenland are Greenlandic, Danish and English, plus there are also several dialects used among the residents in the towns and settlements.
One word in Greenlandic can be a full sentence of maybe 32 letters or more, such as Atuarfimmukarusunngikkaluarpunga, meaning “I did not want to go to school.” And pronunciation for those not versed in this language is, as you can imagine, challenging!
There are 117 days without sun on the island and when the orb returns, there are celebrations with fireworks and dancing. The longest day of the year, June 21st, is the summer solstice and a national holiday in the country.
An amazing phenomenon that occurs in the Arctic is the Midnight Sun. It’s common to see locals outdoors at all hours of the night, enjoying the continuous light and added energy that accompanies it.
Time doesn’t move quickly in Greenland and many things depend on the weather. This is why planning is always subject to immaqa, meaning “maybe.” Visitors are wise to take a deep breath and accept the fact they can’t control everything during their stay.
Excursions and Hikes Aplenty
Expedition guides not only gave talks but led historical walking tours and scenic hikes in and around the towns. These guided activities were always optional. All passengers were free to head off and explore on their own. Maps of the destinations were available to photograph on your phone.
There were also other excursions available for an additional cost. In Ilulissat, “The Iceberg Capital,” which is located near famed Disko Bay, you could go flightseeing over the Icefjord or take a boat trip to the Icefjord.
The former allows for a birds-eye view of this impressive frozen landscape, whereas the latter is a great opportunity to take a closer look at the mesmerizing ice-sculpted scenery.
I chose the boat trip, as I wanted to get that up-close and personal experience. It was an incredibly memorable journey into a dazzling world of ice, with the added boon of spotting several whales along the way.
Marvel at the Icefjord
The bergs come from the Icefjord Kangia, which is located just a half-hour’s hike south of town. They are born deeper into the fjord by the enormous Eqip Sermia glacier, the most productive glacier outside of Antarctica.
The icebergs produced by this glacier represent more than ten percent of all icebergs in Greenland, corresponding to roughly twenty million tons of ice a day! These astounding facts secured the Icefjord a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
It was beneficial to see the Icefjord via boat, as well as from land. As noted, you can walk to the entrance of it via a boardwalk trail. When I did the hike, there was a bit of fog and mist, which gave the scene an enchanting cast.
Check Out The Icefjord Center
At the beginning of the boardwalk is the Icefjord Center, a striking museum with a design that’s interwoven in nature. It’s shaped like a twisted structure miming the wingspan of a snow owl.
Here you can learn about the cycle of ice, the wildlife around the Icefjord and the human existence in the area throughout thousands of years. When you’re done perusing the exhibits, head to the rooftop for an exceptional panorama.
Jaw-Dropping Eqip Sermeq Glacier
Seeing the above-mentioned Eqip Sermeq was another highlight of the trip. This notable natural formation is renowned for its jaw-dropping beauty. We got a front-and-center view of it, as the captain positioned the ship perfectly, and in time for us to savor the experience during a barbecue lunch on deck.
Other stops along the cruise included Sisimiut, Qeqertarsuaq, Uummannaq, Niaqornat and Sarfannguit, as well as Kangerlussuaq, the point of embarkation and disembarkation.
Sisimiut Has Much to Offer Visitors
Sisimiut is Greenland’s second-largest city with 5,400 inhabitants. A city tour highlighted the historic colonial quarter, museum and the Blue Church, a culturally significant site dating back to 1775. The buildings are so colorful here and throughout the towns in Greenland, and these splashes of bright hues enliven the scene.
Try It, You’ll Like It!
In Sisimiut, we participated in “A Taste of Greenland,” where we had the chance to sample Greenlandic specialties like dried cod, shrimp, dried Minke whale, whale blubber and muskox soup. Such an experience is a visceral way for visitors to get a feel for a place, its natural bounty, history and culture.
A Kayak Master Puts on Quite the Show!
Before we set sail for the next stop, a kayak master from the community did a demo of kayak skills as we watched from aboard the ship. Using his bare hands, he did continuous rolls with his boat, one after another, going upside down, in bracing 38-degree water. Impressive!
The “Big Island”
Qeqertarsuaq, the “Big Island,” offered dramatic sea views as we hiked up to a ridge and then over to a waterfall. We were also treated to a performance of seven Polka dances by six locals at the community center, followed by a kaffemik, a social event consisting of coffee and cake.
I Left my Heart in Uummannaq
Uummannaq is distinguished by a prominent, tall, heart-shaped mountain. The town is built onto the rocks of the mountain and offers several good viewpoints of the dramatic surroundings.
It also has a good museum, full of exhibits and collections featuring displays on the Qilakitsoq mummies, the whaling era and Greenlandic history and archaeology. Another display tells the tale of the ill-fated 1930-31 inland ice expedition of German scientist Alfred Wegener, well-known for his theory of continental drift.
Small Settlements in Greenland Often Struggle to Survive
Niaqornat and Sarfannguit were the two smallest villages we visited. Niaqornat, an Inuit fishing community, was the subject of an award-winning 2013 documentary, “The Village at the End of the World.” The film, which we were shown one evening aboard the ship, illustrated a year in the life of the settlement’s 59 residents and their 100 sled dogs surviving against the odds.
As I walked through the tiny hamlet, I noted that scenes from the film contrasted to the present-day reality. The community appeared to have declined in the ensuing years, and currently, there are only 35 people residing in this isolated enclave.
Sarfannguit is nestled at the foothills of the mountains, with glaciers in the distance. This settlement’s 100 residents live off hunting, trapping and fishing, most often in pursuit of Arctic char, reindeer and musk ox. Time in this community gave us more insight into rural life in today’s Greenland. Though there are modern conveniences and technological advancements, locals still place a value on important customs and preserving their traditions and Inuit heritage.
The vistas of the bay from the village’s graveyard were striking, and a hike to the cairn, the highest point, provided an even more rewarding panorama. But the piece de resistance was “Moon,” a glass-brick sculpture in the shape of an igloo, situated with full advantage of the views.
Local Food and Crafts to Sample and Peruse
At the community center, welcoming locals treated us to another sampling of local specialties, including reindeer, whale blubber and dried cod. Tables nearby were full of handmade crafts for sale such as sealskin clothing, accessories knitted from muskox wool and tupilaks, little statues with scary-looking faces made of wood, bone and reindeer or muskox horn.
As part of Inuit mythology, such figures were special and meaningful for Greenlandic tribes. They were purported to have possessed magical powers to annihilate enemies.
Greenlandic Sled Dogs are Special
In each of the towns, there were sled dogs. We were continuously told not to feed or touch them, and signs reinforced these rules. Greenlandic sled dogs are working animals. They live as a pack with an alpha to keep order. But their musher is their leader.
And as they are used to having a relationship with their musher, they can become hostile to strangers. They are also highly protective of their pack and may attack anyone they feel is threatening them.
Interesting to note that there is only one type of sled dog in Greenland, the Greenland dog or Canis Lupus Familiaris. It’s one of the purest and most isolated dog breeds in the world because it is not allowed to mix the Greenland dog with other dog breeds.
Wildlife: To See or Not to See
There was an expectation among passengers that we would see wildlife during the voyage, especially reindeer and muskox, as these are common land mammals in Greenland. However, as hunting is very important to the locals, both culturally and as a means of subsistence, such animals are wary and hard to spot.
Though we didn’t see any of these creatures, we did see a number of whales – Minke, Fin and Humpbacked – that showed off their spouting skills to their adoring fans. We also saw various birds, including Kittiwake, Snow Bunting, Red-necked Phalarope, Northern Wheatear and Lapland Longspur.
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Author Bio: Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications.