Will the real ice land please stand up? Zoe Macfarlane goes on chilly escapades in Western Greenland.
Greenland is the type of destination that flies under the radar. Like drone-level low. But with ice caps, icebergs, whale safaris, and literally the coolest accommodation on Earth, Greenland should be a fixture on the radar for any bold Kiwi traveller.
Scenically, Greenland is more than worthy of baiting tourists from neighbouring travel hotspots. With regular reports of Europe's over-saturated tourism sites and infrastructure strains, Greenland presents itself in a more raw and peaceful form. With ambitions to be the next Iceland, it could take that prize on a literal basis, being 80 per cent covered in ice. However, with 60,000 tourists a year, compared to Iceland's 1.8 million, there is a long way to go. You'll need the same budget regardless, but in Greenland you'll only be sharing the scene with a handful of other travellers.
Greenland feels very far removed from real life and that's not based on its geography alone. It's mysterious. A fairytale destination where picture-perfect icebergs lie against skies so blue no one will believe the #nofilter tag.
Whales frolic in the icy-waters, mouths parting wide to welcome the biggest catch. Musk oxen walk the Arctic terrain, metres from your hiking path. Villagers open up their chocolate-box homes for kaffemik, the traditional celebratory coffee and cake gatherings.
Exploits on the ice are how you connect best with the core of Greenland. New tourism ventures launch annually on the premise that the closer you are to the ice, the more enchanting your experience. My icy inauguration to Greenland's largest asset was Albatross Arctic Adventures' new glamping experience. Only 25km from Greenland's hub, Kangerlussuaq, the Greenland Glacier Camp is one of the few places in the world where you can experience a luxury overnight stay alongside a glacier. Rising to 60m in places, the majestic Russell Glacier overloads the senses as it glistens, creaks, and yawns, before ice blocks the size of weatherboard bungalows collapse thunderously.
My guide, Thomas and I complete a slippery, often muddy mission on to the glacier, the dark silt like quicksand below any misplaced steps.
With no Wi-Fi and temperatures that shoot your battery down faster than you can retrieve that accidental Snapchat, the Greenland Glacier Camp enforces digital detox. Instead, you witness the light shift across the jagged peaks and deep crevices, the stillness is only punctured by wandering musk oxen, reindeer, and arctic rabbits.
Although the cocooning reindeer skins and deluxe bed at Greenland Glacier Camp are hard to walk away from, it's soon time to leave for Point 660. This is the start of Albatross's most popular expedition, an overnight stay at Camp Ice Cap.
After a quick crampon lesson, our group of nine heads out for an hour's hike to camp. It's a journey through contorted ice, formed as rolling hills, rugged spikes, and gaping canyons.
The opulence of glamping has spoilt me and I feel close to offended when we're instructed to set up camp ourselves.
Though it doesn't take long to flick the switch back to "self-sufficient", I'm still marginally alarmed that these tents are the same flimsy tango-orange fabric you'd find at a Kiwi beach campsite or in the woods. It was not unrealistic to expect something sturdier, but with two camping mats and a sub-20C sleeping bag, it's no colder than an autumnal night down south.
After a dinner of freeze-dried "food", we take a sunset hike. To appreciate the scale of the ice cap, two Kiwi explorers crossed it in a 29-day punishing 560km polar mission. The knowledge that we're alone out here — mere dots on the expanse of ice — is unsettling at first. Witnessing white for miles creates a black hole in my brain.
Gone are the oohs and aahs that the scenery demands; I feel overwhelmed and insignificant.
The next morning, we begin a four-hour exploration. Our guide Nicholas navigates to ice dunes, chasms, and rivers, a remarkable feat given the rapid fluctuation of this landscape.
I express silent gratitude for the knife-like edges of my crampons as they grip me atop narrow ridges that would typically see me sweat. We're led across the hardest route and our group is praised for our collective fitness. With this accolade comes the expectation of bravery as we are asked to leap icy rivers and wind through a narrow blue tunnel that didn't exist a month ago.
After 24 hours on the ice, I felt pacified by the panorama, as well as humbled by its immensity. This surprised me as a newcomer, but the locals' connection to the ice is unmistakeable.
Sanne Wennerberg, a Danish transplant to Greenland, spotted this when she arrived nine years ago. "When you see a local on the ice, you can sense their relationship to it. Every footstep is attuned; their DNA creating an intuitive response that other cultures cannot mimic."
Nearly 90 per cent of the Greenlandic population is Inuit, calling the harsh landscape of coastal Greenland home for centuries. They are said to be able to determine the temperature by listening to the crunch of snow underfoot. Though I am far removed from ice forecasting, the enduring shift I experienced was akin to that of a mission or pilgrimage.
I wasn't alone in this observation.
Though travelling around Kangerlussuaq allows for ice-cap adventures, can you really tick Greenland off your bucket list if you haven't spotted an iceberg? I extended my travels, adding a stop in Ilulissat, 250km north.
Ilulissat is a town made for photography. With less than 5000 inhabitants, it's extremely walkable and the multi-coloured buildings resemble a child's Lego creation (Greenland was colonised by Denmark, after all). Thanks to the icebergs and whales that fill Disko Bay, Ilulissat draws the most tourists to Greenland per year: 10,000 from the 60,000 that have the foresight to go before it surges in popularity.
While Ilulissat is fun to explore, getting out on the water is where the action occurs.
Whether you're looking for something passive, like a boat trip to witness the calving ice of the formidable Eqi Glacier, or a full-on adventure, Ilulissat's tourism businesses have figured out how to make your mission a reality.
And it can be a mission. Coastal fog, pack ice, or maintenance issues hamper travel plans rapidly, the conditions demanding both flexibility and patience. For this reason, it's recommended to book everything regionally with one operator.
In Ilulissat, World of Greenland leads the majority share of tourism operations. They do it so well that you're only guaranteed your wishlist activities if you book early.
The Ilulissat Icefjord moves at an impressive 25km-30km a day, the world's fastest recorded floe. From a boat, passing an iceberg is an impressive experience, but for full immersion, book a kayak tour.
Decked out in dry suits and booties, we were soon propelling ourselves towards the imposing wall of ice that earns Ilulissat the title "iceberg capital of the world". My guide warned to keep a considerable distance from the icebergs. The desire to touch overwhelming, I considered making a break for it, but a rumble, followed by roaring thunder began at the other side of an iceberg as tall as Auckland's Sky Tower.
For at least two minutes the splintering booms continued, sight unseen. This was not your average fracture and a mild unease followed as a mini-tsunami washed over the side of another iceberg. Later we kayaked close to a flipping berg, a yawning, grumbling noise echoing as it rocked back and forth until it revealed its underbelly.
Though iceberg kayaking occurs at a leisurely pace, the same cannot be said for whale-watching. The echo of the explosive breath of three humpbacks alerted us to their presence and we pursued in an unsuccessful, yet exhilarating chase to get close to these 50-tonne whales.
Whale-watching on a kayak is a fleeting experience, as most animal adventures typically are. The lure of more sedentary whale viewing saw me add a night at Ilimanaq Lodge to my itinerary.
Only a year old, this deluxe property sits atop a cliff an hour by boat from Ilulissat.
Nestled on the edge of the 48-person settlement of Ilimanaq, its appealing decor would not be out of place in a Scandinavian design magazine. Though the accommodation is enough to entice, it's the opportunity to witness whales feast from the comfort of your room that is captivating.
It was fascinating to uncover the hunting habits of the whales from my room's designer musk ox chair. As the pods rounded up their prey and co-ordinated the hunt, I couldn't help but compare the image to green mussels in a pot.
Other guests had come prepared with binoculars and two-night stays, serving only to make my departure feel premature. Another night in my new happy place would have been gratifying. Another day of fine dining in Restaurant Egede wouldn't have been a tragedy either.
I seized a final engagement with the ice before departing Greenland. For my final vantage point, I checked in with the Greenlandic (not Danish) Air Zafari. Looping over a striking blue iceberg from their five-seater plane was particularly thrilling.
Soaring high above Greenland, my love for the place reached new heights.
It may be considered a once-in-a-lifetime destination, but I predict I will return.
Air Greenland flies direct from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq and beyond.
In Kangerlussuaq, Old Camp is a good budget option, while Hotel Kangerlussuaq is at the airport. In Ilulissat, Hotel Arctic offers the best views in town.