What to Know About Traveling to the Largest Island in the World
Get ready for Greenland's open, rugged landscapes—and lots of helicopter rides.
But that doesn't mean the largest island in the world, with its rugged, open landscapes, doesn't have something to offer.
The best plan? Don't view Greenland as a checklist of sights to see. Rather than try to traverse the majority of the country, pick an area and keep your radius small. Here's what else you should know before visiting the icy country.
It's the world's least-densely populated country.
At 836,300 square miles, Greenland is both the world's biggest non-continental island and the world's least-densely populated country. About 80 percent of the island is covered by ice cap, so most of the population lives in the southern region.
This means that the island's landscape outside of the towns is vast and bare.
Greenland is perfect for outdoors enthusiasts.
City-slickers should look elsewhere for a vacation: Greenland's capital, Nuuk, has a population of just 16,500. But what the island lacks in people, it more than makes up for with stunning fjords and humpback whales.
The country is paradise for wilderness enthusiasts and outdoors lovers. East Greenland's Tasilaq (population 2,000), about 65 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is a great base for beginning an adventure. Kayaking dates back 4,000 years on the island and is an important part of life for many Greenlanders—some of whom even commute to work with a kayak. From Tasilaq, visitors can kayak among ice floes and imposing bergs, take multi-day dog sledding trips, heliski, and go on hiking and climbing trips.
Another prime kayaking spot is the Blue River, along the Petermann Glacier, a winding stream of clear turquoise water that cuts through vast expanses of Petermann's snowy terrain.
The uninhabited island of Uunartoq, in the south, is famous for its hot springs. At around 100 degrees, even in the winter, they're the only ones in Greenland that aren't too cold for bathing, even as icebergs pass by. And it'll be easy to find them: Just look for a stone-lined round pool in the middle of a field full of people.
Finally, taking in the icebergs at the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience—and one that's in jeopardy as climate change continues to encroach on vulnerable areas.
Summer is prime mosquito season.
Yes, it's definitely the best time to travel, in terms of the tricky logistics of Greenlandic transport, but the swarms of Arctic mosquitoes here are ferocious—so much so that they've become known as Greenland's very own Air Force.
No fall or winter trip is complete without a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
The aurora borealis is especially stunning when it reflects its streaks of bright green and purple off of Greenland's snow-covered terrain and clear waters. When the lights flicker or “dance,” local lore says it means the dead are playing football with walrus skulls.
The best time to catch them is in the fall or winter, typically from September to early April, although visitors to southern Greenland can get lucky and see them toward the end of August.
It's not cheap to get around.
Roads don't exist in much of Greenland: to get between towns, tourists have to fly, likely with the country's Air Greenland planes (expensive) or helicopters that are the Greenlandic equivalent of intercity busses to busses (really expensive). The upside is the aerial view of ice caps and glaciers along the way.
Visitors can also travel by boat, with several lines operating passenger and container ships available for booking. Backpackers, however, might just be in heaven: Towns are days apart on foot, but the experience of hiking through swathes of unspoiled, wide open land will be unforgettable.
Ultimately, what a lack of roads means is that the weather is going to have the ultimate call on exactly how visitors follow their schedule—so be prepared to have some emergency money set aside for last-minute travel arrangements or an extra night or two somewhere, as well as plenty of leeway in the itinerary. During the high season, be sure to book tickets as far in advance as possible.