David McLain

How Climate Change Is Changing the Travel Industry in Greenland

As climate change puts Greenland in the global spotlight, it’s also altering the country in unexpected ways—for both residents and visitors alike.

I think it was the psychedelic sink that taught me my first lesson about Greenland. It was in a bathroom—not an igloo—where sinks tend to be. And when I turned on the faucet, a wild, watery disco of LED light cascaded over my hands, purples and greens and magentas flashing through a waterfall of liquid. It was a gadget you attach to your faucet, one you can pick up cheaply on Amazon, but it gave me the feeling of cupping the northern lights. It was so strange and startling that I burst out laughing: Greenland’s greatest light show, in miniature, right there in my hands. In this country nature finds you, even indoors.

I had been invited to the home of Sarah Woodall, an American transplant who lives in the southern village of Qaqortoq with her Greenlandic helicopter-pilot partner. Woodall had invited me to an impromptu kaffemik, a tradition that I witnessed often during my visit to the world’s largest island. A kaffemik involves inviting friends, acquaintances, even total strangers into your home for coffee and cake, or a traditional meal, often on a special occasion. Woodall’s friend, a Greenlandic chef named Salik Parbst Frederiksen, was doing the cooking, and we ate musk-ox stew and scallops flavored with thyme, mountain sorrel, and seaweed powder as they came off the stove. Woodall’s home is perched at the top of town, and as we ate, we took in views of Qaqortoq’s candy-colored wooden houses, which are scattered across a rugged hillside descending to a dark sea.

The guidebooks are right: Greenland is a land of crystalline extremes—modern and ancient, inviting and forbidding, dark hibernal nights and, in summer above the Arctic Circle, a midnight sun that never sets. Among its numerous contrasts is the fact that, despite the long, fanged winter, Greenland remains one of the most welcoming places on earth. Again and again, Greenlanders will say hi, and chat, and invite you in. Even though very few towns are connected to one another by road—and there are only a handful of stoplights in a landmass more than five times the size of California—Greenland somehow
feels like one big neighborhood.

This complicated yin and yang is in part explained by the collision of the island’s two principal founding cultures. The Inuit first traveled east from Alaska about a millennium ago, possibly to widen their hunting grounds; second were the Danish, who traveled west from Europe three centuries ago to proselytize and take possession of Greenland’s rich whale and fish stocks. The Danish government subsidizes the island of 56,000 inhabitants with some $535 million annually, but Greenland is today mostly self-governed—though Denmark remains in charge of its defense and foreign affairs. Still, the separatist movement is increasingly vocal, with an entire ministry dedicated to exploring a path to independence. “My whole life has been lived to see a day when Greenland is free of Denmark,” former prime minister Aleqa Hammond told me.

Traditional architecture in Illimanaq.

David McLain

Meanwhile, Greenland’s location in the melting Arctic has made it a bellwether for climate change. We’re told that hundreds of billions of tons of ice have been lost in recent years (on average, 290 gigatons a year, while 11 billion tons were lost in a single day this past summer). As a result, sea levels are rising at unprecedented rates. The polar bears are moving north, increased mosquito hordes threaten the caribou, and in the south, the minke whales have moved farther out to sea. The urgency to experience Greenland, to see its wild, unspoiled splendor—the conveyor belt of icebergs, the rough mash-up of glaciers, fjords, and sea—has perhaps never been greater.

At the same time, this warming has begun to open up new parts of the country and ocean to explore. Travelers can go deeper into the fjord systems, and farther north, at new times of year. The land today yields more vegetables, of different varieties, and can support increasing numbers of livestock—all of which has sparked a foodie awakening. Meanwhile, the northern lights last longer and can be seen farther south. And as the visitors keep coming, new outfitters and lodges are springing up to cater to them.

To witness a newer Greenland being formed, in all of these new ways: That’s why I went.

Sunset over Qaqortoq, the largest town in southern Greenland.

David McLain

Jon Krogh was waiting for me at the marina in Nuuk, the island’s capital of 18,000 people, wearing ski goggles and an insulated onesie known in the business as a survival suit. The three-year-old company he co-founded, Arctic Nomad, boasts one of the most remote glamping sites in the world. Tall, blond, and able, Krogh appeared before me as a Viking superhero, back-lit by the midsummer sun.

Spread out over a promontory on Greenland’s western coast, the city rises and falls from the old harbor to the new harbor to yet the newest harbor, littered with cranes and the exoskeletons of buildings under construction. I’d spent the morning wandering the capital. I tried Greenlandic tapas at the Katuaq cultural center (the menu at its restaurant, Cafétuaq, included dishes such as fried angelica, guacamole, and mango; shrimp in a buttery cannoli; and a hot dog made out of mussels). I had people-watched at a hip coffee shop and ambled down to the Greenland National Museum and Archives, where I came face-to-face with remarkably preserved 500-year-old mummies, reminders of what all Greenlanders already know: We’re small, humble, finite creatures in the face of the elements here.

Soon, Krogh had me stuffed into a survival suit of my own, and, in my fresh iteration as multicolored Michelin Man, I was rolled on board and plunked on the front seat of a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) with two 225-horsepower engines that, he was excited to report, could top out at about 60 miles per hour.

“It’s gonna be a rough ride,” he added, grinning. Already prone to seasickness, I readied myself for the possible humiliation with a sinking sense of self-defeat. All aboard the Spew Express.

Halibut with potatoes and grilled butter lettuce at Restaurant Egede in Illimanaq.

David McLain

As it was for the Norse a thousand years ago, getting to Greenland is really half the challenge. There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Greenland, so despite the fact that, in theory, it would take about four hours to fly from Boston to Nuuk, my trip ended up taking 28 hours—most of which was spent finding ways to kill a day in that outdoor theme park known as Iceland. And yet, despite these less-than-ideal connections, more and more travelers are visiting: up from 4,000 in 1993 to more than 80,000 in 2017, most of whom stayed on Greenland’s western coast. What a traveler traditionally gives up here—on-time transport, instant five-star comfort—is made up for by a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a people and landscape that feel somehow more raw, and more real, than any other.

When I finally made it onto the three-hour flight from Reykjavík to Nuuk, I experienced the kind of ecstatic window-gawking that comes when you first set eyes on a faraway land you’ve dreamed about for all too long. First came the notorious eastern coast—impenetrable for many early explorers because of the skirt of ice that blocks access—that is still relatively undiscovered, with only a handful of active settlements. There were fields of snow, great jumbles and junkyards of ice, and a fortressed dividing line where the chunks had been pushed up into jagged, frozen teeth. Viewed from above, the clouds seemed to mix with the snow beneath, creating indistinguishable layers of whiteness: Was it smoke, or a steaming potion of some sort?

A server at Restaurant Egede in Illimanaq.

David McLain

The interior—or the ice sheet, as it’s known— flattened to a smoother surface and eventually, after another hour or so, gave way to little veins of brown earth. The plane turned south toward Nuuk, following the mountainous inlet known as Nuuk Fjord. The weather was a mucky kind of overcast with little spits of rain, but the slate of the sky complemented the gunmetal water, where jagged icebergs floated like some kind of code in the currents.

Out on those same waters in the RIB, Krogh and I flew out around the point, the boat skidding and smashing waves. We looked back at the colorful houses that constitute the Old Harbor, where the missionary Hans Egede founded a town in 1721. At around the same time, a colony of mutinous soldiers, prostitutes, and criminals moved in—most of whom perished within the first year.

“Denmark from the air is a garden,” Krogh said. “Everything has a rule, the height of your fence, everything. Most of the world is like that now. I think Greenland is the only place that’s still completely wild. That’s its greatest beauty.”

I did not throw up, which was very kind of Greenland. The speed with which we shot forth was thrilling, but once out and around the cape and away from the open, bashing sea, we found ourselves moving through the calmer waters of Nuuk Fjord. The sun was bright, the sky a perfect blue, and suddenly, as if out of nowhere, we were surrounded by whales. A family of humpbacks circled a large inlet, approaching the boat as we drifted to a standstill. Around us rose lunar mountains, all rock diving into water. And the whales—the largest of which must have been 50 feet in length—surfaced for air and sprayed geysers, their tails flipping up slowly, as if throwing whale peace signs. I’d seen whales before, but never at water-level view like this, and never in a landscape like this. Their sleek curved backs, the proximity of an alien hugeness and intelligence. After all the talk of climate change and the extinction crisis, it was majestic and mesmerizing and faith-giving just to hear them breathe.

Soon we were at the Arctic Nomad encampment, Kiattua—an Inuit word meaning “warm place.” Eleven tepees made of thick canvas were pitched on a small cliff overlooking a glassy bay. Except for the gush of running streams, the place was totally silent. There was a larger tepee for meals and, up the trail, a hot tub made from and heated by wood, all of which has to be imported. (Greenland has only a few trees in its southernmost areas.) At first glance it was like lighting on a fairy world of some sort, or a Utopian experiment— one that got even more Utopian as we settled in.

A big part of the experience is the time spent with the “nomads” themselves—Krogh; his Greenlandic wife, Anika Krogh; and a Danish extreme athlete named Thure Tornbo Baastrup—as well as their employees and families. This is time spent hiking, touring, swimming, and skiing, or sharing meals and relaxing at camp. Because we were so early in the tourist season (which runs from June to mid-September), the chef had yet to arrive, so we’d stopped at the most remote Thai-fusion restaurant I’d ever been to: a place called Qooqqut Nuan, where visitors can bring their own freshly caught fish to be made into aromatic curries. We sat around a fire pit surrounded by caribou antlers and drank whiskey cooled with millennia-old glacier ice—a nightcap for the night that never quite arrived.

From left: Arctic Nomad's Kiattua camp lies on the banks of the Amitsuarsuk fjord and is accessible only by boat or helicopter; Uunartoq hot springs.

David McLain

Arctic Nomad's clients include some of the richest people in the world. One Russian billionaire had wanted to swim in melted glacier water on the ice cap, Krogh told me—a wish they had fulfilled by landing a helicopter there. Another, a princess who brought her children to the Ilulissat camp, became like family, saying she felt healed by her time in the anonymizing emptiness. Krogh said it was that same hunger for anonymity that was behind Bill Gates’s repeat visits to Greenland, on which he had spent several weeks at a time in small villages. By the time I found my tepee and burrito-ed into my plush bed, among the soft sheets and caribou skins, deep sleep was the force that anonymized me. 

Next day, a day of genuine wonder, came the icebergs. After a hearty breakfast, Krogh fired up the RIB, and we were heading off toward a place called Narsaq Sermia, or “Ice Fjord.” According to Krogh, that glacier is “the most productive” in the region, calving vast chunks of ice that then plunge into the sea. While the gigantic icebergs are found at Ilulissat—which was to be my next stop—there was an intimacy to trailing in, out, and around the icebergs we found in the fjord, each its own world, flashing white, blue, and green. I was reminded of the transcendentalists, or the early polar explorers, as I peered with awe into the crystals to find the whole of life there: poetry, beauty, danger, and mankind’s possible demise.

Krogh was so like a kid, his spirit was contagious. He liked speed; he liked discovery; he liked to please his guests. He asked me if I was interested in climbing aboard an iceberg. There was a risk it would flip or split, which would plunge me to some likely doom, but how often does one get to ride an iceberg?

The one he chose for me was flat, seemingly stable, about the size of a studio apartment. I clambered on, scrambled to my feet, and surfed a bit, feeling a little tippy. As a joke I struck a tree pose, and as soon as I did, I heard a sharp, cracking sound and the iceberg lurched hard. Krogh heard it too and pulled the boat back to the edge, calling for me to jump in. Not knowing the difference between mild urgency and emergency, I executed my escape with an idiot trip, my fall cushioned by my survival suit, my ribs, and the right side of my face.

There was a fitting irony to my comeuppance (come-downance?). You can be cushioned in a fair amount of comfort in Greenland, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune to its serrated reality. The weather, while mostly sunny during my stay, came in spasms. Flights are so often delayed or canceled, owing to all manner of atmospheric disturbance and downfall, that locals refer to Air Greenland as Air Maybe. People have been stranded for days, weeks, and, believe it or not, even months. As the Inuit like to say, the ice decides.

Sea kayaking with whales near Iluissat.

David McLain

Ilulissat was the ultimate kingdom of ice, the Show, as it were. Known as the Icefjord, the UNESCO World Heritage site is where most visitors to Greenland end up—for good reason. The icebergs from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier (or Jakobshavn Isbræ, as it’s known in Danish) are monumental, drifting past in shapes ranging from wedding cake to NBA star’s mega-mansion. This is geometry in motion, whole ecosystems afloat, clogging up the bay and ultimately traveling as far south as Newfoundland (it was one of these Mama Bears that is said to have sunk the Titanic).

The town of Ilulissat—“like Kathmandu 40 years ago,” one traveler told me—is home to a number of high-end lodges. I was staying at Ilimanaq Lodge, which is located in a settlement of the same name just south of Ilulissat. To get there, I found myself back in a boat, weaving through icebergs again, but this time they were up to ten stories high, some of them calving before my eyes. There was no talk of landing on one; this ever-wary captain steered wide.

Ilimanaq Lodge came as its own surprise: 15 solar-paneled cabins, some set on a cliff, others right over the sea. Calling itself a “pioneer project,” the building and staffing of the lodge has been a collaboration between the 52 residents of Ilimanaq; a Danish foundation named Realdania By & Byg that supports the refurbishing of old buildings; and World of Greenland, an Ilulissat-based tourism company.

Upon arrival, I retreated to my comfortably appointed cabin with its wall of windows facing the bay and fell into a hypnotic trance watching the icebergs float by on their conveyor belt. In the name of hygge—the Danish concept of coziness—I forwent the hikes and boat rides and ATV excursions on offer and, instead, curled up on the porch under a caribou-skin blanket, half-reading Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams and drifting in and out of sleep. When I woke, it was time for dinner.

I find it hard to describe the pleasure of that meal without bringing you there myself, or indulging in ridiculous hyperbole. The delight of it was due, in part, to the setting. The lodge’s restaurant, named Egede—originally built in the 18th-century as the home of Poul Egede, son of Hans, the missionary— had been renovated, painted black on the outside with jade-green walls inside and the ceiling covered with 270-year-old canvas sails. Sun splashed through the windows, reflected off the blue-splintered ocean. The meal began with scoops of butter topped with dried seaweed served on a flat sheet of rock. The fresh bread was delicious, the wines abundant. In general, Greenland’s food scene, where it intersects with the tourist market, bears the influence of New Nordic cuisine, in part because of the number of Danish chefs at work in Greenland.

In this case, chef Morton Tychsen, who had come for the season from Copenhagen, plied us with a musk-ox tartare served with onions, cream, and edible flowers. Earlier we’d gone foraging for Scottish thyme on the edges of a pond, where Tychsen said, “The reason I came here is that nature decides. If the weather’s bad, and the boat doesn’t come with groceries, we have to improvise.”

Our next dish was a piece of freshly caught halibut with grilled butter lettuce so tender it seemed ambrosial. Dessert was a confection of chocolate, orange, flowers, and cream, served with Greenlandic coffee, itself an elaborate, flaming concoction of whiskey, Kahlúa, and Grand Marnier.

An excursion with Arctic Nomad on Qooqqut fjord.

David McLain

By the time I left the restaurant, though full, I was floating. It was 11 p.m. and still sunny, if cool, with shadows on the surface of the water. The sled dogs on the island howled intermittently. Then a deep silence fell. That’s when I saw a whale in the bay, its tail slowly flipping up, near an iceberg with a snow cave through its middle. It felt as if I were the only one there to bear witness as the tail hovered there for a moment, and my heart with it, then vanished in a black sea.

U.K.-based tour operator Black Tomato offers Greenland itineraries that include Arctic Nomad’s Kiattua camp, as well as a stay at Ilimanaq Lodge. From $19,350 per person for a nine-night trip; blacktomato.com/us.