On this expedition, I spent time in two countries on two different continents: Iceland and Greenland. The voyage of going to Iceland didn’t seem like that big of a deal. In fact, most of my friends had already seen the country. Greenland, though, seemed like a different planet entirely and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I knew Iceland had waterfalls, glaciers, beaches, and infamous scenery. All I really knew about Greenland was that it was in the Arctic and that there was a possibility of seeing Narwhals, so of course I was on board.
As a tiny country whose tourism industry is booming, Iceland is quickly turning the country into somewhat of a theme park for visitors. Many small towns near natural wonders have been taken over by huge hotels and a sea of tourists. There are few spots (which our amazing guide managed to find) that are empty and yours alone to explore. Every pit stop for food catered to what they think travelers like to eat often with small menus consisting of burgers, ham sandwiches, and pizza.
After exploring Iceland, I concluded that while the country is beautiful, there are far too many tourists there for my taste. Even with the significant reduction of tourists visiting in the wintertime, there were still clumps of people in every spot I visited. Our guide wouldn’t even let us go to the Blue Lagoon, because he said there would be hundreds of people in it. Personally, in traveling, I like to feel immersed in another culture instead of being swallowed in a sea of people. When we left Iceland, I hoped to find this remote feeling in Greenland, and I was not disappointed.
The towns throughout Greenland were tiny, simple villages with locals, a church, and a few restaurants. We were able to hike UNESCO world heritage trails with no one else present. We went on iceberg boat rides where we were the only tour group in the entire sea. We met locals and ate at fantastic restaurants that didn’t cater to mass amounts of tourists, like I found in Iceland. For those of you who are still wary about visiting this foreign Arctic country, I’ve compiled a list of reasons of why I think Greenland is the new Iceland.
Rich, Present Culture
For starters, the local Greenlandic people still practice and have preserved a lot of their Inuit culture. There were many store owners who talked to me about their history and traditions. For example, when exploring handmade jewelry in a local village, the store owner explained to me that each animal had special meaning in their culture. Whales, for example, represented calmness, whereas a polar bear represented strength. Learning these key cultural details made this experience all the more meaningful.
When we rode a helicopter over the area, we could still see fisherman taking their sled dogs out onto the ice where they drill holes and line catch their fresh halibut. Everyone was kind and receptive to tourists, unlike locals I’ve met in destinations overrun by tourism. The overall feel was that, while Greenland has become modernized, the people are proud of their rich culture and they want to share it with the world.
In Iceland, we found that in most places, it was difficult to find local restaurants and little nooks for traditional food. In circumnavigating the entire country, we ate at a lot of different restaurants. Some were very beautiful and local, but most places that were accessible on the road catered to tourists. There would be lines out the door at gas station stops that served fried, greasy “Americanized” food.
When we got to Greenland, there were local shop owners and chefs preparing incredible dishes from fresh fish, like halibut, cod, and Greenlandic scallops. For more adventurous eaters, they even served reindeer, musk ox, and whale at many of the local restaurants. We often were the only people not speaking Greenlandic in these spots, making them feel intimate and authentic. My personal favorites of Greenland were:
- Thai Porn in Nuuk (a Thai restaurant that mixes Thai with local favorites),
- Kangaluik Café in Ilulissat (a small sandwich shop owned by a local girl with delicious sandwiches and desserts)
- Maramut Resturunat in Ilulissat (a 5-star restaurant where I got halibut with a curry sauce, spinach pie, and roasted tomatoes).
Wildlife & Wilderness
Greenland is surprisingly filled with wildlife! Orcas, humpbacks, narwhals, seals, reindeer, musk ox, polar bears, and many other animals roam throughout this land. It’s more likely to see these animals in the summertime, but just knowing that the seas I sailed were filled with these creatures was pretty amazing. In Greenland, you constantly feel like you’re surrounded by wilderness. The vastness alone gives you a meditative feeling and allows the depth of the country to really sink in. And while we didn’t officially see any Narwhals, we captured this photo of a wild creature in the snow.
This reason may be obvious, but let me expand on it a bit more. Less people not only means that you have the country and natural wonders to yourself, but it also means that there is always last-minute availability. We booked a snowmobiling experience the day before and, because of the company’s flexibility, they turned our two-hour tour into a four-hour tour that took us to the UNESCO world heritage site where we got to roam a frozen arctic ocean by ourselves. We also had a leisurely picnic of cookies and tea in the middle of icebergs in a frozen ocean. When you’re competing with people left and right for spots to see a popular destination, that availability and flexibility are pretty rare. The low number of tourists in Greenland resulted in a high amount of intimate experiences with the local culture.
While, Iceland is an incredible country, it seems that it’s lost the isolation and remoteness that was initially a part of the country’s charm. Greenland is still preserved in this way. It’s open and vast, ready for you to find peace and quiet among the ice. Though I’m glad I had the opportunity to visit both, Iceland felt like a destination that I could cross off my list while Greenland felt like a place I could never get enough of.