This is the latest in The Daily Beast’s series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
Waking at 3 a.m., I creep out of my tent into the weird penumbra of an Arctic summer night. Below me lies a deep fjord where icebergs float serenely in water of a steely blue. At the back of the view is a cyclorama of jagged mountains, their dark shoulders cloaked with late snow. Being “in the middle of nowhere” has never seemed more literally true. I stare dumbly, wondering for a moment whether I might be sleepwalking through some hyper-vivid dream.
There are few genuinely new frontiers in modern travel, but Greenland is surely one of them. It hardly seems a decade ago that the coolest, most talked-about new Nordic destination was Iceland. But these days remote and exotic places all too quickly become “been there, done that” ones. In 2023, telling people you’re off to Iceland is unlikely to raise more than mild interest and a quizzical eyebrow. Whereas an upcoming trip to Greenland still gets you a serious “wow.”
For me at least this place has always been a serious “wow.” As a child I remember leafing through a big old-fashioned table-top atlas to find, to my amazement, that Greenland occupied a whole page of the book. Tracing with my finger the string of minuscule settlements around the coasts of the country’s south and west, I struggled to imagine the great white emptiness of its interior. To the west, across the ice floes of Baffin Bay, lay the wastes of northern Canada. To the north, the frozen wilds of the polar lands.
Now that I’m finally here, that childhood fascination has morphed into a state of excitement as intense as any I’ve known in 30 years of global travel. I have come to Greenland as the guest of Jon and Anika Krogh of Nomad Greenland, whose tented camps in remote locations are pushing the envelope for wilderness travel in this part of the world. I’ve arrived by the roundabout route that right now is one of just two possible ways in: a four-hour Air Greenland flight out of Copenhagen followed by a short hop by turbo-prop from Kangerlussuaq to the Greenlandic capital Nuuk. (The other mode of entry is via Reykjavik, Iceland. As yet there is no air link with the American continent despite its relative closeness in geographical terms—though as I’ll discover, this is about to change.)
Anika Krogh, a strong-limbed woman with a mane of black hair who identifies passionately with her Inuit roots, picks me up from the tiny airport and we head into town. With a population of 19,000, Nuuk still looks and feels like a village, though it’s clearly growing fast. Housing blocks are sprouting in the black, tree-less landscapes around the town. The waves of new arrivals include immigrants from Thailand and the Philippines, mineral prospectors and mining engineers, and meteorologists from all over the world, here to examine the fast-changing realities of a place on the frontline of climate upheaval.
Over lunch at a Greenlandic/Spanish tapas restaurant Anika brings me up to speed on local geography and politics. Greenland is vast, wild, and mostly empty: that much I know from my old-fashioned atlas. A country the size of western Europe with a population of just 60,000, Greenland is still a dependent territory of Denmark though in 2009 it was granted a degree of autonomy by its erstwhile colonizers. Despite its name, whose Danish version was dreamed up by 10th-century Viking swashbuckler Erik the Red as a way of luring prospective settlers from Iceland, in fact Greenland is almost entirely white. The great ice cap, three kilometers deep in places, is thought to hold within it the world’s largest volume of fresh H2O. Were it to melt completely, climate scientists are now predicting, sea levels around the globe would rise by a full seven meters.
The old harbor, nucleus of historic Nuuk, is a scattering of pitched-roof houses painted in gaudy colors. A small red building is the town’s fish market, where Anika buys seal steaks and a chunk of whale skin. We visit an ethnographical museum where I begin to understand just how close the roots of Inuit culture lie to the surface of modern Greenlandic life. Anika is still carrying the seal and whale meat in a bag as we peer through the glass at six mummified bodies found in 1975 with their traditional Inuit costumes intact. Anika tells me her grandfather was born in a house with an earth floor and went out in a kayak to hunt for seals. With no firewood available and no electricity, whale blubber was for him and his family the only source of heat and light.
Now we head out of Nuuk harbor in a big RIB powerboat, hugging the barren coastline. Greenland has almost no trees of any kind, but the dark mountains here are stippled with a thin layer of moss, lichen, and patches of pasture grazed by reindeer and snow hares. On this morning in late June the sun is out, piercingly bright in the thin Arctic air, but the temperature barely tops 45°F. Just as well I’m bundled up in a thick protective suit like an astronaut as we speed along. This peculiar garment offers protection not only from the fierce windchill factor in the open-topped launch, but also from hypothermia were I to fall into these icy waters.
“Guests often need a few hours just to acclimatize, to remind themselves exactly where they are,” shouts Anika over the roar of the engine. Scanning the horizon, I see what she means. This is one of the strangest, bleakest, loveliest landscapes I ever found myself in. After an hour of fast sailing we turned into a wide fjord, part of the intricate shoreline of western Greenland. The broad inlet is flanked by walls of rock with skeins of waterfalls coursing down them. Bare gray peaks, striated with snow, tower over crumbling slopes of moraine.
Half an hour later a collection of teepee-style tents, pitched on a slight elevation above a sheltered bay, hovers into view. The Kiattua camp, first of the Kroghs’ two wilderness sites, came into being after Anika’s mom remembered she used to come here with her family on reindeer hunting trips. Travel-industry veterans, the couple had been thinking of opening a small hotel in, of all places, Indonesia. “But then we had a request from a wealthy client to set up a luxury experience in Greenland, and it was a lightbulb moment. Why not do the show right here, we thought, in this beautiful place we are already living in?” says Anika.
The tents stand in a shallow, grassy bowl above a pebble beach. Two waterfalls, nourished by summer ice-melt from the glaciers above, provide a permanent sonic backdrop to life at the camp—not to mention pure running water in unlimited quantities. Behind the beach is a collection of ruined stone huts, almost swallowed by turf and rough grass. I’m told these are the remains of a Viking village, perhaps belonging to one of Erik the Red’s intrepid band of settlers, which has never been excavated.
The location is truly extraordinary, but in terms of high-end camping comforts, too, Kiattua is pretty astonishing. My personal tent, fashioned of tough canvas by cult Finnish makers Tentipi, is anchored with guy ropes to a wooden platform. The stylish, cozy interior has a gas heater, a double bed draped in lambswool throws, and two electric duvets. (When a freezing wind whips along the fjord, buffeting the tent, I’m grateful for both of them). A separate (private) bathing tent houses a power shower and—miracle of miracles—a flushing WC. It goes without saying that the idea of a glamping operation in this deeply challenging context hadn’t occurred to anyone before the Kroghs came along. In fact it says a great deal about the couple’s grit and determination that any of this is even possible in an edge-of-the-world location where phone coverage is shaky, Amazon deliveries take two weeks, and anything beyond the most basic necessities must be shipped in from Europe.
If Greenland has been in the news in recent years it’s mainly as a harbinger of climate change, which is making this one of the planet’s most rapidly warming places. There was also the crazed purchase offer by Donald Trump, who suggested the U.S. might buy the entire country, but we’ll gloss over that one.
In the travel media it’s been hitting the headlines for a very different reason: As a left-field gastronomic destination. When in June 2022 Faroese chef Poul Andrias Ziska opened his restaurant, Koks, at Ilimanaq Lodge outside Ilulissat, the eyes of the culinary world were opened to the possibilities of sea lettuce and seal blood, reindeer tartare, and lovage parfait with pickled pine needles. Within a year of opening Koks had become what was claimed to be the most remote of any Michelin-starred establishment in the world. Ziska’s restaurant is slated to move back to the Faroes at the end of this season. But the genie is out of the bottle, and Greenland food is now definitely a thing.
Which is not to say that, at least in its traditional form, Greenlandic cuisine is likely to bring in the hordes of foodie tourists any time soon. This is what is known as subsistence cooking. Freshly caught fish are boiled in seawater and arrayed on the rocks by the seashore, to be eaten with the hands. The national dish, suasat, is essentially lumps of seal or reindeer meat boiled into a soup/stew with onions, rice and vegetables, while squares of dried whale skin (mattek) are chewed as an energy snack. Another popular dish calls for a whole seal to be stuffed with seabirds, feathers and all, and left outside for two to three months until the meat has softened and fermented. The liver is then eaten raw. Fish and seafood here is abundant and superb, but otherwise Greenlandic cooks face some pretty serious challenges. The Arctic climate makes vegetable cultivation virtually impossible beyond what can be forced in a greenhouse. There is no fruit to speak of except for wild berries. Greenland also has no domesticated animals beyond sled-pulling dogs, so that animal protein tends to come mostly from wild creatures at the exotic end of the spectrum—namely seal, whale, musk ox, reindeer, and ptarmigan (a kind of grouse).
The cuisine on offer at Kiattua shows what’s possible even within this severe regime. In the camp’s intimate dining tent, candles flicker on the tables. At his workstation, Bjorn Moi, a Danish chef whose CV includes stints at the Fat Duck in England and Noma in Copenhagen, is busy prepping dinner. The entrée tonight will be raw Greenland scallops with chopped red onion and a mayonnaise flavored with angelica (Greenland’s signature aromatic, with a strong spicy herbiness like a supercharged celery). There’ll be roast ptarmigan with a blueberry jus and butter-roasted celeriac to follow. But before any of that Moi brings me a very special appetizer, available for one night only: a tournedos of polar bear pan-fried with a splash of Greenlandic gin. Though they are officially an endangered species, a small annual quota exists for locals to hunt the occasional bear. The cut of meat Moi is using has come frozen from a settlement on Greenland’s wild and still largely unvisited east coast. I can report that it has a lean, beefy texture, rather dry, with a gamy funk like long-aged venison.
The coming days at Kiattua provide a full agenda of excursions, hikes, and speedboat trips. Often there’s a culinary dimension to these activities. On a clear blue day Anika and I kayak across the mirror-calm fjord to gather mussels, pulling them from the rock in handfuls along with bunches of the wild angelica growing just above the waterline. Sometimes the Nomad Greenland team make a fire on the shore and cook up the sweet mussels in a mariniére. “Bjorn turns up with cream and white wine,” Anika tells me. After which there might be a gin and tonic served in situ—a sundowner, if indeed the summer sun were ever to set in these northern latitudes—with a swizzle-stick of angelica and a chunk of ice hacked off from the ice floe.
The lakes and rivers of western Greenland teem with fish. On a golden evening I walk up and over from the camp, following the river towards a high lake along paths made by reindeer amid scenery of an Ansel Adams grandeur. Jan, my grizzled but friendly local guide, tells me he likes to fish for Arctic char by reaching into the river’s shallow eddies, tickling the fish under the tummy and grabbing them by the gills before hot-smoking them whole over a fire of driftwood and blackberry leaves.
After four days at Kiattua I make my way by boat and plane to the small town of Ilulissat, 350 miles further up the west coast. Like Nuuk, Ilulissat has the feel of a place on the cusp of a small but significant boom. International travelers have begun arriving in dribs and drabs, drawn by the nearby ‘icefjord’ with its mighty glaciers creeping down towards the sea. English is the lingua franca in the town’s funky little cafés and backpacker hotels, and Goretex, the favored fabric. From here I take another boat north to the settlement of Saqqaq, where Jon Krogh is overseeing the imminent opening of Nomad Greenland’s second camp. A picturesque huddle of colored clapboard houses where the local economy is still based on fishing and seal hunting, Saqqaq will be my base for three more nights.
In its remote setting 200 miles above the Arctic circle on the shores of Uummannaq fjord, this is a community whose roots lie deep in Inuit culture. Danish is secondary here to Greenlandic, a language so baffling and impenetrable it’s as though a cat has been walking over somebody’s computer keyboard. The residents, with their stocky build, glossy black hair, and wide-set eyes, have been known to take to their boats with guns when a beluga whale is spotted in the bay. Packs of fierce dogs, traditionally used to pull sleds across the sea ice, are still kept in caged compounds. During the long bright nights their wolf-like howls echo across the town.
Yet even on these distant shores a whiff of change is in the air. From time to time in the summer months a big cruise ship anchors in Saqqaq harbor, swamping the little town with gawking tourists. Pleasure boats out of Ilulissat ply the coastline hereabouts, heading for the glacier walls where massive chunks of ice are hurled into the sea. (A process known as “calving.”)
Jon Krogh, a blond Viking giant of a man, walks me out of Saqqaq to the new site, which stands above a beach where icebergs crowd the bay like some giant marine sculpture park. For the first time I’m struck by the wonder of these natural objects in their fantastical, often surrealistic forms. I begin to distinguish certain genres: there’s the collapsed wedding cake, the mini Matterhorn, the early-period Rachel Whiteread sculpture. The bigger ones have an architectural grandeur, with towers and turrets and spooky tunnels deep inside them glowing an unearthly blue.
The Saqqaq camp, which opened last July, takes the Kroghs’ brand of well-upholstered adventure tourism into new territory. From here some of the most thrilling landscapes in western Greenland are easily accessible. Landscapes like that of the gloriously-named Disko Island, where Jon takes me on a day-trip to scope out the ghost town of Qullissat, abandoned in 1972 and partly destroyed by a tsunami in November 2000. The wide bay between Disko and the mainland is a place of otherworldly beauty. Humpback whales and narwhals bask in its calm waters. From time to time the crack and boom of a splitting iceberg resounds across the bay. As we come up close in the speedboat another, an even more uncanny sound reaches my ears: pockets of air, trapped inside for millions of years, escaping from the melting ice with a soft, sad sigh.
Greenland has been under the radar for so long it’s hard to imagine it becoming a fixture on the international tourist circuit—but in fact the process is already underway. Starting next year a new runway at Nuuk airport will accommodate standard passenger planes including—get this—a direct flight from New York City. (There’s also talk of Ilulissat, the west-coast town already garnering fame in design circles for the stunning Icefjord Center by avant-garde Danish architect Dorte Mandrup, getting a direct U.S. flight sometime in 2025.)
Whether in terms of climate or connections, what happens next will irrevocably map out the country’s future. No doubt in a few years Greenland will no longer seem distant or exotic and New Yorkers will think nothing of a long weekend watching the glaciers melt in Disko Bay. For the moment, however, this is still a destination—one of the world’s vanishingly few—where simply being there feels like an awfully big adventure.