Greenland is fast warming up as a tourist hot-spot. Glimpses of its eastern, European coastline have long been included in Arctic cruises focusing on Iceland or Svalbard. But it’s Greenland’s vibrant west coast that’s springing to life now. Allow photographer Chris Bray to show you his highlights, especially the amazing Ilulissat.
When my wife and I first explored Greenland’s west coast aboard our tiny wooden sailboat five years ago, winding our way between whales, towering icebergs and multicolored villages, we knew we’d found something special.
Last year, Lonely Planet listed Greenland as a Top 10 Travel Destination and it appeared in 2016’s International Traveller’s 100 Secret Gems You Need to Know About.
Now easily accessed via regular flights from Iceland and Denmark, far from just being an arctic add-on, west Greenland is fast becoming a holiday destination in its own right, appealing to the young adventure market right through to the more discerning retiree. The region is bathed in 24-hour sunlight above the Arctic Circle during northern summer months.
Without a doubt the highlight of our sail up the west coast was Ilulissat in Disko Bay, about 650 kilometres north of the capital Nuuk. Even before its picturesque mosaic of colourful houses slid into view from behind another glistening wall of ice, we could hear a chorus of sled dogs barking in welcome.
Literally meaning ‘Iceberg’ in Greenlandic, the waterfront township is nestled right beside the enormous Jakobshavn Glacier, annually emptying some 35 billion tonnes of icebergs into the UNESCO world heritage-listed Ilulissat Icefjord, making it one of the world’s most prolific glaciers. It’s believed that the iceberg that sank the Titanic would likely have originated from this very spot.
The traditional practice of whaling is happily converting over to the more eco-friendly activity of whale-watching, and a growing population of humpbacks reliably cruise around the ever-shifting assortment of icebergs drifting past town.
With the ‘golden hour’ of photography stretching on all night, a midnight-sun cruise around the whales and these exquisitely sculpted ‘bergs is an experience like none other. Some form beautiful arches, others collapse or roll over, some even have waterfalls of meltwater cascading out from their cliff-like sides.
Ilulissat’s not all just about ice and whales, however: well-maintained hiking trails of varying lengths meander across the surrounding treeless hills where you can spot wildlife such as the arctic fox and arctic hare. If you’re lucky, you might even see muskox (thick-coated ox) roam the tundra.
There are fascinating museums, shops, and, separated by countless dog team hangouts, there’s everything from backpacker accommodation to high-end hotels.
A couple of luxury eco-lodges have started to spring up too, offering an even more exclusive escape: a scenic ferry trip to the north leads to the remote Eqi Lodge, commanding a breathtaking view over the active, calving face of Eqi glacier.
To the south, a new set of architecturally designed, glass-fronted chalets are being built along the coastline of a tiny, traditional Greenlandic village.
After Ilulissat we continued sailing further up along the Greenlandic coast before heading across the top of Canada and Alaska through the infamous Northwest Passage. Of the whole multi-year adventure, we enjoyed our time on Greenland’s west coast the most.
When not sailing, we run small-group photography tours around the world, and keen to share Greenland’s magic with our guests, last year we put together a two-week tour combining both Iceland and west Greenland. While Iceland is certainly on everyone’s radar and drew a lot of people to the tour, it was wonderful to hear most guests saying it was west Greenland that turned out to be the real highlight!
So if you’re visiting Iceland next year, I highly recommend taking the short flight across to spend some time in west Greenland too.
MORE… Chris runs a two-week Iceland and Greenland photography tour in July: see ChrisBrayPhotography.com
The award-winning photographer grew up sailing around the world, eventually leading Arctic expeditions. He’s also founder of charity Conservation United, an author and appears on Discovery Channel.