'When you've seen the world there's always Greenland' goes the old travellers' saying. But why wait till then? Greenland is not a cheap destination, but few places combine such magnificent scenery, such clarity of light and such raw power of nature.
Vast swaths of beautiful, unfenced wilderness give adventurers unique freedom to wander at will, whether on foot, by ski or by dogsled. With virtually no roads, transportation is expensive, but splurging on helicopter and boat rides is worth every penny. These whisk you over truly magnificent mountainscapes and glaciers or through some of the planet's most spectacular fjords. Greenland also offers world-beating but charmingly uncommercialised opportunities for sea kayaking, rock climbing and salmon fishing.
The world's biggest non-continental island has the world's sparsest population. Nonetheless, scattered mainly along Greenland's west coast are dozens of photogenic little villages of colourfully painted wooden cottages, plus a few small towns as well as the capital, Nuuk Town (Godthåb). In the south there's an appealing sprinkling of emerald-lawned sheep farms.
Culturally, the unique blend of Inuit and Danish blood has produced a Greenlandic society all of its own. This sometimes discordant mix of ancient and modern combines hunting and dogsledding with Carlsberg and kaffemiks. Sensitive visitors with a passionate but unaggressive interest in local ideas will find a fascinatingly rich culture beneath the thick facade of Greenlandic taciturnity.
With an ever-improving network of tourist offices, hotels and hostels, Greenland is no longer the sole reserve of plutocratic cruise-ship passengers. However you travel, it's wise to schedule a wide safety margin for unpredictable weather. Leave ample time in each destination to unwind, soak up the midnight sun, witness a glacier calving or to be dazzled by the magic of the aurora borealis.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Greenland.
The greatest tourist attraction in all of Greenland is the astonishing Ilulissat Kangerlua (Ilulissat Icefjord), a berg-packed bay fed by the 5km (3mi) wide and 1100m (3608ft) thick glacier Sermeq Kujalleq. The glacier flows an average of 25m (82ft) daily and is the world's most prolific outside Antarctica.
Astonishingly grand spires of granite soar straight out of Greenland's southernmost fjords like the teeth of an interplanetary crocodile. Climbers rate the rock faces of peaks like Uiluit Qaaqa (Ketil), Ulamertorsuaq (Uli) and The Baroness as among the world's finest challenges.
A circle of five historic stone-and-timber buildings around a turf-ringed former wellhouse constitute Paamiut Museum. The 1839 former governor's residence contains the main museum exhibition hall and tourist office. The old trading post has bubble-tar doors, a cooperage and a geological collection upstairs. Downstairs the whaling exhibits include a very rare sealskin diving suit, a reproduction of an original sold in 1913 and now in St Petersburg. Other buildings such as the 1878 goat house have no exhibits, but the Carpenters' House still has the little bell that would ring to announce work availability. The former post office is used by Alcoholics Anonymous.
The spacious, well-presented Greenland National Museum is based in an extended 1936 warehouse. Its better exhibits include an interesting section on 1950s social change and a geological room emphasising that the world's oldest rocks (3.8 billion years old) come from the Nuuk region. However, the unmissable climax is the mummy room. Here a trio of mummified 15th-century women and a very spooky six-month-old child stare blindly out from their dimly lit display cases. Their fur clothes and kammiks (traditional boots) are intricately sewn and embroidered, but their cause of death remains uncertain. Found at Qilakitsoq near Uummannaq, they made the cover of National Geographic and are an eerily unforgettable sight.
On weekend afternoons it's well worth visiting the Tele-Museum. It traces Greenland's role in the development of transatlantic communications and has such mechanical curiosities as 1900 telephone switching table which, although already archaic in Denmark, was sent for use in Nuuk in the 1950s. Most interesting are the timelines, which put regional history in context decade by decade. Hosted in the 1925 building of a former radio station, the museum has splendid views across town from its minuscule café room. For Dkr10 per person (minimum of eight people) you can arrange a private viewing - ask at Qaqortoq Museum.
Greenlandic landscapes are on view at the Emanuel A Petersen Art Museum, where most of the works are by the eponymous Danish artist. Petersen (1894-1948) was a prolific painter, and during his career he made several trips to Greenland to paint its extraordinary landscape and light. Through numerous exhibitions around Europe and his illustrations in Greenland in Pictures, published in 1928, he introduced the magic of the Arctic to the rest of Europe. When he died he left an extraordinary collection of paintings of early-20th-century Greenland, 66 of which are exhibited here.
Qaqortoq Museum is housed in a tar-blackened 1804 building that was once the Julianehåb colony manager's house. Today its most unique features are right up on the top floor. Beautifully restored, with churchlike décor and curious 1930s swing-out sink stands, these were once the town's guestrooms. The red room was explorer Knud Rasmussen's base when he was preparing his later expeditions. The blue room hosted famous American aviator Charles Lindbergh when he was scouting sites for a Pan Am stopover airport.
The University Library was established in 1747 as the New Herrnhut Mission (House of Moravian Brethren), originally set up by a trio of missionaries who arrived soon after Hans Egede. It's a most attractive red wooden building topped with bell-shaped campanile and set behind a forest of white, wooden grave posts. In the grass leading down towards a peaceful pebble beach are several ruins of old turf houses. The sea views are very pleasant.
The cute 1859 cottage housing Lyberth Charter was the former Fortanderkabshuset (elders' council chamber). Red with green stairs, it retains the bronze 'colony bell' that once announced the start of work each morning. The copper ship's lantern is a more recent addition, like the fake saloon doors. The present shop sells hunting and fishing equipment, offers boat charters, and displays a poster from the owner's days as a Danish guitar hero.