Know Before You Go: Greenland

Spotting a polar bear, snacking on snow crab, and skiing on untouched slopes all seem like a winter dream. Here's how to make it a reality.

The world’s largest island may be the most overlooked destination in North America. Peeking down at the ice cap during so many transatlantic flights piqued my own curiosity and led to my first visit in late summer. I fell in love with the never ending mountains and gargantuan fjords, the rare purity of sea and sky, and the unfiltered Inuit culture, alive and flourishing in the 21st century.

I returned in deepest winter and found a shimmering world of white, where polar bears roam the horizon and nighttime glows with auroras. Still considered terra incognita by mainstream tourists, Greenland thrills adventure seekers who like laying first tracks in the snow. Here is what you need to know:

Pack: Dress warmly and stay dry, which means bring solid base layers, something woolly, and an outer shell to resist wind and water. Heavy insulated boots are a must, along with gloves, hats, and scarves. In summer, hope for the best but pack for the worst (think cold, wet, and windy), and don’t forget sunglasses and sunblock.

Sleep: Inuit hospitality and Scandinavian customs mean cozy, comfortable hotels. A parade of icebergs flows past the panoramic decks of Hotel Arctic, overlooking Ilulissat’s famous ice fjord (book a private igloo for intimate skylight views of the northern lights). Hotel Sisimiut makes a great base for year-round adventure activities, while Hotel Angmagssalik sets you right at the edge of the eternal ice sheet. For longer stays, check out Greenland’s spotless and affordable youth hostels.

Eat: Fresh seafood and wild game set Greenland’s unique culinary scene. Must-tries are reindeer, musk ox, snow crab, and halibut. Whale meat (and blubber) are still common, along with tender native lamb dressed with arctic herbs. Get a taste for Greenland’s home-baked tradition at a kaffemik, where friends gather in a home for a smorgasbord of cakes and rich coffee.

Explore: Greenland favors supersize outdoor adventures such as dogsledding on ice and multiday kayak trips. Strap on snowshoes, straddle a snowmobile, or hop into a helicopter to gaze at the natural grandeur. Hunting, fishing, and camping trips are popular—organized hikes tend to focus on the southern and western coasts. For even greater isolation, visit the colossal coastline of East Greenland—an ideal spot for expedition cruising and glimpsing polar bears.

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Buy: Greenlandic crafts reflect the beauty of Inuit design and life in the Arctic. Woolen fashion, bone jewelry, and local gold make one-of-a-kind keepsakes. Hand-knit beaded wrist warmers are popular, while carved tupilaq showcase ancient folklore. (Note that reindeer bone is legal for export, but only certain species of whale bone are and they must be accompanied by a CITES certificate.)

Ski: Cross-country or backcountry, Greenland has more snow and terrain than you can ski in a lifetime. Hut-to-hut tours offer a cozy refuge for the casual skier, while more intense adventurers can attempt a full transit across the ice sheet. Heli-skiing drops extreme skiers onto some of the remotest, fairy-tale peaks for that unmistakable rush of flying down virgin slopes.

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