The Greenlandic Riviera

“Where did you get so tan?” they ask, and I tell them: “Greenland.”

“But how?” they exclaim, laughing in sheer disbelief, because let’s face it: the nameless friends we invent for the sake of trite opening dialogue are inherently dumb. Mostly, their minds are muddled with storybook imagery like scary snowstorms and Eskimo cliché, a random mix of Alaska, Siberia, and the opening sequence in Empire Strikes Back. They still think Greenland is like, cold.

This is my chance to correct them. Besides my sheepskin rug, my enviable neck tanline is my best souvenir from a blissful week on the sunny Greenlandic Riviera. What, you don’t know it–the Greenlandic Riviera? What rock do you live under? What travel magazines are you not reading? The Greenlandic Riviera is exploding right now-it’s already this whole thing and the real estate war is right around the corner.

Alright, I totally made that up. If you Google “Greenlandic Riviera” you get zilch–until now. See, that’s the magic of the internet–once you say it, it becomes real. Greenlandic Riviera, Greenlandic Riviera, Greenlandic Riviera. If you build it, they will come.

The real Riviera was (and still is) in Liguria, the region that spans the northwest coast of Italy. Despite its 700-year old status as an iconic vacation spot, the original Riviera can be a little disappointing. For one, the coastline is all rocky and the towns comprised of overpriced boutiques selling pink sweater vests for men. There is nary a beach to stand on, and the ones that are any good are ultra-private. But no matter–history, tradition, and Hollywood have made “Riviera” mean everything we long for in a chic travel destination: escapism, romance, sunshine and sea.

Today, there are other countless Rivieras to choose from: on our planet today, actual people will non-jokingly refer to the English, Mexican, Russian, Chinese, African, and Australian Rivieras (also, French). Did you know that there’s even a self-proclaimed Redneck Riviera along the American Gulf Coast where instead of seashells, earnest Alabama children collect shiny black tarballs to take home for “show-and-tell”?

Greenland’s beaches come sans tarballs, (although the country’s drive for oil exploration could change this, wink, wink). In fact, Greenland has the cleanest beaches I have ever seen: a mile-wide half-moon stretch of vanilla sand bordering clear turquoise shallows that are so clear, you can follow the gently waving seaweed below. There are no cigarette butts and no blowing trash. Also, there are no people, which is the recipe for a perfect beach. And who knows what you’ll find as you stroll along the shore? A reindeer skull, a salmon-colored piece of wave-polished granite or a jumble of blue, microwave-sized ice chunks. What the real Riviera offers in fashion, culture, and high-life, Greenland makes up for with its elegant arctic beaches.
Perhaps you’ve never considered a beach vacation in the Arctic, but when you know the facts, the concept is compelling:

  1. Greenland is at the top of the world, which means extra long summer days-and for at least a few weeks in June and July, endless summer days. In fact, Greenland’s national day is June 21st, the summer solstice, and the amazing arctic light is something to experience for yourself.
  2. It’s not THAT cold. The southern reaches of the Greenlandic Riviera are on the same latitude as Stockholm or Helsinki. In September, it was still remarkably sunny with temperatures in the mid-50s.
  3. It’s getting warmer. Climate change is Greenland’s consistent headline-an attention-grabbing story that’s a little tiresome. In Narsarsuaq, a town that’s destined to become the airport hub of the Greenlandic Riviera, my taxi driver wiped her brow and exclaimed, “You can really feel the climate change today, can’t you?” I couldn’t, but even if I could, the climate change schtick is a total downer and most Greenlanders enjoy the nicer weather. It’s nice to be able to swim in the sea, finally.
  4. All the ice is melting, too-you can now buy that melted glacier by the bottle and enjoy the delicious cool, clear taste of pre-historic snowstorms in the comfort of your own cup.

After some consideration, one realizes that we are on the verge of a new and grand beach destination trend. Renting a villa in Tuscany with friends is the women’s magazine dream of the late 90s. The 21st century’s male equivalent is renting a villa in Greenland for two weeks of full-on nature and total testosterone outdoor adventure. You will have the world entirely to yourself and can spend your days scaling rock walls, hiking empty green valleys and fishing for Arctic char that you take back to your villa and grill outdoors.

In order for the dream to take root, we’ll need at least a half-dozen middle-aged men to escape poor life decisions and corporate humdrum by running off to the Greenlandic Riviera, where thanks to a wily sled dog, a cheerful blue house, or a fix-it upper fishing boat, they each rediscover their spiritual centers and pen subsequent memoirs that compete with each other on the New York Times bestseller list.

To hasten the process, I am thoughtfully including this small guide to the Greenlandic Riviera, with the knowledge (and intention) that my text will like be cribbed, copied and pasted into countless future guides for generations to come, including the omniscient Lonely Planet:

“Place of the polar bear” might just be the cutest village on earth. “Picturesque” comes close to describing this delightful panorama of bright civilization clinging to the rocky edge of a final, modern-day ice-age. Angled wooden houses painted red, white, yellow, blue, and green dot the round, granite boulders next to the mirrored and rippled harbor. On weekends, gleeful children play soccer on the wharf, and after school, these same brave children go swimming in water that’s about 38 ° F (admittedly, most wear wetsuits). The town’s flag proudly bears three polar bears and everyone’s got a good polar bear story to share at the local bar, where glowing Christmas lights blaze all year round. The “museum” consists of a dozen historic and well-preserved buildings, with lots of photogenic architecture and exhibits on life in Greenland for the past several hundred years. Oh, and what’s that out in the harbor? The yachts of adventurous richies who are plum tired of the real Riviera. What’s that? You didn’t know that the yachties love Greenland? Oh, but they do: Nanortalik is like the St. Tropez of Greenland (and actually, I’m not kidding.)

With 3,500 inhabitants, the larger and much more prominent Qaqortoq is technically the Cannes (or “Qaan”) of southern Greenland with all of its glitz and glory and beautiful seacoast and lovely sea breezes and fussy culture. Not only does the town’s name sound like the exclamation of a lounge singer in a choke hold-the town itself is a cultural epicenter populated with the studios of several talented artists and outdoor sculpture that decorates rock walls and grocery store parking lots. Qaqortoq also boasts the only Thai-Greenlandic fusion restaurant in the world (e.g. leg of lamb roasted in coconut milk and red chili), as well as a remarkably trendy hotel, the Hotel Qaqortoq. Just last winter, a bundled-up Paris Hilton was spotted strolling along the waterfront (ok, that’s a lie. It was probably just an emaciated Polar Bear looking for food), but whatever–there’ll be a Qaqortoq film festival there before you know it.

The town has a population of 1,500 and even with the rising number of curious cruise ships, only gets about 5,000 visitors a year. Narsaq also represents the “Real Greenland”-one of the few villages where you can actually see the massive inland ice from your doorstep. The Royal Greenland fishing plant adds a healthy dose of authenticity, as do the early Viking ruins overlooking a glistening bay of drift ice. Narsaq is also home to Greenland’s school of culinary arts, where you can sample serve national dishes like king crab and smoked halibut.

I’ve mentioned this village before, and frankly, I’m afraid of it being discovered, so I shouldn’t even mention it, but since we’re such good friends, I’ll let the secret out. This quaint Greenlandic settlement (population 67) feels like the world’s first neighborhood-a rare and civilized tribe protected from the rest of the world by a most magnificent fjord and the shadow of Ulamertorsuaq, a mountain whose name rolls quite nicely off the tongue, n’est-ce pas?

This uninhabited island is famous for it’s wonderful hot springs (as seen on TV), but should really be famous for the stunning scenery of grey, fairy-tale mountains and vast expanses of fragrant wildflowers. Once you’re soaking in the pool, you’ll never want to leave. Unutoq is all the loveliness of the Riviera but without any of the traffic or people. Just you and planet earth.

Anyway, there it is–ta da!: The Greenlandic Riviera. Spread the word, tweet it, chat about it at dinner parties, mention it to your pals in the sauna and dedicate Sunday’s Travel section to its merits. In short, pass it on. The more you say it, the realer it becomes. Greenlandic Riviera.

(All photos by Andrew Evans)

The author traveled as a guest of the nation of Greenland but the Greenlandic government and it’s corporate affiliates had nothing to do with conceptualizing the Greenlandic Riviera. That’s all original and the author will be charging them royalties once it takes off.