Erik the Red founded the first European settlement on Greenland around 985AD after convincing enough fellow Vikings in Iceland to join him in the ‘green land’ of fertile valleys that he had ‘discovered’ to the west. Qassiarsuk, where the Norsemen began tilling the land and grazing their animals, is still a sheep farming area more than a thousand years later. Hiking in the south, wading through swathes of fireweed that blush the hillsides during summer, you sometimes have to pinch yourself as a reminder that you’re in Greenland. Around the year 1000, Eric the Red’s son, Leif Eriksson, brought the first Christian missionaries to Greenland – the remains of stone churches at sites such as Hvalsey are some of the most poignant reminders of the island’s Viking era.
What led to the disappearance of Greenland’s Vikings halfway through the 15th century is unclear. However, at about the same time that Erik the Red was establishing his chiefdom at Qassiarsuk, the latest wave of Inuit migration was taking place across the frozen strait at Thule in northern Greenland. They brought with them the resilient and inventive culture that, refined over generations, is still very much evident today.
Your first glimpse of modern-day Greenlandic culture is likely to be a cluster of brightly-coloured buildings scattered like Lego blocks along the edge of a fjord. Traditionally, Inuit dwellings were simple huts of driftwood, turf and bone, alternating with tents or igloos depending on the season. It was only in the early 1700s that the Danes introduced a new Scandinavian style of architecture with different colours depicting each building’s function: blue for fish factories, black for police stations, red for commercial houses and yellow for hospitals. Nowadays, any colour goes. The rainbow settlements of Greenland embody old traditions and modern twists – a theme you will find repeated as your ship weaves from one town to the next.
On the west coast, the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk (founded by the missionary Hans Egede in 1728) has boutique shops and fine-dining restaurants, but you only have to visit a local artisan gallery or launch a kayak in Nuuk Fjord to connect with ancient Inuit culture. Further up the west coast at Sisimiut (Greenland’s second largest town with 5,524 inhabitants) you can witness a traditional kayaking demonstration and meet locals who rely on dogsleds as much as snowmobiles.