Only in Greenland: A beach for skiing and sledding

Sailing across the clear blue sea from the west coast of Greenland, a lush green island surrounded by dazzling white icebergs comes into view.

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Chris Scott (CNN)
DISKO ISLAND, GREENLAND (CNN) — Sailing across the clear blue sea from the west coast of Greenland, a lush green island surrounded by dazzling white icebergs comes into view.

Brick red mountains tower above, while waves crash against the dark black shore of Siorarsuit beach, which translated means "The Great Sands."

It's a beach that's particularly dramatic in the depths of winter, when a covering of snow makes skiing down to the water a real possibility.

And in summer, it's surrounding scenery is something of a national obsession.

Indeed, anyone traveling around Greenland will likely be questioned by locals about whether they've been to the "real" or "true" green land of the country.

The reason they ask is that Greenland's mainland is surprisingly devoid of any actual greenery. While stunningly beautiful in its own right, there are no trees, no plants that grow above shin level and no real grasslands to speak of.

But even though the country got its name around 985 AD when Eric the Red used a somewhat dishonest early marketing campaign to entice his fellow Vikings to settle this newly conquered land, there really is a green Greenland.

To find it involves a boat ride 90 kilometers into the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, due west from Greenland's third-largest town, the west coast port of Illulissat.

Siorarsuit beach can be found on Disko Island, a place that is exactly what those Viking settlers probably thought they were getting -- a land of kaleidoscopic beauty.

Summer beach

"I think this is the actual Greenland," says Rina Møller Lorentzen, a local sports star and musician from the island's biggest settlement, Qeqertarsuaq. "Every summertime is luxuriant here ... the land becomes green and full of life, with many colorful flowers."

The blooms here, says Lorentzen, outnumber those in the entire rest of the country, which is why the island hosts a botany center right on the beach's edge, attracting researchers from around the world.

The black Siorarsuit beach is completely unique to Disko, this is the only black sand beach in the whole country. Unique too are its red flat-top mountains -- known locally as the Grand Canyon.

"The nature, the scenery, everything about Disko, is very unique because unlike the rest of Greenland, Disko used to be volcanic, which is why the mountains exist," says Mark Mølgaard a local tour guide and hunter.

"We have many different landscapes here on this island. We have a black sand beach and basalt rocks and steep cliffs, high waterfalls and warm sources."

Natural wonders can be seen at every turn of the head.

Worth the visit on its own is the gorgeous small town of Qeqertarsuaq, with its colorful houses and welcoming people, which Siorarsuit beach sits next to. There's a modern hotel and restaurant and a supermarket close by. The Blue Café on the way to the beach does fantastic smoothies.

In summer it takes about two hours to sail from the mainland. The boat ride is an adventure on its own and can turn into an amazing wildlife safari.

"We see whales every day, mostly humpback whales and fin whales," Mølgaard says. "We even wake up to the sound of whales blowing. Which is like an alarm.

"The seals are not far away from here either. You just have to sail one kilometer from the coast and you will see them."

"The nature is literally just on our doorstep," Lorentzen agrees. "I've always loved taking a stroll down the beach with my friends, since I was a little girl."

Nature has more than one show for beach-goers on Disko Island. Surrounded by gigantic icebergs, seeing one break apart is always a thrill, even for those who've always lived here.

"As teenagers during a soccer match we sometimes had to stop and stare at the icebergs collapsing," Lorentzen says. "That meant putting the match on hold, just to watch the magnificent sight and be excited."

For tourists seeking a more active vacation, Disko Island delivers. The mountains make for fantastic hikes from the beach with stunning views for those who scale the top. A summit that holds more than one surprise.

"There's a dog team on top [of the mountains] doing sled rides for tourists," says Mølgaard, who is one of the dog-sled guides. "There's a glacier with a lot of snow which means we can offer dog-sledding all year round."

Winter beach

In the winter, Siorarsuit beach is covered by a blanket of snow, transforming the colorful island and the black sands into a landscape of pure white.

It's some of the purest snow on the planet and the mountains make fantastic ski runs. So much so, that there are plans to build a massive ski center on the island in the next few years.

"It could be very popular," says Armand Windisch, managing director of German company Mountain Planning which has been tasked with installing a chair lift and exploring the possibility of building a ski village with hotels.

"The nature is beautiful in summer there, it's fantastic. And for the winter we made a master plan for the ski center."

The center would include slope, cross-country and heli-skiing in addition to the dog sled tours already available.

Helicopters make sense, as they're the only way to get to Disko during winter months when the sea freezes over, making boat trips impossible. Recently though, the sea froze over so much that it was possible to dog sled across the whole 90 kilometers to the mainland.

"In the wintertime the sea usually freezes over, and in that time fishermen and hunters must hunt their prey on the ice or go ice fishing," Lorentzen says. "When the sea freezes there is no evidence that there's ever been a beach with dark sand because all of it is covered with snow."

And while there's no sand, the snow turns Siorarsuit beach into one you can ski on, as well as providing fantastic dogsledding and snowmobile tracks.

The wildlife safaris only get more spectacular too in the winter months.

"We have a lot whales, seals, birds, and I have even seen polar bears, belugas, narwhals, humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, a lot of animals from my house. It's very unique nature compared to the rest of Greenland," Mølgaard says.

Occasionally there's added excitement.

"There were two polar bears inside the town last winter. There was a fog that day in the town and the polar bear just disappeared in the fog inside the town and we didn't know where it was," Mølgaard adds.

"It was scary! And it just disappeared, even the day after we didn't know where it was and in the morning when people went to work they had guns just in case. It's the first time since 1972 we had a polar bear in the town."

Even these rare animal encounters are part of Disko's allure, says Mølgaard. He insists Disko isn't just the real Greenland, it's the country's most spectacular destination -- if not the planet's.

"There's so many reasons for people to go to this island. They should see the most beautiful nature in the world."

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