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Northern lights, polar bears and belugas get Churchill, Man., on Time’s greatest places to travel list

Manitoba’s northernmost northern lights are having a moment in the limelight.

This week, Churchill was named as one of Time Magazine’s great places to visit in 2023 for its stunning multi-coloured aurora borealis, lumbering white polar bears, vocal beluga whales and more.

“It’s unexpected, but definitely not surprising,” said Jessica Hassard, corporate communications specialist at Travel Manitoba.

“Churchill is an atypical destination. It’s absolutely off the beaten path and it’s a real opportunity to make an adventure out of your vacation.”

The nod comes after Winnipeg made the cut in 2021. Churchill was one of only two Canadian destinations to make the list this year, said Hassard.

Churchill was added to the list after a writer with Time visited the north as part of a media tour last summer that was co-hosted by Travel Manitoba and Frontiers North Adventures, Hassard said.

Dave Daley, a well-known musher in the dog-sled world with Wapusk Adventures, was surprised to hear Churchill — which he described as a frontier town, only accessible by plane, train or boat — made the list, though he said he’s well aware of why it would appeal to travellers.

“I’ve been here most of my whole life and that’s a pretty amazing place. I’ve always said Churchill is the jewel of Manitoba,” said Daley.

“You should come and visit Churchill because there’s no other place like it on this planet. We have four ecosystems that surround Churchill. We’re SeaWorld in the wild. We have [polar] bears, belugas, birds of prey. We have the aurora,” Daley said.

“This is the best place to see the aurora, and our community is very friendly.”

The Time profile also boasts of how the multi-coloured night sky displays dancing above the Hudson Bay coast are viewable about 300 nights a year, and how 2023 presents a stellar opportunity to see them given solar activity is headed toward an 11-year peak in its cycle.

Perhaps the most popular draw to Churchill is its polar bears, which have long been a major tourist attraction to the northern town, located about 1,000 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

Time’s list makes note of excursion opportunities to see the Arctic apex predators from the safety of Frontiers North Adventures’ tundra buggy, a 40-passenger vehicle with two-metre-high tires that takes tourists into polar bear territory for up close and personal looks.

A polar bear sits in front of the Frontiers North Adventures tundra buggy.
A polar bear sits in front of one of Frontiers North Adventures’ tundra buggies. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

The buggies have an observation deck that juts off the back end.

“Sometimes the bears will come up right up underneath the back deck and sniff at people’s shoes. You can literally hear them breathing,” said Jessica Burtnick, director of marketing and sales at Frontiers North Adventures.

“If you’re really lucky you might even end up with a polar bear that stands up and puts its paws up on the side of the tundra buggy.…That’s really the ultimate in the experience of having that moment.”

Burtnick expects the attention from Time to boost interest in the region, which is beginning to bounce back after several years of pandemic disruptions that upended local tourism.

She said the company’s northern lights season just wrapped and it already has some bookings rolling in for those tours for next winter, which isn’t common so far out of aurora season.

“The tourism sector was hit very badly” during the pandemic, she said. 

“It did get to the stage where we had to cancel an entire season, so bookings were zero and that had never happened.… So to see things rebounding back to 2019 levels is really encouraging.”

Hassard added general tourism is recovering but still not quite yet back to pre-pandemic levels.

Time also plugs another big attraction just off shore: beluga whales. 

Passengers look out over a railing on a big steel catamaran in Hudson Bay.
This Lazy Bear Expeditions catamaran, known as the Matonabee, is new and lets those on board view belugas underneath via a see-through boat bottom. (Lazy Bear Expeditions/Travel Manitoba)

The four-metre long chatter boxes are affectionately known as the canaries of the sea for their high-pitched vocal stylings, and about 50,000 of the cetaceans migrate into Hudson Bay and area rivers each summer. 

Time gave a shout out to Lazy Bear Expeditions for its conservation-based beluga tours in Churchill. The company hopes to launch a new catamaran this summer with a see-through bottom that allows tourists to view belugas and other sealife passing below.

“The opportunity to be among beluga whales as they’re migrating, they’re incredible creatures, very playful, so it would be really interesting to see that up close,” said Hassard.

Beluga whales breach the surface of the ocean off the coast of Hudson Bay.
A Frontiers North Adventures tour group watches belugas breach the surface in Hudson Bay. About 50,000 of the whales migrate into the area each summer. (Zhang Yongpeng/Frontiers North Adventures)

She acknowledges travellers shouldn’t expect a trip to Churchill to be cheap but says the journey is worth it.

“Being added to the Times list of top 50 destinations around the world, that’s an amazing honour,” said Hassard. 

“It’s going to really attract a lot of visitors that were maybe holding off on vacations pre-pandemic that are now looking at their vacation [plans] and going, ‘You know what, I’ve always wanted to do this.'”

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