The Polar Bear Capital of the World
Churchill is a remarkable place to visit. Isolated and desolate, it is also ruggedly beautiful and rich with wildlife and natural spectacles.
Perched on the shores of Hudson Bay on the northern border of Manitoba, the town is not accessible by road, only by air or by train. But Churchill’s remoteness is a large part of its charm and those who make the journey are rewarded above and beyond.
Here, majestic polar bears can be viewed in their natural habitat unlike anywhere else in the world. It's a beluga whale hotspot and a birder's paradise too.
Polar Bear Watching and Tundra Buggies
The main attraction in Churchill is the amazing wildlife and it is one of the best places in the world to see polar bears in the wild.
There are several ways to encounter polar bears: take a tour in a tundra buggy across the frozen flats in early winter and watch them as they congregate on the edge of the bay waiting for the waters to freeze. Or head into Wapusk National Park with a guide in early spring and see watch the mothers and cubs emerge from their dens.
You can stay in a wilderness lodge right in the polar bears’ habitat and observe them up close – protected by fences. Or spend a few nights in a live-aboard tundra coach and come face-to-face with these magnificent creatures as they peer into your windows.
Belugas and Other Wildlife
Seeing the very sociable beluga whales is also a magical experience as they whistle and chirp their trademark calls to each other. The pearly-white whales flock to the warmer waters of the Hudson Bay and the Churchill River after the ice breaks up in the summer months. They can be spotted in a variety of ways - on a zodiac or larger tour boat, from the shores, from a canoe, or even snorkelling.
Polar bears and belugas are not the only wildlife to spot however. Over 250 species of birds pass through during spring and autumn on their migrations and beautiful arctic hares and foxes are other common sights.
Churchill is an excellent spot to watch the mystical Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. Although best viewed when the night skies are darkest from January to March, they can be seen throughout the year. During the winter, watch the show in comfort from a custom-made plexiglass covered Aurora Dome, or in the warmer summer months gather around a campfire and hope for a glimpse.
The town itself is a frontier town with good amenities including a selection of hotels and restaurants, several shops and gift stores. There are polar bears everywhere – from signs and murals to statues and souvenirs, and very occasionally real live wanders through town. It is also home to the Eskimo Museum, which is an interesting little place with a nice collection of stuffed animals and Inuit sculptures including some carved from the artist’s own teeth!
Churchill has several festivals throughout the year, perhaps most popular of which is the Aurora Winter Fest. It takes place in March and is a great celebration of local culture with dog sled races, workshops, snow sculpting events and plenty of live entertainment. On July 1st, the town celebrates Canada Day and the coming of summer with a spectacular event where locals and visitors leap into the icy waters of Hudson Bay dressed in a variety of colourful costumes.
With its vast, open tundra landscapes, its wildlife and its magical light shows, Churchill is a world away from other holiday destinations. Here you will make memories you will never forget, in a place you will take with you forever.
Top tips for visiting Churchill
1. Polar bear watching
• Watching wild polar bears in their natural habitat is one of Churchill’s best attractions and there are many ways to do this, from tundra buggy tours to guided walks. For a unique view of the bears in comfort, stay in a luxury wilderness lodge on Seal River.
• Dog sledding is a popular winter activity and there is nothing like the thrill of coursing through the snow behind the energetic huskies. Visit in the summer and you can still enjoy the same adventure on a wheeled cart through the wildflowers.
3. Ithaca shipwreck
• For a quirky stop-off take a short hike across the flats to the Ithaca shipwreck, which ran aground in the early ‘60s, or visit the downed cargo plane Miss Piggy, which crash-landed in 1979 just outside the airport.
4. Hiking trails
• There are many scenic trails in the Churchill area. Akudlik Marsh, just a short drive south of town, is a lovely place to walk and to spot some of the many birds who nest here every year. Check the rare bird alert board to see who’s in the neighbourhood!
5. Beluga whale watching
• The thousands of beluga whales that swim to the area during the summer months are nicknamed ‘the canaries of the sea’ for their distinctive noises and songs. See these mesmerising creatures from a boat tour or for a more intimate experience, rent a kayak and have the friendly whales nose right up to your paddles.
6. Prince of Wales fort
• For a trip back in time, visit the ruin of the Prince of Wales Fort. Once a grand stone fortress which took forty years to build, it was famously taken by the French in 1782 without a shot fired from its cannons. Take a guided tour to find out more about its history, or soar above it in a helicopter to get a good view of its star-shaped walls.
7. Stamp your passport
• Pop into the post office while you’re in town and they will stamp your passport with their unusual Churchill polar bear stamp.
8. Cape Merry
• Head to Cape Merry for some lovely views across the mouth of the Churchill River and the Hudson Bay. See the last remaining cannon from the original battery and spot the white fins of beluga whales breaking the water.
9. Top cafe
• A popular choice for delicious freshly baked pastries and cakes is Gypsy’s Bakery in town. Offering a full café menu from burgers to cold beer, it’s a great place to warm up.