Travel Guide North America Canada Manitoba Churchill

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Introduction

Churchill is a town in northern Manitoba, Canada on the west shore of Hudson Bay, roughly 110 kilometres from the Manitoba/Nunavut border. It is most famous for the many polar bears that move toward the shore from inland in the autumn, leading to the nickname "Polar Bear Capital of the World" that has helped its growing tourism industry. Churchill is located along the Hudson Bay at the 58th parallel north far above where most Canadian populated areas are located. Churchill is located far from any other towns or cities, with Thompson, approximately 400 kilometres to the south, being the closest larger settlement. Manitoba's provincial capital, Winnipeg, is approximately 1,000 kilometres south of Churchill.

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Sights and Activities

Aurora Borealis

Like all northern communities in Canada, Churchill can sometimes see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) when there is a high amount of solar activity. Visibility also depends on the sky being dark enough to see them, which usually precludes their visibility in the summer due to twilight all night long.

Polar bears

Starting in the 1980s, the town developed a sizable tourism industry focused on the migration habits of the polar bear. Tourists can safely view polar bears from specially modified buses known as tundra buggies. Use of the buggies helps sustain local tourism, but can also cause damage to the local ecosystem when driven outside the established trails. October and early November are the most feasible times to see polar bears, thousands of which wait on the vast peninsula until the water freezes on Hudson Bay so that they can return to hunt their primary food source, ringed seals. There are also opportunities to see polar bears in the non-winter months, with tours via boat visiting the coastal areas where polar bears can be found both on land and swimming in the sea.

Beluga whales

Thousands of beluga whales, which move into the warmer waters of the Churchill River estuary during July and August to calf, are a major summer attraction. Polar bears are present as well, but can only be seen via helicopter tours at this time of year.

Cape Merry

An old cannon battery was set up in 1747 to protect the Hudson Bay Company's business on the Churchill River, rather stupidly, as the cannons there could be captured by an enemy and used to fire upon Prince of Wales Fort across the river. Nonetheless, it is a great scenic spot to look out on the bay and river and fort, with a genuine tundra ecosystem. The battery has been reconstructed with original stones found on location, with a single cannon left as a reminder of the site's history. Keep an eye out in bear season, as polar bears frequent the area when heading out onto the sea ice. It's not safe to walk from town, because of the bears, so take a taxi, get someone to give you a ride, or rent a car.

Eskimo Museum

One of Canada's oldest collections of Inuit artefacts (opened in 1944 by Catholic missionaries and still operated by the Diocese of Churchill-Baie d'Hudson), this museum has well detailed exhibits of all sorts of weird and interesting Inuit archaeological finds and sculptures. You will want well over an hour for the exhibits, and then some for the gift shop. Suggested donation $2.

Dog Sledding

Dog sledding is a good activity, and fairly inexpensive. But it needs a caveat: you will spend very little time actually on a sled, and dog sledding involves little more than standing or sitting down and letting the dogs do the work. The true art of dog sledding is principally breeding and taking care of the dogs and secondarily logistics for trips. Also, during high season, expect to spend a lot of the time waiting around for your turn, as only two people can ride at a time! So why do the dog sledding activity at all? The biggest reason is just to learn about the practice of dog sledding, which is pretty fascinating. Your host will take you around to meet the dogs (playing with the dogs is the other big reason to do this), and give you all sorts of background on the history and current practice of dog sledding, including all the competitions in the area. Dog sledding can be done even without snow. They will simply use a wheeled sled. As with the buggies, there are two operations in town, run by the two co-founders of the Hudson Bay Quest, a 330-km race from Gillam to Churchill every March (it used to go up along the west coast of the Hudson Bay to Arviat, Nunavut, but the boreal forest makes for a less whiteout sort of run than the flat, snow-covered tundra).

Other Sights and Activities

  • Goose Creek Observation Tower (South of the city following the right turn off the main road). It's only really worthwhile to come down this way if you rent a car, but it is a nice spot for a picnic in the summer. The observation tower looks out over Goose Creek towards the Churchill River, and is a good spot for birdwatching (it's also popular with aurora watchers).
  • Inukshuk (At the bottom of Bernier St on the Hudson Bay shore). Inukshuk roughly translates to "representing a person" in Inuktitut, and is a predominant symbol of the Canadian North, in the form of a humanlike stone-cairn. While there are a few inukshuit in the area, this one is by far the most popular for its striking location on the shore of Hudson Bay, and is especially popular for aurora photography. edit
  • Miss Piggy (Bay shore road east of town). Filled with Coca-Cola and a snowmobile, this cargo plane crashed in 1979 (the crew survived), and has now become a tourist attraction. The odd name came from the rotund shape of the plane and the curious rumour that it did once transport a cargo of pigs. You will need a car to get you here. You're not really supposed to, but you can even go inside!
  • MV Ithaca (Northeast of the road leading to the abandoned radio station building with the "big golf balls" on top). Another wreck, this time a big 260-ft steamship that ran aground in this tidal flat in 1960 with 3000 tons of ore in its hold (the crew all survived this wreck too). Locals took advantage of the ore bounty, stripping the ship down! It is possible to hike out to the wreck in the summer in low tide, but seek local advice first to make sure you will be safe. You get a great view from the helicopter.
  • Prince of Wales Fort, ☎ +1 204 675-8863, e-mail: mannorth.nhs@pc.gc.ca. July–August, tours by request. Built by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1717, Prince of Wales Fort, lying across the Churchill River from town, is the most northerly stone fort in Canadian history, and is in good shape structurally following a couple of restoration efforts in the 20th Century. The restoration continues today, and if you time your visit right, you can watch stone masons working on the structure using traditional eighteenth century methods. It was a complete flop of a fort, though, falling to the French in 1782 without so much as a defensive shot being fired, its small non-military force surrendering immediately to the vastly superior French force. It is only open to visitors in the late summer months (Beluga whale season), and is accessible by boat or helicopter. Admission fee changes annually, and the Parks Canada's website admits not to knowing what it is.
  • Wapusk National Park (South of Cape Churchill on Hudson Bay), ☎ +1 204-675-8863. This huge national park is difficult to visit, owing to its remoteness, and the fact that it houses a polar bear colony! (Wapusk means white bear in Cree.) Other animals include the usual suspects in this area: foxes white and red, arctic hare, snowy owls, and a few grizzlies that have been moving into the southern reaches as the temperature warms. The visitor center is in Churchill's train station. There are only three reasonable ways to get out here: a helicopter tour through Hudson Bay Helicopters, or a tour through Frontiers North or Wat'chee Expeditions.
  • York Factory (At the mouth of the Hayes River on Hudson Bay, south of Wapusk National Park), ☎ +1 204-675-8863. mid-July–30 Aug. Possibly the most important historic site in Northern Canada is this extraordinarily remote, decommissioned factory/office building, which was the headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company. As its central base of operations, this white building was for over 100 years essentially the capital of Rupert's Land, which comprised the majority of present-day Canada! The initial settlement established in 1670 was at the mouth of the Nelson River just west, and moved to the present and extant site in 1684. Up until 1957 York Factory remained a northern trading post. Getting out there is not a simple affair, but can be done from Churchill as a day trip through Hudson Bay Helicopters (see below), for a rather steep price.

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Weather

Churchil has a short but fairly warm summer, averaging around 18 °C, although it can be over 30 °C sometimes, and frost as night is even possible in high summer. Winters are long and cold, between -20 °C and -35 °C between December and February. Temperatures close to -50 °C have been record and above zero just rarely happens. Winters are dry with some snowfall when it is not too cold. Most of the precipitation falls in summer but still not very mucht, around 50 mm a month.

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Getting There

By Plane

There are two airlines that fly into Churchill: Calm Air and First Air. They jointly operate a twice daily Winnipeg-Churchill-Rankin Inlet flight (not necessarily in that order, you may have to connect through Rankin Inlet). Even though they are selling the sames seats, their prices and baggage allowances may differ substantially, so it's good to compare. Expect flights to be around $1,300-2,000 round trip per person, unless there is a sale.

Calm Air also offers seasonal flights from Thompson a few times a week.

If you are connecting through Winnipeg to get to or from Churchill, allow plenty of time between flights. As you will have to leave the secure area, collect your baggage (if you have any), check in at the airline desk and go through security. As the tiny Churchill Airport has no security screening, passengers arriving in Winnipeg exit straight into baggage claim.

The airport is about a ten-minute taxi ride from town. Most hotels will pick you up if you ask ahead of time. Some package tours use chartered flights from Winnipeg, in which case the tour company takes care of all the logistics.

By Train

Taking the train to Churchill is much more affordable than flying, but takes much longer. Via Rail serves Churchill with its Hudson Bay line that begins in Winnipeg. From Winnipeg the train takes about 38-48 hours. You have the option of staying in one of several different sleeper cars, or riding in economy class (depending on how much you want to pay) and trying to find two empty seats to cram yourself into for a miserable night's sleep. Economy supersaver (non-refundable) round-trip tickets run around $310-370, while sleeper cars (which showers, couches, and actual sleep) cost $1200-1300. Sales for economy class, which can bring the fare down further are published on Via Rail's website every Tuesday (Eastern time, look for the large "Discount Tuesday" banner on the home page), sales on sleeper tickets are available in a special section of the website at all times expect during a general sale and can bring the price down to $500 return.

You cannot drink your own liquor on the train, nor can you smoke. The fines are astronomical! The train will be stopping often, though, and you can hop off at the stops for a cigarette break. The big break is in Thompson, where you'll have two-five hours to get off, shop at Walmart and Safeway, and get a meal. There's even a little sightseeing to be had there, if you are creative.

A good tip for you train boozers - if you order liquor and a mixer, the mixer is free, so if you bring some of your own mixers... free cokes! The little bottles of wine are decent too. During bear and beluga seasons there is a chef on the train preparing decent, if slightly pricey (free for those in sleeper) fresh meals. Outside of peak season the microwave meals served range from acceptable to disgusting. Most people on board plan ahead and bring food. Cheese, sausage, cracker, fruit, etc. platters are great. A dome car for passengers in sleeper class is usually attached during bear, beluga, and northern lights seasons.

By Car

There is no road to Churchill; however, you can drive to Thompson and pay to park your car there (try the Days Inn lot), and continue by train or airplane. The road to Thompson is lonely and subject to closure if a snowstorm hits, though.

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Getting Around

It's quite easy to walk within the city limits on your own. It takes about 10 minutes to walk from one end of town to the other. It's also possible to rent a car in Churchill, and there are several taxi drivers who tend to hang out around the airport and train station.

Car rental isn't at all popular with tourists, even the ones who aren't on package tours, but taking out an SUV is actually a great idea. If you think there's a good chance of seeing the aurora on a given night, rent a vehicle and drive it out of town at night! You'll be away from the lights of the town, and you'll have a mobile heating device/bear escape pod to keep you safe. If you have a day's worth of downtime from your various activities, you can just drive around the passable roads and go bird-watching, find the downed plane, head down through the woods to the observation tower, up to Cape Merry, or create your own wildlife photo tour. Expect the rental to run around $100 and the gas refill before returning to run around... $100 more.

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Eat

Most hotels will have something to eat, but the main restaurants in town are the three below. Expect high prices, but perhaps surprisingly, the food here is delicious.

  • Gypsy's Bakery, 253 Kelsey Blvd, ☎ +1 204-675-2322. 6:00am-9:00pm daily. Any local will affirm that 25-year-old Gypsy's is a must. More than a bakery (which makes heavenly apple fritters), Gypsy's makes great fried chicken, Mediterranean dinner specialties (it's owned by a Portuguese family), and traditional breakfast. Watch the prices, though, as some dishes can surprise you with an extremely high price tag! No alcohol. Boxed lunches available for picnics/buggy tours. $12-45.
  • The Reef, 299 Kelsey Blvd (Inside the Seaport Hotel), ☎ +1 204-675-8807. M-Sa 7:00am-10:00pm, Su 8:00am-10:00pm. The Seaport Hotel's restaurant has arguably the best traditional breakfast in town, and quite good lunch and dinner. It's pretty quiet, and does tend to attract more tourists than locals, but don't let that discourage you—this is a solid option with really nice servers and a full bar. $15-35.
  • Tundra Inn Pub, ☎ +1 204-675-8831. Jun-Sep: Tu-Sa 4:00pm-midnight; Oct-Nov 6:00am-midnight daily. Breakfast is available only in bear season, and it's a pretty simple buffet (i.e., the other two restaurants have better breakfast). But dinner here is excellent, with some local oddities rolled into a menu of hearty carb-hugs, much needed at the end of a cold day. As the Tundra Lounge is next door, they have good beer and cocktails. No lunch. $20-40.

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Drink

Not long on bars, Churchill really only has two, aside from the Legion: the Tundra Lounge and the Pier Beverage Room at the Seaport Hotel. The Tundra Lounge is a safe bet for a good outing any night of the week.

  • Liquor Mart, 203 Laverendrye Ave (Bayport Plaza), ☎ +1 204-675-2317. Jan-Jun: Tu-Sa 11:00am-6:00pm; Jul-Sep M-Sa 11:00am-6:00pm; Oct-Dec M-Sa 11:00am-6:00pm, Su noon-6:00pm. The liquor selection is actually pretty good here. The wine and beer a bit less so, but those are easy to get in the restaurants.
  • Royal Canadian Legion Branch #227, 23 Hudson Sq, ☎ +1 204-675-2272. Legion members only, but a good place to meet locals.
  • Tundra Inn Pub & Lounge, 23 Franklin St, ☎ +1 204-675-8831. Jun-Sep: Tu-Sa 4:00pm-midnight; Oct-Nov 6:00am-midnight daily. There's really only one show in town as far as bars go, and it's actually a really great spot. There is frequent live music (usually every Friday) that often gets people dancing, a pool table, and a good mix of tourists and locals. Of the beers available, the Manitoba craft brews from Fort Garry are quite good.

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Sleep

Don't expect luxury in Churchill when it comes to lodgings. Everything is going to be basic, but warm and adequate, and with very helpful owners (really, everyone in this friendly town will happily go out of their way for you). The focus of any trip will be on what's outside! Rates are generally priced for two levels: a high price for bear season (Oct-Nov) and a low price for the rest of the year.

In Town

  • Aurora Inn, 24 Bernier St, ☎ +1 204-675-2071, toll-free: +1-888-840-1344, e-mail: aurorain@mts.net. The set-up here is pretty cool—it's a converted apartment building, so the rooms, which are all cozy two-storeys, feel a bit more like condo rentals. $150-255.

Bear Country Inn, 126 Kelsey Blvd, ☎ +1 204-675-8299, e-mail: bearcinn@mts.net. The rooms are quite simple (no phones?), but the owners are friendly, and the hotel has the advantage of a decent-sized free continental breakfast that doesn't get put away until late in the day. Used by Great Canadian Travel Company.

  • Blue Sky Bed & Sled, 100 Button St, ☎ +1 204-675-2001, e-mail: jgaazure@mts.net. On the residential side of town, this B&B is run by a dog sled team owner, who naturally will take guests out for rides. It's also a nice spot for aurora viewing, as it backs out into the sub-Arctic wild, with an unobstructed view towards Hudson Bay... and any polar bears walking towards town! $100 Jan–June, $118 beluga season, $220 bear season.
  • Churchill Motel, 209 Kelsey Blvd, ☎ +1 204-675-8853, e-mail: motelch@mymts.net. The old Churchill Motel is a little worn, but still a perfectly acceptable option, and tends to have availability in bear season, if you are having trouble finding something. The proprietor Dave, is much loved by the guests. Good breakfast at the restaurant, and a very central location.
  • Iceberg Inn, 184 Kelsey Blvd, ☎ +1 204-675-2228, e-mail: djhunter@tms.net. A small, cozy, and rather basic hotel, with free hot coffee, tea and hot chocolate kept going all day long in the lobby. Good value and central location. $95, variable in bear season.
  • Lazy Bear Lodge, 313 Kelsey Blvd, ☎ +1 204-663-9377, e-mail: lazybearlodge@mts.net. A rare southern location in town on the main road. The cosy hotel is all made from logs, and has one of the best restaurants in town—and probably the only one that will cook you up some muskox—albeit without a liquor license. As they operate their own tundra vehicles, this is a popular option for people who want to have their hotel take care of tour arrangements for them. Indeed, it's not clear whether it's even possible to book a room here without signing up for their tour.
  • Polar Bear B&B, 26 Hearne St, ☎ +1 204-675-2819. This B&B has really good rates during bear season for independent travellers looking to cut down on the huge Churchill expenses. It's a small place, but well-kept, with three rooms and two shared bathrooms. The one free breakfast at Gypsy's included in the price is a nice plus. The good rates and small size mean you'll have to book far in advance. May–September: $90, Oct-Nov $120.
  • Polar Inn, 153 Kelsey Blvd, ☎ +1 204-675-8878, toll-free: +1-877-765-2733, e-mail: polarinn@mts.net. A motel with standard rooms and apartment-style suites, with an enviable location across the street from the grocery store, next to all the gift shops (they actually have one of their own), and a couple doors down from the pub. Free continental breakfast includes hot waffles.
  • Seaport Hotel, 299 Kelsey Blvd, ☎ +1 204-675-8804, toll-free: +1-877-558-4555, e-mail: seaport1@mts.net. The Seaport has a good location in the centre of town, close to pretty much everything, and has arguably the best breakfast in town in their restaurant. Great staff.
  • Tundra Inn, 34 Franklin St, ☎ +1 204-675-8831, toll-free: +1-800-265-8563, e-mail: info@tundrainn.com. This hotel has larger rooms than most in town, and has a shared kitchen, and free use of the clothes washer & dryer! The owners also operate the aurora domes outside of town, and will take you out there in the "aurora season" if they spot activity. They also run the Tundra Inn Pub across the street, which is the place to be at night, and has an early morning breakfast buffet during bear season (this does mean that there is no lunch by the hotel, though). The only real downside is the smell on the first floor, which is awful in the hall, but doesn't permeate the rooms too much (hopefully they'll take care of this at some point). $135-235.
  • Tundra House, 51 Franklin St, ☎ +1 204-675-8831, toll-free: +1-800-265-8563, e-mail: hostel@tundrainn.com. A cosy 6-bedroom property featuring a variety of bunk bed accommodations and private rooms. The property has shared kitchen and bathrooms, free Wi-Fi, cable TV, laundry, and linens. Open December–October. $32-80.

Out of Town

  • Churchill Northern Studies Center, ☎ +1 204-675-2307, e-mail: cnsc@churchillscience.ca. It's possible to stay at the research station out in the tundra as part of a learning vacation, and have some truly expert specialist guides, with expertise regarding the ecosystems of the boreal forest, the pre-tundra, and sea ice. You need to book this very far in advance, as space is limited and there are regular repeat visitors who snag much of it up. As with the Tundra Buggy Lodge below, expect to lose a good deal of your independence, but it's a trade off for the learning-vacation with access to experts, and for the general experience of staying out in the wild north of the tree line. While the polar bear experience is the most popular, the late winter programs are intriguing: aurora/astronomy and a winter experience program where you learn to survive in the Arctic—igloo building, dog-sledding, etc. Stays are for five days, except the seven day polar bear experience. There are learning vacations focusing on the Northern Lights in February and March. The 5-day long seminars include workshops on the science, cultural history and techniques for photographing the Northern Lights. Most vacations run a little over $1,000, but the polar bear season experience is $2,900.
  • Tundra Buggy Lodge, ☎ +1 204-949-2050. The main point of coming to Churchill during bear season is to see the bears, and this is the most immersive experience. (The Tundra Lodge is only operational in October and November.) Sleeping in the lodge, which has two sleeper cars, a dining car, lounge car, and various other utility cars, as well as two outdoor decks. You can watch the bears wake up with you and go to sleep with you, see the northern lights without leaving your bedroom and without any external light interference, etc. The downside, of course, is that you lose a fair amount of independence, but if your main goal is to spend as much time as possible with the bears, this is the way to go. The Lodge is booked almost always as part of an all-inclusive package, which would include your transport to Churchill from Winnipeg as well as food. Stays are for 2–8 nights, and the price per person runs $3,800–11,350 (with plenty of options in between).

Wat'chee Lodge. If you really want to get away from civilization and deep into the wild of the Canadian north, aboriginal-run Wat'chee Lodge is the best option. 55 km south of Churchill in the boreal forest just west of the Wapusk National Park boundary, you are staying in a refurbished navy communications base, just outside the world's largest polar bear denning habitat. Guides have permits to enter the park and can take you within 100 m to the bears. The denning areas in the wilderness are the best places to photograph mother polar bears with cubs. This is a bit of a professional wildlife photographer retreat, in fact, for other animals as well (in addition to some great aurora watching potential), such as foxes, wolves, ptarmigan, caribou herds, etc. The polar bear ecotourism experience is only in the denning season (Feb-March) which is also a great time for aurora viewing. Wat'chee does not have publicly available contact information, and you must submit inquiries through the form on their website.

View our map of accommodation in Churchill or use the form below to search for availability (Travellerspoint receives a commission for bookings made through the form)

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Keep Connected

Internet

Internet usage is wide-spread in Canada. Wi-fi is available in many locations in larger cities, sometimes free and sometimes at a cost. You will find Wi-Fi in coffee stores, some restaurants and also hotels and motels more and more offer this service for free, but with a code usually. Internet cafes are common along major streets, and and in larger cities, charge between $3 and $4 for an hour, usually in 20-minute increments.

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

The country calling code to Canada is: 1. To make an international call from Canada, the code is: 011. Emergency services can be reached by dialling 911. This number will give you free access to Police, Fire and Ambulance services and can be used from landlines, phone booths and cell phones.

The populous areas of Canada along the border with the USA have excellent cellular and wired telecommunications, meaning that travellers are never fair from an international phone call home, a WIFI connection or an internet cafe. Depending on the mobile phone provider, coverage could be either CDMA and GSM coverage. Travellers wishing to purchase SIM cards for GSM phones should look for Rogers Wireless, Telus Mobility and Bell Mobility, which all offer nationwide availability.

Post

Postal service is provided by Canada Post, a crown corporation owned by the government but run as an independent business. Most post offices keep hours from 9:00am to 5:00pm though in bigger places longer hourse might be available.

To format the envelope of a letter sent within Canada, put the destination address on the centre of its envelope, with a stamp, postal indicia, meter label, or frank mark on the top-right corner of the envelope to acknowledge payment of postage. A return address, although it is not required, can be put on the top-left corner of the envelope in smaller type than the destination address.

The lettermail service allows the mailing of a letter. The basic rate is currently set at $0.63 for one standard letter (30 grams or less). The rates for lettermail are based or weight and size and determine whether the article falls into the aforementioned standard format, or in the oversize one. The rate is the same for a postcard. Mail sent internationally is known as letterpost. It can only contain paper documents. The rate for a standard letter is of $1.10 if sent to the United States, and $1.85 if sent to any other destination. Oversize or overweight letters may be charged a higher fee. Larger parcels can be shipped via Canada post both domestically and internationally, the rate is dependent on the weight and destination. [1]

Federal Express, TNT, UPS or DHL also provide interntional shipping from Canada and are usually very quick and reliable though might cost a little more compared to Canada Post.

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Accommodation in Churchill

We have a comprehensive list of accommodation in Churchill searchable right here on Travellerspoint. You can use our map to quickly compare budget, mid-range or top of the range accommodation in Churchill and areas nearby.

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This is version 16. Last edited at 9:25 on Feb 19, 19 by Utrecht. 5 articles link to this page.

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