A Trip to Manitoba ...also known as "Having a Beluga Whale of a Time"
By Kathryn Glover, our Marketing Partnerships Director
This summer I was lucky enough to take a trip to Manitoba – known as “Canada’s Heartbeat” - which included time in the provincial capital Winnipeg, then Churchill aka “The Polar Bear Capital of the World” and finally Riding Mountain National Park. It was a trip of bucket-list activities, surprising highlights and a rolling cast of warm, friendly and humorous characters.
I’ll begin at the top, a good place to start, as we first of all took the two-hour flight from Winnipeg in the very south of the province up to the tiny town of Churchill in the northern reaches. You get a real sense of how remote Churchill is as you fly over miles and miles of empty terrain much of which seems to be made up of small lakes and rivers. The nearest roads end 250 miles south of Churchill, so the only way in is by plane or Via Rail (which takes two days and two nights).
From the tiny airport we were straight into a tour of the surrounds including the Polar Bear Holding Facility – no you don’t get to see these creatures behind bars but there is a fascinating explanation all about this unique facility which effectively helps the bears learn new behaviours to steer clear of the town.
Churchill is Canada’s northern-most port, and is located on the Hudson Bay. I was lucky enough to enjoy superb hot sunny weather on my trip, and it was beautiful trundling around the bay in the tour van with occasional stops walk onto the beach, around the Miss Piggy plane wreck (a cargo plane crashed in the seventies without causalities and is now landscaped into the rocks) and the town.
It was then time to don a wet suit and go kayaking with Beluga whales….and yes you did read that right. Certainly paddling around the Churchill River estuary amongst hundreds of Beluga is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I will admit to being somewhat nervous to begin with. Beluga whales are slightly bigger than dolphins, generally white in colour and very inquisitive. This makes them easy to spot, and you can do so in Churchill throughout the months of July and August from all styles of boat trip but also from the shore – what you think are the white crests of waves in the bay are actually pods of beluga gracefully and constantly rising to the surface. These whales are naturally curious about boats and so came swimming around our kayaks, but in such a gentle, beautiful motion that my nerves soon disappeared and I could enjoy the feeling of being part of their pod.
After a restful night in the Polar Inn (most visitors stay between two and four nights, and the accommodation through the town is simple but comfortable) we had another turn around the town to take in various other attractions including Polar Bear International House – where we learnt more about these massive, fascinating bears, and the Itsanitaq Museum, which is a lovely little place dedicated to Inuit culture. It was then time to board the cutest whale-watching boat with the most entertaining and knowledgeable captain I’ve experienced. And what an experience! The sun shone brightly on the blue blue water, and the white beluga whales swam and dived all around. There was an ethereal beauty to seeing their shapes moving gently beneath the surface. We listened to their chirps and whistles on the hydrophone (underwater microphone) and captured beautiful photos.
Then….as we rounded the cape in our boat, there were two polar bears sunning themselves on the rocks. I was glad to be on the boat and about 50 metres away, but what a treat to see polar bears in their own natural environment.
After all the excitement of the Churchill wildlife (and I didn’t even mention golden eagles and the arctic hare!) it was time to explore Winnipeg. I stayed at the Inn at the Forks which I would thoroughly recommend – The Forks being a riverside attraction with lovely outdoor and indoor spaces filled with boutiques, bars and restaurants. Incidentally, another nice place to stay in the city is Fort Garry Hotel – a stylish historic hotel close to the station. A highlight of my time in Winnipeg was a visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – an architectural wonder of a building filled with through-provoking exhibits. It’s difficult to describe the profound effect this place had on me, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that you’ll want to spend more than just an hour here, there is so much to discover and absorb.
Other highlights of the city include the Winnipeg Art Gallery which contains the Inuit Art Centre and some lovely galleries (plus a popular gift shop), Hargrave Street Market which is a good place for lunch, and finally Assiniboine Park. The Park is home to several attractions including The Leaf. This wasn’t completed when I visited, but it promises to be another striking example of Winnipeg architecture which will house fabulous botanical gardens. The main attraction at the Conservancy is the “Journey to Churchill” exhibit and the Polar Bear Conservation Centre, which was a great way to learn more about polar bears and amazing to see them swimming around from the underwater viewing tunnels.
My final destination in Manitoba was the Riding Mountain National Park, three hours west of Winnipeg. I was looking forward to some more wildlife spotting here but the resident moose and black bears were sadly elusive and we just briefly spotted a little black bear from minibus window as we drove by. However, it was still a great place to visit, with a lovely little resort town (resembling a mini Banff) on the shores of a pretty lake. We enjoyed walks, bike rides and of course some more kayaking. It’s a really beautiful place to enjoy some R & R, with lovely inns, nice restaurants and bars. There was a rumour of the Northern Lights showing during one of the nights…but sadly they weren’t showing to me, so it’s a good reason to return to Manitoba!
Suggested Holiday - Manitoba Big Five Safari