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Canada 150: Churchill Polar Bears and Winter Fun in Manitoba

SmarterTravel

This year our national neighbors to the north celebrate their 150th anniversary and we’ll be celebrating with them as they do. Each month we’ll focus on one part of their magnificent country and share it with you. From sky-high trees and brown bears in British Columbia to kitchen parties and codfish-kissing in the Maritimes, our toast to Canada will give you well over 150 reasons to make this the year you take the trip. This month, we’re kicking things off in Manitoba, home of the Churchill polar bears and northern lights, plus fun winter festivals in Winnipeg. 

Canada 150: Manitoba

When it comes to Canadian provinces, Manitoba rarely gets its fair amount of time in the spotlight. That’s unfortunate, because this prairie province between Ontario and Saskatchewan offers up a fantastic mix of culture, scenic outings, and wildlife interactions. Two national parks and 90 provincial parks, more than 110,000 lakes, a coast that hugs the historic Hudson Bay (and marks the spot where the oldest company in the world began as a fur trade outpost), and foundational ties to French Canada are only a few of the reasons that a trip to Manitoba has all the makings of a getaway to remember.

Winnipeg, the province’s capital, and Churchill, which sits on the Hudson Bay coast are travel favorites. Whether you’re an adventurous spirit on your own or a family out to explore new terrain, the cities offer plenty to keep you busy.

Winter Fun in Winnipeg

In Winnipeg, start at The Forks National Historic Site, where it’s not uncommon to come upon a First Nations pow wow or a busker festival on the site’s 54 acres; then head to Assiniboine Park for year-round activities at its gardens, children’s play areas, and zoo. Stay at the iconic Fort Garry or a boutique hotel, like Inn at the Forks. Take in the relatively new microbrewery scene or explore neighboring Ste. Boniface with its connections to founding father and Metis leader, Louis Riel.

Churchill Polar Bears … Plus So Much More

Subarctic Churchill offers the completely opposite adventure. Here you’ll find a small local population, year-round sled dog outings, the northern lights, ambling polar bears, beluga whales, and a fort to explore. Bonus: Make sure to get your passport stamped with the official polar bear stamp at the local post office.

Want to do both? Because there are no roads into Churchill, you have two options: Cross the province by train (you’ll spend two nights onboard) or book a flight out of Winnipeg (less than a two-hour flight).

Why January Is the Perfect Time to Go to Manitoba

Manitoba weather is not for the faint of heart in January. Temperatures can dip to -25 degrees Fahrenheit, but that cold weather brings many rewards for the hardy. The top of that list: the northern lights. Those paint-like streaks of purple and green that dance across the dark skies in the wee hours of the morning show up about 300 days a year, but are brightest in January. Outfitters will scout for the lights and wake travelers to see them. Much like being on safari there’s never a guarantee of a sighting, but a January trip ups your odds.

Closer to Winnipeg, January is perfect for a skate along the Red River Mutual trail. The annual Warming Huts competition challenges international artists, architects, and students to build spaces for public use along the four-mile-long skating route.

Why It’s Great Other Times of Year

The Wildlife: To see why Churchill, Manitoba is the polar bear capital of the world, time a visit for October or November when the 1,300-pound curiosities fill the shores. Dig deeper through a program at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre or head out to meet a few with a local outfitter. The other mighty creature sharing the waters? Beluga whales. Kayak and snorkel with them in July and August, when numbers climb by the thousands in the Western Hudson Bay.

The Festival: Stay into February to celebrate Manitoba’s French and First Nation’s history at  Festival du Voyageurs–Western Canada’s largest winter festival.

The Colors: In spring and summer, fields of gold and green run far and wide; autumn brings a sea of auburn and crimson with the changing leaves, and winter offers the pristine white snow. No matter your choice you’ll find gorgeous backdrops for your photos.

If You Go, Don’t Miss …

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Canada’s newest national museum is the only museum in the world dedicated solely to human rights awareness and education. Exhibitions are constantly changing to reflect news and events around the world.

Riding Mountain National Park: Riding Mountain National Park sits on 3,000 square kilometers of the Manitoba escarpment. In the winter months snowshoeing, ice fishing, skiing, skating, and fat biking are all on offer. It’s also the time to spot bison, moose, fox, lynx, and elk.

Unique experiences you won’t want to miss include building your own quinzee (like an igloo but made of snow) and watching the sunset from inside. Admission to the park is free throughout 2017 as part of the anniversary celebrations.

Tip: Time your visit for February 10 to 12 to catch the Canada150 kickoff event featuring boot hockey, a winter Olympics, and s’mores in the snow.

Heather Greenwood Davis is a lifestyle journalist and a National Geographic Travel columnist. Follow her on Twitter @greenwooddavis or keep up with her family’s adventures on GlobeTrottingMama.com.

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