The Polar Bear Adventure: Part 1

Frozen Churchill

You know things are either off to a brilliant, or ill fated start when you learn that your charter flight which flew at the crack of dawn was the only Churchill bound flight that left the airport. As a bit of an obnoxious optimist, and in light of the minimal turbulence we were experiencing, I tossed it into the brilliant category and stared out my window….daring/hoping the northern lights to come out. Sadly they didn’t, but the early morning quickly gave way to a pleasant twilight and then dawn as we made the 2 hour flight from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba.  The dull roar of the historic but well maintained Nolinor Convair 580 we were on added to the mystique of the whole experience. The plane was comfy, well maintained and safe. It brought back distant memories of flying on another 580 as a young kid in the late 80s – what was likely the first flight I ever took. The roar of the engines were loud and pulsed the throb of adventure into us.  At the same time I also watched with a chuckle as condensation formed in the back of the plane and then froze onto the inside of the wall around the rear exit. The stewardesses frowned at it, scraping some of it off to fiddle with but otherwise were unconcerned.

Frozen Churchill

Churchill

After touching down in Churchill it was a quick wait while our transportation arrived:  An old converted Ford school bus that had braved more than a few cold Churchill winters.  One side was completely slicked in a frozen layer of ice.  Apparently freezing rain had struck the night before effectively re-painting half the vehicle in an icy coat of white. One large piece that had started to slide down the front windshield before freezing in place remained transfixed to the glass.   To say it was cold would be an understatement.  To say it was freezing painfully obvious.

Frozen Churchill

The wind blasted and buffeted us as the windows quickly fogged up.  We’d made it.  We were in Churchill.  The weather was far from ideal, but our guide assured us that the forecast looked promising.  A day and a half of cutting wind and blowing snow and then poof – sunny skies, polar bears, and grand adventures!

Crashed Airplane, Churchill

Before long we’d passed the corpse of an old cargo plane that misjudged the runway and made a dramatic, if safe, crash landing a decade or two before.  Then it was down and along the coast of the Hudson Bay which was, at this point, a churning mass of frozen waves and icy tidal flats.  Another brief pause to learn about the geological nature of the area and then in to town to settle into our rooms.

World Famous Gypsy's Bakery

If you ask people about Churchill, they’ll inevitably mention Gypsy’s.  They may call themselves a bakery, but in truth they’re a great little restaurant that has the feel of a roadside cafe that just happens to be combined with overflowing trays of baked goods.  The menu meanders through a wide mixture of options ranging from steak to soup to pasta.  It’s one of the only places to eat out in Churchill. It’s also one of the central social hubs which means you’ll find yourself sitting next to locals and enjoying a hearty mixture of people.

Eating in Churchill

The setup was simple – go in, order whatever you want, it was all included in the tour price. Given how frustrating a component of many organized tours the eating part can be, from getting stranded in over priced tourist cafes to flashy food that looks good on a plate, tastes like cardboard and leaves you starving, it was nice to see how the company we were with, Frontiers North, handled our meals. While Gypsy’s food may not win them a Michelin star, it was a lot better than I expected.  Especially considering how difficult it was to get things into Churchill and how remote we were.

Churchill Train Station

We spent the majority of the afternoon and the following morning wandering the town. This included stops at the local Eskimo Museum and a walk through a cool exhibit about the history of Hudson Bay and the Churchill region at the local train station.

Eating in Churchill

The rest of our time was spent ice-sailing along the streets as we were blown from shop to shop, desperately trying to avoid falling into a heap and laughing hysterically at the awkward arm swinging, yelps of alarm, and near-disasters that went with it. Dinner was served at the Tundra Inn Restaurant which had a great menu that included things like Bison, Elk, and local fish, cheap wine and local beer.  I really enjoyed the food and once again found myself impressed by the way the whole thing was handled.

Curling Game

One of my favorite accidental discoveries while wandering Churchill occurred in the recreation complex. A sprawling government building built for a city that was expected to grow significantly, but didn’t.  The end result? A beautiful complex that serves as a mini-Churchill within the heart of the city.  Eager to hide from the brutal weather, we ducked into the building and quickly proceeded to stumble on a curling match.  The locals welcomed us warmly into the heated viewing box that overlooks the ice, and we paused enjoying a drink, and fighting the urge to dive into the steaming bowl of Chili they had set up next to the bar.  I’ve watched curling on TV from time to time, and was familiar with the basics, but had never seen it played live.   It’s a surprisingly fun sport to watch though, I’m still unsure on how enticed I am to actually give it a try. Too much work with a broom.

The weather made further exploration of Churchill difficult.  The town is an interesting place with a rich history that dates back to and played a major role in the formation and exploration of Canada.  With a year-round population of about 900 and a tourist season population that likely doubles that, it’s a city forced to wear a wide assortment of hats. There was more to it than I expected, but it’s still a small working town at heart.

Churchill Train Station

Logistics, Cost and Pricing

There are two ways to get into Churchill.  You can fly, which takes between two to two and a half hours or you can take the train which will take about 44 hours and has a reputation for experiencing delays.  The flights range in cost between $800-$1,600.  As I write this post, searching for a flight during polar bear season 2013 is $1,289 USD.  A similar glance at the Via Rail page (do your own search) returns a ticket price of $369 CAD for an economy class ticket.  It’s important to book your flight well in advance if planning the trip on your own as tour groups tend to reserve large blocks during peak season.  Or, of course, you can do what I did and join a tour. I was blown away by the quality, service, and general experience provided by Frontiers North/Tundra Buggy, so definitely keep them in mind as an option.

Accommodation within Churchill also fills up quickly and needs to be reserved well in advance.  The rates that I’ve heard quoted for independent travelers were about $250 a night for a standard room during high season.  That being said, TripAdvisor returned several results for $150 in January, so it may be possible to find cheaper rooms if you book far enough in advance.

Dog sled tours – The group that we did it with was Wapusk Adventures.  I was really impressed by the way they treated their dogs, and how knowledgeable their team was.   They offer dog sledding in October and November and the cost is $90 per person.  They also offer bird watching tours between May and September.

Polar Bear Safaris – There are two dominant companies servicing the Wapusk National Park which is along the Hudson Bay.  These are Tundra Buggy/Frontiers North who I did my trip with and Great White Bear.  The price is typically about $400 a day per person, which may sound like a lot but is comparable to similar Safari’s I’ve done in Africa which for context can range from $350-850 USD a day.  This is assuming that you’re trying to structure the tour on your own and not doing one of their packages.  It’s also important to keep in mind that if you do day trips, you have a 1.5 hour commute to get out to where the polar bears like to relax.  Thus about 3 hours of your day are spent in transit (which doesn’t mean you won’t see things, but it’s less likely).  These trips also can have up to 40 people on them (in one vehicle) while many of the packaged tours have caps at 20.

I was REALLY impressed by Tundra Buggy/Frontiers North.  Our guide was fantastic and really put in an incredible effort.  As a blogger and photographer the fact that both he and our driver were excellent photographers was also a huge asset.  They knew what made a good shot, how to read the bears and to work with the light/snow.  They offered advice on how to best photograph the bears and took several shots of their own during the trip.  I was also able to stay at the Tundra Buggy Lodge which made a major difference in the experiences we had, and what we saw.  The bears were most active early and late in the evening and a lot of our bear watching occurred within 1/4 mile of the mobile lodge.   The Tundra Buggy lodge is located deep inside Wapusk National Park and right in the heart of the area all of the day-tours use for their safari circuit.  Great White Bear maintains their own lodge, but it’s about 45 minutes to an hour’s Tundra Buggy Crawl closer to the edge of the park.  While I imagine both companies are excellent and will provide a great experience, the fact that National Geographic and Polar Bears International have repeatedly used Tundra Buggy/Frontiers North really says a lot about the quality of the service they offer.

Also, keep in mind that there are other more expensive custom lodges in the area that offer top-end polar bear viewing opportunities.  Similarly, Churchill has more to offer than just dog sledding and polar bear tours.  You can visit Churchill to view the northern lights, beluga whales, and to go birding.  Frontiers North has an assortment of different options worth exploring.

I’d like to remind you all that I visited Churchill as a guest of Frontiers North and the Canadian Tourism Commission through a trip I won. As such, I was not responsible for my own booking, and did not deal with the majority of the logistics or cost process.  The information I’ve included in this post is based on after-the-fact research, and conversations I had while on the trip.  It is provided as a general guideline, but you’ll need to do your own research to find out the latest in availability, pricing, and options.

THIS IS PART I – STAY TUNED FOR PART II (Dog Sledding) AND PART III (The Polar Bear Safari).

Frequent Flyer Credit Card Whoes

The Fjords, Norway

**UPDATE** – While still frustrated by the experience I had, I recently decided to give FF programs another go.  While I have continued to face frustrations with the process, booking and usage of my points, there is value there for those willing to play the game.  It is important, however, that you be prepared to play that game and do your research.

A few years ago I signed up for an Alaska Airlines Frequent Flyer Credit Card.  It seemed like a great idea.  After all, I fly internationally 2+ times a year, love travel, and put most of my expenses on my credit card. They were offering a 20,000 mile signing bonus which was solid at the time and a few additional perks including a large partner network. Unless something drastic changes I’ll never sign up for another frequent flyer card again.

It’s now 3 years later and I still have those 20,000 points. As well as another 18,000 or so I picked up before I stopped using the card out of frustration and transferred over to a Capital One cash back card. Each year as my December trip approaches I sit down and try and use my miles.  Each year I end up wasting 30-40 minutes on the phone before hanging up disgusted.

Let me tell you a bit about this year’s adventure.  I’m pretty flexible about where I want to visit.  My main criteria is time based.  My window this year starts on December 15th and ends on January 4th.  That means that I’m willing to depart December 15th-17th and return January 1st-4th.  In the grand scheme of things, that’s a far more flexible schedule than most people have. Also, I’m not overly picky about where I end up going.  A good deal in the general region I want to explore is usually good enough for me.

With nearly 2 months to go before my date of departure I called the Alaska Airlines Frequent Flyer Concierge service and got a very friendly associate. I gave her my dates and gave her a few countries – not cities, but entire countries – I was interested in while specifying I didn’t mind which city I ended up in.

We searched Peru without any luck.  Then Bolivia, Ecuador and Columbia. From there it was on to Argentina and Chile before adding Panama, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles.  You would think, given that she was searching all partner airlines with flights from Phoenix that at least ONE flight to at least ONE of these countries would have been available.  No such luck.

Annoyed but not overly surprised I groaned at the ridiculousness of it – after all – I’d essentially searched 2/3s of an entire continent and been unable to find so much as a single flight that would work.

So, I expanded my search to Asia. After all, there had to be at least some availability to somewhere. The search continued; Thailand?  Nope. Cambodia, Malaysia or the Philippines?  Nope.  Vietnam?  Another nope.

So…Asia was out. In a final act of desperation I figured I’d check two off-beat destinations in Europe I wouldn’t mind visiting – Greece and Turkey.  Want to guess the results of the queries?  You got it – nope, and nope!

So, I gave up.  She was apologetic and suggested I try to make my reservations further in advance in the future or considering upgrading to a business class ticket.  Apparently ~2 months isn’t enough lead time.  I’m sympathetic to the fact that December 14th-January 10th is a peak travel period…but seriously, with 2 months lead time, semi-flexible travel dates, searches across 3 continents and in 18 countries you can’t find me a SINGLE flight? That’s straight pigswill.

Oh, did I mention that for the privilege of being a Miles Rewards customer I get to pay a $75/year fee?   I’m sure there are a few people out there making these programs work for them, but if you’re an average consumer and you’re using a mileage plan, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re essentially being robbed.  Hell, did you know that the vast majority of “travel” cards still charge the exact same transaction fees as a normal credit card?

My advice for non-business travelers?  Tell em’ to go to hell, switch banks and pick up a Capital One cash back card that doesn’t have an annual fee, puts actual $ back in your account, and which doesn’t charge 3% on every purchase you make while abroad.  In the long run those are perks you’ll actually be able to use and which will leave you with real, tangible benefits no matter when you choose to travel.

Next Adventure Booked: Central and Eastern Europe

Prague at Sunset

Hello readers!  I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve just booked my next adventure!  Where to this time?  Well, I’m not EXACTLY sure where just yet.  What I can share is that most of my airfare is booked and the trip is starting to take form.

I’ve booked a ticket from Phoenix to Dublin on Friday June 25th.  Once in Dublin, I’ll be arriving early in the morning on Saturday – which should give me time to find my way back to one of my favorite hostels in the Isles: Kinlay Hostel.

My stay in Dublin will be brief.  By Monday the 28th I plan to be on a budget flight to Central Europe.  There is a strong probability that I’ll be flying into Budapest, Hungary.  From there I’ll be making a large loop (The loop may include Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland and the Czech Republic, Germany) before flying out of Nuremberg, Germany on July 13th.

For those curious, I’ve added the Dublin portion as a way to cut costs.  Airfare this summer is ridiculously high during the late June->August period. Fortunately, it should give me a quick opportunity to re-visit the Cliffs of Moher which I love. Unfortunately, I’ll also be flying US Airways to cut costs (can we PLEASE get more airlines to open hubs in Phoenix?). To say that I’m not thrilled about that fact is a gross understatement.  Their track record thus far has been miserable, but the price was right – and I guess at this point I know what I’m getting myself into..

I’ve visited Prague and Dublin previously, the rest of the cities and most of the countries will be new.  I can’t wait to explore the Czech countryside in greater depth and am really looking forward to getting back into Bavaria (Munich on previous trips).  I’ve heard nothing but praise about Budapest and am very curious to see what incredible cultural, physical, culinary and natural beauty the region has to offer.

Have must see/stay places along the route?  Post them in a comment! I’d love to hear your tips and suggestions!

Two New Must Visit Websites for Travelers

Wings_In_Trinity

Hello friends! It is my pleasure to officially announce the launch of two of my latest projects.  Many of you are no doubt aware that I currently run the UPL: http://ultimatepackinglist.com.  A website I created to serve as a sort of quick crash course/101 list for travelers.  The goal for the site was to create an easy to access, one page reference list that put all the core information an amateur/moderately experienced traveler would need in one spot. So far the site has filled the niche between quick 10 point travel tip blog posts, and more comprehensive resource sites/advice beautifully – receiving wonderful feedback and steady traffic.

Rob_Roy_Boot_Overlook_Scotland

The Travel Resource List

Today, I’m happy to announce that I’m at it again.  Sticking with the same theme (simple is better, less is more) I’m thrilled to share the Travel Resource List (TRL):  http://travelresourcelist.com with you. I’ve created a two page website.  The main and primary page is exactly what the domain suggests – A filtered list of the TOP Travel Resource websites sorted by category.  From Airfare to mobile travel apps, my goal is to generate a top level resource that highlights the tools and websites experienced travelers use and shares those resources/websites with the travel community as a whole.  The sites linked on TRL are only linked to based on their value.  Additionally, unlike a lot of general travel lists which indiscriminately share links – the links provided are all hand picked and reviewed for value/quality.   I’ll also be updating the list regularly, so please don’t hesitate to share your favorite resource with me if you feel that it belongs on the list and is missing.

The second page on TRL is dedicated to a comprehensive travel blog list.  There are a LOT of Travel blog lists out there. Most are either very limited in scope, poorly maintained, or buried deep within larger sites.  One of the other problems that plague travel blogs is their lack of longevity – it’s not uncommon for travelers to start a Travel Blog before their trip, add it to a bunch of lists, update it during the trip, and then abandon it.  In an effort to weed these types of dead blogs out, I’ve done something a bit unusual.  In order for a blog to be listed on the TRL, I require at least 5 months in existing blog archives.  The list is brand new and growing – if you meet the criteria, please don’t hesitate to submit your site.

Cliffs_Orkney_Isles_Scotland_Edge

The Travel Resource Network

As I continue to add stand alone travel resource sites – I i realized I needed a way to keep them connected and to help readers find their way from site to site (after all, if you find one useful – you’ll no doubt love the others!). Though far less exciting than the Travel Resource List, I’ve launched the Travel Resource Network (TRN): http://travelresourcenetwork.com to serve as an overall parent website for my various projects.  As part of the launch VirtualWayfarer, Ultimate Packing List, and Travel Resource List have all been rolled up under the Travel Resource Network umbrella.   The TRN portal will remain as is – a simple, straight forward landing page for those utilizing the member sites.  To be clear, I will NOT be changing the structure of the individual sites or rolling them in to a network page.  My goal is simplicity and my site’s target niche is the gray space between light blog post and comprehensive network site.

I look forward to your feedback and continued contributions, as I strive to provide quality resources that help improve travel knowledge and people’s overall travel experience.  Have a favorite site or blog I missed? Please don’t hesitate to post it here for consideration.  Love the sites and like the idea?  Make sure to book mark them, I’d also be in your debt for a stumble and/or tweet.

The roads will open up for you! Travel safe!