An Outdoor Adventure in Yellowknife

(Photo by Jill Mross)

It’s been a while since I’d taken a trip outside of my comfort zone. Perhaps that’s why the chance to see the northern lights in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in mid-March (think temps of -10° F for a high – pretty frigid for a Florida girl like me!) appealed to my sense of adventure. Also into play was a birthday present for my husband, who was celebrating a milestone year and the worthwhile support of the Ensemble Travel Group – Make-A-Wish live auction and raffle that raised more than $350,000 at last year’s conference in Dallas. Clearly it was a winning holiday all around, and one that’s well suited for your clients who seek the road less traveled. Here’s a first-hand look at my recent experience:

The trip was sponsored by Northwest Territories Tourism and Touch the Arctic Tours, the latter being Ensemble’s On Location partner for this Canadian adventure destination. Air sponsors Delta provided the domestic air travel and Canadian North Airlines flew us from Edmonton to Yellowknife. From Orlando we overnighted at the Renaissance Edmonton Airport, and I’m so glad we did. I don’t think you can get any more convenient than this AAA Four-Diamond hotel that’s directly connected to the airport on the arrivals level, just steps away from the ticket counters and security. In addition, the property’s attention to detail in both décor and dining was greatly appreciated as well.

The Yellowknife Airport (YZF) is a small, efficient operation located less than a 10-minute drive from our hotel and the city center. (Good to know: There is no jetway, so your clients should be dressed accordingly in the winter months when deplaning. While it was a short walk for us, I was caught off guard and quickly got a taste of what was ahead, temperature-wise.)

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Our hotel for the next four nights was at The Explorer, a comfortable three-star property currently undergoing an expansion that will add a new 72-room wing, plus an upgrade to existing guestrooms and other areas. Construction should be completed by late fall, although the current building activity did not disrupt our stay at all. High marks go to the hotel and restaurant staff for their eagerness to please and their pride in their community.

I mention pride because it was a thread woven throughout our entire stay in Yellowknife. It’s why our local city tour with Mike and aboriginal tour with Guy and his son Rainer, members of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, lasted more than three hours, far beyond the original itinerary as they all shared tales of local lore. It’s why Greg, our ice fishing host (and yes, I did reel in a 4 pound pike!), a former big-city accountant turned adventure guide, has called Yellowknife home for 45 years. And it’s what Ensemble member Susan Mercredi, owner of Top of the World Travel and Touch the Arctic Tours, shared when we chatted with her, learning about how this community works together – and not just the great tourism folks – to make visitors feel welcome.

And what about the aurora viewing during our stay? Wasn’t that the main reason for our visit? Well, to call the Northern Lights experience “incredible,” “breath-taking,” and just plain “wow” would not do them justice. Our package included two nights of viewing – one at Aurora Village with about 200 other guests and a second outing with just five of us in a private log cabin. While we had our fingers crossed we’d see the lights, nothing is guaranteed in this type of outing. (Another good to know: Yellowknife averages 90 to 100 percent Aurora viewing success – along with Iceland, Greenland and Norway – due to their location in a magnetic halo. The best viewing months in Yellowknife are September through April, with peak periods in December and March.) We saw the lights both nights, yet enjoyed totally unique displays of colors, frequency and movement each night. It’s a must to see them in different venues, and kudos to Tannis from Touch the Arctic Tours for making that happen. She also arranged for our special winter clothing attire, which became our second skin in order to survive the elements. It’s an absolute must for your clients visiting during the colder months.

While Yellowknife is a year-round vacation destination and a perfect venue for your fishing, hiking, and water sports clients during the summer, the March timing was perfect for us, as we also got to experience the ice road, dog sledding and the popular month-long Snowking Festival. At the heart of this winter wonderland is a huge castle made entirely of snow and ice. It takes the volunteers two months to build the creation. On any given day, the Snowcastle might host a children's play, followed by an arts exhibit or a rock band, a film festival and finish the night off by transforming into a dance club, making it a great option for your multi-generational clients. Our visit happened to coincide with the annual Long John Jamboree that’s located adjacent to the festival and home to an ice carving competition that draws artists from around the world. It’s truly another wow experience.

We’re back home now in warm and sunny (and humid) Orlando. And, while I feel a bit lighter without my Canada Goose parka and other heavy duty clothing, every so often, come evening, I look up and relive the memories of those shimmering, dancing bursts of brilliant greens and yellows and purples in the night sky. Until next time, Yellowknife…

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