We’ve tried to see the Northern Lights on more than one occasion. After freezing in Iceland where the clouds and storms kept the lights hidden, I researched where to go with better chances of clear night skies. Yellowknife in the North West Territories was the apparent answer. February was the recommended month – but I’m not sure whether that’s promotional to bring in winter tourists or if February really is the best time to see the Aurora in Yellowknife. In researching the average temperatures in February, it gave us pause as Yellowknife is SUB-FREEZING COLD in February.
None the less, we booked our flights to Yellowknife via WestJet because I had airline credit due to previous cancellations (COVID). We planned in advance and scheduled a direct flight from LAX. That was changed by WestJet causing us an extra two days while we did a layover in Calgary both coming and going. The only good news about that was the potential for eating well in Calgary as we knew the food in Yellowknife was going to be downhome food, nothing fancy. But it did add extra expense to the trip.
We flew into Calgary and the weather was pretty nice. No snow on the city streets and wasn’t terribly cold as we walked from the beautiful Fairmont Palliser hotel to our dinner. Cathy had booked reservations at Klein &Harris. I selected the scallops, mushroom ravioli and Beet salad. The scallops and ravioli were nice and the salad was okay, nothing special. The service was very very slow and our server didn’t much care to change that. It wasn’t a positive memorable dinner, but it was dinner. We loved the street it is located on, 8th SW – a lot of restored buildings and very walkable. Well, walkable unless, like Cathy, you trip over the low curb and give your foot a very good solid twist!
She hobbled back to the hotel and put her foot on ice. We were unsure if it was just sprained or broken and figured the morning would tell the tale. In the AM she was able to stand and put pressure on it, so we were pretty sure it was sprained and with her ‘go’ we kept our schedule to head to Yellowknife. The porters, complete with a wheelchair, took us to our waiting Blacklane ride to the airport. I love hiring Blacklane drivers and have used that company all over the world. It is first class service!
Arriving in Yellowknife later than we thought as WestJet has problems with maintaining arrival/departure times, we took the shuttle to the Explorer hotel. The rooms are clean, the staff is friendly and it was an excellent place to spend the next four nights. At noon, it was -20 when we arrived at the hotel.
After checking in, we called a taxi and asked for a town tour as there was no way we were going to walk around. The town tour was fun – we stopped on the Ice Road of tv fame, a quick picture at the Ice Castle that was still a work in progress, and a little bit of shopping. The Old Town Glassworks repurposes glass bottles into lamps, glasses, vases and other fun items. And we saw house boats frozen into the lake where they stay until the spring thaw. With the wind chill, it felt as if it was -31 and we were grateful for the tour by cab. I also saw a beautiful red fox that came out from behind a building and froze momentarily before running off into the woods.
It was -48 by 9pm when our private guide Winfred from Arctic Tours Canada picks us up! Yikes. Good thing we have lots of layers and hand/toe warmers! Not being confident in taking night time pictures and not wanting to miss out on having them, we paid a bit extra for Winfred to take pictures as well. He did a fantastic job and we were so right to make that move!
Day 2 and Day 3 we had reserved a private teepee at Aurora Village. Initially, we did not know there were private tours available from other companies. Truth is Cathy and I prefer private tours. Our experiences with group tours has not been positive plus we just sort of like to have our own space!
Aurora Village is not a private tour and we were disappointed in several ways. We had asked about the optional photo sessions and discovered that we would have to wait for the Aurora to come out, scramble to find a staff member and hope they could find a photographer — right….. us and the other 75+ people in the village at the time. We were surprised that there was so much light pollution with teepees scattered about, lighted paths and other scattered lighting that definitely affected the photos in a lot of areas. We did find a quiet spot on our 2nd night that we were able to get some very nice photos. We also realized that while we paid for a 4 hour time slot, really it was less than 3 hours for our $550 per night teepee. The 4 hours included travel time to and from the hotels, plus wrapping things up 20 minutes early to get on the bus. And then when the drivers were late picking us up, that too took away precious time.
While most people opt for the larger group teepee then go spend their time in the dining hall staring at each other, our private teepee which was fantastically warm due to the wood burning stove that the staff kept going for us. We had chairs, a sofa, and hot tea/coffee. It was so nice to go in and out of the teepee in-between looking out for the Aurora, especially since the temp was -29 and felt like -40. While we enjoyed our toasty warm teepee, I would not recommend Aurora Village to those who are into photography. Also, since you don’t move locations, if the Aurora doesn’t show up – you are out of luck! We did see Aurora both nights but we had to work to get pictures.
During the daytime on day 3, we were tired of the mediocre food at the hotel and decided to have lunch at the most northern brewery in Yellowknife, The Woodyard Brewery and Eatery. Good decision! We both ended up having the bison hash with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. It was the best meal we ate in Yellowknife. A close second was one night Cathy had boar loin at the Explorer hotel and it was one of the few nice meals there.
After lunch, we decided to go the nearby museum. It officially is called the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center but I’ll call it what I think it should be named — The Yellowknife Cultural Museum. It is a lovely museum and shows the way of life of not only the native population, but the community of Yellowknife. It has several rooms that have specific displays, wildlife, native day to day life, a special exhibit about the Constables and how the native peoples taught them how to survive in the NWT and a great exhibit about bison indigenous to the area. We thoroughly enjoyed our time and since the museum is free, we of course put a donation into the box to help support the continued efforts. If you go to Yellowknife, enjoy the Yellowknife Cultural Museum – it is well worth the stop.
Our last night we were again booked with Arctic Tours Canada. As we dressed in our layers that evening, we hoped Winfred would be the one to pick us up. He not only takes fabulous pictures but he helps us with our camera settings as well. Plus he’s just an all around kind person that we enjoyed spending time with. Winfred picked us up on time for our last night chasing the Aurora. We had already had a fantastic trip but we had not yet been able to see the lights ‘dance’ and we so hoped for that. And of course, because we had had success for 3 nights, we now wanted night number 4 to be fabulous as well.
We were not disappointed! In fact night 4 was the best Aurora of the trip. We not only watched the dancing lights, we were greeted twice with the entire sky exploding into greens, reds, yellows, purple and orange. It was difficult to take pictures at some points as the entire sky was filled with lights. Instead of trying to take pictures, I stopped and paused and enjoyed the moment. Breathing in the beautiful dancing Aurora, I thanked it for the appearance and the beauty as my heart did its own dance of joy. The Aurora is beautiful, magical and we were fortunate to see all that we had hoped for, and more.
Each night we’d prepare for the subfreezing temperatures by ordering Blueberry tea after dinner. Okay truth is we would’ve ordered blueberry tea even if it wasn’t minus 20 to minus 48!
Blueberry tea also warmed us up after a cold frigid night chasing the Aurora. A combination of Amaretto, Grand Marnier and Early Grey tea with a cinnamon stick and slice of orange, we arranged for room service to bring it to our room and then we warmed up the tea when we got back at 2 a.m. each morning. It was the perfect ending each night as we soaked our frozen feet in the hot bathtub water and sipped on Blueberry tea — no blueberries needed, thank you!
Returning to Calgary, our flight via WestJet was more than 2 hours late and another 1.5 hours waiting for baggage to come off the plane. It was frustrating as our Blacklane driver stood patiently with us in baggage claim and we bemoaned the poor management. When we finally left the airport it was snowing heavily which made the 15 minute trip into a 30 minute drive. Arriving at the Marriott Dorian hotel, we checked in, threw our stuff in the room, and called for a taxi to get to Teatro. It was snowing so heavily our taxi driver didn’t want to let us get out of the car — but we were HUNGRY!
See my post about Teatro on the Eating Michelin link.
The following morning was our flight out to LAX and I wish I could say that WestJet was on time, but why would they do that? Another 2 hour delayed flight and lots of grumpy passengers, though I will say that Canadians don’t seem to get as worked up as the rest of us! When we were told that WestJet was considered one of the top airlines in Canada, all I could think of was that it’s a good thing Canadians are seemingly more patient! We finally landed in California and found the day to be bright, beautiful and of course snowless!
We loved our time in Yellowknife NWT! I don’t need to return in winter though! We’ve been told it is beautiful in the summer, though we were also told the bugs abound so ummmm maybe not. The people are kind and funny, the lights made it a fantastic adventure and even though it was very very cold, we are grateful for the experience.
And I leave you with the wisdom of Yellowknife’s Dene First Nation