We've all dreamt about it: pulling up sticks and setting up a guesthouse in our favourite holiday spot. Having the vision and wherewithal to actually do it, however, is another story. One who did is Canadian Wally Daudrich, the owner of Lazy Bear Lodge, whose holiday spot of choice wasn't a sun-splashed island but the remote town of Churchill (population 800) on the edge of the Canadian Arctic.
Daudrich had been visiting Churchill for 40 years for fishing, camping and canoeing trips before becoming a local polar bear tour guide, and eventually decided to build his dream lodge there - by hand, using reclaimed timber from two forest fires, over an entire decade. Had he known how much work it would be when he started back in 1995, Daudrich says he'd probably never have done it, but we're very glad he did.
Churchill is not for the faint of heart. Nicknamed the "polar bear capital of the world", in summer an estimated 900 polar bears make their way through town as part of their annual migration, while in winter temperatures get as low as minus 40 degrees Celcius. But it's the wild and remote that's the attraction here – the chance to see polar bears in the wild, and in summer to interact with the 60,000-odd beluga whales that flock to the shores of Hudson Bay to breed and feed.
Elevated scout hall is the vibe at Lazy Bear Lodge, set in Daudrich's charming hand-built cabin, crafted from reclaimed local timber and windows from an 1800s trading post belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company, Canada's largest department store chain. Inside on the ground floor sits the cosy Lazy Bear Café, with a soaring vaulted ceiling, handmade timber furniture, and a huge stone fireplace crafted from a 9000 kilogram block of stone and mortar.
The ground floor also houses the gift shop, reception area, lounge room with its pot-belly stove, and 16 bedrooms. The remaining 17 bedrooms are upstairs on the second floor. Daudrich has five children, three of whom work at the lodge, which makes it feel like you're staying in a family home.
My room is on the ground floor, which means easier access but slightly less impressive views. I face the back side of the lodge overlooking a field, while rooms at the front face Churchill's quiet main street. Interiors are minimal - two double beds, a simple wooden desk, a wall-mounted TV, a tree-stump bedside table and a small ensuite bathroom - but the simplicity lets the incredible woodwork shine. Overall it feels warm and cosy, and I sleep very well after long days spent bear- and beluga-watching.
The Lazy Bear Café serves delicious comfort food – lucky, since it's all-inclusive and other options are thin on the ground. There are hearty burgers, pastas and vegetable stir-fries, and local specialities including Arctic Char from the waters of Hudson Bay, braised peppered elk and slow roasted Manitoba bison.
Salads are very fresh, since most produce comes from Lazy Bear's organic greenhouse down the road, which produces everything from lettuce, carrot and zucchini, to apples, berries and sunflowers (check it out if you have time, it's impressive). The desserts and milkshakes are delicious (try the 'muddy ice flow', a decadent mix of ice cream and chocolate brownie covered with chocolate sauce and cream), and marshmallow-laden hot chocolates hit the spot around the fireplace of an evening.
Activities, which are run through Lazy Bear's tour company Lazy Bear Expeditions, really depend on the season and weather. During my summer visit the highlight is AquaGliding on Hudson Bay. Dressed in dry suits and full-face snorkels, we lay on a floating mat attached to the back of a Zodiac and come face-to-face with dozens of friendly beluga whales.
Accompanied by Lazy Bear's friendly, knowledgeable guides, we boat around Hudson Bay to see polar bears swimming in the ocean and snoozing with their cubs on the rocks, and kayak in the bay with hundreds more belugas.
We also tour the intriguing Prince of Wales fort and learn about the history of the fur trade in the area, and visit the excellent Eskimo Museum and the Rocket Research Range site, used by Canada and the US in the 1950s to launch rockets to study the upper atmosphere. The possibility of seeing the Northern Lights is ever-present, but sadly they don't reveal themselves during my visit. A reason to return.
A hand-built labour of love, Lazy Bear Lodge is warm, cosy and completely unique. The perfect base from which to explore this sub-Arctic region.
Travel Marvel's seven day Ultimate Arctic Summer Adventure package, including four nights at Lazy Bear Lodge (the lodge doesn't normally book rooms only) and two nights in Winnipeg, all meals and most activities, is from $7,395 per person, twin share. 313 Kelsey Blvd, Churchill, Manitoba. Phone +11 1 204 663 9377. See lazybearlodge.com; travelmarvel.com.au
Aside from having polar bears occasionally wander down the street just outside? Knowing that the entire lodge was built by hand from reclaimed local wood.
The ensuite bathrooms could use some smartening up – bigger sinks and more robust showerheads would be great.
Nina Karnikowski stayed as a guest of Travel Marvel.