It is smack in the middle of Canada, a blend of rugged Precambrian Shield granite lush with forests and speckled with lakes, and rolling hills and vast prairie to the south. That prairie was long-ago glacier-era Agassiz Lake’s bottom, which later became the traditional territory of Aboriginal people, and today it is rich agricultural land dotted with prosperous towns and villages. Winnipeg, the province’s capital city, sits on the prairie just west of the precise longitudinal centre of Canada, (30 km east of the city, on the Trans-Canada Highway at 96 degrees, 38 minutes and 45 seconds west), and has the largest Aboriginal population of any Canadian city, as well as a huge variety of immigrants from dozens of Eastern and Western European, African and Asian nations.
For more than a century, southern Manitoba has seen frequent waves of immigration. Place names around the province still reflect the first waves of Scots, English, and French, then Mennonites and Ukrainians. Most recently, Southeast Asians have settled in, and these new Canadians have helped spark an utterly unique combination of local cuisine and culture; pick any ethnic neighbourhood and you’ll find dozens of tiny, family-run dining spots boasting food styling from Ethiopian to Vietnamese. In early August, you’ll be able to visit almost four dozen countries in the space of two weeks through the Folklorama festival, where immigrants and their children create pavilions that showcase their food, history, and culture (www.folklorama.ca
This province also offers up abundant nature in virtually all its forms, from stunning sweeps of raw evergreen and boreal forests, to lakes and river systems in its wild Canadian Shield region, and three vast lakes, also remnants of ice-age Lake Agassiz. One, Lake Winnipeg, ranks among the world’s largest freshwater lakes. All three, including Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipegosis, make fertile fishing grounds, edged by natural sandy beaches, rocky outcrops, and plenty of cottage country for urbanites seeking all-natural getaways.
Paddlers, hikers, recreational fishers, hunters, photographers and wildlife viewers love these wild areas, where remote lodges and small towns sit tucked away in thick lake or riverside forests. Hunting and fishing are hugely popular here, and families can pitch tents or park campers in one of dozens of provincial parks, or settle into hotel rooms from two to five-star rated in Riding Mountain National Park around the historic townsite of Wasagaming (www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/mb/riding/index.aspx
These days, Manitoba is best-known for far northern Churchill, hands-down the best place in the world for almost guaranteed sightings in October and November of the increasingly-endangered polar bear in its natural setting. Summertime brings the beautiful white belugas to the mouth of the Churchill River, and the delicate blooming of the tundra. But while Nature’s the big draw for much of Manitoba, there’s a whole lot more to be discovered in this varied province.
Thermëa Nordik Nature Spa, tucked into a river bend in a quiet Winnipeg residential neighbourhood, offers sensual spa serenity, and in 2015 launched special spa/hotel packages for visitors to the city (www.thermea.ca
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is developing a new exhibit covering Canada’s tragic residential schools era. They are already displaying the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Bentwood Box and the Witness Blanket made from reclaimed historic residential schools items (www.humanrightsmuseum.ca
Upper Fort Garry Heritage Park in downtown Winnipeg may look like just another immaculately-landscaped park with interesting stone relics, but a downloadable app reveals rich history underfoot. The 1830’s vintage fort that was once here formed the hub for a trading area larger than Eastern Europe, and governed the Red River Settlement (www.upperfortgarry.com
Winter in Winnipeg is serious culture time, when the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (www.wso.ca), Manitoba Opera (www.manitobaopera.mb.ca
), Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Winnipeg Chamber Music Society, and GroundSwell all gear up; and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre (www.mtc.mb.ca) and Prairie Theatre Exchange (www.pte.mb.ca) raise their curtains on live theatre.
In summer, the city’s AAA baseball team, the Goldeyes, offer summer evening fun at Shaw Park (www.goldeyes.com ). The home of NHL hockey’s Winnipeg Jets, the MTS Centre enlivens the city’s downtown with not just winter home games, but all sorts of concerts and special events year-round (www.mtscentre.ca ). And the CFL’s Blue Bombers battle all comers in football at Investors Group Field adjacent to the University of Manitoba (www.bluebombers.com/stadium ). Rounding out the season are July’s four-day Winnipeg Folk Festival of music at Birds Hill Provincial Park north of the city (www.winnipegfolkfestival.ca ), and Rainbow Stage’s summer performances of time-tested musicals (www.rainbowstage.ca ), along with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Ballet in the Park at Assiniboine Park’s outdoor Lyric Theatre (www.rwb.org
For food freaks, and who isn’t one, Manitoba cooks up unique local specialties (www.pegcitygrub.com
): the Salisbury House’s Mr. Big Nip burger, the drippily-amazing schmoo torte at Baked Expectations in Osborne Village, Goog at the Bridge Drive-In—a mountainous ice cream sundae, and Junior’s fantastic Fat Boy burger. Try gelati
along Corydon Avenue’s Little Italy, or stop by the Exchange District’s (www.exchangedistrict.org
) Old Market Square or downtown’s business district on Broadway Avenue at noon to sample from local food trucks. Upscale eaters browse top-rated avant-garde or fusion cuisine; Tourism Winnipeg tracks the edible action (www.tourismwinnipeg.com
); the Exchange District offers foodie tours; and patio restaurants and wine tours can be booked at the Downtown Biz (www.downtownwinnipegbiz.com
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Provincial parks here preserve the most beautiful granite outcroppings and crisp,cool lakes and rivers of the Canadian Shield (www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/parks/popular_parks/map.html
). Whiteshell Provincial Park (www.whiteshell.mb.ca) is a handy hour’s drive east of Winnipeg but, further afield, wilderness wanderers can take to lakes and rivers in canoes, kayaks, or fishing boats. Beach-goers head for picturesque Gimli, Winnipeg Beach, and broad, curved Grand Beach (www.gimli.ca; www.grandbeachtourism.com
). All three face the endless vistas of Lake Winnipeg’s vast south basin, and the historic Icelandic fishing settlement of Gimli is a favourite weekend hangout with its charming marina and beach-town atmosphere. En route
to Gimli, Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre welcomes thousands of migrating geese in the fall (www.oakhammockmarsh.ca
). In Spruce Woods Provincial Park, a day tripper’s hiking trail covers forests, hills, a genuine desert, and the eerie, deep-water blue Devil’s Punch Bowl (www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/parks/popular_parks/western/spruce_spirit.html
HERITAGE AND CULTURE
Historic gems dot this province: Brandon’s Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum preserves the story of World War II air fighter training (www.airmuseum.ca); Thompson’s Heritage North Museum shelters the stories of the Aboriginal people of the North (www.heritagenorthmuseum.ca
); Morden’s Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre highlights finds from prehistoric Lake Agassiz (www.discoverfossils.com
); and Selkirk’s Marine Museum of Manitoba offers a collection of original vessels that once plied vast Lake Winnipeg (www.marinemuseum.ca
Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District has the largest collection of terra cotta and cut stone architecture in North America, and Hollywood filmmakers frequently film here. Architectural landmark touring includes the Esplanade Riel cable pedestrian bridge and its new summer only on-bridge bistro, Union Station, the Manitoba Legislative Building, the Royal Canadian Mint, and the stunning new Canadian Museum of Human Rights.
Every September, at the Manito Ahbee Festival in Winnipeg, Aboriginal culture and spectacular powwow performances are showcased (www.manitoahbee.com
). The mid-winter French Festival du Voyageur, centred in St. Boniface, focuses on Franco-Manitoban history and culture (www.festivalvoyageur.mb.ca
MUST SEE, MUST DO
The Forks National Historic Site ranks at the top of visitor to-do lists, thanks to its marketplaces, Children’s Museum, Manitoba Theatre for Young People, traditional Aboriginal Oodena Celebration Circle, Festival Park and Stage with free concerts, and the Riverwalk that rolls out along the Assiniboine. Summer boat rides take in a longer piece of the river, and in winter its frozen ice becomes a skating, skiing and snowball-throwing playground.
The Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada, near Winnipeg’s international airport, houses Canada’s second-largest collection of vintage planes, including bush planes and a real flying saucer—the Aero Avrocar (www.royalaviationmuseum.com
The Manitoba Museum (www.manitobamuseum.ca
), neighbouring planetarium, science gallery and venerable 17th century replica ship, Nonsuch
, can fill a day of exploration.
Polar bears and beluga whales in Churchill are well worth a 2.5 hour flight or a relaxing 48-hour train trip north. In summer, Churchill is the place to snorkel with beluga whales—not endangered here, but in definite ecological trouble elsewhere (www.everythingchurchill.com
). A handful of lodges offer summer touring packages of the area and the thousands of belugas that populate the mouth of the Churchill River. In fall, which looks like winter to southerners, remote lodges and famous Tundra Buggy tours offer close-up bear sightings (www.churchillwild.com
Head through Prairie farm country 70 km (45 mi.) southwest from Winnipeg on Highway 75 south, then 50 km (35 mi.) on 14 west and enjoy the wide skies, infinite horizon line, and dazzling colour swatches of canola, flax, grain and sunflower fields. The Pembina Threshermen’s Museum sits midway between Winkler and Morden (www.threshermensmuseum.com
). Visit Bruce, the largest publicly displayed Mosasaur in the world, at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre just south of Morden (www.discoverfossils.com
From the north end of Winnipeg, take River Road along the western bank of the Red River, up to Selkirk and the Marine Museum of Manitoba (www.marinemuseum.ca
), with Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site about two-thirds along the 60-km (37-mi.) route. The town of Lockport, historic hot dog stand heaven for Winnipeggers, with Skinner’s on one side of the bridge and the Half Moon on the other, lies between the two. Once you reach Selkirk, return to the city via picturesque Henderson Highway.
Go souvenir-hunting from beach town to beach town along highway 8 north in the Interlake region. Stop in Winnipeg Beach and Gimli for snacks and handmade crafts, then shift to Highway 9 North to reach Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park for dinner and an overnight at the Lakeview Hecla Resort (www.lakeviewhotels.com/hotels/hecla
), 175 km (120 mi.) from Winnipeg. Stop to tour the historic fishing village of Hecla and the trails of the provincial park on the way back the next day.
Kids go wild at FortWhyte Alive, where bison roam on prairie grasses near a pioneer sod house, teepee encampment and prairie dog town (www.fortwhyte.org
). Lunch is simple and good at the Buffalo Stone Café.
Assiniboine Park’s Nature Playground and the zoo’s Polar Playground appeal to younger kids (www.assiniboinepark.ca ). The park’s miniature steam train enchants even adults. Journey to Churchill
is home to five polar bears and two new babies, and features three different recreated natural habitats: the Wapusk Lowlands, Gateway to the Arctic and Churchill Coast.
For history and fun, from a Great Train Robbery to a Fall Supper, ride on the vintage steam train Prairie Dog Central Railway, running from north Winnipeg to the villages of Grosse Isle and Warren and back (www.pdcrailway.com
PARK PICK: RIDING MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Canada’s second-oldest national Park (Banff is the oldest), Riding Mountain was officially opened as a national park in 1933—3,000 sq. km (1158 sq. mi.) of boreal forest, aspen parkland, prairie, occasional marshes, and sandy beaches fringing deep, still Clear Lake. The townsite of Wasagaming offers motel/hotel space, a vibrant summer community, and historic log buildings. Boating is popular, camping is widely available, and plenty of hiking trails and summer activities round out the park’s high-season action. Backcountry camping, hiking, and in winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing add to this vast, unspoiled park’s allure. Year-round wildlife watching is de rigeuer
for those willing to rise before dawn, but the native bison herd is around all the time (www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/mb/riding/index.aspx
More info on National Parks and Historic Sites: www.pc.gc.ca