Canada’s great prairie doesn’t get the same amount of tourist love as Vancouver and Montreal, its chicer city sisters. When Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba invited me to visit in the negative temperatures of February, I doubted my sanity for accepting. But after four days in this friendly prairie city in the middle of Canada, I’m convinced Winnipeg has a lot more to offer than I ever expected. I’m not suggesting Hawaii worry about being put out of business, but for the right travelers who enjoy unusual experiences in less obvious destinations, Winnipeg in winter makes a memorable getaway.
Skating trail with warming huts
At five kilometers, the Red River Mutual Trail is one of the world’s longest skating trail. It’s dotted with art installations called “warming huts.” I expected these to be actual structures people enter to get warm. But no, instead they’re juried art installations.
While we were there, internationally famous artist Anish Kapoor’s “Stackhouse,” made from slabs of ice cut out of the river, was unveiled. One warming hut is actually a new game called “croki-curl,” which combines the winter sport of curling with the board game crokinole. I got a chance to play this game, which was fun but slippery, since the field is a circle of slick ice.
Fat biking moveable feast tour
Riding your average skinny-wheel road bike on snow is probably going to give you a close-up view of the pavement. A fat bike is a better choice.
It is still not easy I learned on a Downtown Winnipeg Biz’ Moveable Feast dining tour. Turns out just getting both my feet onto the pedals while wearing snow pants, a borrowed Winnipeg-weight parka and giant snow boots took me multiple tries. Steering the bike through slushy snow involved a lot of slipping and sliding and a quick foot to the ground to prevent toppling.
Eventually we all got underway and managed to enjoy a progressive lunch at three restaurants: the rotating restaurant Prairie 360, wood-fired pizza specialists Carbone and Merchant Kitchen. Downtown Winnipeg Biz changes up the itinerary to feature different restaurants.
Journey to Churchill exhibit
Two polar bears swam over me and I lived to tell. Assiniboine Park Zoo’s Journey to Churchill exhibit features an immense tank with a walk-through tunnel. The friendly bears – they’d probably like you enough to eat you if the glass wasn’t there – swim over to check out their visitors while floating downward, gliding up, spreading limbs, somersaulting, and generally performing a stunning bear ballet.
The exhibit also includes a short movie about Churchill, the northern Manitoba town where the bears come from. The movie is shown in a 360 degree theater so visitors are surrounded by images of ice, aurora borealis, fields of flowers and blue skies. Climate change has decreased food supplies for the bears. Those who wander into Churchill looking for food one too many times may find themselves shipped to this zoo. We also got a behind-the-scenes look at the musk ox with zookeeper Caitlin Gordon-Hall, who pronounced herself in love with the creatures and was ready to comment on the personality of each. “That’s Chloe,” she pointed at one long-haired beast. “She likes to protect her baby, and everybody else in the herd.”
Yoga on a Frozen Lake
Fort Whyte Alive is a nature preserve that offers outdoor activities. My visit coincided with what organizers hope is the first annual Fire and Ice Yoga Festival. One hundred ten yogis showed up on an unseasonably warm February day (21 degrees!) to downward dog on a frozen lake.
If I thought it was challenging to ride a bike in winter clothes, I quickly found that yoga poses were even harder to accomplish. But the stakes were lower; falling in the soft snow covering the frozen lake wasn’t bad at all. Despite the annoyance of trying to get a heavy-booted foot into a lunge, or having my giant parka hood flopping down and obscuring my vision in upward dog, I really loved doing yoga in the snow. The stark, leafless trees and gray winter sky made me feel peaceful. After yoga, we drank wild-crafted sage-blend tea by the campfire, then adjourned to the craft room to make sugar scrubs to take home.
At Raw: Almond, dressing for dinner means piling on the layers. Because this restaurant is built on a frozen river. Now in its fifth year, the sold-out event is running 21 days this year. In keeping with the theme of Canada’s sesquicentennial, the 2017 chef line-up is all Canadians.
Chefs come out for two nights to do three seatings each night. To make things even more interesting, the restaurant has two long communal tables and each chef heads a different table. Which means that the other table is eating a whole different set menu than yours.
Ned Bell of Vancouver was the chef for our table. He’s known for spreading the gospel of sustainable seafood, but was very accommodating in making a vegan meal for me. As he told our table after we finished our meal, “We used to eat massive portions of protein. Vegetables are the stars now.” Halleluiah. To go with the seafood theme, our tablescape included shells and huge stalks of bull kelp.
Climb an Ice Tower
I was briefly interested in trying to climb a 25-meter ice tower. You’re strapped in, right? What could go wrong? A veteran ice tower climber told me how cold the climbers get, and described a condition called “the screaming barfies.” “Excuses me?” I asked, sure I’d heard him wrong. Nope.
It happens when your arms are reaching overhead to climb the ice tower. The blood drains out of your fingers, and soon your little digits freeze. When sensation returns, the feeling is so intensely that they scream. “Yeah, really scream,” he insisted. “They scream so loud they start barfing.” But if you use your leg strength more and don’t rely so much on your hands and arms, you’ll be fine, he assured me. Unreassured, I returned to the original plan of yoga on the lake.
Also at Fort Whyte Alive, I spent an evening on a full moon snowshoe trek. More than forty people showed up for the outing, so volunteers divided us into three groups. I opted for the middle level, which turned out to be plenty fast-paced. Our leader, Tara, set out at a good clip on a frozen trail, then veered off to follow deer tracks.
Soon we were bushwhacking, which is challenging when your feet have suddenly tripled in lengths. The snowshoes were the simplest I’ve ever used, made from recycled plastic bottles with a piece of recycled tire to secure your foot like a giant rubber band. No high-tech crampons, so there was a certain amount of sliding and falling. Again, snow makes a good cushion so this wasn’t a big problem. The moon was bright enough we didn’t need headlamps.
“This is going to make life here so much better!” said a local guy who was exfoliating beside me. It was his first trip to the Nordic spa, which is a strong contender for my most blissful stop in Winnipeg. Themea features a big hot pool, a tepid pool, a cold plunge complete with waterfall, steam room, dry sauna, relaxation spaces and a restaurant.
What’s better than sitting outside on a crisp, negative one degree evening, submerged to your neck in a hot pool, wet hairs turning to icicles around your ears, and admiring a snowy landscape with an almost full moon? Or sweating in a steam bath, then using house-made lavender scrub at the exfoliation station? And how many upscale restaurants can you visit while wearing your robe over your swimsuit? Thermea is a perfect way to end your visit to Winnipeg. Or to start your visit. Or for any time in between.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.