Winnipeg top three: The Forks, day trips, & engaging oddities

My final post on Winnipeg takes a gander at three remarkable features of the city and its hinterlands: The Forks; Lake Winnipeg day trips; and some engaging oddities.

1. The Forks. This multipurpose space, located at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers in Winnipeg’s downtown, today houses a market area, shops, several bars, a recreational area, a fabulous hotel, and the site of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. The fabulous hotel in question is the Inn at the Forks, an effortlessly luxurious, eco-friendly hotel where I very happily spent three nights.

The Forks site has a long history as an important meeting place. It was once home to Aboriginal bison hunters. Later it was a hub for fur trading, and then an expansive rail yard and an immigration processing center. The Forks today would be a sterling model of urban reclamation and renewal but for one fact, namely, the absence of residents. This, however, should be changing relatively soon. A proposal to build 350 condominiums and apartments in the area is currently being floated. Residents will make The Forks livelier, and may in turn help Winnipeg repopulate its downtown and usher in a central city rejuvenation of a different order.

Summer evening on Lake Winnipeg.

2. Lake Winnipeg. North of Winnipeg is the enormous Lake Winnipeg, over 250 miles long from north to south. The municipality of Gimli on the western side of the lake is the epicenter of Icelandic culture in Manitoba. Settled by Icelandic immigrants in the 1870s, it continues to function as the spiritual heart of Icelandic culture in North America, and is a great day trip destination from Winnipeg. The eastern side of the lake’s southern edge includes Grand Beach Provincial Park, with its enormous dunes and pristine beach. There are cute cottage communities like Victoria Beach as well, and a range of beaches to choose between. There is even a local nudist beach belt, with zones that cater to straight and gay visitors alike. During the summer Lake Winnipeg is lovely and rustic though, it must be acknowledged, often mosquito-embalmed.
Manitoba Museum display.

3. Engaging oddities. Winnipeg genuinely feels as if it’s on the edge of something bigger. That sense of horizon means, necessarily, that the city is not currently living through a heyday. Another heyday may materialize out of the ambition of the present, but it’s not quite here.

Today’s Winnipeg is a city of many fascinating layers, a city that feels, to this visitor at least, melancholic as well as hopeful. Take a look at Edwin Janzen’s fascinating article in Drain Magazine on Winnipeg’s status as a creative hub, and you come across a suggestive portrayal of a city in ambivalent love with itself. Janzen identifies a complex ambivalence toward the city as a primary “civic characteristic” that itself spurs intense fandom.

This dynamic alone makes Winnipeg singularly fascinating. But the pleasing characteristics and oddities of the city, some of which I touched on in my introductory Winnipeg blog post, are countless. There is a beautiful steakhouse called Rae and Jerry’s that looks as if it came straight from a Mad Men set and should rightfully provide a backdrop to a Wallpaper fashion spread. There is deep ethnic and cultural diversity, evidence of which is widespread. (To give one example, according to Statistics Canada’s Aboriginal Population Profile of 2006, over 10 percent of Winnipeg’s population identifies as Aboriginal, one of the highest percentages in the country.) There is a bakery called the Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company that sells its own sunflower oil and lists the farms that grow grains for it. And there is an unavoidable friendliness that is also intermittently ironic and irreverent.

Winnipeg presents a mish-mash that for many fellow North Americans can’t help but feel both terribly familiar and (dare I say it?) disarmingly exotic. In his Drain Magazine article, Janzen notes that Winnipeggers who have moved away can’t stop talking about their hometown. After two visits, I think I understand.

Read other posts from my road trip to Winnipeg series here.

Some media support for my stay in Winnipeg was provided by Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba. All opinions expressed are my own.

Winnipeg’s Plug In: Contemporary art on the prairie

Winnipeg’s contemporary art scene has developed an undeniable and persistent buzz, thanks in no small part to the city’s own Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art. Founded in 1972, Plug In has been central to Winnipeg’s evolution as an important center of contemporary art. Those with their fingers on the pulse of contemporary art and film will already know that the Royal Art Lodge‘s members hail from Winnipeg, as do Dominique Rey, Guy Maddin, and Noam Gonick, to name but a handful.

In addition to providing a space for exciting and boundary-pushing art, Plug In also has the distinction of having produced the only piece of art (Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller‘s Paradise Institute) to earn Canada an award at the Venice Biennale.

Plug In’s 2010/11 programming highlights include an exhibit by Eleanor Bond, a film installation shot in Winnipeg by Shezad Dawood, and work by AA Bronson, Adrian Stimpson, and Lori Blondeau.

The most exciting new development in Plug In’s world is its new gallery space, which is currently under construction and slated for a November 2010 opening. Filmmaker Noam Gonick, one of Winnipeg’s most important contemporary artists and currently President of the Board of Directors of Plug In, told me that the new building will “truly engage the public with radical contemporary art programming from Manitoba and around the world.”

I had the good fortune to tour the Plug In building site with Neil Minuk, a member of the architectural team behind Plug In. The new space is located at a busy intersection in downtown Winnipeg adjacent to the magnificent Winnipeg Art Gallery. It is shared by Plug In and the University of Winnipeg.

Architecturally, the building manages to feel austere yet resemble a confection. The outside as well as the inside of the building is covered in freezer panels, an inexpensive and funny material for a building in a city with such a cold climate. The other immediately interesting architectural feature is the building’s external tabs. These tabs cast shadows and assume different colors at different times, the latter feature due to the reflective film that covers them. A passageway through the building will permit pedestrians to pass through in warmer weather; during the winter, this area will morph into the building’s vestibule.

Once completed, Plug In’s portion of the building will include gallery space, a bookstore, and two cafes, one with an organic food focus and the other cast in a bistro-esque mold.

Upcoming in 2011 is Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years, which will be the world’s first International Aboriginal Biennale. Indigenous artists from Canada, the United States, Europe, and Oceania will show work that imagines the forms culture will take in the future. Celebrated Canadian artists Rebecca Belmore and Kent Monkman are confirmed participants.

Check out my entire road trip to Winnipeg here.

Some media support for my stay in Winnipeg was provided by Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba. All opinions expressed are my own.

Winnipeg: Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Currently under construction in Winnipeg is the very ambitious Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The museum, which occupies a part of The Forks complex in Winnipeg, was the brainchild of Winnipeg’s late media mogul Izzy Asper. It has received funding from an impressive range of federal, provincial, municipal, and private sources. The museum will emphasize human rights as a global subject, though it will apply a specifically Canadian approach to the question. In the words of the museum’s mission statement, it will proceed with “special but not exclusive reference to Canada.”

The intellectual and political underpinnings of the museum are quite bold. Exhibits will encourage political action on the part of museumgoers, and there will be a focus on contemporary human rights issues. It is expected that there will be sections devoted to the Holocaust as well as human rights in Canada. On this last subject, the museum will not shy away from a recognition of Canada’s own shortcomings in the field of human rights.

Architecturally, the building will also pack a wallop. Designed by Antoine Predock, an Albuquerque-based architect known for placing the surrounding physical environment front and center in his buildings, it will consist of several very conceptual components. Museum attendees will enter the building from between large stone arms, the building’s “Roots.” There will be an enormous glass Cloud encircling the building, as well as a surging Tower of Hope that will offer striking views across the city and the prairie beyond. There will also be an internal Garden of Contemplation, which will be characterized by the use of water and medicinal plants. Throughout, there will be careful attention to the local environment, from a foregrounding of First Nations traditions to the use of Manitoba’s home-quarried Tyndall limestone.

The museum is a multiyear project. Construction began in 2009 and is expected to continue through 2012. There are hopes in Winnipeg that this very ambitious building will trigger a Bilbao Effect for the city, a confluence of architectural innovation, dynamic local venues, and lifestyle industry to lure tourists to visit. Certainly, Winnipeg has extreme weather against it, though I’d wager that many of the ingredients necessary for such a transformation are already in place.

Free guided tours of the construction site’s perimeter can be arranged through the nearby Explore Manitoba Centre at The Forks (204-984-1731).

See other posts from my roadtrip to Winnipeg series here.

Some media support for my Winnipeg visit was provided by Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba. All opinions expressed are my own.

Winnipeg’s locavore restaurant wave

Manitoba is pretty far north, all things considered. On its southern edge, the province straddles the Minnesota-North Dakota state line; to the north, the province stretches to the 60th parallel, where it borders the territory of Nunavut. Yet despite its northerly geography, Manitoba has enough frost-free days to generate some significant agricultural production. Here’s the locavore math: Local seasonal bounty plus enthusiastic adoption of the current locavore vogue by Winnipeggers equals some excellent restaurants grounded in local foods.

Three restaurants (Mise, The Tallest Poppy, and Horfrost in nearby Portage La Prairie) stand out.

My meal at Mise (842 Corydon Avenue) began with a large salad of heirloom tomatoes with sunflower oil dressing. Next up was sesame-encrusted pickerel from nearby Lake Winnipeg, served delightfully and surprisingly with seaweed salad and unagi sauce. For my third course, I enjoyed a Manitoba pork tenderloin with potatoes and apple chutney. A refreshing lemon mousse finished the meal. Everything was gorgeous. The outdoor setting was sultry, the waitstaff enthusiastic and well-informed, and each dish delicious and provocative in one or another way. Co-owner Sue Gereta circled back to my table several times to check in on my meal, and told me about the restaurant’s ambitious local sourcing protocol, which includes partnering with a small outfit called the Landless Farmers Collective. In addition to being a fabulous place to grab a meal, Mise is quite affordable. A three-course meal of appetizer-sized plates is currently priced at C$35.

It was at the very least a private mini-tragedy that I did not make it to The Tallest Poppy (631 Main Street). The wildly popular locavore restaurant is focused firmly on sourcing its food as locally and seasonally as possible. The menu changes daily. Guests can call for menu information (204-957-1708) or check the restaurant’s Twitter feed, which sometimes lists menu updates.In Portage La Prairie, about an hour west of Winnipeg by car along Highway 1, is the remarkable Horfrost Restaurant (190 River Road). Named after a type of ice crystallization that appears on trees in northern climes during the winter, Horfrost sources much of its bounty from local farms. My road trip companion Melissa and I ate fried pig’s ears, bison spring rolls, and maple fries to start. The pig’s ears were the slightest bit crunchy. The bison spring rolls were rich and intensely flavorful. We followed with a schnitzel. Dessert was homemade ice cream (including locally-picked mint and strawberry) with chocolate sauce. Our talkative waiter told us that the farmer responsible for the ice cream’s strawberries was dining just a few tables away. After-dinner coffee was served with beautifully pressed pucks of sugar (see above).

Though less locavore-minded than the other restaurants profiled here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the fabulous Segovia (484 Stradbrook Avenue). Its menu is well-stocked with fabulously rich, delicious tapas. There are traditional Spanish numbers as well as some inventive departures from the mold on the menu.

Check out my entire road trip to Winnipeg series here.

Some media support for my stay in Winnipeg was provided by Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba. All opinions expressed are my own.

Winnipeg: Folklorama

In Winnipeg, as in most big Canadian cities, there is an unassimilated immigrant presence at the surface of daily life. Canada has an official policy of multiculturalism, enshrined in the constitution, and cultural displays of difference are actively encouraged by federal and provincial governments. Winnipeg’s diversity is impressive. The city has a significant Francophone minority, several large immigrant communities, including Canada’s largest per capita Filipino population (at over five percent), and a relatively big Aboriginal population. This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Over 100 languages are spoken by city residents.

Enter Folklorama, an annual August multicultural festival. Since 1970, Folklorama has provided a celebratory space for Winnipeg’s various immigrant groups to showcase their traditional culture, food, and performance. This year 45 different pavilions were set up to host guests and provide a little cultural exposure.

Last year Folklorama saw over 400,000 visitors over the two weeks of its festival. Folklorama has become a major event on Winnipeg’s cultural calendar. Admission to each individual pavilion is just C$6, and children 12 and under enter free of charge. Most pavilions focus on a live performance, but there is also traditional food and drink for purchase, as well as informational booths and boutique areas where various traditional objects can be purchased.

The Folklorama experience is quite moving, and in no small part because the participants are so enthusiastic. I attended three pavilions. At the first, the Chilean pavilion, we ate empanadas and drank wine prior to a performance, which was kicked off by the Canadian and Chilean national anthems. The rollicking Irish pavilion followed, and the evening ended at the Brazilian Pavilion, with its energetic samba and capoeira performance.

I took a Folklorama VIP World Tour on the opening night of this year’s festival. The VIP World Tour provides expedited access to three pavilions an evening, a progressive meal (including beverages), and coach service between pavilions. It costs C$69.95 per person.

During the 50 non-festival weeks of the year, Folklorama operates workshops, lectures, and other forums to educate Winnipeggers about their city’s many different cultures. This year’s two-week Folklorama ends this Saturday, but it’s not too early to start thinking about next year’s Folklorama festival.

Check out other dispatches on my road trip to Winnipeg here.

Some media support for my stay in Winnipeg was provided by Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba. All opinions expressed are my own.

(Image: Flickr/noricum)