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.