How the coldest city in Canada – and snow pants – warmed an equator-loving traveler’s heart and toes.
10-Jan-22 – The first thing to tell you is I am not fond of being cold. Given the choice, I will opt for a crystal beach and rum punch any day, or a cute sundress and strappy sandals. Light sweater, optional. Then I found myself in Winnipeg.
A few days in Manitoba’s snowflake-glistened capital city 70 miles north of the Minnesota border convinced me I had been missing tons of culture, cuisine, and camaraderie. While it’s true that Winnipeg has the lowest average winter temperatures of any major Canadian city, it is also one of the sunniest with 316 days of lapis lazuli sky a year. That helps a lot.
In case you wonder, I did not confine myself to climate-controlled interiors to escape the deep freeze and piercing wind. The outdoor adventures were too thrilling. I learned the secret to staying – if not warm – then warm-ish: Snow pants. Which I haven’t worn since grade school.
I anchored my stay at The Forks, a 55-acre urban park and Winnipeg’s Number One tourist destination. Located where the Assiniboine River splits from the Red River, it has been a significant meeting place for over 6,000 years. Indigenous peoples gathered here, followed by European fur traders and tens of thousands of immigrants.
A national historic landmark, The Forks today is a conglomeration of land, water, and ice recreation; fabulous public art; an energetic food hall; upscale boutique shopping; and Sauna Winnipeg with two six-person barrel saunas, changing house, and firepit.
Perched on a hillside behind the inn is a colossal silver structure that initially has you believing your vision is blurred.
The structure alludes to the ubiquitous – yet unaffordable for so many – bicycles on the streets during the artist’s childhood in China.
Festival du Voyageur
I had an excellent reason to visit Canada’s coldest city during the coldest month: The Festival du Voyageur, an annual celebration of French-Canadian and Métis history and culture. Métis generally refers to people with a mixed European and indigenous ancestry.
The showpiece of it all is Fort Gibraltar, a replica 19th century fur trading fort, where costumed interpreters engage in life skills of the era like metal forging, woodworking, and hide tanning. Surrounding the fort are a host of Instagram-able snow sculptures, food kiosks galore, and super-sized tents where non-stop musical performers are on stage. Challenge yourself at axe-throwing, or make your own maple taffy, a sweet treat fashioned by pouring hot syrup on pristine snow, then placing a candy stick at one end and rolling up the syrup while it cools.
A Maze in Corn is a family farm turned into year-round family recreation. In winter, that means a snow maze crowned the world’s largest by the Guinness Book of World Records. Its thick, six-and-a-half-foot walls blocked any wind gusting my way. Also onsite are a luge run and sledding hill, sleigh rides, live entertainment, and a warming barn.
Fort Whyte Alive is an urban wilderness oasis redeveloped from a former cement plant. My first trek on snowshoes led me past the resident herd of prairie bison and an authentic sod house. Our group also made bannock, a tribal flatbread, over an open fire. You might take a swift toboggan ride onto the frozen lake.
North American wildlife thrives at Assiniboine Park Zoo, internationally renowned for its polar bear exhibit, rescue team, and research center. Visit with the resident grey wolf pack and fluffy sweet-faced Arctic fox. Walk through the see-through underwater tunnel to watch polar bears frolic in their pools overhead. Dangling used fire hoses seem to be an intriguing and hardy toy.
Snow was gently falling, and the temperature hovered near zero degrees. Nevertheless, I donned a swimsuit, thick terry robe, and flip-flops, and gingerly stepped into the frozen wonderland known as Thermëa by Nordik Spa-Nature.
My evening began in a three-level sauna for a therapeutic and entertaining Aufguss (German word for “infusion”) ritual, during which snowballs infused with essential oils are lobbed onto hot rocks. At the sound of a gong, the sauna meister performs a series of rhythmic movements while waving the scented steam throughout the room with a towel.
I can’t believe I was talked into this, but after the Aufguss ritual, I followed the crowd outdoors, hung up my robe, and ran through a pool under the deluge of a cold-water waterfall. Then I jumped into one of the warming pools, which felt heavenly in contrast. For the rest of my time, I alternated between hot and cold, wet and dry experiences. An outdoor spa in winter seems so very counter-intuitive, but Thermëa is splashy anytime.
A cultural Mecca
A shiny beacon within The Forks complex is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a museum devoted to celebrating and promoting the rights of all people. The exterior, composed of more than 1,600 overlapping glass panels, is dramatic but the interior is even more so. You scale seven stories of glowing alabaster-lined ramps from the darkness of the first level to a glass elevator that transports you through the sky-piercing Tower of Hope and panoramic city views.
The Manitoba Museum is a natural history museum with a planetarium and science gallery reflecting the heritage of the province.
Step aboard and make your way below deck to view the captain’s cabin and claustrophobia-inducing quarters of the intrepid crew.
Winnipeg Art Gallery focuses on Canadian, indigenous, and international artists, with more than 27,000 works in its collections. A newly opened expansion, Qaumajuq, houses the world’s largest collection of Inuit art, including carvings, drawings, and needlework.
Winnipeg’s foodie scene bursts with energy and international flair. From my hotel, I darted across the street to the lively food and shopping emporium, The Forks Market. Surrounding a rousing common dining space are a couple dozen purveyors of diverse culinary options from a mini-donut factory to an Argentinian steakhouse.
For a more intimate dining experience at The Forks Market, the Mediterranean-influenced Passero is a small sit-down restaurant and wine bar tucked inconspicuously into the multitude. My companions and I sampled several shareable plates and had to agree, both the yellow fin tuna carpaccio and lobster risotto were deliciously layered with flavors and artistically presented.
More memorable dines: Hargrave Street Market is an upscale globally-inspired food hall with a craft brewery and cocktail bar located downtown above an epicurean grocery store. Feast Cafe Bistro is a neighborhood eatery in the West End that serves modern dishes rooted in traditional First Nations foods. Bison chili, walleye sliders, and bannock pizza are featured. Clementine is laudable for creative brunch fare in the historic Exchange District.
Breweries and distilleries offer much to pour over, many of them incorporating local grain, hops, berries, and botanicals.
More info: Tourism Winnipeg
Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.