In all my years traveling the globe, it’s been my fortune to visit and/or write about nearly every major Canadian city. From St. John’s, Newfoundland in the east to Victoria, British Columbia in the west, I’ve had the opportunity to get a taste of some of the urban life, culture and attractions found in our gigantic neighbor to the north.
Somehow, though, I missed three diverse and exciting cities located in the Canadian prairie. Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon somehow slipped through the cracks, and, by gum, I was determined to add them someday to my list of major Canadian urban experiences.
The day finally came on September 12 this year when I flew to Winnipeg, jumped into a rental car and started a nine-day, 820-mile sojourn through the Canadian heartland provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. While the bulk of my trip centered in the three cities, I also got a taste of the countryside, where vast expanses of wheat and grain fields, fresh water lakes, photo-worthy valleys and vistas, small towns and massive wind turbines dot the landscape.
Mid-September proved a perfect time to visit as the temperatures hovered in the mid-70s by day, and the stretch of blue skies and rainless days continued throughout my week-and-a-half-long auto tour. It gave credence to Environment Canada’s ranking of Manitoba in the number one slot for clearest skies year-round and the number two spot as Canada’s sunniest province in winter and spring.
With good weather, a shiny new car, and an amiable photographer friend along for company, I set off through terra incognito looking for new adventures. Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed because every day of the trip they came my way by the bushelfuls.
On my first day in Canada’s eighth-largest city—home to 60 percent of the province’s population—I walked from my base in the Radisson to the site of the new and architecturally stunning, $351 million Canadian Museum of Human Rights. Located at “The Forks,” where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet. The Antoine Predock-designed museum is set to open September 20, 2014, which is why I only managed to get a look around on a “hard-hat tour.”
The massive building covers the equivalent of four football fields and incorporates complex, even unusual, geometrical designs in its structure. Four stone roots representing all humans as children of the Earth rise from the ground, then lead to alabaster ramps that crisscross a series of galleries wrapped in a massive glass facade. Eventually, the visitor’s human rights journey rises to a Garden of Contemplation which sits beneath a spiral staircase fitted into a 23-story tall Tower of Hope. From both near and far, the imposing structure adds an impressive element to Winnipeg’s skyline.
When completed, museum galleries will throw light on issues such as those around indigenous peoples, the Holocaust, genocide and labor, women, religion, sexual freedom and immigration.
Within shouting distance of the museum is another of the city’s architectural gems, the Esplanade Riel Pedestrian Bridge. Named for Louis Riel, a Canadian politician who led his fellow Metis (people of mixed Native American and European ancestry) in their fight to maintain their rights and culture, the bridge has a central tower from which support cables splay outward like the sail of a ship. The interest doesn’t stop with the spectacular bridge’s unique design. It also supports uber-sophisticated Chez Sophie, the only restaurant in North American located on a bridge.
Spanning the Red River, the bridge crosses over into St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s French Quarter, where one of the most interesting sites is the facade and walls of the 1900 cathedral, the only thing left after the fire of 1968. Just beyond the facade and ruins is a newer cathedral, completed four years after the earlier one burned.
One of the best ways I found to get a good overview not only of St. Boniface and the downtown area but also of the 283 acre Assiniboine Park and some of Winnipeg’s toniest residential areas was to book a motorcoach tour with O Tours. Their roughly two-hour long excursion through the city starts at Union Station and includes a stop at the magnificent provincial Legislative Building.
While guided and self-guided tours of the esoteric legislative building are available, I’d suggest signing on to the Hermetic Code tour, which I consider a rare treat. Billed as a temple in disguise and something out of the “DaVinci Code” by researcher Frank Albo, the building echoes thousands of years of architectural history, encoded details from the occult, hidden hieroglyphic inscriptions, numerological codes and Freemason symbols.
The tour ends at the Pool of the Black Star, where visitors get to feel the power of the building and experience some very interesting auditory phenomena. A part of the Canadian Tourism Commission’s Signature Experience Collection, the tour alone is a good reason to visit Winnipeg.
One of the hippest sections of town, Corydon is alive with a sophisticated mix of boutiques, galleries and eateries. By chance I happened on Mise Bistro (phone: 204-284-7916), a fashionable yet unpretentious restaurant that features “Haute Prairie Cuisine.” From its wonderfully creative menu, we tried the Jerk Duck Wings with cilantro, yogurt and lime, roasted beet salad with sherry vinaigrette, walnuts and chevre and the cornmeal-crusted Manitoba Pickerel (walleye) with white bean brodo, rosemary, pancetta and shellfish.
All photos in this story were taken by Bill Rockwell.
Part 2 of Dave’s Canadian journey introduces him to more architectural highlights and Winnipeg’s polar bear connection to Churchill on Hudson Bay. And check out more from Dave on his blog at pittsburghowlscribe.blogspot.com.