Winning Winnipeg

In a week that features Winnipeg hosting the Grey Cup, another feel-good story greeted the city and emphasized why it should be a major tourism destination.

National Geographic Traveler listed Winnipeg as one of the magazine’s 20 Best Trips 2016. The article listing the city in the company of such destinations as New York City, Bermuda and the Danube River, referred to Winnipeg as the “Little Spark on the Prairie.”

Winnipeg was pitched as a destination for the list by Kimberley Lovato, a San Francisco-based freelance writer for NGT. In the end, a list of 20 destinations were selected from 250 proposals from National Geographics writers from around the world.

“National Geographic Traveler presents the New Year’s must-see places,” according to the magazine’s introduction to the list. “Whether it’s Botswana's Great Plains or snow-covered Greenland, these 20 go-now destinations will get you packing.”

The article by Lovato featuring the Manitoba capital began with the obvious: “Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, doesn’t usually find its way onto bucket lists.”

Indeed. Even when telling people in other Canadian cities, especially Vancouver, that you’re from Winnipeg, the common reply is, “Oh, you mean Winter-peg.” According to an Ottawa Sun article about travelling from that city to this year’s Grey Cup, “Winnipeg didn’t earn its nickname, ‘Winterpeg,’ without a reason ... Our advice: dress warm.”

Of course, it’s a slur, but Winnipeggers can now boast — thanks to NGT — that it’s no longer just Winter-peg, but one of the world’s 20 Best Trips, a must-go to city. May be people from far-off destinations, who wouldn’t normally visit Winnipeg, will come to check it out while on their Canadian journey.

The magazine admits that Winnipeg in winter has “notoriously bone-chilling temperatures,” but that doesn’t stop Winnipeggers from celebration their city.

The cold “doesn’t stop Winnipeggers from skating the frozen Red River to applaud winners of the annual warming-hut competition, or heading to St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s French quarter, for the Festival du Voyageur, one of the city’s many festivals.”

“This multicultural, multilingual metropolis of 800,000, affectionately called the Peg by locals, blipped onto international radar screens in 2014 when the Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened here, and again this past summer when the FIFA Women’s World Cup passed through,” wrote Lovato, who has regularly visited the city over the last couple of decades (she has in-laws here).

The World Cup was a highly successful and introduced people from around the world to Winnipeg. According to the majority of the media reports arising during the event, visitors were pleasantly surprised about all the things to see and do in the prairie city.

The $351-million Canadian Museum for Human Rights has put Winnipeg on the international museum map. It’s the first national museum built outside the Ottawa capital region. The unique structure has won awards for architecture, engineering, design, content and innovation in digital media. It has attracted over 400,000 visitors with about 53 per cent from outside the province.

It also happens to be in The Forks,  one of the city’s other major tourist attractions which is commonly the first place visited by guests to the city.

“Planted midway between Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Winnipeg is a whistle-stop on rail and road trips across Canada; polar bear and beluga whale enthusiasts know it as the starting point for their journey north to Churchill,” wrote Lovato. “But this unpretentious prairie city proves itself worthy of more than a glance from a train window.”

“I love the Peg,” said Martina Hutchison, an assistant at the Manitoba Museum, told Lovato. “But I hate to brag too much about it because I don’t want it to get any bigger.”

“Winnipeg’s 30-block Exchange District hums with music venues, galleries, restaurants, and boutiques,” wrote Lovato.

She pointed out that from June through September the attractions to look out for are farmers markets and outdoor concerts and events like the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and from December to March there’s skating and tobogganing at Arctic Glacier Winter Park.

“Use the efficient Winnipeg Transit public bus system. Routes connect the airport to downtown (5:50 a.m. until 12:49 a.m.), where you can ride the free Downtown Spirit. This daily transit service has three routes and stops near restaurants, shopping districts, and other major downtown attractions. Use Winnipeg Transit’s helpful Navigo tool to plan any bus trip.”

Oh, my. The main complaint from locals is that Winnipeg’s Transit system is broken. Funny how a visitor came put things into a better perspective.

One of the places to stay mentioned by Lovato is the 20-storey Alt Hotel, which opened in April 2015. She said it “is arguably the coolest recent addition to downtown. Located near the Exchange District and across the street from the MTS Centre, the city’s major sports and entertainment venue, the 160-room Alt blends local flavor and an ultrahip, minimalist aesthetic. The lobby art installation features more than 2,000 images by Winnipeg photographer Bryan Scott, and rooms and common areas have lots of bare cement walls and natural light.”

Of course, the MTS Centre is viewed with pride by Winnipeggers, especially since the return of the Jets, something that most locals would claim was the single best happening in the city in the last 20 years.

Lovato gives a well-earned plug to local First Nations artisans, which is something that should be further promoted as one of Winnipeg’s special features. “First Nations’ artisans make, display, and sell  their original pieces — including custom mukluks, carved soapstone seals, and rawhide drums — at Cree-ations, a family-run artist studio and store with two Winnipeg locations.”

Carol Shields, who called Winnipeg home for decades before her death in Victoria in 2003, is singled out by Lovato as a source of what to read before coming to the city to gain useful insights into how the community ticks. “Several short stories and novels by Pulitzer Prize-winning (for fiction) author Carol Shields, including The Republic of Love (Open Road Media, 2013) and Larry’s Party (Penguin Books, 1998), were set in her adopted hometown of Winnipeg.”

Lovato even mentions the time-honoured and unique tradition of the “‘Manitoba social,’ a prenuptial fundraising party for the almost wed. Most socials follow the same formula: Hire a hall, sell tickets, and pack in as many people as possible to dance, drink, bid on prizes or buy raffle tickets, and raise a stash of cash for the happy couple.”

Winnipeg had to go through an extensive selection process by the editors of the Washington-based magazine to make the 20 Best Trips 2016, a recognition that the city has earned its place in the world pantheon of must-go places to visit. What an endorsement for the city  where the Red and Assiniboine meet!