Hear about travel to Winnipeg, Manitoba as the Amateur Traveler talks to return guest Michael Soncina of Sonchy’s Adventures about this city on the great plains of Canada.
Michael says “I didn’t know I was Canadian until I went to Winnipeg. While I was there I went curling, I learned about trapper and aboriginal history. There was a lot of history about the railroad and the Hudson’s Bay Company. So all these big iconic things that make you Canadian you come in contact with when you are in Winnipeg.”
Michael took the train from Toronto to Winnipeg on Via Rail. “You know when you hit Manitoba because everything goes flat. Once you get to Winnipeg you need to focus on the city. One of the biggest attractions in Winnipeg is The Forks and this is the area on the waterfront right behind the train station. The first thing you will see when you pull into the station is the new Human Rights Museum. Right next to the Human Rights Museum is The Forks. The Forks has a long history: an aboriginal settlement, a trading community for the Hudson’s Bay Company (their first trading post in the province). Then after that, it became part of the main railway. And now it’s a social and tourist destination The Forks Market which is a large indoor shopping complex with food from all over the world, interesting shops on the top that sell Irish goods to aboriginal art. There’s a couple of theatre buildings there [in the Forks], especially for children. There are some good restaurants.
“What people do in the wintertime is skate. The Assiniboine and Red River are wonderful to skate upon. Around the time I went, which was early February, they had this warming hut competition so these engineers and architects from all over the world build these bizarre huts along the river. There was a huge festival going on when I was there at the Festival du Voyageur. The Voyageur are French frontiersmen. These were your Davy Crocketts of the Canadian wilderness and they were French. There is a big festival to celebrate these voyageurs. They do it in Fort Gibraltar which is in the French Quarter of Winnipeg. You have an international ice sculpture competition. You have people wearing period costumes, coopers making barrels, blacksmiths making everything. They had war reenactments. There are a lot of outdoor activities. You can go snowshoeing. There are ice slides, huge music acts, a lot of French folk music, a lot of interesting foods.”
Michael recommends neighborhoods like the Exchange District and Museums like the Museum of Human Rights, the Manitoba Museum, and the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The real attraction of the Manitoba Museum is a recreation of the first Hudson’s Bay Company ship that came to Winnipeg. He also enjoyed a visit to Fort Whyte Alive which is a half-hour outside of the city center. It recreates and explains aboriginal and prairie life.
Taking the Train in Canada
Warming Huts at the Forks
Festival du Voyageur
Canadian Museum of Human Rights
The Exchange District
Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG)
Manitoba’s Legislative Building
Fort Whyte Alive
Half Pints Brewery
Winnipeg Railway Museum
Journey to Churchill
Inn at the Forks
Manitoba Theatre Center
The way we board airplanes makes absolutely no sense
‘Bikini ban’ slated for Spanish island of Mallorca
Chris: Amateur Traveler, Episode 417.
Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about the Great Plains railroads and a winter festival that celebrates fur trappers as we go to Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen.
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I’d like to welcome back to the show Michael Soncina, who’s come to talk to us about Winnipeg. Michael, welcome back to the show.
Michael: Hi, Chris.
Chris: Now, you are from Canada but not from Winnipeg, but did a trip over to Winnipeg. And Winnipeg is in what province?
Michael: In Manitoba.
Michael: So, the joke about Winnipeg is that it’s Canada’s belly button because it’s right smack dab in the middle of the country.
Chris: It’s a little further south, isn’t it? Isn’t it one of the most southern cities in Canada?
Michael: It is.
Chris: Okay. And why should someone go to Winnipeg?
Michael: Well, one thing is this is kind of a cool Canadian city. I kind of joke with my friends that I didn’t realize I was Canadian until I went to Winnipeg.
Chris: Okay, you’ve got to explain that one.
Michael: Well, because while I was there, I went curling, I learned about trapper and aboriginal history; there was a lot of history about the railroad and the Hudson Bay Company. And so all these really big, iconic things that make you Canadian, you kind of come into contact with while you’re in Winnipeg.
Chris: Got it.
Michael: And for me, someone who comes from Toronto, Toronto is a wonderful city, but it doesn’t really have a strong Canadian identity. Our claim to fame is our multiculturalism.
Chris: Right. Well, over half the people in Toronto were born outside of Canada. So yeah, that makes sense.
Michael: Exactly. So when you’re in Winnipeg, though they have that multiculturalism as well, you just kind of feel a little bit more Canadian because the activities there are a little more ‘stereotypical’. But I was very lucky, because this was kind of like my great Canadian adventure. I listened to Sherry Ott…
Chris: Sherry Ott?
Michael: Yeah, who went to Nova Scotia. She took the train down to Nova Scotia, so I did the same. VIA rail was nice enough to sponsor my trip from Toronto to Winnipeg. Canadians don’t really think about taking the train anywhere because it’s looked at as like a tourist attraction. But I think that’s really how you have to do it, because from Toronto to Winnipeg, it takes about a day and a half, but you see all this wonderful scenery in Ontario and you kind of end up in Winnipeg after a couple of days on the train, and talking to people from that place and it gives you a really good history of where you’re going.
Chris: And so the route on the train is all the way along the Great Lakes then, too?
Michael: No, it’s mostly forested scenery that you see. It was winter when I went, so when I looked outside the window, if there were any lakes, they were covered in snow. We were often confused about where we were. But you go through a couple of small villages, and it is a lot of forest and ferns and kind of that very Canadian wilderness that you think about. But you know once you hit Manitoba, because everything becomes flat and you don’t see the trees anymore. You know you’re in the Prairie Provinces.
Michael: And the Canadian train is kind of cool too, because VIA Rail I’d never been on, and it kind of made me feel like I was in The Maltese Falcon or on the Orient Express because they have the nice dining cars and things like this, so it was kind of a luxury way to travel. I didn’t think Canada had that.
Chris: Excellent. And you had a compartment…?
Michael: Yeah, I was very fortunate to have a sleeper car. So what I would do is go into my little car, put on some opera and just watch the scenery go by. But in the viewing room, it’s also nice because you can talk to a lot of people. They had wine tasting at night, so you could try wine from all over Canada and hors d’oeuvres. And the food was quite nice, like lamb, which I wouldn’t normally get myself. So it was really cool.
Chris: Excellent. So once you get to Winnipeg, what do you recommend for an itinerary on seeing Winnipeg?
Michael: Well, once you get to Winnipeg, I think you need to focus on the city. One of the biggest attractions in Winnipeg is The Forks. This is the area on the waterfront right behind the train station. So you’ll get into Union, and the first thing you’ll see once you pull into the station is the new Human Rights Museum. Then, right next to the Human Rights Museum is The Forks.
The Forks has a long history of being an aboriginal settlement, and then it was a big trading community for the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was actually their first trading post in the province. Then after that, it became part of the main railway. And now, it’s kind of a social and tourist destination. So there’s The Forks Market, which is a large indoor shopping complex with food from all over the world, and kind of interesting shops on the top that sell Irish goods to aboriginal art.
Chris: And you say The Forks – and I assume we’re talking about a fork between the Red River and the – what is the other river?
Michael: The Assiniboine.
Chris: The Assiniboine River. Okay.
Michael: Yeah. That’s exactly where it is.
So that area has a lot of really interesting things like the market; there’s a couple of theater buildings there, especially for children. There’s some good restaurants, and what people do in the wintertime is of course skate. The Assiniboine and Red River are wonderful to skate on. Around the time I went, which was early February, they had this warming hut competition. These engineers and architects from all over the world built these bizarre huts along the river. Some of them were meant to look like igloos, some of them were – looked like big hairballs in the way they had done it. Some of them were like art nouveau, these big, blue boxes. It was an international competition. This Israeli team put trees in the middle of the ice rink, and that was their hut.
So if you’re into design and you’re into art and you’re into kind of seeing different ideas from all over, it was kind of an interesting thing. I didn’t realize how artsy Winnipeg was, but as you go through the city, you really do see this design and art influence all over the place.
Chris: Now, let’s back up just a little bit. You went to Winnipeg when you could skate on the river. I’m going to guess that February is not the height of tourist season for Winnipeg.
Michael: No, but I think domestically it is. I think a lot of people in Manitoba will come to Winnipeg in the winter because there’s so much going on in that period.
Chris: Was there a specific festival or event you were there for?
Michael: Well, I wasn’t there for the specific event, but there was a huge event going on while I was there called the Festival du Voyageur. The Voyageurs are like French frontier men. They would come from Quebec, they would go to Thunder Bay, get materials and then head to Fort Gibraltar in Winnipeg, and these guys would be like door-to-door salesman. While the Hudson’s Bay had a stationary outpost all over Canada, the Voyageur would kind of go there, trade, get their goods and sell around. So they were very respected, because these were like your Davy Crocketts of the Canadian wilderness and they were French.
So there’s a big festival there in February to celebrate the Voyageurs. They do it in Fort Gibraltar, which is in the French Quarter of Winnipeg, and it’s full of ice sculptures from – once again, you have this international ice sculpture competition. You have people wearing period costumes, coopers making barrels, and the blacksmiths were open making all sorts of things. They had war reenactments. There were people selling in fur shops, and just kind of making you feel like you’re in that period. There’s also the Maison du Bourgeois, which is kind of the Governor’s house. They turned it into this really, really nice restaurant.
Chris: The House of the Bourgeois is the name of the Governor’s house? Well, that’s interesting.
Michael: Yeah, I know. I know. He’s the head of the fort. So he’s like a middle class gentleman appointed by the Brits. But the restaurant was fantastic. It was Quebecois comfort food, so pea soup and tourtiere, which is like a meat pie, and then there was sugar pie for dessert and all sorts of wine.
Chris: And sugar pie is like a pecan pie? I mean, are we talking about that kind of sweet? I don’t know what a sugar pie is.
Michael: Exactly. Think about a pecan pie without the pecans.
Michael: I’m allergic to nuts, so I’m not sure what a pecan pie tastes like, but it looks like the…
Chris: It tastes like death, I believe.
Michael: For me, it would. But do you know what a butter tart is?
Chris: I think so.
Michael: So, they usually have raisins in them or nuts. They’re kind of a brownish color. It tasted like the filling of a butter tart almost.
Michael: So you can do that. And the cool thing about the festival is that there really is something for everybody. It was basically looked at as a smaller version of Carnival that normally happens in Quebec. So there’s a lot of outdoor activities where you can go snow shoeing, there’s ice slides; huge music acts. So, the winners of the Juno, which is like a huge music award in Canada, they were playing at the Festival du Voyageur. A lot of French folk music, a lot of interesting foods.
Apparently, Manitoba is the largest consumer of snow cones and slushies in Canada, which I can’t understand because it’s freezing there. So there’s all these Slushie stands. You can get all types of poutine. I don’t know if you know what poutine is…
Michael: So, it’s French fries with cheese – cheese curds and gravy. Also, all sorts of French meat dishes and maple syrup. So people are there to kind of eat, dance and drink.
The real funny, kind of signature drink of the Festival du Voyageur is called Caribou, because it was said that back in the day when the Voyageur came to Winnipeg, it was so cold that they would – after they killed a caribou for the meat, they would put the blood into a glass and mix brandy with it and drink it. So they had something called Caribou which is pork and brandy served in an ice cup, and this is kind of the signature drink of the Festival du Voyageur. And everybody jokes that if you come to the party late and everybody else is already a little bit tipsy, you just chug back a couple of Caribous because you’ll catch up with everybody really quickly.
Chris: Okay. And they’re serving them in ice cups, so is the festival mostly outdoors?
Michael: Yes, it is mostly outdoors. What they do is they have these little tents – or huge tents, actually, depending on what the event is inside, and that’s when you’ll go indoors.
Michael: And the other thing that struck me as interesting – and this might be a little controversial – is that you see a lot of fur at the festival because this is a festival that celebrates…
Michael: …kind of frontiersmen and trappers. So I think people in Winnipeg generally have some kind of fur, whether it’s been passed down in their family for generations or it’s something that they decided to purchase. A lot of what I understand is that it is trapped locally by local hunters, and it’s done in an ethical manner. So I don’t feel too badly about it when people wear it because there is a way of doing it that’s proper, and that seems to be what they’re promoting at the festival.
Chris: Okay. Interesting. And you mentioned right in the first part and we went on past it, the new museum there, the Museum of Human Rights, I assume that was one of the reasons you were there, also?
Michael: Absolutely. Personally, I have a background in international development, so I was really interested to see this museum. It’s really important because it’s the first museum outside of Ontario that’s a national museum.
Chris: Oh, interesting. Okay.
Michael: So this is going to be a huge attraction once it opens up, and they’ve put a lot of funding into it; they’ve put a lot of time into it. It’s not open to the public yet, but my understanding is that it should open in September.
Chris: September, okay. I couldn’t remember.
Michael: We’ll find out. They’re just trying to get all the things finalized.
And the inside, from what I saw, was really beautiful. They have a lot of kind of interesting design concepts. The bottom of the museum is this garden of reflection which is made from Mongolian volcanic stone, and they’re going to have water running through it. There’s a giant Tyndall mountain inside. Tyndall is a type of limestone that’s found in Manitoba, and they have this beautiful mountain. All of the offices in the building are visible from anywhere else in the museum to kind of show that idea of transparency, which is very important for human rights. So the design concept is really cool.
The guy who did it is called Antoine Predock. I hope I’m saying his name right. And the outside of the building looks like dove’s wings. It’s supposed to look like a tree or a plant coming out of the ground, so there’s these four giant roots at the bottom which are the various wings of the museum. And the glass facade on the outside looks like dove’s wings to show peace and et cetera. So there’s a lot of symbolism in the building.
Chris: And there was a connection with Winnipeg in terms of why they have this museum there besides just a wealthy donor. I don’t remember the connection between Winnipeg and human rights.
Michael: Well, there’s a lot of aboriginal communities in Winnipeg, and I have a feeling that had a lot to do with it. But it does seem like it was a family that it was their dying wish to have this museum there. So the donor had a very big role to play in the museum. But I didn’t hear anything about direct human rights and why Winnipeg, or if I did, I don’t remember what the connection was. But from what I understand, it was very much the brainchild of the family who wanted it there.
Chris: The other thing that I recall, and I was just looking it up to see if I was correct, is that Winnipeg was also the first Canadian province to give women the right to vote.
Michael: I believe you. Winnipeg is kind of an interesting situation because throughout history, it’s evolved very quickly. In the 1900’s, it was the richest city in Canada. Right before the Great Depression, it was a booming city because of all the grain and the trade and the railroad construction in the city. And you still see a lot of that.
Chris: My impression is Winnipeg is to Canada as Chicago is to the U.S. Is that a good comparison?
Michael: Well, yeah. A lot of the architecture in Winnipeg is very similar to the architecture in Chicago.
Chris: But I also mean the railroad hub and things like that.
Michael: Absolutely, absolutely.
Chris: Was this your first trip to Winnipeg?
Michael: Yeah. It was kind of done on a fluke. I have a friend who lives out there, and she’s like, you have to come visit me, and I’m like, I can’t find a reason to come halfway across the country to do this. It’s a little bit expensive. So I said to the tourism board, I’m really interested in writing a piece, because people don’t really know a lot about Winnipeg. Especially if you’re from Vancouver or Toronto, you kind of unfortunately dismiss the place.
So as I started doing some research I became really interested, because it seems to be a city that’s growing. Right now, it’s in like a phase of mass cultural realization, in a sense. A lot of the young people who were living out in Toronto and other places are coming back to Winnipeg, and they’re pumping new life into the city.
A lot of fun about Winnipeg is just walking around. There is something called the Exchange District, where you’re going to see a lot of these Chicago-style or 1900 style architecture. So the old bank buildings, the old office buildings all have the facade from that period. This is where you’re going to find the art galleries and the cafes and kind of the kitschy vintage clothing stores. This area is becoming really popular in Winnipeg, and it’s kind of interesting to see how the youth are pumping energy into that area to make it interesting again.
And oddly enough, there’s all these old signs that have been left. I mean, you see Pepsi all over the city. I think in maybe the 1960s, Pepsi was the choice of Winnipeg.
Chris: All right.
Michael: You go to Winnipeg I would say for three main purposes – a) you would go to The Forks because that is a very developed tourist area; then you would go see the museum, and we’ve already talked about the Museum of Human Rights; there’s also the WAG, which is the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which is also very interesting. They have modern Inuit art inside, and they also have rotating exhibits. When I was there, there was something called “Off the Beaten Path,” which was using art to talk about women’s rights. So, various artists from all over the world had donated different pieces to show kind of women’s oppression and women’s liberations in various parts of the world. Yoko Ono had something there. There was something dealing with women in war, something dealing with women’s roles in Asia, and it was really interesting. And the architecture of the WAG, or the Winnipeg Art Gallery, itself is really interesting. So people who are really interested in architecture should go to see that.
You’ll see that there’s a lot of interesting buildings in Winnipeg. If you walk down Broadway, that’s where you’re going to see the Courthouse and that’s where you’re going to see the Legislative building and the house where the Governor General lives. These are all also very interesting buildings.
The Legislative building is actually the most expensive legislation building in all of Canada, and it’s got crazy history and symbolism. There’s something called the Hermetic Tour, and this will go in and tell you all the different kind of aspects of the Legislative building. There’s a bunch of funny stories. There’s these two giant bison statues in the front of the building, and the floor of the Legislative building is all marble, it comes from Tennessee and Italy, and when they wanted to bring these bison in, they realized that if they pushed it, it was going to destroy the floor, which they’d already put in. So the legend is that they put these bison on two giant bricks of ice and essentially skated them in, not to destroy the floor.
Michael: When you get into the building, there’s all sorts of Greek mythological symbolism. There’s bizarre Mason symbols. There’s this black blood star in the bottom – on the first floor. There’s more of this Tyndall limestone, and when you look really closely at it, you see little fossils that were in the stone when it was brought into the building.
Apparently, this thing cost like $9 million, which was an astronomical amount of money at the time, and they just stopped building it because it was costing too much. But the building itself is really, really interesting, and there’s all this symbolism, like I was saying. There’s a sphinx on the roof. There’s a Greek god, the messenger god.
Michael: Yeah. So, Hermes is on the roof because the Masons believed that all these generations, all these different times are intermingled, so you see all these different symbols from various generations. So the Legislation building is really interesting.
I was lucky that I got to go into the Courthouse because there was a trial going on about a guy who was found in a barrel. So I got to go visit the court proceeding, which is open to the public. So if you’re interested in courtroom drama, you can go watch a session.
Chris: A real courtroom drama. Okay.
Michael: Yeah. The Manitoba Museum is also really nice, which is outside of the Exchange District. Here you’ll see Manitoba’s history and a lot of information about nature; the flora, the fauna. But the real attraction about the Manitoba Museum is something called the Nonsuch, which is a re-creation of the first ship that the Hudson’s Bay Company sent over to Winnipeg. Kids can go inside and walk around it and kind of get a real feel for what these ships looked like.
The Manitoba Museum was actually very impressive to me because not only did it go through all of the historical aspects of Winnipeg, they had a re-creation of a World War II quarter of Winnipeg, but they also just had a lot of really interesting interactive information. The people who worked there were really good to answer questions. It was just a really good way to spend an afternoon in Winnipeg if you’re a museum person because by the time you leave the museum, you understand the city’s history very well and the province’s history very well.
Chris: Now, you had sort of almost two sets of guides as you were in Winnipeg. You had connections with the tourism board, as you’ve mentioned, but you also had a friend there.
Chris: Where did the friend take you that may be a little bit more off the tourist path?
Michael: So, my friend actually works somewhere called FortWhyte Alive. It’s about half an hour outside – it’s in the city, but it’s outside the city center. This is a buffalo safari place; they do re-creations of prairie life in Manitoba. And this was really cool – the train was delayed because the tracks broke, so I was unfortunate enough not to be able to do some snowshoeing, but generally people who go up to FortWhyte get to have that real authentic kind of prairie experience, so you go snowshoeing. And then our guide did this fantastic explanation about indigenous life in Manitoba, how the Cree lived, about the Metis, who are half French and half aboriginal in background, and talked about how they used the bison, talked about the history of the bison, talked about their lives, and it was really, really interesting to see how much knowledge the guide knew about the life of the aboriginals.
And then they take you to a sod house, which was made by the first Scottish and Irish settlers in Manitoba, and they taught you how they lived and you got to eat local food like local teas and breads. So you got to really taste and smell what those settlers would have eaten and drank.
And you got to learn how to hunt. Apparently, the early aboriginals didn’t have spears but they had something they called atlatls. They are darts that you would throw at the bison. So everyone gets one of these darts and gets to try their luck at throwing them. It was pretty funny because no one really got past a foot or two, but it was pretty amusing to watch all of these tourists try to hunt a mythological bison.
Chris: And you’re throwing them by hand, or with a spear-thrower sort of thing, or…?
Michael: So, it has a sling almost. So it’s a long piece of leather with a little hook at the bottom, and you would use that to project the spear. But they’re not sharp. They’re dull at the end, so it’s an interesting concept. You would basically use them to direct the bison in the way that you want the hunters to go, and then someone would finish the job.
Chris: Hmm. Okay.
Michael: But that to me was the highlight of my trip. I like museums and I liked The Forks; there was a lot of interesting history there, it was beautiful. The art on the Assiniboine and the Red River with all the huts was cool. But kind of seeing all that history and getting to interact with it and taste it at FortWhyte Alive was really, really cool.
Chris: Well, it also sounds like something that kids could enjoy, elementary school age kids.
Michael: Yeah, it is a huge attraction for school groups. And if you want to go in the wintertime, it’s a little bit more – it’s not difficult, but you have to make plans ahead of time. You need a group I think of around four individuals, and then they’ll set the itinerary for you.
But then my friend also took me curling while I was in Winnipeg, which – I’ve watched curling a lot on TV, and it was never really something I wanted to do.
Chris: It is a uniquely Canadian sport. I mean, it’s basically competitive sweeping.
Michael: Yes. And you drink lots of beer while you’re doing it. So that makes it all the more fun.
Chris: That explains how the idea came together.
Michael: And everybody knew that I was a city boy, because the first time I went to go slide myself on the ice, I ended up face first on the ground. But there’s a learning curve, and it’s fun after a while. I think it’s one of those sports that watching it doesn’t make any sense, but once you try to play it, it’s a lot of fun.
Chris: And is there a unique Winnipeg beer that you drink when you’re there?
Michael: Well, Winnipeg actually has a couple microbrews. One is called Fort Garry, and they make a pale ale and a dark ale, and it was quite nice. Another one was called Farmery and they actually had one on the Dragons’ Den. So it has some fame to it. And there’s another brewery there called Half Pints, and they make a variety of different beers and it was quite good. So if you are a beer connoisseur, Winnipeg is a pretty good place to go try some local stuff.
Chris: What surprised you about Winnipeg?
Michael: I thought to myself I knew what cold was, and you don’t know what cold is until you go to Winnipeg. I had icicles on my mustache while I was skating down the river. Now, this shouldn’t deter you in any way, all I’m saying when I tell you about this is that it needs to be something that you take into consideration. Dress warm. Winnipeg in the winter is wonderful. Like I said, you can skate down the Assiniboine and Red River, you can go visit the Festival du Voyageur; you can do all these great things. Walking around the city is really nice, but you need to be warm when you do it. Mittens opposed to gloves. Long underwear should be a staple while you’re in Winnipeg in the wintertime.
Chris: And we should say that if that sounds way too cold for you, if you, like me, can’t ever picture saying this sentence that Michael did, that I was disappointed that I didn’t get to go snowshoeing, there’s always the summertime.
Michael: And the summertime in Winnipeg is awesome as well because Winnipeg is a festival city. There’s tons of festivals that go on there. And around the city, too, there’s a lot of different events. My friend was telling me that there’s a ruin about two hours away from Winnipeg where they stage Shakespearean plays. I want to go back for this Viking festival that happens somewhere around the city and people apparently wear period costumes and build their own boats. There’s a big folk festival there that’s really famous. Along the rivers, there’s other festivals. So, Winnipeggers get really mad at you when you joke about there being nothing there. You’re going to hear for an hour about how great the festivals are.
So one thing you really should take into consideration if you’re going to plan a trip to Winnipeg is if there’s a festival there that you want to do. The Festival du Voyageur was fantastic. I highly recommend it if you’ve never experienced Carnival or if you want to feel what a uniquely Winnipeg festival is. But there’s just tons of them, especially in the summertime.
Michael: The other kind of thing about Winnipeg that’s really interesting is, like I mentioned before, the Metis who live there or have a very high presence in Winnipeg – these are the half aboriginal and half settler kind of peoples – their kind of champion’s name was Louis Riel. And I don’t know much about Louis Riel. I know that he’s like the founding father of Manitoba. He helped get them into Canada. He’s a little bit controversial because he fought against the Brits. He ended up getting hanged because he – during one of the confrontations with the British he hung somebody, and this led to his eventual demise. But he’s a very important person in the city.
There is an English Quarter and a French Quarter, and if you go to the French Quarter, there’s this beautiful church called St. Boniface. The outer facade is what it originally looked like, and then they have a more modern church in the background. But the cemetery there is really cool. If you’re a history buff and you’d like to find out about Canada’s confederation or Canada’s founding, you have to go to St. Boniface. You have to visit the tomb of Louis Riel. You have to learn a little bit about this guy, because he played a very important role in the province. Also, the sights and the history around St. Boniface, whether related to him or related to the cathedral is also very interesting.
I know you’re a history guy, so I highly recommend that if you end up in Winnipeg, which I hope you do, that you go visit St. Boniface, because just the architecture of the church is amazing, the cemetery, and the back story of Louis Riel is also very important for the city.
Chris: Excellent. What do the guide books recommend that you would say probably isn’t worth the time?
Michael: I have a Canadian Lonely Planet which I brought with me to Winnipeg, and it basically had the same itinerary that the tourism board had recommended to me. So I would say that a lot of the information in here is pretty good. There is a Winnipeg Railway Museum, which I didn’t go into because I was told not to go into it because it’s a little bit old and it needs a little bit of updating, and unless you’re a train fanatic, it’s not going to be any value to you. So that would be the one thing that I would say not to do. And also, I think in the “Lonely Planet” it said that the Human Rights Museum is already open, which it’s not. So just check back on that.
Chris: Sure. Right.
Michael: There’s one other attraction that’s in Winnipeg that’s going to be really cool in the very near future; the Journey to Churchill exhibit at the Assiniboine Zoo. In the middle of the city essentially is a big park called the Assiniboine Park, and there’s a zoo there that was provincially run. Now it’s become a private project, and it’s going to have the biggest polar bear exhibit outside of Toronto.
Chris: Oh, I did hear about that.
Michael: They’re doing a lot of research, and I was lucky enough to get a private tour of the facility, and it seems really cool. What they’re essentially doing is revamping the zoo. They’re going to keep all their original exhibits, and then they’re also going to create this really interesting Churchill compound. One of the main attractions – they’re going to build this facility so that seals and polar bears can coexist in the same place, and it’s going to be divided by a glass enclosure and that’s supposed to be a very interesting way for people to see how the polar bears and the seals interact.
The whole site is also LEED certified. There’s a lot of environmental and creative architecture being put into it. It’s a huge research facility for polar bears and global warming. Because I’m an environmentalist, I’m very happy that the zoo has taken these steps to be proactive. And because Churchill is not really that far away from Winnipeg and you’ve done a show on Churchill, so I’m sure your listeners know much about it. It’s a good way to kind of promote what’s going on in that ecosystem.
Chris: When you say not that far away, we’re talking 500 miles or something? It’s a distance from there.
Michael: Well, yeah, but you can get a train or a plane.
Michael: Well, okay, if you’re going to go to Churchill, you’re going to stop in Winnipeg anyway. That’s where the connection is. So realistically, if you’re doing that trip, you’re going to end up in Winnipeg anyway, and it might be a good idea that if you’re going to go have your Churchill exhibit, maybe stop in the zoo as a way to orientate yourself with what you’re going to see once you get there.
They’ve actually created a restaurant and a gift shop that resembles the restaurant and the gift shop that’s in Churchill, so you have the same kind of visuals.
Chris: And again, anybody who’s interested in polar bears, we do also have that episode, as Michael referred to, that is Arctic Manitoba. So in case you missed that one, go back and listen to that one.
Now, the one thing I’ll have to say, when I did hear about this plan for the zoo putting the polar bears where they can see the seals but there’s a glass wall in between them seems just a little cruel to me.
Michael: I don’t know how that works exactly, but I was lucky enough to be taken around by the head zookeeper. He was telling us all about these new procedures the zoos are using in order to kind of have the animals have a more pleasant stay in the zoo and how to create better relations between the zookeepers and those animals. And they’re getting all sorts of certifications to bring up their levels in the zoo. They’re hiring better staff, they’re doing more courses; they’re getting more certifications. So whatever they’ve done, as cruel as this might sound, I think they’ve researched this so that the poor seals don’t end up being dinner.
Chris: Well, I wasn’t worried about that. I just thought it seemed cruel to the polar bears. If you put me in a zoo sometime, don’t put a pecan pie behind glass on the other side, that’s just all I’m saying.
Michael: I’ll remember that.
Chris: So, Michael, you are standing in the prettiest spot in Winnipeg, or at least the prettiest spot in Winnipeg in the winter. Where are you standing, and what are you looking at?
Michael: For me, it was my hotel room in The Forks. At night, you see the city lights in the background and you see the Museum for Human Rights, and this an arctic – covered in snow. That was the prettiest I’ve ever seen the city.
Chris: And you mentioned the hotel. Is it one that you would recommend?
Michael: Absolutely. I was lucky enough to stay in two different hotels while I was in Winnipeg. One was called the Inn at The Forks, the other one was called the Mere. The Inn at The Forks is, as the name says, located in The Forks, and it’s a very nice family hotel. On the main floor, there’s a restaurant called The Current, with really good food. So, it was an all-encompassing good experience. The rooms are quite big. There’s a lot of good sundries that are fair trade and ethical, and just the general feeling of the place was very nice.
The other hotel was called the Mere, which is located near the Exchange District and on the river. This place was a little bit different in concept. The rooms are very modern. Every room had an HDTV; there was an espresso machine there. I think it’s a little bit more geared toward business travelers and couples. If I had a girlfriend, I would definitely bring her there because there’s a partition in the washrooms where you can pull up the blinds so if you want to have a bath together or something and look out over the river, it gives a little bit more of a romantic feeling. The other cool thing about the Mere which I really liked was that the mini fridge has protein bars in it and juice and water, which is complementary.
So in my opinion, if you’re a family, the Inn at The Forks is a much better place. You’re near the attractions. The rooms are a little bit bigger and more comfortable. But if you’re a businessman who is running around and you want convenience and that little bit of comfort when you get back to the room or you’re a couple who wants to take advantage of the beautiful room and kind of the romantic aspects of the washroom, then I would go to the Mere.
Chris: Okay. As we get ready to wrap this up, a few last questions. Any particularly memorable locals that you ran into?
Michael: Oh, I have to say that I had two locals that I’ll never forget. One was Rene, who was the head zookeeper at the Assiniboine Zoo. He’s one of these guys who started there as the security guard or the night watchman and basically worked his way up in the company. He was just very down to earth, very knowledgeable and very funny. He was giving me good tips on how to meet women while I was in Winnipeg, which I think is very valuable for a single guy like me.
Chris: Is that different in Winnipeg than it is in Toronto?
Michael: Well, yeah, and most of the girls come from like Icelandic background, so there’s a lot of blondes with blue eyes who generally I wouldn’t speak with, but because there’s a greater volume of them in Winnipeg, I just feel my chances are greater.
Michael: But all jokes aside, he was a very compassionate about the animals. We got into a lot of conversations about – because I like to learn about eco travel, I like to learn about kind of sustainable and green things, and a zoo to me is not always the best representation of ethical ideas. And he was very realistic with me when we had that conversation. The truth is that unfortunately as humans, we are destroying a lot of the habitats of these animals, and if the zoos didn’t exist to some degree, we wouldn’t be able to protect some of these species. He has names for all of the animals. He has a deep love of all the animals, so it was really interesting to talk with him and see how this guy who started off as a security guard became the head zookeeper and just his compassion and love for the place.
The other guy was a marketing guy for tours in Winnipeg. His name was Cody, and he was just kind of – a lot of the other press trips I had taken, the people were very aggressive in pushing the destination. Cody was down-to-earth and we got into long conversations about “House of Cards” as we drove me to the zoo. So it was kind of nice to see a very authentic person. He gave me a lot of good advice about the city, things that I could use as an individual, to fit my content opposed to kind of being a faceless marketing guy.
Chris: And the best advice that Cody gave you was?
Michael: The best thing that Cody said to me was – he basically showed me how Winnipeg was going to grow. He really explained to me that there’s going to be more hotels there; there’s going to be more infrastructure. I think the problem with Winnipeg is that people don’t really look at it as a growing city. They look at it as kind of stagnant, in the middle of nowhere. A lot of the tourists who go to Winnipeg are from Manitoba who are visiting their family there. Just the way that he painted the city for me, that it’s going to be a place that’s growing; the art scene is going to grow, the college scene is going to grow, the financial scene is going to grow; the hotel infrastructure is going to grow. So the Winnipeg that I saw and the Winnipeg five years from now are not going to be the same place, and he really helped me to see that. Like, I’m contemplating moving to Winnipeg, that’s how good of an impression it made on me.
Chris: Okay. And you were there in February.
Michael: Yeah. So if somebody could convince me – and I don’t like the cold. I’m a big summer guy, so if someone could convince me to do that – it’s just that Winnipeg is a small town in a big city. That’s the best way to explain it. People are really authentic and nice. The various quarters are really cool. I lived, when I stayed with my friend, in the Osborne Village, and the Osborne Village is very much like an up-and-coming Kensington Market or Mission District in San Francisco. There’s a lot of antique shops there and a lot of really cool restaurants and baristas and things like that. When I see that kind of culture arising in a city, it makes me very excited. Toronto is nice, but Toronto is huge. Toronto is expensive, and Toronto is a little bit – let’s be realistic, a little bit pretentious because of all the things that it has. Now, you can go to Winnipeg, and you get all these really cool aspects of art, culture and life without the pretension and with all this room for growth, which makes it so cool.
So it doesn’t matter what kind of tourist you are. If you’re someone who wants to see a museum, if you’re someone who wants to see architecture, if you want to go to the zoo, if you want to go to FortWhyte Alive and feel what it’s like to be a pioneer, if you want to go to St. Boniface and learn about the history of Louis Riel, or if you just want to chill out and have an espresso, like, all those things are there. And that’s what really impressed me.
Chris: Excellent. I’ve got three more questions for you. Before I ask them, any last things that we should know before we put our snowshoes on and go to Winnipeg?
Michael: Well, one thing that I’ve got to be careful about is that Winnipeggers are wonderful people, and they will bash their city. They will talk about how cold it is, how there’s nothing to do there, how they wish that they had more things, but the minute that you say that, someone will get really defensive with you. So just keep that in mind that I think a lot of the information that you get about Winnipeg is not going to be positive.
But once you get there, your mind is going to be blown. So just be positive the entire time while you’re there, even if it’s too cold or even if it’s – because they have a sense of humor about it, but they don’t want you to insult their city. If you come from a place like Toronto or Vancouver, I think the problem has been that a lot of these big city folk -pardon my [slag 37:51] of comment – stepped on their city. So appreciate it for what it is, because it is a really cool place.
Chris: Well, I think that’s good advice for anywhere you go.
Michael: The other really cool thing about Winnipeg is that it’s got a huge art scene and it’s got a huge sports scene. So if you’re a big hockey fan, go see a Jets hockey game, and if you are a theater person, go to the Exchange District and go to the Warehouse, which is a theatre building. While I was there, I was really lucky to see this play about Anne Frank, and it had been as if she had survived the Holocaust. Apparently, this theater does all these really interesting kind of – I don’t want to say controversial, but unique plays. One going on now is done from the perspective of a Korean convenience store. So it shows like Canadian life or it shows interesting kind of life plays. Apparently, the theater scene in Manitoba and in Winnipeg is very well-respected, so if you’re a theatergoer, that might be something to consider.
Michael: The food scene in Winnipeg is really good. I think they have the most restaurants per block anywhere in Canada, from what I understand. I didn’t go out to a lot of restaurants, but like I said, The Current restaurant on the main floor of the Forks was fantastic. They had something called a Prairie breakfast, which has bison sausage and local breads and jams. Very heavy, but if you’re a frontiersmen, I guess that’s the image of what you want to eat. As well, the Forks Market has food from all around the world. There was really good Sri Lankan food there; there was really good Chilean food. So if you’re interested in something that’s a little more multicultural, that was great. I went to some really good vegan burger shops. I visited some great brunch places. Food is in an abundance in Winnipeg, so just find out what you want to eat and ask a local and they’ll know the best place to go do that.
Chris: Excellent. Last three questions. One thing that makes you laugh, and say only in Winnipeg.
Michael: When I can literally feel the icicles growing on my mustache, only because I didn’t prepare well enough for what I was getting myself into. It’s kind of funny, because as girls have been kind of a little bit of a joke in this podcast, you kind of see these giant hoods walking down the street sometimes, and you’re trying to wonder who’s behind it.
Chris: And finish this sentence – you really know you’re in Winnipeg when – what?
Michael: You’ve been wandering around the city for a couple of hours and found some really interesting buildings, ate some really interesting food, and now are having the most wonderful conversation with a random shop owner in some small neighborhood in the city, and you’ve totally forgotten about how cold it is outside.
Chris: And if you had to summarize Winnipeg in just three words, which three words would you use?
Michael: Charming, historic, and continuous, because I feel that as many times as you visit the city, it’s always going to have a new reincarnation. It’s always going to feel a little bit different. It’s just going to be one of these cool cities that’s only going to get better with time.
Chris: Excellent. Our guest again has been Michael Soncina, and Michael has been on this show numerous times, so many of you have heard him before. But Michael, if they wanted to find out more about your travel writing, where would they go?
Michael: They would go to www.sonchyadv.com.
Chris: Thanks for coming back on the show.
Michael: Great. I love being here.
Chris: Before we get into this week’s episode, I do have two news stories for you. If, like me, you’ve ever been boarding an airplane and thought certainly, this can be done more efficiently, you may be right. The standard time that it takes to board a 173-passenger jet according to a new study is 24 minutes and 48 seconds. If you board completely at random, you can cut that time down to 17 minutes and 25 seconds. If you board the outside to the inside, you can cut another three minutes off, and the fastest way to board is apparently the way Southwest does it. They can board in just over 14 minutes, 10 minutes faster than the standard.
Speaking of standards, standards are changing on the Spanish island of Majorca. They’re getting a little tired of people wearing their teeny-weenie bikinis off of the beach and into the city, and they’re going to start issuing fines.
For links to both those stories, check out the show notes at AmateurTraveler.com.
Chris: We’ve almost nailed down all the details for the Amateur Traveler trip to Morocco next April. We should be announcing how to sign up I’m guessing within the next two weeks. I need our vendor to create a signup page for us. Again, when that trip goes live, it will be first announced to the Private Trip group, AmateurTraveler.com/trip, then it will be announced through the email newsletter, and then finally here on the podcast. So if you’re interested, you might want to join that Private group.
A funny thing has happened on the AmateurTraveler.com site this week, and that’s that there is new video episodes. I used to say we did the episodes twice a month; it turned into more like twice a year, but I’m trying to get them started again. So we’ve actually got a couple different episodes this week, and I know I’ve got at least two more coming out next week. So you might want to take a look at AmateurTraveler.com. The video doesn’t come out on the same feed as the audio podcast, because I don’t assume that everybody who likes the audio will like the video. The new video for this week is a look at the night train in China. Just a little claustrophobic, I might say.
Something else that’s new on the site is we have a new sponsor, JayWay Travel, who specializes in Eastern Europe, and they have been paying to transcribe some of the shows, both some of the older shows pertaining to the region that they cover as well as future episodes, like this one. So if you’re interested in a transcript, if you know someone who reads, but doesn’t like to listen or is deaf, then that might be a good alternative for them.
I guess the bottom line is if you haven’t been going to AmateurTraveler.com, you are clearly just missing out. It occurs to me that I haven’t begged for reviews in iTunes recently, but that’s actually one of the best ways that I have that people can discover this show. How it rates in iTunes depends on how many reviews it has, especially five star reviews. So if you love the show, you can go to AmateurTraveler.com/iTunes and click on the link for Show in iTunes which will take you right to the show, and then click on reviews and ratings and write your own review of the show.
With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, feel free to send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com. You can also join the Facebook community, that Private Trip group, AmateurTraveler.com/trip, or follow me on Twitter, @Chris2x. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.