In dry dock

Visitors can climb aboard the ferries and tugboats at the Marine Museum of Manitoba in Selkirk. The boats once plied local rivers and lakes. (Suedan Press)

EVEN though we had called ahead, they just weren't expecting us in Winnipeg.

At the airport, the Canadian customs officer couldn't believe the city was our destination.

"Oh, right," she said in a can't-fool-me tone, "You're just going to hang around Winnipeg for a week?"

And neighboring parts of Manitoba, we said.

"You have business? Family?" she asked suspiciously, and my husband, Dan, ever paranoid around authority figures, hastily mumbled that we might possibly visit a great-great-grandfather's grave in a small town in the southern part of the province.

Ah, that explained it — and she waved us in with a smile.

We faced the same reaction everywhere we went for the next week. Young clerks at the rental-car counter, innkeepers, seatmates on a city bus — all were dumbfounded to encounter tourists from Los Angeles. But once they got over their amazement, they scrambled to make us welcome in this city of 700,000 in the southern part of Manitoba, a province about the size of Texas that stretches from the U.S. border north to the Arctic.

The region has much in common with the bordering heartland states of Minnesota and North Dakota. It's flat, sparsely populated, and much of the area is covered with lakes; 9,230-square-mile Lake Winnipeg is the largest, but there are smaller lakes in almost every town and dozens in parks.

"It's like Omaha 30 years ago," said Dan, a Nebraska native. As we drove into downtown from the airport, we saw a Midwestern landscape of broad streets lined with one- and two-story buildings that led to a 20-block core of modest high-rises. Government buildings, banks and a couple of stately luxury hotels anchored the business district. A gentrified historic area with espresso bars and little theaters gave way to a small Chinatown.

When we were planning our trip, we could find only one guidebook in print for the entire province of Manitoba, and none for Winnipeg itself, but we found reasons aplenty to visit. Our trip there last summer was the easiest, most relaxing vacation we have ever had. Winnipeg was all things foreign to an Angeleno: uncrowded, unhurried, affordable and laid-back.

We enjoyed long days (the sun sets after 10 p.m.), a terrific summer music festival, vast prairie horizons, cooling swims at easily accessible lake beaches and home-style heartland food, such as delicious Saskatoon berry pie.

We browsed art galleries, took day trips that were like old-fashioned Sunday drives, checked out a minor-league baseball game, tried our luck at the racetrack and even spent a couple of days "cottaging," as Canadians call it, at a lake.

An urban magnet

WE planned to stay three nights in Winnipeg, two nights at a cabin at West Hawk Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park (about a two-hour drive east), then two nights back in the city.

Winnipeg is a magnet for residents of the far-flung rural communities of the prairie. Its prominent cultural institutions, such as the internationally renowned Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, home to the world's largest collection of contemporary Inuit art, illustrate its self-sufficiency. Summer and winter, a parade of festivals celebrates such varied pursuits as fishing, jazz, dog sledding and avant-garde theater.

We timed our visit to catch the Winnipeg Folk Festival, where last year more than 43,000 people gathered in a stadium-sized, tree-rimmed field in Birds Hill Provincial Park. Artists from around the world played traditional and contemporary folk, blues, Celtic and bluegrass music. There were big-name headliners, such as Taj Mahal, as well as local bands, children's activities, tie-dye merchants and food vendors.

That first day, Dan and I dropped our bags at the hotel and arrived at the festival in time for the early-evening main-stage shows. We sat on the grass surrounded by a mellow, multi-generational crowd.

Everyone was almost preternaturally polite, and we saw a typical Canadian good-community initiative in action: Food was served on plastic plates. A small deposit per plate was refunded when you returned it to a central cleanup booth. There was no trash anywhere on the multi-acre park.

Our base for the first three days was the Forks, a renovated area at the convergence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, with Ghirardelli Square-type warehouse conversions, housing, shops and cafes as well as the Manitoba Children's Museum. At the Forks, tourism officials and merchants sponsor Native American cultural demonstrations and free jazz. There are parks along the rivers, and we braved the mosquitoes to take morning walks on waterfront paths.