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.
Our hotel, the Inn at the Forks, had just opened a few weeks before we arrived. Its rooms compared favorably with other hotels in the luxury boutique category, but our standard room cost only $107 per night. We had a dramatic view of the city skyline framed by an ever-active prairie sky that sometimes roiled with thunderclouds.
The Forks was a good starting point, not only because it was easy to pop down and buy breakfast or lunch supplies but also because it helped us orient ourselves geographically and historically.
A changing populace
THROUGH the mid-19th century, the people of Winnipeg were mostly aboriginal and French Canadian. Even today, the city has the largest aboriginal population in Canada and the largest French-speaking population outside Quebec. Francophone cultural sites are concentrated in the St. Boniface neighborhood, which we reached by walking across a bridge not far from our hotel. At the small, folksy St. Boniface Museum, we saw canoes, clothing, furniture and other artifacts relating to the voyageurs, who were French fur traders, and the Métis, people of European and native ancestry who at one time made up 85% of the area's population.
The province was thrown open to homesteaders when the railroads arrived, and from the 1870s to the early 20th century, English, Scottish, Icelandic, Ukrainian, Russian Mennonite, Jewish and Scandinavian immigrants settled, and mostly farmed wheat. Their descendants have been joined by more recent arrivals from other parts of the world.
In communities around Manitoba, these roots are honored with pioneer villages and homestead historic sites. We visited one of the largest, the Mennonite Heritage Centre in Steinbach, and strolled among historic buildings — a sod house, other early 20th century houses, some shops — and farm implements, including dozens of vintage tractors. The buildings are staffed by volunteers offering samples of jam or demonstrations of pioneer arts. An unpretentious restaurant, MJ's, offers traditional Mennonite specialties. Our delicious lunch of borscht, bread and rhubarb platz (like a crumble) was my fantasy of what a farm grandma would serve.
One day, we spent the morning in the impressive interactive galleries of the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg. We learned about the Hudson Bay Co., which once owned and controlled most of the province, by looking at a collection that included fine examples of 19th century native art collected by traders as well as a full-sized reproduction of the ship that brought the first explorers to Hudson Bay in 1668. Galleries devoted to the flora, fauna and people of different regions, such as the Arctic and the grasslands, gave us some context for the sights of the next few days.
Afternoons, we would head out on the flat, two-lane highways through fields of wheat and bright-yellow canola. Manitoba is a world of few cars, mountains of clouds and occasional massive grain elevators. Roadside ditches and shoulders were covered in tall grasses interspersed with wildflowers, such as thistle, blue giant hyssop and yellow narrow-petal sunflowers.
One day, a leisurely drive along the Red River took us to quirky stops such as the Marine Museum of Manitoba in Selkirk, where the ferries and tugboats that had once plied the area's rivers and lakes were parked on the grass and could be toured. Another afternoon, we headed north from the city, stopping after about 20 miles at Oak Hammock Marsh, a 14 1/2 -square-mile wildlife and bird habitat.
Surrounded by miles of flat farmland and marsh, the interpretive center at Oak Hammock Marsh, featuring eco-blending architecture, is invisible until you pull into the parking lot. We kayaked for an hour through the cattails with a docent who pointed out coots, grebes, loons, blue-billed ducks and yellow-headed blackbirds.
We then walked around, looking at prairie dogs and trying to spot a muskrat, but the heat, humidity and the need to repeatedly douse ourselves with mosquito repellent sent us up fleeing north to Winnipeg Beach, where we gratefully changed into bathing suits in the clean, handy public dressing rooms and slid into cool Lake Winnipeg.
GOOD weather is important when you travel. That's especially true in Manitoba, where daily cloudbursts are common in summer and people kept telling us about the May snowfall. Dan and I joked that the weather reminded us of Hawaii — 85 to 90 degrees, hot sun and humidity relieved by showers.
We stepped into a coffee shop one day at noon, took a table by the window and watched in amazement as the heavens opened and a deluge flooded the street outside. We ordered, ate and by the time we left, the rain had stopped and the water had drained away, making the street passable again.
The weather held for us too when we drove east about 80 miles to West Hawk Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park. We were cozy in a modest but comfortable motel cabin, a handy headquarters for a couple of days in the woods, where we did some hiking, visited a refuge for Canada geese and enjoyed the pool and the lake's beach. Whiteshell is a large park with a dozen small resort communities on several lakes.
The scrub pines and low hills won't impress a Californian used to Sierra scenery. But the lack of people will: We met no one on the trails. A young buck gazed at us from a meadow before bounding away, and we watched as a tufted redheaded woodpecker drilled a pine tree.
"There's not much to do," said Dan contentedly from his lounge chair later that evening under the still-high sun, "and plenty of time to do it in."
Back in the city, we explored such neighborhoods as Osborne Village, where we spent three hours at the Nunavut Gallery, chatting with owner Richard Kroeker before buying a small Inuit carving. And we tried our luck at the thoroughbred racetrack, where the locals again were amazed to meet tourists from California.
"You're from Los Angeles?" asked the racetrack hostess at the Clubhouse section. "You came all the way up here to Winnipeg? For a vacation?"
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On the Manitoba prairie
From LAX, Air Canada, Northwest, WestJet and United offer connecting flights (with change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $295.
VIA Rail, (888) VIA RAIL (842-7245), http://www.viarail.ca . "The Canadian" Vancouver-to-Toronto transcontinental rail service stops in Winnipeg.
WHERE TO STAY:
Inn at the Forks, 75 Forks Market Road; (877) 377-4100 or (204) 942-6555, http://www.innattheforks.com . Handsome 115-room hotel with restaurant and spa in tourist enclave near train station, minor-league ballpark and river. Doubles $107.
Fort Garry Hotel, 222 Broadway; (800) 665-8088 or (204) 942-8251, http://www.fortgarryhotel.com . National-landmark chateau-style luxury hotel built in 1913. Spa, restaurants, ballroom, etc. Doubles $100 to $150, including breakfast or brunch.
Rivergate Inn, 186 West Gate Road; (866) 397-3345 or (204) 474-2761, http://www.rivergateinn.com . Well-appointed riverfront mansion with seven guest rooms, most with private baths, furnished in comfortable, not-too-kitschy Victorian style. Heated outdoor pool. In a residential neighborhood not far from shopping and entertainment. Doubles $66 to $99.
WHERE TO EAT:
The Forks Market, 1 Forks Market Road; (204) 942-6302, has four sit-down restaurants as well as a food court with counters serving sauerkraut pirogis; Asian, Indian, Thai and other ethnic foods; smoothies; breakfast all day; fast food, etc. The site-made breads, sandwiches and soups at Tall Grass Prairie Bread Co. were excellent; (204) 957-5097. Lunches $2.50 to $7.50.
Affinity Vegetarian Garden, 100-208 Edmonton St.; (204) 943-0251. Near the convention center, we found this marvelous Chinese vegetarian restaurant with dishes such as soya slices and cabbage in spicy sauce and mushroom fried rice. Main courses $4 to $8.50.
The Landing Restaurant and Lounge, West Hawk Lake; (204) 349-2269. Family-owned steakhouse with full bar offers a good, straightforward rendition of the local freshwater fish, pickerel. Main courses $9 to $16.50.
MJ's, 408 Main St., Steinbach; (204) 326-2224. A coffee shop with a full menu of Mennonite specialties, such as fresh pirogi with hoop cheese, excellent soups, generous slices of Saskatoon-berry and rhubarb pie. Main courses $6 to $10.