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Trip Report When Train Plans Go Awry—My 2 Day Winnipeg/ Saint Boniface Odyssey

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So, I took the Canadian train from Toronto to Winnipeg. A nice way of spending 36 hours, with a banjo entertainer, good food, delightful scenery in the Canadian Shield and plenty of socializing with strangers who I’d never meet in any other context. A nice couple from Guelph ON taught me how to play cribbage. Good times all around.

In Winnipeg, I stayed at the Fort Garry Hotel, one of the famous Canadian railway hotels built in the early part of the 20th century and with a perfect location, where all I had to do was roll my luggage across the street. Although the room was ordinary, the hotel still has a certain magic about it, with a grand lobby, a chef with a crisp, tall white hat preparing omelettes and eggs benedict in the well-kept dining area, a pianist playing songs while people drink cocktails in the lounge at night. Really, more than I could ask for $150/night.

I was rather excited as the next day I was due to take the train to Churchill, a town on the Hudson Bay inaccessible by road, for my first visit ever to the Canadian North! But my first day, the goal was to explore Winnipeg, a city I had only passed through briefly when I’d taken the train from Vancouver to Toronto in the past.

*General Thoughts on Winnipeg*

Unlike other North American cities which can seem like ghost towns during non-work hours, people are milling about in Downtown Winnipeg (even though many stores do close at 5pm), bringing energy to the city even into the evening. I thought the significant Métis and Native American population gave Winnipeg a feel unlike other cities I’d been to in North America. In the middle of Canada, Winnipeg is on few tourists’ radars. I can see why—Winnipeg is a relatively young city and not particularly scenic-- the Red & Assiniboine Rivers are unappealingly muddy brown and the city, built on a grid, is boxy in appearance. This said, I’m glad my life brought me here as the people I met were extraordinarily friendly and there really are interesting things to do to keep you occupied for a few days.

*I walked everywhere in Winnipeg*

My first inspiration was to see the Manitoba Legislative Building, an imposing, impressive building from the outside with a “Golden Boy” on the top, and equally grand from the inside with two large bison statues greeting you as you climb the wide stairs; the grounds are verdant, well-tended with plenty of statuary and modern art (look for the painted polar bears). Definitely one of the most attractive legislative buildings and grounds I’ve seen in North America. From there, I strolled to the near-ish Osborne Village neighborhood, which has an interesting quasi-counter-culture vibe and quite importantly, restaurants and pubs are open reasonably late into the evening in this neighborhood. I had supper in Osborne Village both days (Nu Burger here prides itself on using only meat raised in Manitoba, much of that nearby Winnipeg).

Next on the itinerary, I strolled toward the corner of Portage & Main, the busy epicenter of business life in Manitoba’s capital city, subsequently admiring the architecture in the Exchange District nearby and finally stopping at the Manitoba Museum after some excellent sushi at Yuki Sushi across the street. The Manitoba Museum is excellent to get an overview of the history, culture, geology, geography, flora, fauna and biomes of this Prairie province with plenty of dioramas & interactive exhibits to keep the kids interested. I came out of the museum well-educated, especially on the lives of the Plains Indians, but also entertained. The life-size replica of the Nonsuch, the ketch that sailed into the Hudson Bay in the mid 1600s, was quite impressive, built in England in the 1960s and miraculously somehow brought into the Manitoba Museum.

*Plans go awry*

So, I arrive with my luggage the next day ready to go to Churchill, only to find out that a derailment about 30 miles outside of Churchill is causing passenger rail to stop in Gillam, Manitoba. They tell me I could take a prop plane from Thompson, but it’s unclear if there will be space on the plane for me and also unclear whether the plane will get me back to Thompson in time to catch the return train. There is a plane from Winnipeg, but this seems prohibitively expensive at $1350 each way. I’m amazed I didn’t get any sort of message from VIA Rail telling me that this trip wasn’t happening. Disappointed, I decide that returning to Toronto is the easiest thing to do, taking the Canadian train a week earlier than I had booked after the ticket seller told me there was space available on the Toronto-bound train that evening. My great Canadian North odyssey had just turned into a trip to Winnipeg.

*Saint-Boniface*.

A bit downhearted over my plans being altered, I decide to walk across the Red River to Saint-Boniface, a historically francophone neighborhood just adjacent downtown Winnipeg. Curious about the French spoken in this part of the world, I speak in French with the folks at the Tourist Information Center and over at the Musée de Saint-Boniface. I’m amazed that the Franco-Manitoban accent resembles the Quebec accent much more than the Quebec accent resembles the MUCH closer New Brunswick accent. If I had thought about it though, it kind of does make sense since Saint-Boniface was settled early on by les Soeurs Grises de Montréal.

Anyway, even though things did not go according to plan, this was an interesting trip and I did enjoy much of it, from the train rides to exploring Winnipeg. I doubt I would have chosen to vacation in Winnipeg, so in a way the Churchill fiasco gave me the opportunity to see the prairie city, which is a more worthy destination than people give it credit for: pedestrian-friendly, some good museums and restaurants, an interesting/unique history, friendly folk and considerable civic pride. As stated, I’m glad my life brought me to Winnipeg. Now, I wonder if I ever will make it to the Canadian North one day? Happy Travels! Daniel

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