Travel: Believe it or not, the Peg’s a winter hot spot

When Amanda Burrell told friends that her hometown of Winnipeg had been named one of National Geographic’s must-see destinations for 2016, they thought she was joking.

But there it was — the Canadian city that’s been mocked on The Simpsons and has been called “Winterpeg” by non-Peggers so long the joke’s gone cold — tucked between Uruguay and South Georgia on the exclusive list.

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It wasn’t news to Burrell. She left Winnipeg after completing school and now lives on the Lower Mainland with her husband, Randall. The couple are world travellers, but return to Winnipeg on a regular basis, and not only to see family.

“We love the culture, the people, the restaurants. One of our favourite restaurants in the world is here. And we love it in winter,” Burrell said recently, chatting outside on a relatively balmy -15 C day with a huge clear-blue sky above.

OK, she was neck-deep in an outdoor hot tub at a spa designed to take advantage of the winter climate, with its four saunas, dipping pools, waterfall (frozen) and wood fireplaces where guests can make their own S’mores. It does make the cold a little easier to take.

Attractions such as the $11-million Thermëa spa are putting Winnipeg on travel bucket lists, even in the winter.

The city celebrates its cold climate and makes it part of the draw.

Foodies from across Canada vied for tickets to the uber-popular RAW: almond’s pop-up outdoor restaurant, which was sold out every night for its Jan. 21 to Feb. 14 run.

Chefs from Winnipeg’s top restaurants as well as from other cities — Vancouver’s Vikram Vij has been a featured guest — whipped up everything from crab with somen noodles to elk tartare and cured tenderloin with fermented vegetables, komboucha vinaigrette, root beer gel and mustard sprouts for bundled-up guests sitting on hide-covered stumps at communal tables.

It’s usually held at the frozen junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. Ironically, a warm December means it was held on the banks instead this year. Tickets for this year’s event sold out in 24 hours.

Diners can burn calories in advance by skating, running, walking or sledding along the Red River Mutual Trail, a river trail, adorned with warming huts designed by everyone from locals to international architects.

Indoor attractions are increasing Winnipeg’s travel mojo as well. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (humanrights.ca), with its love-it or leave-it architecture that dominates the Prairie landscape, anticipated 250,000 visitors in 2015.

It had 400,000, including then-candidate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose sketch of the building was auctioned on eBay as a fundraiser for the museum. It sold this week for $25,200.

Here’s an overview of winter Winnipeg, with attractions and prices that might make the Prairie city a draw — even if you don’t have the excuse of visiting friends or family to get you there. And if these events don’t excite you, checking out the real estate prices is always fun for a West Coaster.

Things to do

Festival du Voyageur (http://festivalvoyageur.mb.ca/en/) celebrates French-Canadian and Voyageur life in Western Canada’s largest winter festival.

It runs until Feb. 21 at nine locations. Music is key and more than 140 artists are scheduled for the annual event. The party has something for all ages, including a snow maze, horse-drawn-sleigh rides and a giant igloo.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is staging an outdoor portrait exhibit celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement in Manitoba.

Want to see a six-metre-high dinosaur made of ice? Or play bumper cars on ice? The Great Ice Show (thegreaticeshow.com) at The Forks National Historic Site is on until Feb. 28.

The new event is modelled on a winter festival in Harbin, China, where ice sculptors from around the world compete in creating art out of ice. Forty ice builders from China are creating the structures.

Here’s hoping there isn’t a warm spell. To remain solid, the structures need temperatures of at least -5 C.

Journey to Churchhill at the Assiniboine Park Zoo (assiniboineparkzoo.ca) lets you get up close to seven polar bears. Some $90 million was spent on updates and new habitats for the bears, Arctic fox, muskoxen, snowy owls and seals. The zoo’s showpiece exhibit allows visitors to pass through a clear tunnel under the bears’ swimming pool.

Warmer things to do

You’ve been out skating and snowshoeing. Time for some warm pampering. Winnipeg has two of the best spas I’ve been to and both provide good value for money.

Ten Spa (tenspa.ca) is on the top floor of the Fort Garry Hotel. The highlight is the hamam, a replica of the traditional Turkish bath. After a self-administered salt scrub in the dark quiet room, you relax on heated marble slabs in the misty heat as the masseuse massages your body, feet and scalp using a kese, a rough mitt, and traditional olive oil soap, rinsing you off with warm water from a traditional tas bowl.

Think body exfoliation and a head, foot and body massage all rolled into one while you look at the twinkling lights above in a gorgeously tiled room. Prices start at $105, which includes mint tea, Turkish delight, snacks and water in the main part of the spa. It’s a close second to Istanbul.

Thermëa by Nordik Spa-Nature (thermea.ca) might be the only spa where you wear a bathing suit and a toque. It offers the usual massages and body treatments, but this Scandinavian-style spa’s calling cards are the Nordic baths and waterfalls, steam baths, Finnish saunas and relaxation areas that make winter part of the experience.

Crispy-haired patrons walk outside in robes and slippers on heated pathways between the baths, saunas, steam baths and relaxation areas.

The idea is to steam or sauna for 15 minutes, quickly plunge in one of the “cooling pools” and then relax for another 15 minutes or so by a wood fireplace, lying on heated stone lounge chairs or heated mattresses with pillows, or lolling in the 39 C hot tub. Repeat at least three times.

It’s a calm, quiet place with no cellphones allowed and designated quiet and talking areas.

The one inadvertent sound that ricochets is the startled “Ahhhhh!” as people walk into the 10 C plunge pool after their sauna or steam.

The restaurant has a good selection of salads and healthy fare, but you have to love a spa menu that also has homemade pretzels with cheese, Arctic char or a Manitoba bison burger.

You can easily while away several hours here. With bathrobe and slipper rental, it’s $60 on weekends, $56 in the week. It’s fantastic value and I’m counting the sleeps until my next visit.

Foodie heaven

Winnipeg is a terrific foodie city — think of it as Canada’s Portland. On average, the prices are about 25 per cent less for meals that are easily of the same quality — and sometimes better — than you’ll find in Victoria and Vancouver.

The city has its own specialties, including arguably the best rye bread in Canada (Kub Bread and City Bread each have fierce advocates) and perogies — homestyle cheese and onion at Jessie’s Ukrainian Kitchen and Deli (jessieskitchen.ca) or more upscale at the fabulous Fusion Grill (fusiongrill.mb.ca) with white truffles and duck sausage.

But diners can also choose from a huge variety of ethnic and modern restaurants, run by imaginative chefs who are often in the top-10 lists of Canadian cooks.

Here’s a quick look at a few.

A good resource for Peg restaurants is pegcitygrub.com, as well as Manitoba bestselling cookbook Winnipeg Cooks, which features the city’s top chefs along with their recipes. (Full disclosure: Author Robin Summerfield is a friend and a great foodie who has also written for PegCity Grub.)

Enoteca, a small-plates eatery and wine bar, may be in a former Quizno’s in a strip mall, but it’s all urban sophistication inside. It has won accolades from EnRoute magazine, which named it one of the top 10 new restaurants in Canada in 2015.

Peasant Cookery (peasantcookery.ca) is renowned for its charcuterie and cheese boards that boast dry-cured sausages, patés and terrines from chef Tristan Foucault, who is also a master preserver. The full lunch and dinner menus focus on local food, including local pickerel that is a must. (This is Burrell’s favourite restaurant.)

The Merchant Kitchen (themerchantkitchen.com) is the perfect spot before or after a game at the MTS Centre (home of the Winnipeg Jets) just across the street. This stylish, casual restaurant bills itself as serving Latin and Asian-inspired “elevated street food” that’s fast, fun and tasty.

Segovia serves delicious and generous tapas in funky Osborne Village. The food and atmosphere are terrific, but the service from hipster waiters with beards and plaid shirts can sometimes be a bit too cool for its own good. (segoviatapasbar.com)

Hotels

Fort Garry Hotel (fortgarryhotel.com). The rooms in this former CP hotel are a bit dated, but the stately building is well-located and has a lobby bar with piano music and a great atmosphere.

Alt Hotel: Modern rooms across from the MTS Centre. Emphasis on a streamlined “cool” vibe, with concrete walls and a lobby art installation featuring more than 2,000 photos of Winnipeg by photographer Bryan Scott. Rooms are $149 year-round.

Inn at the Forks (innforks.com) is a boutique hotel in a prime location, in the heart of The Forks, where you can walk out the door and be on the river trails. Smith Restaurant on the main floor has a relaxed vibe and excellent comfort food focusing on local ingredients.

Kim Westad is a freelance writer and former Times Colonist reporterr

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