Winnipeg – Slurpee Capital of the World, Gateway to the West – adheres perfectly to my belief in Canada’s ability to under promise and over deliver. You probably won’t expect the summer buzz, the great food, or world-class attractions. But it’s all there, all-weather and family-friendly too. Passing through on our way to Churchill, my 7-year-old had his first sweet taste of the prairies, and quite possibly, his best.day.ever.
Assiniboine Park is Winnipeg’s Central Park, Stanley Park, or High Park, only those famous urban parks don’t feature polar bears, wolves or cougars. It is the home of the Assiniboine Park Zoo, an 80-acre wildlife facility that has become the gold standard for what a modern zoo is, and how it functions to educate visitors about conservation practices worldwide. For those who cannot get up to Churchill, which is most of us, the zoo’s Journey to Churchill zone is the most comprehensive northern species exhibit anywhere in the world. Although in Churchill, you won’t get the opportunity to watch polar bears swim above you, much less stare one directly in the eyeball (if this happens in Churchill, it will likely be your last.day.ever as opposed to your best.day.ever). You also won’t see wolves and cougars, caribou, muskox, and Arctic fox. It’s the polar bears who steal the show though, all of whom were rescue cubs that would have perished if they weren’t brought to the facility. There are ample viewing windows, a stunning underwater tunnel section, and interpretive and interactive exhibits as well. Beyond Journey to Churchill, the zoo is home to other animals like tigers, kangaroos and cheeky gibbons, farm animals, snow leopards and bison. There’s also a current exhibition called Dinosaurs Uncovered, featuring 17 full size animatronic dinosaurs facing a walking path, thrilling kids young enough to believe they’re real, and adults pretending along with them.
We exited the park, grabbed lunch at the Park Café, and popped into the Nature Playground to burn off the poutine. At least my kid did, I was making notes for my list of Canada’s Best Playgrounds. From here, we walked past the cricketers towards a striking new structure, Winnipeg’s latest world-class attraction, The Leaf. Towering like a glass spaceship, it’s an indoor botanical garden with four distinct biomes, including Tropical and Mediterranean sections. The warm humidity and Canada’s largest indoor waterfall are a breath of fresh air, and will no doubt be a welcome haven when winter arrives in the ‘Peg.
Off to The Forks, where we rented a two-seater trike from Bee2gether Bikes and rode around the city’s most visited tourist attraction, navigating six thousand years of human history. A lively festival was taking place in the park, and the market was busy. I did the peddling, my kid did the steering, and we would have obeyed the speed limit, if we knew what it was. We rode to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, across the Esplanade Riel Footbridge to the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers that gave birth to the city. We braked to chat to Parks Canada, who manage the National Historic Site, and for ice-cream, of course. I took the elevator to The Forks Market Tower while my kid raced me up the stairs. The view won.
Personally, I salute whoever came up with the idea of attaching a water slide to an indoor hotel swimming pool, like the one at the new Marriott Residence Inn. My son rode that tube on-repeat for hours, and along with the hotel’s expansive and included breakfast buffet, declared this to be the best hotel in the entire known universe. Conveniently Ubering about, we had two more stops before heading to the airport. Fort Whyte Alive is a conservation park with the largest herd of urban bison in the world. We hopped on a bus and took a safari into their pasture, trying to imagine how fifty million bison were almost hunted to extinction in just a couple of decades. Off to the boardwalk, we picked up a critter sheet, net and little bucket to scoop some water from the marsh, and place it under the microscope in the interpretive centre. To the naked eye, the water looked clear. Under the scope, all manner of bugs and whirligigs were swimming about with legs, antennae and bodies. Better than TV, kids.
Speaking of which, a few weeks ago, I watched the TRON movie remake with my computer-game obsessed son. Imagine, being inside the game. Well, some enterprising Winnipeggers did, and the final stop of our weekend was Activate Games, a state-of-the-art interactive game experience. Different rooms contain dozens of LED-lit and laser infused games that required us to jump, run, think, twist, toss, shoot, and collaborate in a series of increasingly difficult games. It’s all tracked for scores and moves at a rapid pace, allowing us to repeat or scale up a level after 90 seconds, or exit to another challenge. The execution of this creative vision is mind-boggling, and it’s obvious why this home-grown Winnipeg success story is rapidly growing across North America as a must-do party and team-building destination. My son’s favourite room required us to reach an opposing wall without touching a series of lasers, just like Mission Impossible. I loved a colour-squared room that required us to jump to the right squares under the tension of timelines. The options are dizzying and while the website recommends the experience for older kids (10 and up), my 7-year-old and I had an absolute blast. Weeks later, he still won’t stop talking about it. When Activate Games arrives in Vancouver (right now they’re in Winnipeg, Calgary, Halifax, Edmonton, Brampton, Burlington and Scarborough) I have a feeling they’re going to do very, very well.
There’s a lot more to Winnipeg than you’d expect, and plenty to keep visitors of all ages and in every season busy. Animals, markets, gardens, landscapes, innovative games and fantastic hotels and restaurants too. Departing Winnipeg Richardson International after an action-packed weekend, Winnipeg had won us over, yet again.