Getaway/Midwest: Winnipeg, Manitoba

  • Article by: HOWARD SINKER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 1998 - 11:00 PM

For those of us with a maximum car-trip tolerance of one day, our urban options are limited: Chicago, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Des Moines.

Des Moines?

And then there's Winnipeg, about 400 easy miles from the Twin Cities.

There's more than enough to do, even when the world-famous Winnipeg Folk Festival isn't going on, to make for a trip of a few days. And Winnipeg offers a mix of just enough familiar things with just enough that's (kind of) exotic to make it an excellent place to hang out with kids.

Winnipeg is also a neat mix of contemporary and old-timey. In one afternoon, it's possible to catch a double-feature at the Imax theater in the downtown mall and then swing over to the outskirts of town and spend a couple of hours at a dusty, throwback amusement park -- haunted house, go-carts, mini-golf and bumper boats.

A prairie history  

Winnipeg was incorporated as a city of 3,000 people in 1874 and was the beneficiary of Canada's self-reliance. Prohibitive tariffs that minimized trade with the United States ensured that the growth of western Canada would be reliant on forging commercial ties with the established cities of eastern Canada.

As a result, Winnipeg was guaranteed to be a key player in Canada's East-West trade. Even today, it is viewed as the metropolitan center for a large chunk of central Canada.

By 1911, Winnipeg was Canada's third-largest city, with a population of about 136,000. Many of the early inhabitants were immigrants from eastern Europe and Iceland who brought along farming backgrounds and took advantage of the region's prairie soil.

Lots of diversity  

Interesting neighborhoods pop up one after another in Winnipeg. The Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet, is a short distance from downtown, which is not far from the historic Forks area, which isn't far from the Exchange District, which abuts Chinatown.

On Canada Day (July 1) last year, we spent a chunk of the day at the museum complex in the Exchange District, which includes the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, the Science Center and a planetarium. There was still time to check out Chinatown and spend the evening at the Assiniboine Park Zoo and Conservatory.

And it didn't feel like we were rushing through one thing to get to the next.

Another day included a trip to the Royal Canadian Mint on the south end of Winnipeg, an amusement park side trip (there are several on the perimeter highway around the city) and a double feature at the downtown Imax theater.

Easy to navigate  

It's not hard to get around Winnipeg by car. Entering the city from the south, you can choose between the urban route or the perimeter highway to get where you're going. There are modern hotels downtown and more family-style places to the west, near the airport.

One of the downtown hotels, the historic Fort Garry, has a casino on the seventh floor that has a dress code and more games than are allowed in Minnesota's tribal casinos.

The stretch between the west side and downtown is connected by Portage Avenue, a busy thoroughfare that provides a good sample of what Winnipeg offers. Downtown is simple to navigate, and there's a nifty bonus for scofflaws.

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