When Winnipeg locals talk about "going to the coast," they mean the sandy shores of Lake Winnipeg, about an hour away. Part of the draw, says Joanne Liang, a senior buyer at the landmark H.P. Tergesen general store, is that "it's really affordable. The lake and beaches are beautiful," she says. "Because we have so many beaches, they can accommodate a lot of people without feeling too crowded."
Popularity has also brought new efforts to keep its vast waters—covering an area the size of New Hampshire, Lake Winnipeg is one of the world's largest freshwater lakes—clean. Manitoba residents know its thousand-plus miles of shoreline are worth preserving: They include some of Canada's whitest, best beaches, serviced by 30 diverse communities, including Gimli (a name from Norse mythology meaning paradise), a separate Icelandic nation called New Iceland until 1887. Anglers fishing for walleye and perch, sun-worshippers seeking Caribbean-like powder-white sands, and kiteboarders harnessing the winds to sail or even snowkite across the vast expanses of water or ice consider Lake Winnipeg their all-season getaway.
When to Go: Warm lake water buttresses Grand Beach's 1.8-mile sandy strip, swelling with crowds in the summer months. In July and August, visit Patricia Beach to picnic in front of the sand dunes and walk out into the warm lake water on the sand bars. Victoria Beach is a private resort hamlet operated by cottage owners, so renting here comes with the added perk of a more relaxed pace and locals-only vibe.
One of North America's oldest continuous ethnic festivals, the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba (held since 1890) takes place in Gimli early August. The annual celebration draws 50,000 visitors seeking to "embrace their inner Viking." Family-focused events, including a folk music festival and fireworks, center on a circa A.D. 800 living history village, where a hundred re-enactors don authentic Viking garb. Wind sports are best in early spring and late fall, although dry suits are recommended for the chill. In winter, add the increasingly popular sport of snowkiting on the lake to the list of activities; by land, snowmobiling and Nordic skiing are popular on the shore.
How to Get Around: Pick up a rental car in Winnipeg, as there is no public transportation. Patricia Beach on the lake's southern edge is closest to Winnipeg, about a 40-minute drive. It's about an hour from Winnipeg to Gimli on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg and Grand Beach on the eastern edge. Close by, Victoria Beach is just 15 minutes north of Grand Beach on the southeastern shore. Mid-June to early September, cars aren't allowed in Victoria Beach's central network of gravel and dirt lanes. If you're renting a cottage or visiting for the day, it's easy to park your car in the big lot at the edge of town and walk. Kiteboarders and windsurfers prefer the strong winds on Gimli, Grand Beach, and Victoria. Kayaking, hiking, and cycling are popular farther north on the western shore, around Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park and where the winds tend to be tamer. Outfitters like Jason Hamilton Outdoors and Blackwater Cats can help with ice fishing in winter.
Where to Stay: Just outside of Grand Beach Provincial Park, Inn Among the Oaks is a wooded B&B with four guest rooms, an outdoor pool, and an indoor hot tub. Gimli's Lakeview Hotel has rooms and suites overlooking the lake. Both Grand Beach and Gimli have seasonal campgrounds. Pet-friendly Lakeview Hecla Resort sits on 360 acres inside Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park and has an 18-hole golf course. Trophy anglers battle perch, walleye, and northern pike at fly-in lodges east along the Winnipeg River, such as Eagles Nest and Pine Island Lodge.
What to Eat or Drink: "Some of the treats are Icelandic-Canadian delicacies, popular here but unknown in Iceland," says Liang, "Vinatarta is visually appealing. It's a plain cookie, a prune filling, and then it has six or seven layers." Try the layered cake at Amma's Tearoom and Gift Shop, where other Icelandic options on the menu include rullupylsa (lamb), skyr (yogurt), and ponnukokor (crêpe).
"Gimli's Kris' Fish and Chips always packs them in," says local food writer Robin Summerfield, who recommends the "fantastic pickerel and classic house-cut French fries that actually taste like potatoes." The cinnamon buns and shortbread at Einfield's Bakery in Victoria Beach are sweets of legend. Idle Thyme on the eastern shore is a local favorite for its fresh caught pickerel.
What to Buy: Meet the fourth generation of Tergesens manning the counters at H.P Tergesen & Sons in Gimli. With original (and well-worn) hardwood floors and pressed-tin ceiling, the general store is packed with seasonal lake gear (shorts and bathing suits in summer, Icelandic sweaters and hats in winter), plus kitschy souvenirs like plastic Viking helmets. Grab some homegrown stationery items like hand-illustrated notebooks, wrapping paper, and greeting cards from Katie & Birdie, a boutique Canadian paper goods company.
What to Read Before You Go: Brush up on your Norse gods and goddesses with The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Pantheon, 1981). This collection of 32 myths includes detailed background information on the Viking culture celebrated throughout the Lake Winnipeg region.
Fun Fact: Islendingadunk, a fan-favorite event at the annual Icelandic Festival, pits two sack-wielding competitors perched on a soap-covered beam against each other. The sacks are filled with sponges; the "battle" involves whacking each other with the sack, and the winner is whoever doesn't slide off the beam into Gimli Harbor.
Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and was the host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.