National Geographic Travel’s Digital Nomad, Robert Reid, regularly explores lesser known places—or lesser known corners of well-known places. Visiting Manitoba for the fourth time is exactly the type of project he’s drawn to. “I grew up in a flyover state in the U.S. and have long been a defender of more subtle landscapes,” he says. “But Manitoba’s not as subtle as you think. There are rolling hills, boreal forest, downhill ski slopes, and very, very big skies.”
Together with National Geographic filmmaker and photographer Spencer Millsap, Reid gives us his top suggestions for making the most of Manitoba.
Wander through Winnipeg
Manitoba’s capital isn’t just any prairie town, but a metropolis of 700,000 that can shock first-timers with its size and sophistication. Begin with the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Overlooking bike trails alongside the Red River downtown, this twisting, towering building immediately became the city landmark when it opened three years ago. It’s worth seeing for its expansive Canadian Journeys gallery and inner architecture of suspended white alabaster walkways.
A lesser known claim to fame is how much Winnipeg rocks. Musician Neil Young grew up here, as did the members of the Guess Who (of “American Woman” glory). Local musicologist John Einarson leads engaging three-hour tours on his Magical Mystery History Tour. On the itinerary: a stop for Neil Young’s favorite donut (the chocolate-on-chocolate cake donut at the Salisbury House near his childhood home).
See what’s brewing in Neepawa
About two hours from Winnipeg is the town of Neepawa. Canadian lit fans know it as the birthplace of author Margaret Laurence. Her home can be visited, and the statue that inspired the title of her best known book, Stone Angel, is in the town cemetery.
The most compelling reason to stop here, though, is the Farmery Estate Brewery. “Manitoba has the best barley in the world. But we ship it all away,” says Chris Warwaruk, shaking his head. The Warwaruks, described as “unapologetically Manitoban” by one fond local, wanted to change that. So Chris and his brother Lawrence returned to Neepawa from Winnipeg and opened the brewery. Visitors can take tours, get fish-and-chips from the brewery’s food truck, and—most fun—take a cold six-pack to drink while walking through their barley field just east of town.
Explore Riding Mountain National Park
Much of the leafy 1,150-square-mile Riding Mountain National Park—so named because it once required a horse to traverse—remains alluringly wild. Curving gravel roads pass elk, black bears, and moose (or bison near Lake Audy), while hiking trails reach remote clear lakes and unexpected sites like Whitewater, a World War II prisoner-of-war camp.
Make Wasagaming, at the south edge of Clear Lake, your base camp. Here you’ll find the park headquarters, accommodations, kayaks to rent, and trails to hike or bike or cross-country ski.
Get in touch with your inner Viking in Gimli
Every August, big men wearing long beards and chain mail die here by the dozen. Often they perish with extravagant cries that come long before rampaging kids, bearing foam sticks, ever reach them. Yes, Gimli’s annual Icelandic Festival is a lot of fun.
Gimli is the heart of Manitoba’s “New Iceland,” which was settled by 20,000 Icelandic immigrants in the late 1880s after the country got hit by a series of misfortunes (volcanoes, earthquakes, measles, and famine). That heritage is celebrated every August when some 50,000 people surge into the town (population 2,500) for a long weekend of fireworks, live music, carnival rides, Icelandic food, and Viking camp demonstrations.
Embrace the great outdoors at Whiteshell Provincial Park
This protected area is a popular vacation spot in Manitoba, with a string of clear lakes on the famed bedrock of the Canadian Shield. The superb Falcon Trails Resort is run by a local couple who couldn’t bear to see Manitoba’s principal ski resort shut down. So they bought it, set up a January music festival, and opened eco-cabins on Falcon Lake and the even more secluded High Lake, reached by a mile-and-a-half ATV ride or hike. There are many trails for hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing in the area, too.
Where to Stay
The Lake House in Wasagaming is a boutique hotel near the southern shore of Riding Mountain National Park’s Clear Lake. Units are modern and comfortable, with kitchenettes and plenty of modern touches—as well as a hot tub under the stars and a popular ice cream shop downstairs.
Where to Eat
In Winnipeg, the Forks Market inhabits century-old stables at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers near downtown. It’s popular with visitors and locals, and well worth a stop. The main dining hall is lined with appealing food stands, serving all kinds of fare—from Ukrainian to Japanese—and a craft beer stand offers local brews.
Whiteshell Provincial Park near the Ontario border is beloved locally, popular for kayaking and swimming in summer, hiking in spring and fall, and cross-country skiing in winter.
Know Before You Go
If you want to see Vikings combat at Gimli’s Icelandic Festival in August, reserve a hotel two years in advance. In Whiteshell, cottages and hotels can fill with locals months before summer rolls around. Polar bear seekers need to fly to distant Churchill, as train service recently closed (for the time being).