The province of Manitoba is where to get a real taste of Canada’s purest landscape, from wild boreal forest to gin-clear lakes and rivers, and the breathtaking Aurora Borealis of its icy north.
To get here, the adventure is suitably epic: the eastward train journey from Vancouver on VIA Rail takes in the iconic Rockies and the great prairielands before landing in cosmopolitan Winnipeg at the fork of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.
You’ll want a few days to eat and explore before venturing into the outer wilds of this beautifully un-touristy region. Hiking boots recommended.
The grand voyage from Vancouver
Your three-day, two-night VIA Rail journey on The Canadian from Vancouver to Winnipeg begins with a glass of bubbles and a round of lively introductions to your fellow travellers.
As everyone settles into seats in the window-topped Skyline Dome carriage, you’ll watch the outer suburbs of Vancouver disappear and the Canadian heartland begin.
This informal bon voyage party is part of the experience for both Prestige class and Sleeper Plus class travellers and gives you the heads up that this trip is going to be something.
Coasting 2500 kilometres from Canada’s west coast to east, you are, of course, on what’s considered one of the great rail journeys of the world. “It’s that combination of incredible scenery and an incredible on-board experience that makes this trip so special – we call it a cruise on rails,” says VIA Rail’s Josephine Wasch.
Your first night, sleep comes easy (there’s nothing like the rock-a-bye of a spacious bed swaying with a train’s glide). Sleeper Class cabins put two people up in comfy bunk beds and come with a private washroom and toilet; Prestige cabins (pictured above) have double beds and a full bathroom. In the morning your eyes open to the Canadian Rockies, the snow-capped Mount Robson towering in the distance as you fill up on a Canadian breakfast in the Dining Car.
You’ve got options here: carry onward or hop off to side-trip for a few days in the postcard-pretty ski town of Jasper, staying in a log cabin at the spectacular Fairmont on the edge of Lac Beauvert. Nestled inside a national park, it’s not unusual to see elk, deer, or even the odd curious bear wandering around the town, depending on the season.
From Jasper, the train follows the Athabasca River northwards, the scenery soon beginning to transform into the wide wheat and canola fields of the prairies around Edmonton, the region known as Canada’s breadbasket.
Sit-down meals in the dining car are sumptuous, ingredients plucked from the landscape outside your windows – taste fresh Canadian salmon around British Columbia and the famous beef and bison in Alberta.
There’s a certain feel of the grand voyages of the golden era of train travel. “Passengers become like a micro-community but you can be as social or private as you like,” says Wasch.
You might spend the morning in the upper deck Skyline Dome car with its curved glass roof and near-total views of the landscape, eyes peeled for hawks and deer in the lush river ravine of the Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan province.
Later, you might watch a train history presentation, or tune in with other passengers as a local musician plays Canadian classics (Anne Murray and Bryan Adams get a good spin).
By night, if the sky is clear and the stars align, you’ve got a chance of catching the light curtains of the Aurora Borealis, especially as you glide further toward the end of the line at Winnipeg.
Into the magic of Manitoba
“Cold hands, warm hearts” should be Winnipeg’s city slogan. This buzzy city at Canada’s heart, the capital of Manitoba, may have some of the iciest winters anywhere in the country but the counterpoint is its upbeat vibe and warm hospitality.
After your VIA Rail journey, throw your bags down at Inn At The Forks before heading into the shopping, food and arts district known as The Forks (in winter, strap on some skates to explore the architectural Warming Huts that dot the Red and Assiniboine Rivers).
Winnipeg wears its cultural passions on its sleeve: join the roar of the crowd at a Winnipeg Jets ice hockey game and visit the moving Canadian Museum For Human Rights. You’ll also want to weigh in on the hot debate about the city’s best burgers, called “fat boys” by locals. It’s a fair fight between classics at seasonal drive-in joints VJ’s Drive Inn or Dairi-Wip Drive-In (the ‘dogs here have a following too) and casual diners like St James Burger & Chip Co, where you’ve got to try the syrup-and gravy-smothered Royal Canadian.
From Winnipeg, the wilderness of Manitoba calls. The season will tell how you answer….
Hunt the great Northern Lights and see wildlife in Churchill
“There are nights when it’s dark and you’ve almost given up hope,” says Caleb Ross from Nanuk Operations who leads aurora and wildlife tours around the remote northern town of Churchill, a short flight or two-day, two night adventure VIA Rail train journey from Winnipeg. “Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the colours explode out of the sky – greens, pinks, purples, whites. It still blows me away every time.”
Aurora season is January-February – that’s the time to join Ross’ breathtaking Nights Under Lights tour – but any time is a great time to visit Churchill. July through November is the season for polar bear tours, or try the less crowded shoulder season: in late August it’s possible to see polar bears, aurora and white beluga whales all in one trip. “It’s not peak season for any of them,” says Ross. “But you do stand a chance of seeing them all at once.”
Paddle into the iconic wilds
“Rivers, remoteness and vast boreal forest are right on Winnipeg’s doorstep,” explains Matt Peters from Wilderland Adventure Company. He and his team can tailor a wild Manitoba adventure to go any speed, from multi-day wilderness treks, to city walks, to lake canoeing for a few hours.
On one day trip, Peters will shuttle a group of adventurers to the town of Pinawa on the Winnipeg River, where you’ll take your place in a specially built Voyager canoe, a replica of the 350-year old trader canoes that were used by early European explorers.
“Your gubernet – a French word for ‘boat captain’ – will take you on a two-hour trip on this river paddling like a voyager,” Peters says. “You’ll learn songs, heritage stories and, of course, be fully immersed in the natural environment. So there's always a chance to see animals like otter, deer, moose and eagles.”
Soak up summer paradise at Lake Winnipeg
“A lot of people ask us for an ‘ocean view’ room which always makes us chuckle,” says Jackie Storry from Lakeview Resorts, which has two properties (in Gimli and on Hecla Island) on the edge of Lake Winnipeg. This spectacular freshwater waterway is so incomprehensibly wide everyone is forgiven for thinking they’re looking at the sea.
In winter, the town of Gimli is left mostly to the ice fishers but in summer it’s a lively resort and base for excellent hiking, golfing, skydiving and even a traditional Icelandic festival, a nod to this town being the largest settlement of Icelanders in the world.
Wildlife watchers will get their thrills here too: bears, elk, beavers and bald eagles claim this holiday spot as their home. No one can visit without trying fish and chips made with local pickerel, pulled fresh from the glistening lake that day. Lake life doesn’t get any better.