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My Winnipeg: Part 2

The next morning, James Houldsworth, coordinator of downtown maintenance and Bill Ward, marketing technician for the City of Winnipeg picked us up in a snazzy truck and whisked us around to see some impressive and colourful municipal plantings and Kildonan Park, where we met head gardener Jan St. Hillaire and her co-hort Dave Chervinski. Like Toronto, Winnipeg has had an unusually rainy summer, so everything everywhere is lush and green and the plantings are all in very good shape–James informed me the containers are fed every two weeks with a dilute solution of 20-20-20. We also saw some of the interesting redevelopment taking place in historic old sections of the city core, which now has new condominiums, snazzy boutiques and even a fancy and well-used skateboard park. Then it was back to the Delta to pick up our bags and head for the railway station to continue our journey across the Prairies. Next stop, Edmonton.

Click here to read part one of my Winnipeg trip.

Photo: Flower bed in Kildonan Park

My Winnipeg: Part 1

After we arrived at Winnipeg's railway station smack in the centre of town, a $6 cab ride whisked Carol and me to the centrally located Delta hotel, which was hosting our stay. It has two swimming pools, a sauna and a large workout centre–I feel fitter already.

There's nothing like seeing somewhere new to you in the company of someone who knows it well and loves it dearly. On the first day of our visit, Dorothy Dobbie, president of Pegasus Publications, Inc., was that person for us in Winnipeg, and she is passionate about her hometown and lots of fun to boot. I'd never met Dorothy before (though Carol had) and although her magazines are competition for ours, in the small and (mostly) friendly gardening world that matters less than you might think. We took to each other immediately.

Much of my previous, vague knowledge of Winnipeg had centred around three words: “brutal winters” and “mosquitoes.” But my first impression was of a gracious, prosperous city with leafy streets, some lovely old buildings and a well-kept infrastructure (what a joy to ride along roads without potholes). There's plenty of new development, as well, particularly around the forks where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet. Cross the bridge and you're in St. Boniface, the French side of Winnipeg with a vibe all its own. Along that bridge, granite plaques tell the story of the historic Forks in English, French and Cree.

Being plant nuts, we spent a considerable amount of our day with Dorothy in Assiniboine Park, designed some 100 years ago by Frederic Law Olmsted, who also laid out Central Park in New York. It's home to a zoo and a conservatory, the gorgeous English Garden (which was thick with plants in bloom–I especially liked the tall, fantastic-looking golden spikes of a mullein called Verbascum Nigra) and the renowned Leo Mol sculpture garden. Fortified by a delicious lunch (Dorothy's treat), we also took in some interesting art exhibitions, supported the local economy (code phrase for shopping) then wrapped things up with a big East Indian buffet dinner (my treat). Along the way we toured some of the pretty and interesting residential neighbourhoods, with their varied mix of housing, while Dorothy filled us in with a running commentary about Winnipeg's lively cultural scene (which includes the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Manitoba Theatre Company, among others. Good naturedly, she informed us that her city was the centre of the universe for almost everything! You go, Dorothy.

Photos from left: Verbascum nigrum in the English Garden; Dorothy Dobbie and Carol Cowan; a sculpture in the Leo Mol sculpture garden.

All aboard!

We're on our way at last on The Canadian, a historic, gleaming silver train. At first glance, my roomette seems impossibly tiny, but I soon figure out it's designed to maximize every square inch of space. The Murphy bed folds down neatly and is very comfy–a little nest from which you can look out the window (I brought a pillow from home so it's extra cozy). The little sink even has a separate tap with drinking water. There's a basket filled with toiletries and towels, like at a hotel. And although the car has a toilet (with a solid, box-like lid on which you can stash some stuff), I decide I'd rather use the big public bathroom a bit farther down. Nearby, there's a separate shower room as well.

You could spend the trip sitting in your roomette and looking out the window, but unless you're anti-social or have a communicable disease, I reckon exploring is way more fun. So Carol and I dump our bags and head for an observation car, which has a second story with a glass-domed ceiling and panoramic views (there were four of these on our train, and they're popular, though so far people seem good about not hogging the seats).

En route we pass a dining car, which looks like it could be a setting in an Agatha Christie novel. Elegant, etched-glass panels book-ended a space with tables set with pink and white linens and fresh flowers.

Following a “welcome aboard” champagne reception, it's lunchtime. I choose the vegetable soup, a pulled pork sandwich with barbecue sauce and coleslaw on a tasty bun along with salad and a chocolate-coconut brownie, washed down with a pot of tea. Yummy. And then I head off to “read my book” (translation: have a little snooze, which I never seem to have time for at home).

Along with Canadians, we have already met a number of folks from England and Scotland and a tour group from Germany. The train seems pleasantly full of travellers, including families with children, and most are making the trek to Vancouver.

The staff is amazingly friendly and hospitable. Faith, the lovely young woman who is in charge of our car, bends over backwards to make us feel at home–you can tell she's proud of “her” train. When we hit Sudbury, she urges me to look out and see how once-sterile land has been reclaimed and is now dotted by healthy young trees. I figure it must be her hometown, but I'm wrong. She's from Winnipeg.

Some things we've observed: if you're used to rushing around on a tight schedule, you have to consciously slow down when you travel by train and get into its slower rhythm. And just like on a plane, there's no smoking on board, so if you need a regular nicotine fix, it can be a l-o-n-g haul between stops, as Carol discovers. Although there's an activity centre with lots of board games and regularly scheduled movies and stuff, I'm glad I have a bag filled with books, but I wish I would have brought some music.

That evening, the train makes a few quick stops in the middle of nowhere to pick up passengers, some of them who board with canoes (apparently, you just need to give VIA 48 hours notice and they'll make unscheduled stops to pick you up–how Canadian is THAT?). The rain glistens on the windows, and once in awhile there's a flash of lightning. Everwhere I look there are gleaming lakes and stands of birch, spruce, pines and tamarack, punctuated from time to time by a lone cabin, or a small settlement of a few homes. I don't see any people or animals. We are deep, deep into northern Ontario and it's vast.

Clickety-clack!

It's 10 p.m. on holiday Monday, and I'm still busily packing for my big train trip to Jasper, Alberta, so this will have to be a quick note. I leave tomorrow morning at 9 for ten days, along with my friend and colleague Carol Cowan, who is our back page columnist for the magazine and also does PR work to promote the Via Rail Garden Route, which is what this trip is all about.

I love the train–it's my favourite way to travel. Our journey will also take us to stops in Winnipeg and Edmonton. We'll be disembarking for a few days in all three places to visit botanical gardens, points of interest as well as some Communities in Bloom award winners.

So what do I take with me when I'm traipsing around gardens for a day rain or shine? A small green knapsack I bought some years ago at a National Trust shop in England, in which I stash a hat with a wide brim, a plastic bag with small containers of bug repellent and suntan lotion, my water bottle, a mini-umbrella, a package of tissues, a black nylon windbreaker, a little cotton scarf to tie around my neck if it's a sweaty day, a small notebook, ballpoint pens and pencils and of course, my trusty camera. With this stuff, I'm good to go. The other key thing is footwear: in summer, it's generally sturdy, washable Teva-type sandals that have rubber soles with excellent traction. Not glamorous, but comfy–vital when you're on your feet from morning to night.

Hasta la vista, amigos, I'll keep you posted!

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