If you’re up on your Canadian clichés, you probably know the Prairies for their long, frigid winters and country roads so straight and flat you can see the headlights of an oncoming car from miles away. The punchline of many a joke on The Simpsons and the destination for a business-trip episode of The Office—the show’s writers chose Winnipeg, one of the largest cities in the region, because it struck the perfect balance of sounding both vaguely exotic and totally obscure—Canada’s heartland doesn’t get the same love bestowed upon its naturally stunning coastlines or eclectic, cool Toronto and Montreal.
And yet, Saskatoon and Winnipeg are stealthily gathering cred among those in the know. Though both cities date back thousands of years to Canada’s earliest aboriginal inhabitants and flourished as the country built its transcontinental railway in the late 19th century, growth stalled here for decades. But then a reversal: For years young people poured out of the Prairies but recent population trends show the fastest growth in Canada. From culinary talent like Saskatoon’s Dale MacKay, Canada’s first Top Chef winner who packed up for Vancouver on his 15th birthday and spent years in the kitchens of legends such as Daniel Boulud and Gordon Ramsay, to boutique owners such as Alicja Dalecki, proprietor of Winnipeg’s chicly minimalist Boutique Anya, locals are returning in droves.
Combine this influx with the opening of major cultural centers—Winnipeg’s architecturally spectacular Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the world’s first museum dedicated to these themes (a current exhibit explores the role of artisan cooperatives in furthering women’s rights, with beautiful textiles and crafts on display); the Remai Modern, which opens in Saskatoon in 2017, will soon house the largest collection of Picasso linocuts anywhere—and you get a new sense of worldly sophistication fused with friendly Prairie sensibility.
What’s happening in the Prairies is something more than fresh—it feels like peak Canadiana. Here’s how to experience the best of Saskatoon and Winnipeg.
Bundle (This is Canada, after all)
Step into Hardpressed Print Studio for cozy Saskatchewan-branded sweats and tees (the prints are so cool, you’ll even spot them on many locals).
Neglected for decades, Riversdale, Saskatoon’s original Chinatown and one of the city’s oldest commercial districts, is seeing a resurgence. Home to the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, this highly walkable ’hood is ground zero for the city’s entrepreneurs and artists (Collective Coffee, adjacent to one of the city’s top coworking spaces, is a prime gathering spot). Anthology Home Collection is a lifestyle boutique full of gorgeous furniture and plenty of more portable made-in-Canada gifts (hit up Little Bird Patisserie, a café tucked in the back, for croissants), and Hazlewood, for curated vintage clothes and housewares.
Years ago, Saskatoon was a block with chain restaurants, but MacKay and other homegrown chefs have redefined the scene. MacKay’s latest, Little Grouse on the Prairie offers handmade pastas made from local wheat (order the ravioli, perfect pasta squares stuffed with ricotta and prepared simply with sage butter). Located inside the old building of what was formerly a Canadian-Chinese restaurant and helmed by another Saskatoon returner (owner/chef Christie Peters, a former model, has worked in kitchens in San Francisco, Amsterdam and Spain), The Hollows takes a unique approach to local food: many of the ingredients on the ever-changing seasonally driven menu come from Peters’s hydroponic garden, located in the restaurant’s basement.
With about 40 percent of Canada’s farmland in its backyard, it’s not just Saskatoon’s restaurants that reap the local bounty—there’s also a great homegrown booze scene. Head out to Lucky Bastard Distillers (its name refers to the distillery’s owner, a physician who used the windfall from a lottery win to fund the venture) for a tour and tasting of spirits made from local grains and flavored with haskap berries and sea buckthorn. Though apples don’t traditionally grow this far north, Crossmount Cider Company plans on using hybrid varieties from the agricultural department of a local university. Until those are ready, they’re using apples from British Columbia to craft hard ciders, including the Flat Lander Dry which is crisply reminiscent of Champagne. For local craft beer, head to 9 Mile Legacy (the forefathers of the two owners once had farms nine miles apart) where aside from blondes, IPAs and stouts, unique collaborations include the Odd Couple, a golden ale spiked with lemongrass, ginger, and Szechuan pepper, made in partnership with a popular Riversdale eatery. (9 Miles’s limited-edition growlers make great souvenirs too.)
Walking distance from just about anywhere you’d want to go in downtown Saskatoon, the James Hotel is a modern and stylish pick. Best amenities include the daily-changing gourmet breakfast and sheets so soft they’re now sold at the front desk due to the volume of guest inquiries.
Local designer Lennard Taylor stitches up warm, drapey coats and cardigans (and other fashions for men and women) on the floor of his Exchange District boutique.
Clementine, which opened in May, is upping the breakfast game of this bacon-and-egg town. Located in a basement that manages to feel like both a Turkish cave room and a airy Soho loft, this packed spot (reservations aren’t accepted but it’s worth the wait) serves its eggs with hummus, Turkish hot sauce, and housemade sourdough and tops their home fries with spicy salsa negra and lime mayo. Excellent lattes are made with beans roasted just down the street.
Spanning more than 30 blocks, The Exchange District is North America’s largest and best preserved collection of heritage buildings. It’s also the city’s most up-and-coming neighborhood, full of indie restaurants, bars, and shops selling super-covetable local goods. Among the musts: Tara Davis Studio Boutique for handcrafted jewelry, lithographed neighborhood maps, and ironic needlepoint (“Please don’t do coke in the bathroom,” reads one gem), SoGa Artisan Soaperie for small-batch vegan soaps, and Tiny Feast for paper products so adorable they’re guaranteed to revive your inner Luddite.
Just five miles from downtown, Thermëa spa is a Scandinavian-inspired network of tranquil outdoor hot tubs and cold plunge pools, eucalyptus and orange-scented steam rooms, and dry saunas, based around the Nordic principle of balancing the body through circuits of alternating heat and cold. A different, but also blissful, type of local water therapy: heading to Assiniboine Park Zoo’sJourney to Churchill exhibit to watch polar bears frolicking underwater in the sea ice passage tunnels.
The year-old Alt Hotel is the hippest option downtown. The sister brand of Canada’s more luxe Le Germain brand, Alt successfully hits the intersection of affordable style and function, with a minimalist esthetic and arty local touches including a huge lobby installation featuring more than 2,000 photos of Winnipeg by photographer Bryan Scott and tiny paintings by Cliff Eyland in each room.
(C) VOGUE Magazine