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Visit the Distinctive Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg, Manitoba

by Linda Aksomitis

Fort Garry Hotel, WinnipegWith its twenty-foot walls and circular shape, the room was built for music. Each sound produced by the three-piece jazz band was distinctive, yet blended to create a rich symphony. I whispered to my husband, David, "I wonder if Louis Armstrong played in this room when he was here? I bet it sounded awesome if he did."

The Fort Garry - Winnipeg, Manitoba's first skyscraper - is a hotel approaching the birthday of its first century. As well as Louis Armstrong, hotel guests over the decades have included such well-known names as Harry Belafonte, Liberace, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, on their visits to this Canadian prairie province.

Built between 1911 and 1913, the attention to detail and quality is still evident throughout the hotel. The jazz band played in the lounge, an enormous European styled room opening onto the hotel foyer. With its ceiling murals, three vertical rows of windows dressed in elegant burgundy, and cream walls, the room's atmosphere spelled elegance.

However, an assortment of soft armchairs and loveseats arranged in numerous different settings, from a cozy spot for two, to space for a group of a dozen, added an inviting element. Waiters and waitresses, in their high-necked grey tunics, wandered unobtrusively among the guests, removing glasses and bringing refills.

It was just the place for David and I to relax after a hectic week. When temperatures soared to 100 degrees, it brought startling reality to the cliché: "Working under a burning prairie sun". I'd been doing photo shoots of the new foals in the ranch pastures, so I was certainly looking for someplace cool to curl up.

Fort Garry Hotel, WinnipegGetting to The Fort Garry was a simple matter after arriving in Winnipeg. We stayed on Portage Avenue enjoying the city sights, rather than exiting the car onto the bypass. Taking a right turn onto Broadway, it was only a few blocks to the hotel. With its majestic, chateau style, we could pick it out from several blocks away even without the street address.

The hotel, when it was built by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, was modeled after Ottawa's Chateau Laurier. It is the only example of the famed Gothic Chateau design of architecture in Manitoba. The Grand Trunk Railway was the predecessor to Canadian National Railways, while the hotel was first known as the Fort Garry Hotel, then later Hotel Fort Garry.

Recently renovated to breathe new excitement into the heritage-rich building, The Fort Garry declares it has "traditionally been prominent as a social and commercial landmark" on its entrance plaque. With four wedding receptions going on when we arrived, it certainly seemed to be a Winnipeg focal point.

Despite the coming and going of brides and their parties, the hotel had a well-organized, comfortable feel instead of the hurried atmosphere often associated with catered events. Desk staff had lots of time for questions. Valet parking took care of the Bonneville, so we were soon in the elevator on our way to the top floor.

Fort Garry Hotel, WinnipegThe room was cool, right from the actual temperature to the dark wood-grained furnishings and light colored walls. With one glance at the king size, down-comforter covered bed, I knew I'd made the right decision about a place to stay. I dropped my purse and flopped down, feeling the week's tensions evaporate!

Ah, but there was lots to check out before it was time to crawl under the covers. The Eaton Mall, with its 100 plus shops, is walking distance from The Fort Garry, and I was certainly in need of a walk after the five-hour drive from home. Also nearby, the Forks Market and Johnston Terminal have a history as two former rail storage facilities. They offer an intriguing selection of shops ranging from clothing and accessories to imported wares.

The heat had faded with the light, so temperatures were comfortable in the upper seventies for our stroll. Making plans for Sunday, we considered some of Winnipeg's great attractions. I'd heard a lot about the Assiniboine Park and Zoo-all of it good, so it was certainly on the list. The museums were also great from all reports: Museum of Man and Nature, St. Boniface Museum, Western Canada Aviation Museum, and the Forks National Historic Site. Of course David was more drawn to the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. No decision made, we returned to the hotel to relax and listen to the jazz music over cold drinks.

Before the need for sleep completely overcame me, I made time to discover the amenities inside the hotel. Using the elegant brass fitted staircase to explore all the floors, I peeked in on the wedding receptions, then continued on to the full featured fitness center. It was complete with a running track, stairmaster, exercycles, full weight training equipment, steam room, whirlpool and year round pool. Wow -- if only I'd had the energy to use it! Back in the room, David tuned in his favorite late night satellite TV show, while I connected to the Net to send a few emails to the less-fortunate back in Saskatchewan. Quieter than any hotel I've ever stayed in, no doubt due to building styles of bygone eras, we felt right at home.

Fort Garry Hotel, WinnipegBut the best part of our night away from it all was yet to come - the Fort Garry Sunday brunch. The hotel chefs were ready to greet us by nine, as the feast spread out through the lobby and we were escorted to our tables in the piano bar-turned-dining-room. From the Pacific smoked salmon, steamed to perfection, to the sinfully delicious cheesecake, the breakfast made me feel like I was royalty. But then again, what else would you expect in the grandeur of The Fort Garry?

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