The fishing town of Gimli is quaint and relaxing. It offers what most lake towns do–a lovely lake to gaze upon and a picturesque town to stroll through, but there is something else very special about it and that is its history.
When you first find yourself in Gimli–if you know nothing about the town–it might appear ordinary. But soon, you will notice the massive Viking sculpture, the New Iceland Heritage Museum, some interesting food options here and there, the strange names for some of the businesses, and the placards informing you about the original settlers. You soon realize that Gimli is alive with history and culture. And if you didn’t know about the group of immigrants who made the plot of land west of Lake Winnipeg their home, you soon know the gist of it thanks to little reminders tucked here and there around town.
Hopefully by now you know why Gimli and the surrounding area is called “New Iceland” and how it came to be known as such. If not, I would recommend you go back one post and familiarize yourself with the mass emigration of Icelanders to Manitoba, Canada after a volcano destroyed their homes and farmlands.
I enjoy anything that tells a good story–be it a book, a movie, a person, or a town. If the town’s history has sparked your interest and you’d like to come see it yourself, read on for a few ideas on what to do once you find yourself in Gimli.
I recommend starting the day with an aimless walk around town to see what you might discover without any guidance. Read some signs, snap some photos, sit on a bench where you might find a smiling rock (see photo). Have an ice cream, a coffee, fish and chips, whatever your heart desires. We did all of the above. My boyfriend had ice cream at two places in town, one of them being the local laundromat while we did our laundry–an unusual but smart idea; you’re going to sit there and wait anyways, why not be tempted to spend the rest of your quarters in the same place? The owner of the place was exceptionally friendly; he told us about how he enjoys having variety in a town like his. There are the touristy months that are busy and profitable, and then the residents get their town back when it slows down and strangers are rarely seen, only familiar faces.
We also had fish and chips and fried pickle spears at Kris’ Fish & Chips, pizza at Brennivin’s Pizza Hus, and coffee at Flatland Coffee Roasters. Flatland is owned by Chad, who is a second generation Canadian but whose grandfather was an Icelandic immigrant–just who we want to meet in New Iceland. Chad told us a bit about the town, gave us some tips on how to get to his favorite spot on Lake Winnipeg (he even drew us a quick little map on a sticky note), and treated us like old friends every time that we came into his coffee shop during the four days we spent in Gimli. And we spent every morning there without fail–my boyfriend is working remotely during this trip, and I needed a place to write notes and addresses on all of the postcards I wanted to send back home. (Here is a picture of me at the post office that took me an hour to find. It took me even longer to write the 16 cards I sent from Gimli, especially the Russian one. But I’m very proud of how my Russian cursive turned out!)
We also visited Sugar Me Cookie Boutique, a bakery across the street that is owned by Chad’s mother, to try some of Amma Stina’s Vinarterta, a traditional Icelandic cake with multiple thin layers held together by prune jam. She was also incredibly friendly and chatty. She showed me how to properly cut and serve the cake and how small the portions should be. Barely holding back her laughter, she told us about how she saw a man purchase the same 1/4 size that I did (they sell 1/4 of a cake, 1/2 of a cake, and a whole cake) and proceed to sit down inside the bakery and eat the entire piece in one go. Her eyes went wide with astonishment as she explained, “It has prunes in it! I hope he was okay afterward!” We thanked her for the tip and retreated to the motorhome, where I cut the cake into small rectangles like she showed me to and ate one piece with a hot cup of milk tea. The 1/4 cake lasted us a week!
After you’ve had your fill of coffee, cake, and locally caught fish (hopefully not all at once; that sounds like an odd combination), what else is there to do in Gimli?
There is also the water right nearby, and if you head toward the harbor you will right away see the Seawall Gallery, a cement wall along a pier that had been turned to an outdoor art gallery. Most of the pieces were originally painted by Icelandic people (just look at some of the last names!), but many have been restored since as the originals have faded over time. My favorite one is the one of the Húldufólk – the elves of Icelandic and Faroese folklore.
Local artists who currently reside in Gimli (some of whom have restored several of the Seawall pieces) are also featured in an indoor gallery, a cottage-like building in a park by the harbor. A gazebo right outside the gallery happened to feature a musician who played the saxophone for hours while we wandered around. A farmer’s market was going on between the gazebo and the art gallery, and I bought some fresh veggies for cooking in the RV. Others who bought something to snack on sat at picnic tables and listened to the music and people-watched as tourists and locals milled about.
And once you’ve seen all the art and tried all the food and listened to all the music? Well, there’s Gimli Beach right nearby! The beach offers paddle boards, kayaks, etc. for rent and was full of people enjoying the lake in whatever way they preferred–even if it’s just lounging around on a blanket by the water. And if you want a different beach to explore, one that is bigger and possibly more popular, a fifteen minute drive away is Winnipeg Beach, in a town by the same name, but that lovely area will be covered in its own blog post later.
After you lounge around the beach or paddle around in the ocean until you’re tired and want to turn in for the day, you might want to begin making plans for tomorrow. Have you visited the New Iceland Heritage Museum yet? Or taken a picture by the famous Viking sculpture? How about taking a peek into H. P. Tergesen’s & Sons, the general store that’s been open since the 1800s? And don’t forget to visit Steina’s Studio and chat with Steina herself, an artist with a beautiful art studio and shop where I purchased the colorful place mat in the photo of the Vinarterta above. And lastly, have you walked under the plane monument and wondered why it’s there?
Initially, I had no idea why there was a plane monument in the center of town and near the museum. When I found out about the famous Gimli Glider later, I recalled the plane monument and wondered if that was in honor of the glider (shows you how little I know about planes). If you haven’t heard the story of the Gimli Glider, it’s fascinating. A plane that ran out of fuel in the air had to make a crash landing on a sports car racing track.
Why did it run out of fuel? Well, the metric system was just being implemented in Canada at the time and someone made a mathematical error while manually calculating how much fuel the plane required (the fuel gauge was broken). Due to the miscalculation, the plane ended up with only half of the fuel it needed for its flight. Luckily, the pilot was talented enough to be able to crash land the plane with the aid of nothing but gravity–after 17 minutes with no fuel and two failed engines–and no one was killed. More info on that incredible story here. The town honored the pilots’ efforts by hosting a parade and unveiling a mural of the Gimli Glider on the Seawall Art Gallery (and here I am standing right next to it).
If airplane incidents like this get your heart going and you’d love to read more, I found a whole complication of them here.
So, the jet I snapped a photo of earlier was not a small scale version of the Gimli Glider, and actually looks nothing like the commercial plane now that I see a photo of it. It is an actual jet that was one of the many aircraft used to fly out of the Royal Canadian Air Force when they had a base in Gimli, which closed shortly after WWII. The jet was placed on a pedestal in the middle of town to honor the town’s military past.
And if that’s not enough activity for you? If you can travel to Gimli in early August, you will have even more to do, as that is when the town hosts their annual Islendingadagurinn, a festival celebrating Icelandic culture and descent, complete with tournaments, fireworks, and Vikings. Unfortunately, I arrived in Gimli at the end of August, just a few weeks after the festival, but the upside of that was that I got to enjoy a quiet town mostly devoid of tourists (like me).
If you don’t like food or lakes or art or music or relaxing (are you human?), well, at least come to Gimli for all of the history immersed in everything anywhere you go. Study the art for its historical significance if not for its skill. Research the monuments or murals like I did (I didn’t know a thing about the Gimli Glider, for example). Talk to some of the locals about what the town was once like. Appreciate the many years of hard work that made Gimli what it is now. And maybe do a little bit of that everywhere you go. You’d be surprised how many interesting stories are slowly fading into the distant past every single day.
Side Note: The only thing that was missing was more Icelandic food options. I didn’t find any bizarre Þorramatur (I’d probably opt out of that sheep’s head though) or even something simpler, like Pönnukökur (Icelandic pancakes, though they look almost identical to Russian blinchiki that I’ve had a million times, so maybe missing out on these wasn’t a big deal). I will eat (almost) anything once, so finding only fish and chips and pizza in an Icelandic town was a bit disappointing. If only I knew an Icelandic grandmother in town who could have invited me to dinner! I could have made some traditional Russian food to exchange the favor. 🙂