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Feeling Hostel? Shuttle Helps Budget Backpackers

Published: 06/02/2010
The Toban Experience, brainchild of Jason Abbott, a 30-year-old Winnipeg native and entrepreneur, operates an SUV service that shuttles customers among seven destinations along a 528-mile circuit. Abbott calls it a "hop-on, hop-off" adventure-travel experience.

Destinations along the Toban Experience route are within about 130 miles of the border with North Dakota and Minnesota, "but it's not just more of the same," Abbott says. "This is really off the beaten path and surprisingly undiscovered by Americans."

Once a globe-trotting backpacker himself, Abbott modeled the Toban Experience on a service he used in New Zealand.

His customers are typically college students and backpackers in their 20s from the United Kingdom, Western Europe, the Far East, Australia, and New Zealand traveling the length of Canada, often by train, Abbott says.
Travelers 18 years of age and older, with proper documentation, can enter Canada unaccompanied by an adult.

The Toban Experience website (www.tobanexperience.com) with its spring-break vibe is a unique source of southern Manitoba information for the youth travel market, with recommendations for lodging and activities such as water sports, hiking and wildlife viewing, cultural attractions, and places to socialize (the legal drinking age in Manitoba is 18).

"We've designed the website as a place to discover fun, surprising, and exhilarating things to do in Manitoba," Abbott says. "Even if you decide to use your own transportation, it's worth checking out."
The seasonal service operates this year from April 26 to October 4, setting out daily from Winnipeg, the provincial capital (pop. approximately 700,000), on a circular route with pick-up and drop-off locations at Falcon Lake, Kenora and Minaki in western Ontario, the two trailheads of the Mantario Trail, Lac du Bonnet, and Grand Beach, before returning to Winnipeg.

Abbott selected destinations he felt would appeal to those in the 18-to-30 age bracket and negotiated discount lodging rates with establishments his clientele would enjoy. Some stops are near public campgrounds where travelers can pitch a tent. Each Toban Experience stop offers something different.

Grand Beach

Playboy magazine once ranked Grand Beach among the best beaches in North America, not just for its natural attributes but for the physical assets of the youthful hordes of sunbathers and boardwalk denizens who make people-watching here a popular pastime. Located in Grand Beach Provincial Park, the destination boasts a silky white-sand beach and sand dunes nearly 40 feet tall on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, among the world's largest freshwater lakes - a great prairie sea. The park offers hundreds of campsites and cabins (www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/parks/popular_parks/central/grand.html).
Tyler Gray, general manager and chef at the family-owned Sand Bar Motor Inn in the adjacent village of Grand Marais, says young travelers at his inn take advantage of the area's mountain bike trails and opportunities to kite board on the lake. "On any given day, there are probably 30 to 40 kites in the air," he says.
"Even on a wet, overcast day, there's so much to do in this area," Gray says, mentioning hiking and picking (and eating) wild blueberries, raspberries, and saskatoons, a purple-red prairie berry that's a regional delicacy.
The Sand Bar, which is recommended by Toban Experience, runs a free shuttle bus to the nearby beach, about one minute away, and to a local concert venue. Its restaurant serves home-baked breads and pastries. Among its dinner staples is freshly caught lake pickerel, the same mild-flavored white fish known to most Americans as walleye (204-754-2900, sandbarmotorinn.com).

Falcon Lake and the Whiteshell

At Falcon Lake, in Whiteshell Provincial Park, horse breeders and trainers Marg and Murray Imrie offer horseback rides for all skill levels at their Falcon Beach Ranch, including a daylight outing to the site of the 1967 Falcon Lake Incident, a reported UFO encounter that remains unexplained. Murray Imrie estimates that some 90 percent of ranch visitors have never ridden on a horse or haven't done so since childhood. "You can experience horseback riding at a substantial level of safety," he says. "We have a great track record of matching people with ‘quiet' horses" (204-349-2410,www.falconbeachranch.com).
If you want to try wakeboarding - standing on a single snowboard-like plank while being towed behind a motorboat - get your feet wet with lessons at Hangtime Wakeboard School. Golfers will find an 18-hole course in the midst of a forest, with discounted prices after 3 p.m.

Mantario Trail

The Mantario Trail is a rigorous 41-mile footpath end-to-end through a stunning backcountry wilderness of lakes, rivers, peat bogs, beaver-dam crossings, and rocky outcroppings of the ancient Canadian Shield. It's typically a three- to six-day hike, and the only overnight option is backcountry camping. Each basic campsite includes a fire pit, picnic table, and steel storage box to deter black bears (www.manitobanature.ca/mantario/mantario_trail.html).

Lac du Bonnet

Near Lac du Bonnet, hikers can explore Pinawa Dam Heritage Park, where nature is reclaiming the site of an early 20th-century hydro-electric plant decommissioned in 1951. The peaceful setting and crumbling remnants of the once-mighty dam bring to mind images of ancient Roman ruins (www.granite.mb.ca/oldpinawa). Elsewhere in the area, visitors can ride an inner tube down a river, observe a giant sundial, or walk across a suspension footbridge. The region is home to some rare mammals, including cougar and mule deer. On Canada Day, July 1, Lac du Bonnet hosts an impressive riverfront fireworks display.

Winnipeg

The Toban Experience itinerary begins and ends in Winnipeg, where the company points its customers to the Hostelling International-Winnipeg Downtowner, 333 Kennedy St., which opened in 2007 (204-943-5581, hihostels.ca/Manitoba/401/hi-winnipeg_downtowner_hi_winnipeg_downtowner.hostel). The hostel's popular LO Pub - "lo" stands for "local" - features local bands, beer, and artwork on the walls. The staff will eagerly recommend additional venues for savoring the city's independent and alternative music scene.

Richard Magleo, general manager, says his clientele consists mostly of young Canadians, with some British, French, German, and Australian visitors for good measure.

Based on feedback from guests and first-hand experience, Magleo and his staff highly recommend the following local points of interest:

Exchange District National Historic Site, an area encompassing 20 city blocks and 150 carefully preserved commercial buildings from the early 1900s. Clothing shops and cool galleries fill this center of architecture and interior design. The Exchange is also home to the city's theater district, including the two-week long Fringe Festival (see below).

Festivals, especially the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, June 25-July 4; Winnipeg Folk Festival, July 7-11, 2010; and Winnipeg Fringe Theater Festival, July 14-25, 2010.

The Forks, a shopping, dining, and entertainment complex at the juncture of the Assiniboine and Red rivers, noted for its international food stalls, street performers, boat tours, and free outdoor entertainment.
The Manitoba Museum, an award-winning, Michelin Green Guide-endorsed institution that offers a panoramic introduction to Manitoba's history and geographical diversity.

Osborne Village, a vibrant, densely packed neighborhood south of downtown that's home to many of the city's best-known artists and performers and some of its quirkiest specialty shops and restaurants.
St. Boniface, the city's French quarter and one of the largest French-speaking neighborhoods outside of Quebec.

Winnipeg Art Gallery, noted for its collection of Canadian, Inuit, international, decorative, and photographic art.

"The appeal of each of these events and attractions is that they are all of high quality, affordable, uniquely local, and close to the hostel, which is located in the downtown core of the city," Magleo says.

Pricing the ‘Experience'

The Toban Experience offers three different transportation plans based on the number of locations the customer wants to visit. "The Full Experience" at $380 (U.S.) per person, based on current exchange rates, provides drop-off and pick-up at all destinations. "Half the Experience" provides transportation to three destinations of the customer's choosing for $285. "The Sample Experience" includes round trip service between Winnipeg and any one of the Toban Experience destinations for $142. The cost covers transportation only, but the company will assist customers with lodging reservations. The phone number for information and reservations is (888) 358-6226.

A wide range of outdoor attractions and cultural opportunities in southern Manitoba also can be found on Travel Manitoba's website, www.travelmanitoba.com. Information is also available by calling Travel Manitoba toll-free at (800) 665-0040. The Eastern Manitoba Tourism Association (www.easternmanitobatourism.ca) has information about some of the areas visited by the Toban Experience.

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