Eyes lifted skyward, holiday lights dancing in the background, and a jaunty scarf flung haphazardly over a shoulder. These are the hallmarks of well, Hallmark holiday movies. You may roll your eyes at the predictable plot lines, Christmas clichés, and even those corny jokes, but what’s undeniably attractive are those gorgeous sets and sweeping landscapes that keep us all watching — and most definitely puts us in the holiday mood.
Many of the beautiful backdrops are thanks to Manitoba, a province smack-dab in the middle of Canada that’s become a Hollywood sweetheart when it comes to film production. It also happens to be where I’ve lived my entire life and I can easily see why Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix, and so many other movie-making crews head north.
You’d think a big attraction would be snow — we get it by November and it sticks around until April most years. That’s partly true. After all, Amazing Winter Romance wouldn’t have been possible without the massive snow maze that served as a location (more on that later). However, beyond heaps of the white stuff, Manitoba has hard-working crews that go above and beyond along with a generous tax credit that keeps movie makers coming back.
Of course, there are our charming small towns, wide open rural spaces, and an enviable collection of historic buildings that have served as stand-ins for Chicago, New York, Vermont, and Tennessee. Let’s have a look at some swoon-worthy locations.
1. The Exchange District
Without a doubt, Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District is the darling of Hallmark productions. With more than 150 beautiful original buildings constructed before 1920 in 20 square blocks, the district earned the nickname “Chicago of the North.” It was the location for The Christmas Club, a story that has two strangers finding something they were both missing: true love.
Today, the neighborhood is home to innovative restaurants (The Merchant Kitchen, Deer + Almond), Manitoba Museum, Centennial Concert Hall, home to Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and boutique shopping (Hilary Druxman Design, Lennard Taylor). It’s also fertile ground for the Death & Debauchery Walking Tour that explores the dark secrets that made Winnipeg the Wickedest City in the Dominion. Peek into its legal red light district, corrupt mayors, murder most foul, and the largest unsolved robbery in Western Canadian history.
2. The Fort Garry Hotel
The unmistakable landmark opened its doors in 1913 and was immediately dubbed “the new castle of opulence” for the booming city of Winnipeg. The exterior of the hotel and its lavish lobby have remained nearly unchanged since then, thank goodness. Glide through the revolving doors and be welcomed to the Oval Room Brasserie with its intricate ceiling details, towering windows, and sink-away furnishings. The hotel was home for On the Twelfth Date of Christmas, where two seemingly incompatible game designers team up to create a romantic, city-wide scavenger hunt themed for the 12 days of Christmas.
3. World’s Largest Snow Maze
In autumn, there is a massive corn maze. However, once the snow arrives, this attraction becomes The Guinness Book of World Records Largest Snow Maze! Hallmark’s Amazing Winter Romance was shot here, where journalist Julia goes back home to find inspiration and discovers her childhood friend has built a giant snow maze. Starting in January, visitors can accept the challenge of the snow maze, check out the carvings, bravely try the giant luge run then warm up by the bonfire with a cup of hot chocolate — and pretend they’re actually in a Hallmark movie! It’s located near Saint Adolphe, just 10 minutes outside the city of Winnipeg.
4. Pineridge Hollow
Start your day with an exquisite brunch, stroll the boutiques and breathe in that fresh country air. That’s the Pineridge Hollow experience and it’s no surprise that the producers of Hallmark movies love this location. It’s about 15 minutes north of Winnipeg and adjacent to Birds Hill Park, the combination restaurant/retail/outdoor attraction was home to Snowkissed, where a travel-averse journalist chases her dream assignment and finds herself mentoring a handsome bed and breakfast owner who wants to be a tour guide. You’ll see mountains in this movie too, and that’s because those scenes were shot in Banff, Alberta, Canada. Pineridge has recently added The Village which includes stand-alone shots and spaces for a unique experience, collaboration, and learning.
5. The Rustic Wedding Barn
With spaces charmingly called “The Parlour,” “The Yard,” “The Gazebo,” “The Chapel,” and “The Barn,” this wedding venue is perfect for the romance that lingers in the air during every Hallmark production. It was the set of Merry & Bright, where Cate, CEO of the Merry & Bright Candy Cane Company, meets Gabe during the busy Christmas season. A story of business and romance unfolds. Weathered wood, Edison lights, flowing white curtains, twinkling chandeliers, and cobblestone floors let movie-making shine brightly here, about 45 minutes from Winnipeg, Manitoba, near the community of Wedding Venue Steinbach. Even if there’s no wedding in the stars, guests can enjoy The Prairie Rooms Bed & Breakfast onsite with three bedrooms, a fireplace, and a wraparound porch.
6. Stonewall, Manitoba
Founded in the 1800s, the Manitoba town of Stonewall was the center of a large limestone quarry, hence the name. While the desirable, fossil-filled rocks were being excavated, important buildings in town were being constructed and today, the post office, town hall, and library all boast beautiful limestone exteriors. Hallmark moviemakers love using these heritage buildings as stand-ins for other locations, as in A Christmas in Tennessee. The Manitoba town becomes White Pines where a story of a bakery and romance unfolds. Stop in at the McLeod House Tea Room for scones and tiny sandwiches then browse the curated collection of home décor, fashion, and gifts. Also, check out Stonewall Quarry Park where artifacts from the heyday of limestone production still stand.
7. Morden, Manitoba
It’s technically not a Christmas movie, but Pumpkin Everything definitely has all the feels of the holiday spirit. The plot follows Amy, an up-and-coming novelist who returns to her hometown to look after her stubborn grandfather Tom and his pumpkin-themed store while confronting an old flame from her past. Bella’s Castle, a gorgeous wedding venue and bed and breakfast, is the cornerstone of the movie. This charming town includes Pure Anada, a local success story featuring cosmetics crafted from organic botanicals and mineral pigments.
The downtown shop stocks the full line including skincare products, make-up, bath and body, and a men’s line. Then step into historic charm at Rendezvous Brewery & Taproom once the town’s newspaper office and now the home of mouth-watering pretzels and Bloody Jack’s Wit, just one of the taps offered here. Gather around the piano for open mic night and take home some sharp-looking merchandise.
8. Winnipeg Free Press News Café
Brand new for the 2022 holiday lineup, Hanukkah on Rye follows the story of a matchmaker who connects Molly and Jacob, but their new romance is put to the test when they realize that they are competing deli owners. The Winnipeg Free Press News Café was transformed into a bona fide Jewish deli that had passersby thinking it was the real thing. Not to fear. Just around the corner is the nearly-real thing. King & Bannatyne sells handcrafted sandwiches including their river city brisket, which gets brined for seven days and served on thick hand-cut rye with a bold smear of house-made yellow mustard. Then grab a local brew at Nonsuch Brewing.
Manitoba has hosted dozens of Hallmark productions and locals eagerly await the year’s new release so they can play “spot the location” or see their debuts as an extra. Some of the recent releases include Project Christmas Wish (2020), A Winter Getaway (2021), Snowkissed (2021), Crashing Through the Snow (2021), A Kiss Before Christmas (2021), and Tis the Season to Be Merry (2021).
The 2022 Countdown to Christmas list of Manitoba-made movies includes Hannukah on Rye, A Christmas Cookie Catastrophe, We Wish You a Married Christmas, Romance in Style, and Perfect Harmony. For a complete listing, visit the Hallmark channel. New movies premiere every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night until the end of the year. In between, viewers can watch favorites from years gone by.
Film Buff Bonus
Arguably Manitoba’s most famous movie appearance was in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a 2007 film that starred none other than box office boy wonder Brad Pitt. I found myself as an extra in the film, playing a widow who sat in the theater, watching a reenactment of the murder of Jesse James.
Sadly, Mr. Pitt was not on set that day, but Sam Rockwell was and his performance, along with his off-camera quips and dancing turned out to be an even better treat. My wardrobe included having my long hair pulled back for a severe look, a high-necked black lace dress, and a corset. I barely recognized myself during the 0.5 seconds in the final cut, but I shall never forget 18 hours in a corset.