Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NEEPAWA: Lily Capital of the World; home of literary legend

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As you speed up and down the hills that bring you towards Neepawa, Man., a person could be encouraged to believe Neepawa's charm emanates from the pastoral beauty of the Prairie landscape that encloses it.

It is hard not to be drawn in by the golden yellow canola fields that merge with the bright blue sky on the horizon, the occasional farm silo or bright red barn popping up into view.

But the true gem of this central Manitoba oasis is in its flowers and its literary heroine.

Neepawa, population 3,300, is an easy two-hour drive west of Winnipeg.

For one weekend in mid-July, it is the place to be, attracting as many as 12,000 visitors to the self-proclaimed Lily Capital of the World.

The Neepawa Lily Festival was born in 1996, when local residents pushed the town council to stake the town's tourism fame on the fact that over 1,500 lily varieties were being grown there. As of 2004, there were over 2,000 types of lilies named and growing locally.

The festival is now one of the biggest summer draws in rural Manitoba. Whether you can tell a prize-winning plant from an also-ran or an Asiatic lily from martagon doesn't matter. It is difficult not to be inspired by the sheer number of blooms in sight -- the bright reds to the shocking pinks, the dainty yellows and energetic oranges.

With five large lily parks around town, and residents and businesses getting in on the lily-growing action, the entire town teems with flowers. They can be spotted throughout the summer but July is the hot time with the aim being for the most lilies in bloom to coincide with the festival, which this year was July 17-19.

Mixed with the tree-lined streets and historic homes and buildings in and around town it is a truly calming and lovely summertime experience.

The festival includes the typical summer fun events such as a town parade, beer gardens, craft tent, kids' carnival and live entertainment.

But if you're there for the flowers, take one of the two-hour hosted lily tours. You will get a guided visit of various lily beds around town and end at the Lily Nook just outside of town where visitors can wander a real flower farm, which grows over 1,500 varieties of lilies. An estimated 200,000 plants grow on 10 acres of land at the nook. It has a gift shop but also has a catalogue lily bulb business so you can take some plants with you or order online to try and grow your own lilies at home.

The guided tour includes a stop at Riverside Cemetery, a must-see for any Canadian literature lover.

The cemetery is home to the Stone Angel statue made famous by author Margaret Laurence as the title of her most famous novel.

Laurence was born and raised in Neepawa, and her childhood home is now a museum. She set five of her books in the fictional town of Manawaka, which was based heavily on Neepawa.

Laurence herself is now buried in Riverside Cemetery.

For the full flower experience, stay at the Garden Path Bed and Breakfast, just a short walk from downtown. The century-old home is gorgeous but the gardens around it are lovingly tended and make for one of the most tranquil spots in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 1, 2009 E5

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