Canada’s frontier city enters the post-oil age with innovation, finds Ashlee Starratt.
Growing up on the east coast of Canada, the first time I truly understood the size and breadth of my country was on a family trip ‘out west’ in 2000. Flying six hours from Halifax to Calgary, we drove up into the mountains and through the Rockies – from Jasper, Canmore, Banff, and Lake Louise, and down into British Columbia along the great Pacific highway to Vancouver.
But it was in Calgary where I had my first glimpse of the tall white peaks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains standing sentinel across the vast stretch of prairie grassland that beat a line to seam of the horizon. Considered one of two ‘Gateway to the Rockies’ cities alongside the provincial capital of Edmonton, Calgary was – and to some degree still is – a boom town.
During the heyday of Alberta’s ‘black goldrush’, this city on the banks of where the Bow and Elbow Rivers that was once a hub for 19th-century fur traders exploded overnight with development as petroleum companies set up shop, immigrants flocked in from Canada’s Maritime provinces seeking a piece of opportunity, and retail sectors ballooned. With an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen oil lodged in the Alberta tar sands, it’s the third largest oil reserve in the world – after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
But the process of extraction of oil from the sand has proven not only controversial but catastrophic to the environment – making the province’s tar sands project one of Canada’s most environmentally and politically contentious investments.
Yet, for better or worse, Calgary – and many of Alberta’s boomtown cities – grew from its industry, developing into one of western Canada’s most vibrant and multicultural major cities. With a comprehensive public transit system and North America’s largest urban bikeway and pathway system – during the warmer months, your best bet to get around and see the city is on two wheels.
Traverse the city’s iconic Peace Bridge which spans the Bow River for spectacular views or take in the greenery among the great outdoors at the 20-hectare Prince’s Island Park or the 31 acres of fishing coves and wetlands to be found in the East Village’s St. Patrick’s Island area.
During the winter months, those who aren’t afraid to bundle up and brave the city’s sub-zero temperatures can lace up their skates and go for a twirl at the outdoor Olympic Plaza skating rink or do some last-minute holiday shopping at the Granary Road Christmas Markets.
Sports fans are in good company here in Calgary – a city that likes to work hard and play hard and home to the NHL’s Calgary Flames hockey team which takes up residence during Stanley Cup season at the city’s Olympic Saddledome stadium – a relic from the 1988 Olympic Winter Games.
For culture vultures Calgary is a city that both embraces its ‘Wild West’ persona while also offering up a vibrant landscape for arts and culture to thrive. Explore the many galleries along its Beltline district, take in some of the country’s finest examples of indigenous Canadian art at the Glenbow Museum and Nickle Galleries, visit during the annual High Performance Rodeo in January – Calgary’s International Festival of the Arts.
My favourite place- With 12 national parks and historic sites within day-tripping distance, make Calgary your home-base for a side-quest to the Rockies or the Badlands. Just an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Calgary is the town of Drumheller, Alberta. Driving through the flat prairie land, the earth seems to open up in yawning crack to swallow you whole as you drive down to greet it. Home to Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology, visitors can explore more than 130,000 fossils – including a full-size fossil specimen of a T-Rex. Spend an afternoon wandering through its galleries or exploring its grounds along the ‘Dinosaur Trail’ – aka the fossil-bearing Late Cretaceous Horseshoe Canyon Formation – with a pit-stop at the Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur Egg Site.
Highlights- Take a lift up the 190.8-metre tall free-standing Calgary Tower for unparalleled views of downtown Calgary, take in world-class musical acts and rodeo performance at the annual Calgary Stampede – dubbed ‘The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth’, or step back in time to the frontier days of the 19th-century at Fort Calgary.
Lowlights- Winter temperatures in Calgary can drop as low as -25 or -30 degrees Celsius with wind chill factor making it extremely frigid – so be sure to bundle up.
Souvenirs- Calgary Heritage coffee beans, Brassica mustard, a Calgary Stampede cowboy hat, handmade moccasins and quill-work jewelry from the Stoney Nakoda or Siksika First Nations communities, Old Dutch ketchup-flavoured potato chips.
Getting there- Qatar Airways operates weekly service to Canada via Montréal, while Emirate and Etihad touch down in Toronto. From either city you can transfer to either an Air Canada codeshare or a WestJet flight to take you onwards to Calgary.
Where to stay- Airbnb options abound, while the Residence Inn by Marriott Calgary Downtown is the perfect mid-city hub. But find any and all options to suit your budget on booking.com, Kayak, Expedia, or Agoda.
1. Visit the endangered Vancouver Island marmot pups at the Calgary Zoo.
2. Rock out to a taste of Canadian music at the Calgary Folk Festival.
3. Take a daytrip outside the city to view the Badlands’ unique ‘hoodoo’ rock formations.
4. Explore the shops at the Inglewood Night Market and take home some souvenirs.
5. Tuck into some authentic Canadian cheese curds at Calgary’s Old School Cheesery Ltd.