My Kind of Town: Calgary

It acts important, a cosmopolitan place with tony bars full of trendy people dressed in black talking about things like where to get the most “faaaabulous” kimchi or Cuban cigars. For 365 days a year, Calgary acts like a big city. But, of course, it ain’t. “If you want to see the real Calgary,” says Iris Glass, well-known matriarch of a chuckwagon racing dynasty, “walk on out to Stephen Avenue anytime during Stampede (July 7-16, 2000). It ain’t nothing but the biggest and best small town in Canada.”

Take Glass’s advice. What you’ll witness are hay bales propped up against flimsy wooden fences (western facades that every company rents for the 10-day whoop-up) and fake saloons. On top of those bales will probably be pointy-toed cowboy boots worn by locals and visitors alike, comfortable enough to sink back in the sun, order a steak, and prop up their feet for a spell.

Of course, there’s a growing faction of Calgary’s 842,388 people that flees town the moment the Stampede Parade steers its path through the city’s core. Not wanting to be branded “wild and woolly,” they make their own stampede out of town to return when the hangover has passed.

That’s why visitors’ impressio of Calgary tend to be schizophrenic. Some see Calgary as the Wild West, others view it as a sophisticated new frontier. However you choose to see it, there are two things nobody misses: the snow-coated peaks to the west and the gin-clear glint of the Bow River.

The city meets the outdoors Just a hop, skip and a jump from these downtown banks of the Bow are aisles of oil and gas towers mirroring one of the city’s anomalies — Prince’s Island Park. It’s Calgary’s grassy downtown playground, a prime pick among locals. With the reflections of downtown on its south side and forest of wilderness to its north, Prince’s Island straddles the very essence of Calgary — a hip and happening city collared with wilderness.

Take a stroll through the park and you’re likely to hear the clip-clop of horse’s hooves, the hiss of fishing lines arcing across the Bow and then it’ll drift into you — the smell of fresh bread curling out of the stony chimney of The River Cafe, one of my favourite restaurants. Or rent a bike and explore part of the 300 km-long web of pathways that fan out from Prince’s Island.

Sites to see Most of the city’s major attractions such as the Eau Claire Market, the Calgary Zoo, Canada Olympic Park, the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary or the biggest urban park in Canada — Fish Creek — are located somewhere on this path system. If you’re hoofing it, amble south to Stephen Avenue, a resurrected historic street of 40 sandstone buildings that look as bleached and soft in the summer light as the roll and twist of pretzels, commonly sold on this strip. From here, keep following the great spike in the sky — the Calgary Tower — to its summit-top restaurant at 626 feet. Order a locally brewed Big Rock beer in the surprisingly good Tops Grill restaurant.

Carry on walking or take the C-Train, Calgary’s light rapid transit system, to the following sites locals are likely to wow visitors with: Fort Calgary: On the fringes of Inglewood, this original fort is being reconstructed using 19th century techniques. You can watch carpenters at work in a replica of an 1875 shop, try the hands-on activities in the Quartermaster’s Store; Canada Olympic Park: More than sports fans jump on the guided bus tours that zip you to the bobsled start house, the ski jump complex and through the Hall of Fame; Glenbow Museum: Houses western Canada’s largest inventory of native artifacts; Heritage Park: At Canada’s largest living museum you can hear the jangle of harness, smell the home-made toffee and board the S. S. Moyie for a sternwheeler cruise across the Glenmore Reservoir.

Food As for food, Calgary has trendy cafes, but don’t forget you’re in cowboy country. At some point you’ve got to try this province’s world-famous beef, and of course chow down on a mound of flapjacks for breakfast. Buzzards Cowboy Cuisine in Calgary has original chuckwagon recipes adapted to contemporary tastes. And when it comes to shopping, Calgary earns its bragging rights for the simple fact there is no provincial sales tax (Alberta is the only province without one). We don’t have the number of high-end boutiques of other cities, but top-grade cowboy chic abounds. You can go home with a pair of Roper’s, a gaudy silver-belt buckle or just a pile of bandanas for your grandkids from crusty spots like Western Outfitters, Albert Boots, Lammies or the oldest of the lot, Riley & McCormick.