CALGARY, ALBERTA - How does a city go from “cow town” to “boomtown” without getting rid of its hitching posts?
Even in the face of unprecedented growth, thanks to the billions in new investments pouring into this rapidly expanding city from Canada’s oil sands a few hundreds kilometres north of here, Calgary has managed to maintain its cowboy roots.
That’s why you can stand on a main downtown street here and see cowboys on horseback followed by chuck wagons making their way through noon-time traffic.
“Howdy,” shouts the rider to a group of tourists dressed in cowboy chic waiting to cross a busy street nestled in a canyon of glass and steel office towers - monuments to Calgary’s galloping success.
Even though the oil sands are much closer to Edmonton, the “other” Alberta city best known for its Oilers’ hockey team when Wayne Gretzky played there, Canada’s oil executives decided to make Calgary their base. Edmonton, after all, gets much colder in the winter.
Now Calgary’s streets are crowded with European luxury cars; its once barren downtown is a forest of skyscrapers; its old rundown bars and hotels are being turned into elegant establishments; home prices have gone up faster than the price of gasoline; the city’s population is one of the fastest expanding in North America; its international airport, which not that long ago only handled domestic and a few U.S. flights, is now being expanded to handle the ever increasing number of international flights coming into the city; and new high end designer shops are appearing almost daily.
Think of Calgary as Dallas on steroids.
The fact the city also sits less than an hour away from the Rocky Mountains means it appeals to two very distinct groups of travellers, business and pleasure groups.
But more and more, people are finding it harder to leave Calgary because there’s just too much to do here. For instance, we discovered the cowboys and chuck wagons were headed for the Stampede Grounds where the world’s biggest rodeo is held each year. This is one relic of its past that Calgary refuses to surrender – and for good reason. The Stampede attracts thousands of visitors from around the world each year and is still its main tourist drawing card.
The Stampede is one giant county fair, complete with cooking contests, bare back riding, calf roping, square dancing, chuck wagon races and shows headlined by country and western’s biggest stars. It usually runs for two weeks in late June and early July and was always the cultural event of the year here.
Left: Each year the Calgary Stampede draws thousands of tourists. Right: Calgary never forgets its cowboy roots.
That was before the oil execs arrived and fancy balls and elaborate gatherings in newly designed or spruced up hotels became the new normal.
“Nothing will replace the Stampede for fun, though,” a visiting oil executive from Houston told me in the lobby of the chic Hotel Arts, another symbol of this city’s coming of age.
The Hotel Arts is just the first of many “boutique” hotel properties being planned for Calgary. The old Holiday Inn property on 12th Ave. has been totally updated and upgraded into a modern wonder where modern art pieces hang from walls and ceilings. Its outdoor pool area off the main lobby has become a gathering spot for oil executives who walk here from the downtown office core.
The area where the Hotel Arts sits is not Calgary’s best side. Old bars with broken neon lights where suspicious-looking characters hang around entrances and missions where the city’s homeless and forgotten are fed are quickly being pushed aside in favour of 40-storey office and apartment complexes.
“All this will be gone soon,” the doorman at the Hotel Arts told me. “It’s sad to see some of these bars go – over there, in that one, I had my first drink.”
The city’s new slogan “Galgary – Heart of the new West” is fitting since it has also become the heart of Canada’s healthy economy, pumping billions into the national treasury each year.
With about one million people to care for – that figure is expected to increase rapidly over the next few years – Calgary has taken its new found wealth and upgraded just about every sector of its infrastructure, including museums and art galleries.
The top galleries in downtown Calgary include Art Central, a new concept where artists galleries, studios and craft boutiques come together under one roof; the Art Gallery of Alberta where contemporary art rules; Artists of the World, a 20,000 square foot facility showcasing local – many of them of Native Canadians – and international artists; and the Cantos Music.
Above: Calgary's skyline has seen some impressive additions in recent years.
Foundation museum where relics from the music world can be viewed, including a piano once used by Elton John. Just outside Calgary is Fort Calgary, built in 1875 to house Canada’s famed Mounties; Heritage Park, where pioneer life in Western Canada is remembered; and Buzzards Cowboy Cuisine, the place where they hold the annual cow’s “testicle festival” each year. Hold onto your hats – and a few other things – if you intend to attend that festival.
Like most major Canadian cities, Calgary offers a labyrinth of shopping tunnels where people can escape the bone-chilling winds that blow through town in the winter and the searing heat that hangs over the city in summer. The Calgary Eaton Centre, TD Square and Scotia Centre are all connected by tunnels and each offers some impressive shopping. There’s also the Stephen Avenue Walk that cuts through the city’s historic district and offers over 1,000 shops, many of them offering unique Western garb and gear
Back at the Hotel Arts, Chef Paul McGreevy and his young staff are preparing the nightly menu in his artsy restaurant called Saint Germain, one of many new eateries being opened in Calgary by imaginative young local chefs.
“At one time, if you wanted to practice your culinary art you’d have to move to Toronto or Montreal or head for Europe or the States,” the likeable McGreevy said. “But not anymore. The new money pouring into Calgary and the executives coming to live here means they want high-end restaurants like this.
“We still have to remember where we are (which explains why the beef dishes are the chef suggestions most nights) but we can experiment with many variations of beef dishes and offer Calgarians and their guests something they’ll appreciate.”
Every corner of the culinary world is represented in Calgary – from German to Thai to Chinese to American to European and of course, lots of steakhouses where Alberta Beef comes thick and juicy.
There are more than 11,000 rooms available to visitors but because of the “boom” many fill up quickly and making reservations is always a good idea.
Just an hour’s drive north of Calgary is the world famous natural wonderland called Banff, tucked away in the magnificent snow capped Rockies. People once ventured to Banff for week-long sightseeing or ski vacations but now many just take a day trip there.
Why? Because there’s just too much to do in Calgary.