Twenty years ago, Calgary was fresh off hosting the first Winter Olympics ever held in Canada. They were the memorable Games where the world got to know a Jamaican bobsled team and a cheerfully inept British ski jumper known as Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, and where competition highlights included the “Battle of the Brians”—Boitano vs. Orser for the men’s figure skating crown.
Calgary is the largest city in the province of Alberta.
Edwards and Orser were among those who came to Calgary this winter to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Olympics. From the look of the Alberta city today, however, you’d think it was getting ready to host a huge international event rather than looking back on one long past. Cranes and partially constructed buildings hover all over downtown, in a building boom that entails the residential, corporate and government sectors. Some 2,000 apartments are under construction, as is a $350 million courthouse complex and a skyscraper named The Bow, which will be the tallest in Canada outside Toronto.
This is a city, literally and figuratively, on the rise. And it has another milestone anniversary coming up this year: June will mark 40 years since the opening of the Calgary Tower, the 627-foot-high observation tower that’s the most recognizable structure in the city’s skyline. One section of it has a glass floor, so visitors can look straight down on the street scene below. It is, of course, as sturdy as the regular floors in the Tower but can nonetheless be unnerving when one is standing on it (the gift shop sells “I survived the glass floor” T-shirts). The revolving restaurant atop the Calgary Tower is due to reopen this summer following a complete renovation.
Across from the Tower is the Glenbow Museum, mostly a museum of history and cultures but with artworks in the collection as well. Two permanent exhibits in particular provide an excellent introduction to Alberta—“Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta” and “Niitsitapiisinni: Our Way of Life.” The former recounts the struggles and triumphs of people who shaped the province’s history in politics, industry, the arts, public service and community activism. The latter is a comprehensive overview of the Blackfoot, the First Nations people native to Alberta.
The proximity of the Tower and museum to each other illustrates one of Calgary’s great attributes, especially for tourists: Downtown is compact. Within two blocks of those attractions are the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts, the Art Gallery of Calgary, a Hudson’s Bay department store and several hotels, including Hyatt, Marriott and Fairmont. It’s so compact, they don’t even bother charging you to ride the C-Train, Calgary’s light rail, within downtown.
Calgary's old (left) and new (right) City Halls are near Olympic Plaza, which features a skating rink in the winter.
Just a block from the Glenbow is Olympic Plaza, where the medals ceremonies were held during the 1988 Games. It’s now a park with an ice skating rink in winter, fountains and a wading pool in summer, and my favorite of Calgary’s many pieces of public art: a life-size sculpture of the “Famous Five,” the five Alberta women who fought for the rights granted to “persons” under Canadian law to be extended to women. The sculpture depicts the women—two seated, three standing—toasting their victory with a cup of tea; one holds up the October 1929 newspaper reporting the court’s ruling: “Women are persons.”
History Buffs, Nature Lovers and Casino Enthusiasts
Olympic Plaza borders Stephen Avenue Walk, a five-block thoroughfare that is limited to pedestrians during the day. Most of its buildings date to the turn of the century and now house stores, restaurants and pubs. Enjoy it just for the history-infused stroll, or for the shopping and dining. Be sure to go to the top floor of TD Square, a retail and office complex along Stephen Avenue Walk, for the Devonian Gardens, which are free to the public. Fountains, statuary, colorful flowers, trellises, footbridges, waterfalls, koi ponds and more than 125 plant varieties fill the 2.5-acre botanic space, which also displays paintings and wood carvings.
Calgary's Devonian Gardens contain more than 125 different types of plant life.
From Stephen Avenue, it takes about 15 minutes to walk to Stampede Park, home of the world-famous Calgary Stampede every July. Scheduled this year for July 4-13, the Stampede features a carnival midway, chuckwagon races, extreme-sports demonstrations, concerts, native crafts and performances and plenty of rodeo action. The Stampede Casino, on the Stampede grounds, and Elbow River Casino, across the street, both offer table games, hundreds of slot machines, 24-hour poker, restaurants, bars and live entertainment year-round. The Stampede is one stop out of downtown on the C-Train, but if clients walk, they can visit Chocolaterie Bernard Callebaut en route for a factory tour and a little indulgence in the shop.
To learn about more things to see and do in the Calgary area, go to www.tourismcalgary.com. Travel agent liaison at the tourism office is Barry Dane, manager of leisure sales ([email protected], 403-750-2391).
Lodging and Dining
Hotels: No hotel is more venerated in Calgary’s history than the Fairmont Palliser, an Edwardian-era landmark adjacent to the Calgary Tower. Its 405 classically styled and luxuriously outfitted accommodations are spacious, and the lobby, restaurant, lounge and ballroom—all as legendary as the hotel itself—feature such sumptuous appointments as handmade carpets, oak paneling, original paintings and marble floors. Dining highlights include a lavish Sunday brunch and Monday-evening Death by Chocolate buffet. Travel agents can contact sales manager Freya French at [email protected] or 403-260-1213.
The elegant main entrance to Calgary's Fairmont Palliser.
Hotel Arts, which opened three years ago, offers boutique style with its chic and contemporary ambiance. It has an outdoor pool that’s heated like a Swedish spa for wintertime use and sports Italian glass tile in its patio. There are suites with Jacuzzis and with terraces overlooking the pool, though most of the 185 accommodations are luxury rooms, featuring such amenities as a 42-inch plasma TV, private balcony and rainshower or soaking tub. Agent contact is Cheryl McCabe, reservations supervisor ([email protected], 403-266-8283).
The recently renovated Delta Bow Valley, on the north side of downtown, has rooms with city or river views. The 394-room hotel is especially good for families, with special pricing, services and facilities for those traveling with kids. Meanwhile, business travelers will appreciate the complimentary weekday-morning car service, in-room high-speed Internet connections and a 24-hour onsite business center. Agents should contact Kirk Macdonald, sales manager, travel and tours, at 403-205-5418 or [email protected].
On the same avenue is The International Hotel, offering 248 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom suites of 600 to 1,145 square feet. All contain stainless-steel mini refrigerators, flat-screen TVs, private-label spa toiletries and gourmet coffee and tea in-room. Agent contact at the hotel is Debbie Poffenroth, sales manager ([email protected], 403-290-7882).
The parlor of a Heritage Suite at the Fairmont Palliser.
Restaurants: Sorry, vegetarians, you’re in cattle country in Calgary. A popular place for Alberta beef and bison is Buzzards, two blocks from Calgary Tower. Teatro, an elegant, romantic Italian restaurant inside a Beaux Arts former bank building next to Olympic Plaza, often garners the best dining reviews in the city. Its interior decor features Carrara marble—the kind Michelangelo used—and imported tile. Another highly regarded spot for Italian food, Centini, is across the street. Along Stephen Avenue Walk, The Unicorn is known for its signature Twisted Horn Cream Ale and for its wings—diners can help themselves to any of 15-plus varieties of hot sauce from shelves at the bar. The menu also offers classic pub fare and classic Alberta dishes like a tasty lamb burger.