ALPINE VISTAS, CITY SOJOURNS AND RURAL RETREATS
Aside from the allure of the Rocky Mountains and the prehistoric badlands, Canada’s fourth largest province counts resilience as one of its many attributes. Bred from its Wild West heritage mixed with the boom-and-bust drama of its oil-driven economy, Alberta has overcome its share of adversity with a characteristic “Let’s get ’er done” attitude that ensures the welcome mat is always unfurled.
Alberta’s diverse heritage is a varied offering of First Nations history, pioneer spirit and rich immigrant culture that draws New Canadians from all parts of the globe. The annual 10-day whoop-up called the Calgary Stampede celebrates all things cowboy and rodeo early each July. Edmonton’s K-Days follows up with a tribute to northern Alberta’s Klondike heritage, while dozens of other festivals across the province celebrate its unique pockets of regional pride—think perogies in Vegreville, or beef jerky in Longview.
From the granite spires of Waterton Lakes in Alberta’s south to Wood Buffalo National Park in the rugged north, the
Wild Rose province delivers hall-of-fame experiences including five sprawling national parks and 300 provincial recreational areas such as Kananaskis Country, Cypress Hills, Writing-On-Stone and Dinosaur Provincial Park.
The two biggest urban centres, Edmonton and Calgary, are cosmopolitan cities, while smaller cities including Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Airdrie serve as important regional hubs for shopping, government, tourism and agriculture/industry.
Alberta’s dining scene is innovative and local, emphasizing Rocky Mountain cuisine such as game, fish and world-famous grain-fed beef. From upscale hotel dining rooms in the big city to eclectic alpine bistros in Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise, the restaurants consistently win international awards. So, too, do Alberta’s major attractions—like the retail city/theme park of West Edmonton Mall, or the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in Red Deer.
Provincial recreational areas help keep Albertans and their visitors outdoors. Spread across 661,848 sq. km (255,541 sq. mi.) of pristine terrain, the five major snow resorts and sprawling backcountry lure powder-hounds from November to May. Try dogsledding through the untouched Spray Lakes valley, or take a guided ice walk in frozen Maligne Canyon near Jasper. The lakes of Kananaskis Country, west of Calgary, are a paradise for ice fishing in winter, and boating, hiking and cycling in the summer. Elk Island National Park east of Edmonton offers a great opportunity to photograph wildlife, including its resident buffalo and, of course, elk.
Rent a mountain bike in West Bragg Creek, or enjoy a more sedate bike ride on the paved path between the towns of Canmore and Lake Louise. Alberta’s glacierfed waterways—particularly the Bow and Red Deer rivers—lure anglers with the promise of top-notch trout fishing. In the same day, visitors can play the back nine of a world-class golf course, hopscotch past cactus patches in search of ancient rock carvings in the desert, and then retire to the hotel hot tub to watch the sunset.
Float your boat down a river or head for calmer waters along Lake Minnewanka or Moraine Lake in picturesque Banff National Park. Bonus: hear the crack of avalanches overhead, well out of your path but still powerful. Chase champagne powder from the top of first-rate resorts such as Sunshine Village, Lake Louise or Marmot Basin, or explore them in summer to unveil a hiker’s paradise of abundant wildlife and colourful carpets of wildflowers. Canada Olympic Park in northwest Calgary has a national athlete training centre, a snow park and Olympic museum, while Peter Lougheed Provincial Park boasts unparalleled opportunities for adventure all year round.
Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, south of Calgary, chronicles pioneer life from 1882-1950; this pristine setting in the shadow of the southern Rockies is featured on many postcards. Travellers with time on their hands head north to Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 44,807 sq. km (17,300 sq. mi.) of protected wilderness where the endangered whooping crane and the world’s largest herd of free-roaming wood bison can be found.
The highly touted National Music Centre depicts Canada’s musical heritage. Built to sprawl overtop of a street running through Calgary’s East Village, the five-storey building, which opened last summer, features high-tech music studio space, live programs, numerous stages and theatres, and more than 2,000 instruments and artefacts spanning several centuries (www.nmc.ca).
The relocated Royal Alberta Museum is scheduled to reopen later this year. The new facility, including exhibit space devoted to human history, a children’s gallery, bug room and Manitou Stone Gallery, will be the largest museum in western Canada (www.royalalbertamuseum.ca).
Renovations have made the popular Banff Gondola terminal more accessible and also more informative. It now features a sparkling new mountaintop indoor interpretive centre to accompany the existing exterior boardwalk and hiking trails. Open yearround, it affords spectacular views of nearby peaks as well as the town of Banff (www.brewster.ca/attractions-sightseeing).
Alberta’s two major cities offer quite different insights into the province, though they share a love of green space, sprawling river pathways and tidy, bustling downtowns.
The provincial capital of Edmonton is a government city with a grand legislature building, a thriving arts community and numerous galleries, craft stores and art shops. Most can be found along trendy Whyte Avenue or in the downtown arts
SPECIAL EVENTS JANUARY
• ICE MAGIC FESTIVAL, LAKE LOUISE JANUARY – FEBRUARY
• ICE ON WHYTE ICE CARVING FESTIVAL,
• SLED ISLAND MUSIC AND ARTS FESTIVAL,
• WATERTON WILDFLOWER FESTIVAL
• CALGARY STAMPEDE
• CANADIAN BADLANDS PASSION PLAY,
• EDMONTON INTERNATIONAL STREET
• K-DAYS, EDMONTON
• VUL-CON, VULCAN
• BIG VALLEY JAMBOREE, CAMROSE • CANMORE FOLK MUSIC FESTIVAL • EDMONTON INTERNATIONAL FRINGE
• AGRI-TRADE EXPOSITION, RED DEER • CANADIAN FINALS RODEO, EDMONTON
MT. NORQUAY, BANFF NATIONAL PARK • BANFF & LAKE LOUISE TOURISM/PAUL ZIZKA
Prairie to tour the newly-minted Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum, which chronicles the work done to preserve the world’s largest hornbill dinosaur bonebed.
MUST SEE, MUST DO
The resource town of Grande Cache, northwest of Edmonton, is a rugged former forestry and coal-mining community ringed by a dozen massive peaks. Largely undeveloped, the town is a fantastic jumping-off spot to explore nearby Willmore Wilderness Park. This 4,600 sq. km. (1,840 sq. mi.) park affords a rugged backcountry experience that is popular with ATV enthusiasts, travellers on horseback and extreme athletes.
Nestled into the lush coulees of the
Rosebud River Valley, the abandoned railway town of Rosebud was overtaken by a group of faith-based artists three decades ago. They created a thriving professional theatre school and arts centre that offers high-calibre, family-friendly theatre and music to more than 35,000 visitors a year. Many visitors stroll the hamlet’s two streets, which are spattered with funky art shops and galleries (www.rosebudtheatre.com).
Historic Fort Macleod in southern Alberta is the birthplace of the North-West Mounted Police—now the RCMP. The first musical ride in Canada was held in the town in 1876. Modelled after British Army cavalry drills, the musical ride features 36 riders performing intricate moves. The 30-minute shows are held four times daily from July to September (www.nwmpmuseum.com).
Icefields Parkway: Ranked one of the most scenic drives in Canada, Hwy 93 from
Jasper to Lake Louise, is a 237-km (147-mi.) stretch that zips past dozens of waterfalls, glaciers, emerald lakes and rocky gorges. A gateway to the Alaska Highway, the town of Jasper is a portal to nearby destinations such as Athabasca and Sunwapta falls, Miette Hot Springs and Maligne Lake (www. icefieldsparkway.com).
UNESCO Trail: It’s no day trip, but this classic trek is worth the several weeks it takes to properly travel the 1,900-km (1,181-mi.) north-south corridor. From the southern tip of Alberta at stunning Waterton Lakes to Wood Buffalo National Park in the remote north, road trippers pass through a diverse range of terrain including alpine, parkland, boreal forests and sections of the badlands.
Cowboy Trail: Western Heritage takes the spotlight along this scenic Hwy 22 drive through the foothills of the Rockies between Pincher Creek and Mayerthorpe. Highlights of the 700-km (435-mi.) route include Bar U Ranch National Historic Site and historic Cochrane Ranch (www. thecowboytrail.com).
Families shouldn’t miss the World Waterpark at West Edmonton Mall, the Calgary Zoo’s Penguin Plunge or The Brainasium outdoor centre/slide at the TELUS Spark Centre. Kids flock to the Tropical Pyramid at the Muttart Conservatory. The Great Canadian Barn Dance at Hillspring features campfires, music and food (www.gcbd.ca), while the Innisfail Discovery Wildlife Park is a 90-acre zoo housing more than 40 species of orphaned animals including bears, wolves and lions (www.discoverywild lifepark.com). The Royal Tyrrell Museum offers a Jurassic joyride; also the chance to climb into the belly of the World’s Largest Dinosaur in Drumheller in the Canadian Badlands. Star Trek buffs should stop at the town of Vulcan for its otherworldly visitor centre and annual Vul-Con festival, a living tribute to the popular Star Trek TV series.
BOW RIVER, CALGARY • TRAVEL AB/GEORGE SIMHONI
Calgary International Airport, 23 km (14 mi.) from downtown
Edmonton International Airport, 26 km (16 mi.) from downtown
ICEFIELDS PARKWAY • KRISTINA CAJIPE
STEPHEN AVENUE, CALGARY • TRAVEL AB/GERARD YUNKER