In the Rock­ies, Cal­gary’s Still Got Game

From Bik­ing to Shop­ping, the Gate­way to the Cana­dian Range Rarely Has an Idle Mo­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - Details - By Cindy Loose

Ikeep ex­pect­ing driv­ers be­hind me to start blar­ing their horns as I try to exit the park­ing lot, but I can’t get the pay­ment ma­chine to ac­cept my bills. But I hear not a peep, ex­cept my own mut­tered curses. Just as I’m tempted to ram the gate, a man from sev­eral cars back gets out and, with a smile, drops sev­eral dol­lar coins into the ma­chine for me.

A fluke? All I know is that later, at a pre­pay lot, a wo­man walks to where I’m read­ing the in­struc­tions and hands me her pre­paid card, which has hours’ worth of park­ing on it.

But why shouldn’t peo­ple in Cal­gary be feel­ing even more gen­er­ous and good­na­tured than their fa­mously nice com­pa­tri­ots? Res­i­dents of Cal­gary live in a beau­ti­ful, clean and ex­cep­tion­ally pros­per­ous city. Un­em­ploy­ment is vir­tu­ally nil. Oil and gas money is pour­ing in so fast that the prov­ince of Al­berta last year paid off all gov­ern­ment debt, in­vested in in­fra­struc­ture such as parks and still had so much left over that ev­ery man, wo­man and child was sent a check for $ 400 Cana­dian — just for liv­ing there.

Cal­gary’s pros­per­ity, and its op­por­tu­ni­ties for year- round out­door ac­tiv­i­ties, has been a mag­net for young peo­ple. That helps ex­plain the city’s vi­brant, dy­namic, youth­ful feel. Its av­er­age age, 35, makes it the youngest pop­u­la­tion in Canada.

In three decades, the city’s pop­u­la­tion has jumped from more than 400,000 to nearly 1 mil­lion. Olympic hope­fuls come to train at fa­cil­i­ties left from the 1988 Win­ter Games, oil in­dus­try types come for high­pay­ing jobs, and oth­ers come to take any job that al­lows them the free­dom to pur­sue their out­door pas­sions in and around the city, best known as the gate­way to the Cana­dian Rock­ies. To­gether they’ve turned a city for sub­ur­ban com­muters into a lively, 24- 7 kind of place.

Un­til ar­riv­ing here, I fig­ured Cal­gary would be a Cana­dian Hous­ton. Both cities started out as cow towns, then hit black gold. Yet they couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent, says an oil in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tive who vis­its both cities fre­quently.

“ Cal­gary is not at all like Hous­ton. It’s bet­ter de­signed, more walk­a­ble, eas­ier to find your way around and has good pub­lic trans­porta­tion,” says Carol, who asks that her last name not be used be­cause she doesn’t want to of­fend Hous­ton col­leagues.

“ Cal­gary is very cos­mopoli­tan,” she adds. “ It has lots of bor­ing oil ex­ec­u­tives like me but also skate­board­ers and skiers and peo­ple into an al­ter­na­tive lifestyle. Peo­ple are ex­cep­tion­ally nice — so law- abid­ing you won’t even see a jay­walker.”

The spirit of the place is cap­tured dur­ing the an­nual Cal­gary Stam­pede, a 10- day rodeo that spills into the streets as peo­ple party Mardi Gras- style, with cow­boy hats in­stead of beads. Ev­ery ho­tel turns its ball­rooms into bars; ev­ery morn­ing brings free pan­cake break­fasts all over town.

It’s a city with 21,000 acres of park­land, two rivers, sky­scrapers con­nected by walk- ways, and nu­mer­ous cul­tural at­trac­tions.

If you’re among the mil­lions plan­ning to visit the Rock­ies and won­der­ing whether you should tack on ex­tra days to check out Cal­gary, here are five rea­sons the an­swer should be yes.

1. Out­door Ac­tiv­i­ties. Two clean glacierfed rivers, the Bow and the El­bow, wind through Cal­gary, which was orig­i­nally set­tled where the two con­verge. De­pend­ing on the sea­son, you can ice skate and go curl­ing on the rivers or swim, fly- fish and go tub­ing within view of sky­scrapers.

The city is hon­ey­combed with 394 miles of paved path­ways, many of which are scraped clean in win­ter so bi­cy­clists can use them year- round. Along with an­other 161 miles of road­way set aside for bik­ers on city streets, the bik­ing sys­tem is the most ex­ten­sive of any city in North Amer­ica.

Cal­gary has made smart use of the for­mer Win­ter Games fa­cil­i­ties. Dur­ing my visit, kids were splash­ing in a foun­tain at a plaza built for Olympic awards cer­e­monies. In win­ter, the foun­tain be­comes a skat­ing rink.

At Canada Olympic Park, I watched bob­sled­ders train for a na­tional cham­pi­onship and for $ 2 rode on a short in­door track my­self — not so thrilling be­cause it’s meant for merely prac­tic­ing the push- off, and the ride takes about two sec­onds. In win­ter, you can try the real bob­sled run and ski the slopes used by Olympic cham­pi­ons. The mas­sive ski jump is for cham­pi­ons only, but you can watch the ex­perts soar.

2. Shop­ping. Three times dur­ing my visit, I re­turned to Micah Gallery on Stephen Av­enue to think about how great that painted buf­falo skull would look in my house if I re­dec­o­rated in a South­west mo­tif. I set­tled for a small whale carved from wood.

Micah’s is one of sev­eral gal­leries sell­ing fine arts and crafts from Cana­dian In­dian tribes. Cal­gary is also a great stop for leather and fur, in­clud­ing cus­tom- made cloth­ing by the Leather Ranch. Among lo­cal com­pa­nies that make and sell west­ern wear are the Al­berta Boot Co. and Smith­bilt, fa­mous for cow­boy hats.

More gen­er­ally, Cal­gary is a shop­ping mecca in part be­cause of its lo­ca­tion within the only prov­ince in Canada with­out a pro­vin­cial sales tax. I hap­pily spent sev­eral hours visit­ing the stores along Stephen Av­enue ( also called Eighth Av­enue), the old­est sur­viv­ing area of town, where pleas­ant sand­stone build­ings line streets closed to cars.

Gone, at least for now, are the days when a strong U. S. dol­lar could be ex­changed for $ 1.50 Cana­dian, mak­ing the en­tire coun­try dirt cheap. Cur­rently, a U. S. dol­lar is worth about $ 1.15 Cana­dian. Still, there are bar­gains on such Cana­dian- pro­duced prod­ucts as leather goods.

3. Food. Given the rep­u­ta­tion of Al­berta beef, I was ex­pect­ing some fine steak- and­potato meals. What I hadn’t re­al­ized is that Chi­nese rail­road work­ers from the far North­west set­tled here a cen­tury ago af­ter the tracks they were lay­ing met up with those laid by work­ers trav­el­ing from the east. Thus, Cal­gary has a vi­brant Chi­na­town, where I found some great dim sum.

Other waves of im­mi­grants have also brought their cui­sine to town, giv­ing the restau­rant scene an in­ter­na­tional flair, with­out the loss of the more in­dige­nous “ cow­boy food” and big slabs of bar­be­cued meat. Prices are some­what lower than in ma­jor U. S. cities.

4. Cul­ture. When­ever money flows into a city, the arts are never far be­hind. The Cal­gary Phil­har­monic Orches­tra re­cently wel­comed new mu­sic di­rec­tor Roberto Minczuk, for­merly with the New York Phil­har­monic and the Sao Paulo State Sym­phony Orches­tra. The Al­berta Bal­let, which just con­cluded its 40th an­niver­sary sea­son, is led by Jean Grand- Maître, who be­fore com­ing to Cal­gary chore­ographed works for the most ac­claimed com­pa­nies in Europe. Then there’s the Cal­gary Opera, or you could catch a Can­tonese opera or learn lion danc­ing at the Chi­nese Cul­tural Cen­tre.

The theater scene is not as es­tab­lished as the mu­sic scene, but among the places to find se­ri­ous, qual­ity pro­duc­tions are Theatre Cal­gary and Al­berta Theatre Projects, which hosts an an­nual fes­ti­val of new Cana­dian works. Prices are about $ 20 to $ 60, with av­er­age ticket prices around $ 50.

On the vis­ual arts side, the Glen­bow Mu­seum through June 3 is ex­hibit­ing works from an­cient Egypt and Greece, and though it’s an im­pres­sive dis­play, I felt as if I had seen it all some­where be­fore. I was more in­trigued by an ex­hi­bi­tion of pho­to­graphs taken by abo­rig­i­nal stu­dents chron­i­cling their daily lives. That show runs through May 15.

5. Spe­cial Events. My hus­band has been beg­ging me for years to visit the city dur­ing the an­nual Cal­gary Folk Mu­sic Fes­ti­val. ( Don’t tell him, but this year it’s July 26- 29.)

The city in fact has more than the nor­mal num­ber of ma­jor events for a city its size. The Stam­pede, which this year runs July 615, has made Cal­gary world- fa­mous. But the dres­sage crowd knows the city for its na­tional and in­ter­na­tional eques­trian com­pe­ti­tions, which run from Fe­bru­ary through Novem­ber.

TOURISM CAL­GARY

The world-fa­mous Cal­gary Stam­pede, with rodeo and other events, runs July 6 to 15 this year.

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