Calgary and its vicinity retain a pioneer enthusiasm lost in my home, Toronto. It’s among the western frontiers of urban development, wrapped in some of the most sublime wild vistas Canada has to offer.
Banff National Park
Full disclosure: I’ve never travelled outside central Canada.
Notwithstanding club debaucheries in Montreal and forest adventures throughout Ontario, I’m utterly ignorant of the breadth and beauty of this country.
We landed Thursday morning at YYC and snagged a rental car for the first leg of our adventure: The Rockies.
To the peels of laughter that is a GAB reunion, we took Highway 1 towards Banff.
Entering Banff National Park is free if you drive straight through, however resting at any of the nearby attractions requires a day pass worth about 20 CAD.
As the scenery mounted around us, the rowdy conversation in the car softened in deference to the beautiful surroundings. The region had sporadic thundershowers and after every few kilometres of torrential rain, we were delighted by mists rising from the forest.
We drove through Banff town towards Lake Louise.
I haven’t seen a mountainous range since the Carpathians, and I felt immense elation as the hills grew into craggy ridges, then fog wrapped peaks. The bursts of rain were cathartic and the air smelled of earth and pine.
Dan suggested we check out Lake Louise in memory of his parents’ wedding anniversary which coincided with our trip.
What a splendid idea!
Lake Louise gets its characteristic colour from the rock flour deposited by run down from adjacent glaciars. I’ve never seen such a sublime shade before.
We took a brief repass before hiking up about a kilometre through the forest to reach Fairview Lookout Point.
Banff Upper Hot Springs
After delighting our senses with the majestic beauty of the Rockies, we descended back to the town of Banff and paid a visit to the Upper Hot Springs.
Admission is about 7 bucks and they are open from 9AM late into the night until 11PM.
Relaxing in the soothing, warm, mineral scented bath and admiring the mountain peaks dotting the horizon was panacea to all the pains of our travels thus far.
It was like hitting a massive reset button in preparation for a weekend of intense exertion.
The City of Calgary
I seriously judge a city by its food.
With miles of green pastures surrounding it, Calgary was very promising.
After our excursion into Banff, we decided to check out The Palomino Smokehouse for dinner, a restaurant known for their fresh local ribs.
The Palomino Smokehouse had a very nice back patio and a huge bar in the basement with all the fixings of a live music venue.
They boasted a large smoker, proudly displayed in the front of the shop and bedazzled in dozens of band stickers.
Punk rock BBQ. How can you go wrong?
Apparently dry ribs are more popular in this neck of the woods and, although I typically like my meat seared and bloody, these ribs were nevertheless delicious!
Breakfast fit for a king
The following day we decided to check out a place called OEB Breakfast Co. Located just a half hour walk from the downtown core, it came with very high recommendations.
We travelled from the Sandman Hotel across the Prince’s Island bridge. After climbing a few flights of stairs we were rewarded with a beautiful panorama of downtown Calgary.
The accolades bestowed by locals upon OEB Breakfast Co. were well merited: the food was just out of this world.
I seriously think I had an out of body experience at the first taste of their Soul in a Bowl.
Free range poached eggs, the crispest herbed potatoes, divine bacon, chewy, fresh curds and a light holandaise sauce.
We went back there twice because their insane buttermilk pancakes tormented my dreams. I didn’t know batter could be so light and fluffy. Now I don’t know what to call those other cake-things I’ve been eating all along.
This was the epitome of pancakehood.
After stuffing ourselves to the gills, we walked back towards the downtown core, through the McDougall Centre Garden. This beautiful water garden provided much needed relief on a hot afternoon.
The section of 8 Avenue SW between 4 Street SW and 1 Street SE is closed to vehicles during the daytime, forming an outdoor market space. The street was lined with pubs, shops, free-standing boutiques and food trucks.
The street mall is a tourist bait strip. If you’re into high-end fashion shopping and overpriced lattes, this if your place to be.
I instead enjoyed it for the cool architecture, particularly its skyways.
Saturday, with all the force of a full-bodied hangover from dancing the night away, it was time to please the sweet tooth.
On our first stroll through town we came across a Lindt outlet store torn right out of a Willy Wonka fantasy.
We were so excited to check it out we lined up outside the door before it opened. We found dozens of unique flavours, many of which I had never sampled before.
They had me at salted-caramel. Dreamstate and I stuffed the largest bag they had and made off like bandits.
Where’s the beef?
There was just one more ping on my epicurean radar: steak. A big, juicy, obscenely rare steak.
I was enticed by the reviews of a place called Vintage Chophouse and Tavern but unfortunately it was closed until dinner service and we were due at the venue by 5PM. We tried the Keg with similar results, and then on a whim ended up in a place called Last Best.
Last Best is better known for their brews – they are locally renowned for a variety of lagers and stouts.
Considering Alberta is literally a sea of barley and happy cows chowing on ancestral grass, I was very excited to experience Top Grass Beef.
It was so delicious, I almost cried.
Delicately flavoured and just perfectly cooked for my carnivorous desires, it was a very memorable taste experience.
The standard it set renegades every steak I’ve eaten before to the level of shoe leather. Steve tried their Bison Burger and it was just as juicy and decadent.
I’ll be back
Terminus Festival is definitely a mainstay on my radar, and I look forward to returning to Calgary. I met some really cool people there, whom I look forward to reconnecting with.
The city itself feels young and just coming into its own. It carries a refreshing mentality that is long-lost on Toronto and Montreal.
And on top of all that, the fresh local produce was absolutely mind-blowing.
There was much more I would’ve liked to explore in the urban landscape, not to mention a skiing trip to Banff is now certainly on my bucket list. The Alberta wilderness has an unrivalled primordial appeal that I will never forget.