Calgary, Kananaskis, and Banff

Back to basics.

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“Back to basics” is a phrase you typically don’t want to read in a travel review. But, to be completely honest, there is really no better way to describe my recent trip to Calgary, Kananaskis, and Banff. After all, isn’t that what travel is often intended to accomplish: to give us a moment to decompress from our overly complicated lives? In my mind’s eye, those soul-searching experiences transpire in faraway places, so little did I expect to have such a revelation right in my own backyard.

I arrive in Calgary from Vancouver on a Sunday morning, which admittedly is my first mistake. I’m frustrated to find that this city shuts down on the only day of the week I’ll be in town. I make it my mission to find Calgarians, wherever they are hiding.

I head uptown to 17th Avenue SW, and experience my first life’s lesson. Calgarians aren’t out on the streets running the rat race on a Sunday because they are too busy indoors enjoying the good life. The first snow came and went just two days earlier, but the cold had settled in—that I felt. Behind steamy windows, restaurants along the avenue are packed to the brim with brunch-time diners, who enjoy the comforts of warm food and the company of good friends. I decide to join them at a little homespun Prairie kitchen called Farm. The speciality here is charcuterie but I opt for the most tantalizing item on the menu, “Janice’s bubbling, mildly spicy mac ‘n cheese”, adding Broek Acres smoked ham hock to the dish for further depth of flavour. It is perhaps the most delightful, heart-warming plate of mac ‘n cheese I’ve ever eaten, and on that topic I consider myself a connoisseur.

They pack a chocolate chip oatmeal cookie for me in a paper bag, which I enjoy with a cappuccino from Caffe Beano as I stroll toward downtown. I arrive with just enough time to visit the Glenbow Museum, where I am impressed by all of the galleries, but most of all the extensive exhibit of Niitsitapi culture (that of Alberta’s Blackfoot people). I am moved by the Niitsitapi’s resourceful use of materials acquired by trade and by their own ingenuity to create things of exquisite beauty. The intricacy of glass beadwork on a pair of elk-skin moccasins encapsulates it all for me.

Just a few doors down from the Glenbow are my accommodations, the Hotel Le Germain, and its anchor tenant Charcut Roast House. I drop in for dinner and am seated at the kitchen bar, where jovial cooks entertain me throughout my feast. It’s a protein-centric menu: arugula and tuna conserva with lemon-pickled new potatoes and shaved celery; roasted garlic sausage patty “share burger” topped with cheese curds and fried egg; lemon and rosemary brine heritage chicken slow roasted, smoked and served with piri piri sauce. Chef and co-owner John Jackson is the first to plant this notion of “back to basics” in my head. I find it interesting to hear him explain how the availability of local and seasonal ingredients dictates Charcut’s approach and preparation. The design of the restaurant reflects this philosophy with pig and cow paraphernalia and mason jars scattered cleverly throughout.

The Hotel Le Germain is the first new hotel to be built in Downtown Calgary in ten years. Acting general manager Sylvie Dionne, who has worked for the Le Germain group of hotels for over a decade, knows the corporate culture well, and sums it up in three simple words: “Design. Service. Comfort. Many hotels get one or two right,” she says, “but we really aim to provide all three.” And that they do, seamlessly. Every last detail, from the slick uniforms of uber-cool concierge staff, to the gorgeous finishes of the open-concept bath and closet in my deluxe king room—panelled wood, stainless steel, tile and glass. It all epitomizes my ideal lifestyle sensibility; one night simply isn’t enough.

Nevertheless, the next morning it’s into the car and onto the Trans-Canada highway west toward Kananaskis. I’m heading to the Rafter Six Ranch for what I had dubbed up until this point as an “urban cowboy” experience. As I encroach on the Rockies from across the open expanse, a dusting of snow still lingers on the shady side of rolling slopes. Each moment is more beautiful than the next, evoking in me a pioneer spirit not unlike some of the displays I had seen at the Glenbow. Any sense of urbanism remaining in me had been long left behind at the city limits.

At Rafter Six Ranch, a charmingly pokey guest house and dude ranch, I saddle up and take a trail ride on horseback along the foothills of Kananaskis with my guide Jo. We cross over the property line into the ceremonial grounds of an adjacent Stoney First Nations reservation and then continue on the trail, increasing the speed to a gallop on the uphills. I enjoy the thrill of it, as well as the view of the Rockies from the top. Next thing I know, Jo and I and our stallions are crossing the frigid Kananaskis River back to the lodge. It was a great adventure, but I must continue on my journey to Banff.

In Banff, I stay at the Rim Rock Resort Hotel, a sizeable European-inspired hotel in the remote south-east corner of the city. It’s perched mountainside and I open my room’s drapes to reveal a stunning view of the Bow River valley, Tunnel Mountain and beyond. I decide to conquer that knoll for a little leg-stretcher the next day.

I meet with Gordon Stermann, president of White Mountain Adventures for the 2-hour morning hike. We enjoy a relaxed pace, take in the views, and chat about the many wonders of being a Canadian. Stermann tells me about his little pet project, Pondskate.blogspot.com, a guide to winter pond skating along the Bow Valley. He says locals are taking to the activity again in droves, and on an icy day, it’s not uncommon to see a string of vehicles parked pond-side along the highway.

My time in the Rockies is short but sweet, and leaves me yearning to further explore the mountains and their infinite number of outdoor activities. As I pull out of town along Banff Avenue, it occurs to me that I haven’t seen much wildlife yet. I turn another bend, and much to my delight, a herd of thirty or more elk graze along the roadside. Ah, the simple things in life really never do disappoint.

Photos: Craig David Long.

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December 6, 2010