Been to Calgary in the winter? It can be a trying place November to March when anything—and everything—can happen. Temperatures going up and down like a toilet seat, snow and ice retreating and advancing like the Pleistocene, unplowed streets. I won't regale you with my weather-related horror stor ... er, experiences ... of Calgary during this season, but I was generally inconvenienced only because I was transiting from the airport to the mountains. Once they built a bypass west on the Trans-Canada Highway and you didn't have to drive through the city along dreaded 16th Avenue, it was easy to avoid a place where you wouldn't want to ever get stuck. But I'm here to dispel my own myths: Calgary has come of age.
Not only is the city a legitimate mountain gateway town, à la Denver, providing access to a Rocky Mountain front range ski empire—Kananaskis Country, Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise—but it's a legitimate stopover, a place to spend a few days en route and actually enjoy yourself. There's a lot going on that you wouldn't expect. To start, the global food and beverage renaissance has made itself known with an abundance of cool new eating and drinking options.
Let's start where I did, at the historic and thoroughly enchanting Deane House in Inglewood, a building with many former lives but now a long-time restaurant open for dinner, lunch and weekend brunch. In a series of carefully curated rooms each with its own character, the folks behind River Café—proprietor Sal Howell, chef Mattias Fong—celebrate Canadian cuisine with a serious dedication to the environment and sustainability. Evergreen-smoked Elbow River trout was amazing, but I almost fainted when I tasted wood-grilled bison with dried Saskatoon berries. Serious skier fare.
Everyone knows Alberta grows some of the world's best grains, so no surprise the province can finally lay claim to a burgeoning craft brewery scene—à la Vancouver a decade ago, with new breweries expected to reach 80 this year. Calgary's Barley Belt alone includes more than 30 establishments, and stretches through the city north to south, some so close you can reach out and touch one from the other. I joined a group to visit Village Brewery (famous for its "Jagr Lagr" when Jaromir Jagr himself was briefly a Calgary Flame), neighbouring Born Colorado Brewing and Annex Ale Project (great IPA and salty Lebanese string cheese), before we all hopped on a surprisingly fun 16-passenger U-shaped bike and pedalled our way to Paddy's Barbecue & Brewery and Banded Peak, finishing up at Legend 7 Brewery with its "Seven Deadly Sin" line of beers.
Little known fact: Calgary birthed the Caesar (invented in 1969 by Walter Chell at the Calgary Inn, now the downtown Westin), possibly the second most important drink in Canadian ski culture behind beer. Given the town's profusion of blue-suits, there's always been a solid cocktail scene in Cowtown. These days, however, old standards have given way to a vast experimental landscape of surprising ingredients and international flair. Places like Klein/Harris, Hayden Block, Proof, Raw Bar, and Gorilla Whale are doing things with gin, bourbon, sake and other spirits that can only be called culinary art.
There are even new world-class attractions to boast of. The stunning new National Music Centre is worth a visit for its architecture alone, but what it contains only adds to the heady dazzle. Can visiting a museum be as exciting as a music festival? The sense of excitement in discovering new artists, hearing new beats, and celebrating with friends is the approach taken to developing exhibitions here. In addition, a 2,000-piece collection representing the history of global music technology and the story of music in Canada is on display to the public and available to artists in residence. From an Elton John piano to a Stevie Wonder synthesizer to the Rolling Stones' infamous mobile recording unit—where it laid down memorable albums Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, and Some Girls, and which was also used by bands like Led Zeppelin (albums II, III and IV), Deep Purple ("Smoke on the Water"), and The Who ("Won't Get Fooled Again").
These days, I wouldn't mind being stuck in Calgary at all by a winter storm—in fact, I was holed up downtown in late September when a freak 60-centimetre dump virtually shuttered the downtown core. But how about this: though I still don't understand the old people in red vests and white cowboy hats (Alberta being the only province in Canada that seems to have a uniform and people dressing in provincial caricature), I also wouldn't mind being stuck at its airport. I would immediately check into the Calgary Airport Marriott, one of the most modern, comfortable, upscale airport hotels imaginable. But you know, you don't even have to stay there to appreciate the cuisine of its very cool Yakima Restaurant, a modern hot-spot for Aboriginal and Asian inspired cuisine and drinks.
Want a hot tip for your next ski trip to the Rockies? Stay in Calgary, but go to the airport for dinner.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.