CALGARY, Alberta — Cranes tower above the heart of one of Canada’s largest cities. They’re white and red and yellow, and some hang 25 stories in the sky. Others sit low to the ground, just beginning their work.
Though best known for its annual Calgary Stampede rodeo each summer and for being the place to pick up your rental car on the way to Canada’s Rocky Mountains, Calgary is a city in remarkable transformation. You see it in its culinary explosion, the enthusiasm of its youthful population, and that fast-growing skyline sprouting from the brown Canadian plains.
Over dinner one night at Charcut, a restaurant that has wowed the city with its spirit of culinary adventure, I met a business traveler from Toronto who visits Calgary every few months.
Kyle Winston, 34, who owns an insurance-adjustment firm, marveled at the five glassy office towers and half-dozen apartment buildings that have risen in recent years, largely in response to a robust Alberta oil and gas industry that uses those buildings for work, rest and play. The growth, Winston said, seems more pronounced with every visit.
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But despite those gleaming towers, he was far more excited about the restaurant where we sat, where I was picking at a plate of pig-head mortadella (which is essentially the best bologna ever).
“For a while there were just the same ol’ steakhouses that my father went to,” Winston said. “All of a sudden you see these restaurants popping up, doing different things.”
So Calgary can claim a growing skyline and a robust food scene, both elemental to an urban boom, but that alone does not tell the story of this lively city of more than a million (and which has recovered from severe flooding last June).
Calgary is cosmopolitan touches on old-school West Canadian grit; at least, it is cosmopolitan enough for $12 pints of locally made roasted-beet balsamic ice cream to sit in the freezer of Sunnyside Natural Market, in the quaint Kensington area. Yet the city is alive and raw and ethnically diverse; you hear French speakers, British accents and African languages.
It often is said that Calgary, sitting a mere 50 miles from Canada’s Rocky Mountains, is the Canadian Denver. That’s not quite true. It’s more a blend of Denver’s bordering-the-mountains vibrancy and a dash of Portland, Ore.’s, edginess.
But the timid needn’t worry; Calgary is far from raucous. It also is home to healthy living and ample Canadian civility. The city’s metal sidewalk grates have foot cutouts for easier passage, residents are visibly uncomfortable with jaywalking, and there’s an obvious affection for public art. The art includes such must-sees as the 40-foot white wire head outside the recently opened Bow skyscraper, and Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s red Peace Bridge, which surges across the Bow River.
And as much as it likes a party, Calgary enjoys healthy living. Among the best of the city’s outdoor adventures is Prince’s Island, a park nestled within the curve of the Bow River, between downtown’s skyscrapers and the largely chain-free Kensington neighborhood. (And in winter, skiing and skating, both recreational and competitive. are nearby).
Prince’s Island is as calm and pretty as an urban park gets, with acres of rolling grass and gently curving pathways for couples strolling hand in hand, young families, runners and skateboarding teens.
A rocky shore lines the river within the park, which makes for an easy escape to watch the pedestrian and bike traffic crossing Calatrava’s wormlike bridge. At first that Space Age tube seemed a bit out of place, but in ever-changing Calgary, it came to seem right at home.