This past August, I was working in Edmonton for two weeks. Separating these two weeks was a long weekend, so never one to miss up a potential travel opportunity, I thought I would try and take advantage of checking out Calgary for a few days.
When I travel abroad and let people know that I'm Canadian, I usually receive the answer, 'I love Canada!'. The conversation then usually goes:
Me: "I'm so happy to hear that! Have you been / where have you visited?"
Them: "The Rockies, of course! Canada is so beautiful!"
Me (inside my head of course): "Yes, of course, if you like mountains and beautiful scenery - that kind of thing."
As a Torontonian, this irks me to no end, of course. So, I thought I'd better check it out and see what all the fuss is about. And, I do love a city break!
On Friday afternoon, I hopped on Alberta's Red Arrow bus to make the journey after being recommended it by a colleague. It was fantastic (after I nearly missed the bus after going to the wrong station in Edmonton! Lesson: always double check addresses and don't make assumptions that you think you know something is located somewhere). With 30 seconds to spare, I was able to hop on and start travelling south. With comfortable leather seats, roomy leg space, movies to watch (I had Midnight in Paris showing on my journey which made me incredibly happy!), newspapers, complimentary water, soft drinks, coffee, snacks, and wifi all sweetened the deal.
I arrived in Calgary about 3.5 hours later right in the middle of downtown. I only had about five minutes to walk to my glorious hotel - The Fairmont Palliser.
Wondering about how to spend a long weekend in Calgary? Here are some of my favourites and recommendations.
Arriving at the beautiful Fairmont Palliser after a long week of work and travel felt like such a treat. I was greeted by smiling, friendly staff who warmly welcomed me and got me settled in. Even better - to my surprise, I found that I had been upgraded to a Fairmont Gold Suite and got to check in at the Presidential Club Lounge area. Now, this was really fantastic because I was welcomed as though I was an old friend and that nothing was too much trouble.
I checked into my room and was greeted by modern and luxurious decor, decorated in soothing tones of grey (my favourite), white and cream. It was beautifully laid out with a sitting area containing a sofa and lounge chair (great to have guests over before going out for dinner), an office area (great if you need somewhere to work - especially if you are there for business), a welcoming bed, and large modern spa-like bathroom.
Now, I am always one to immediately check out what type of bath products a hotel offers to its guests. When I saw one of my favourite brands sitting on the countertop - Le Labo - and in my favourite scent, I knew this hotel understands great quality and luxury. If you don't know Le Labo, definitely check them out. It is sold in select stores so can be hard to find due to its focus on quality (perfumes are specially made for you in store while you wait) and exclusivity. The second thing I look for - is there a bathrobe offered (and how plush it is)? The Palliser won this too and it took every last bit of self control not to pack away this white, fluffy robe in my suitcase.
When I laid down to sleep later on that first night, I actually sighed because this bed was truly the most comfortable bed I have ever experienced. I stay in many hotels on a regular basis and this one has easily surpassed any other bed I've stayed in. I understand this is a bold claim to make. But trust me. It was somehow the perfect level of firmness that felt like it was welcoming you in, accompanied by soft, luxurious white sheets, and just the right pillows (which is always a tricky one to master in hotels). If you don't believe me, I urge you to stay there and test it yourself. You won't be disappointed! A bit like a Goldilocks experiment where this will be your 'JUST RIGHT' find.
The Palliser is a stone's throw from the Calgary Tower, so I decided to check it out while the sun was setting. There was barely a queue at this time so I was able to go up very quickly. The views at the top are spectacular, especially to admire the sunset glittering off Calgary's skyscrapers and turning the Rocky Mountains in the distance into silhouettes against a pink and orange sky. Magic! The great thing as well about this evening was that as you walked around the top, which offers 360 views, there was a Blue Moon rising in the distance against the twilight sky as time went on. Visiting the Calgary Tower gives you a great orientation of the city and surrounding areas to explore.
As I wanted to take advantage of the short time I had over the long weekend, I decided to book a day trip to the Rocky Mountains with Hammerhead Scenic Tours, an independent company that had received great reviews on TripAdvisor (including a 2014 Certificate of Excellence). Although I called the evening before taking a tour for the following day, Petar (the owner) was very accommodating and secured me a spot.
The next morning, Petar arrived with his comfortable vehicle right on time. What I loved was that it was a small group of about 10 of us, and Petar gave us warm, personalized service from the start. Incredibly knowledgeable, he described everything we were passing on the way to our first stop - Moraine Lake. As an experienced guide, he recognized that since it was the long weekend and the crowds would be busy, he adjusted the itinerary to do this lake first before it got too crazy. Well, luckily for us, we were able to get through the road blocks that were being set up by park rangers to limit the number of people entering the road to get to the lake (something we wouldn't have been able to if we were doing a self-drive). Petar has deep knowledge and a clear love of this landscape and took us to get the best views and happily offering to take photos for us along the way.
Throughout the day, we visited Lake Louise, Victoria Glacier, Banff (where we stopped for lunch and exploring), Two Jack Lake, Minnewanka Lake (also known as 'Water of the Spirits' in Nakoda and the longest lake in the Canadian Rocky Mountains parks), Bow Falls, Banff Springs Hotel and the Hoodoos.
Peter was very accommodating for us and stopped when we wanted to spend a bit more time in new areas or on the scheduled stops to take photographs. Although it was a long day, it was such an enjoyable one. I would highly recommend this tour to everyone, especially people who have a limited period of time to spend in Calgary and want to get a taste of the Rocky Mountains.
Drumheller and the Badlands:
The following day, I went on another that I booked through Viator (which they then sub-contract to a local company) to head to Drumheller and the Badlands. Although the scenery was incredible on this trip, the tour guide didn't have quite the same warm welcome and feeling as Petar did the following day. He didn't say very much as we were driving, nor when we arrived at different stops. He essentially dropped us off and waited by the van, which was unfortunate.
I highly recommend visiting the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, which not only houses some of the most important dinosaur finds in the world, but has been the very site of such finds. This incredible museum will leave you in awe. One of the best parts is a section of the museum where you can view the large lab where palaeontologists are working on the hundreds of dinosaur fossils found in the surrounding badlands. This is a must visit for everyone!
Surrounding the museum is a path through a section of the badlands that you can hike through and explore. They are strangely beautiful and eerie - and very quiet. It feels like you are walking through what you would imagine a landscape on Mars to be like with its unusual formations of dusty and dry layers, valleys and peaks. It is incredible that this landscape is a mere two to three hours away from the lush forests and mountain peaks of the Rockies.
On the holiday Monday, I had the opportunity to visit the Calgary Zoo - a terrific experience and package offered by the Palliser. I was eager to visit this museum for many reasons, including its reputation for great care of its animals, a chance to get a glimpse of its newest baby penguin, and the lengths its staff went to in protecting and rescuing the animals during the devastating floods that affected Calgary in 2013. I went early in the morning before it got too hot (for me and for the animals!) and avoid the holiday crowds that would no doubt be there later in the day. What I love about this zoo is that it feels very manageable in terms of its size and the exhibits. The animals were active, with its penguins playfully putting on a show in their pools, a curious gorilla sitting by the glass checking out us humans, and giraffes happily munching away on the trees provided for them.
In what feels like a great ode to Alberta's ancient history of dinosaurs, there is a terrific exhibit currently there called 'Prehistoric Park' that features lifelike prehistoric dinosaurs in different habitats and pens. I wasn't sure if it would feel cheesy at first, but I was quickly proven wrong. A lot of care has gone into this and you are definitely able to suspend reality as you walk through, seeing the models and animatronics in similar types of exhibits as the live animals in the zoo. As a child (and ok, yes, still today), I adored dinosaurs and this is a great exhibit for all ages.
Afternoon Tea at The Palliser:
Later on that day, I returned to the Palliser to enjoy their special Heritage Day Afternoon Tea (click on the link embedded under Afternoon Tea for the full details of my blog post - it definitely deserved its own post!).
On the fantastic recommendation of two of my friends who now live in Calgary, they took me to Charcut, which is not only one of the city's best restaurants, but in Canada as well. Charcut focuses on local producers and seasonal ingredients, which creates an exciting menu that changes daily. Charcut's inviting room is warm and welcoming, has a great energy, and is decorated with beautiful touches of wood panelling and glowing candlelight. It is unpretentious with incredibly knowledgeable servers. Also exciting is that Charcut cures its own meat and sausages, as well as cheeses, in house - you can't get fresher than that! This is a must-visit when in Calgary but definitely try to make a reservation ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
With Calgary's boom in recent years, the city is well served by car, buses, trains, and planes at its international airport.