Western Canada: One Night in Calgary

Photo by Gonzalo Pineda-Zuniga

Photo by Gonzalo Pineda-Zuniga

Continued from The Town of Banff

Calgary, Alberta is 127 km along the 1, or Trans-Canada Highway, from the town of Banff in Banff National Park.

This is a little over an hour’s drive, where huge snowy mountains slowly give way to grassy golden plains dotted with horses and cows.

When we were there, in late May 2008, just about every third animal was a baby; looked like it had been a romantic winter.

Along the Trans-Canada, the vistas are endless, something you can lose hope of appreciating when you live in a big American city, especially one as often smog-choked as Los Angeles.  Between Banff and Calgary, where a view seems to come to a natural end, there’s suddenly a whole other valley beyond it.  Waves of hills roll, ranch after ranch.

At the first sign of the city proper, the sprawl is assaulting and claustrophobic after several days in the national parks.  It briefly redeems itself with a network of gorgeous riverside paths, full on a Tuesday evening rush hour of waddling geese, chatting walkers, and serious bicyclists.

The main business artery, 16th Avenue, is clearly where beauty goes to die.  However, just before the left turn for downtown, it’s also cheap Vietnamese restaurant heaven; I highly recommend stopping at a run-down mini-mall (on the right-hand side, if you’re heading towards Banff) at the spartan Uyen Uyen.  On our way into town from the airport a few days earlier, we’d had an especially soothing chicken pho, spicy curry soup, and delicious, fresh beef rice paper rolls.  Their homemade sparkling lemonade, soda chanh, is none too shabby, either.

Calgary’s downtown is mostly a nondescript warren of office buildings and chain hotels, with some utilitarian clothing stores here and there, but several fine art galleries (featuring mountain landscapes and semi-precious serpentine bear sculptures) and the Jetsons-era Calgary Needle Tower lend it a little flavor.  This tower was long ago built hastily to beat the Seattle Space Needle to the punch, but it’s height and location has since been superceded by the buildings of downtown itself; it’s almost swallowed by office buildings on all sides, giving it the air of a landmark that isn’t, at least locally, well loved.

At the far end of downtown is Calgary’s heavily decorated Chinatown, a large community made up, as in San Francisco, of the descendants of workers who came to build the railroads.   Beneath Chinatown’s bridge runs the same Bow River that travels through the town of Banff, and in this river sits Prince’s Island Park, where we had our last dinner in Alberta.

Recommended by sites like Frommers and Zagat’s,  River Cafe was nonetheless unknown to the staff at the Calgary Airport Holiday Inn, where we’d chosen to hang our hats for the night before flying out the next morning at 7am.

In fact, the staff at the hotel were mystified as to why we’d drive “all the way” downtown (10 minutes away).  Many Canadians were consistently awed by our willingness to go even the shortest distance in search of adventure.  Few Canadians have, apparently, traveled within their own backyards, much less their own country.  In this way, well…they’re a lot like many Americans.

We drove that 10 minutes and found Prince’s Island Park a wonderful spot for a sunset meal. It’s comprised of impossibly green lawns, manicured paths and tall trees alongside peaceful swathes of the Bow River.  Since no cars are allowed in the Park, we securely stowed ours for an unlimited $2 (Canadian) at the nearby Market Mall’s underground parkade; street parking is exorbitant, requiring a whole handful of coins, and only gives you two hours.  Stroll across the adjacent foot bridge and head left to the restaurant.  You might even want to arrive a little before your reservation so you can take in more of the park in some of the seemingly endless daylight.

River Cafe is proudly Canadian, sourcing all of its ingredients from either their own farm, local suppliers, or, in some cases, British Columbia’s wine-and-farm region, the Okanagan Valley.  Any non-local wines on their list come only from small, independent producers.  My choice, a Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc from said Okanagan, was one of the best I’d ever had.  The Cafe has the perfect patio, a large deck overlooking the river and fringed by tall trees that shiver their leaves in an evening’s breeze.  Every outdoor chair has a blanket/wrap draped over it, just in case you should need to ward off a little chill.

I can attest that nothing can break the romantic spell at River Cafe.  Early in our meal, as we were just remarking that the pears in our salads were the sweetest we’d ever had, a gloriously crazy, loud, cheerful woman in the guise of a middle-aged Brownie troop leader/park ranger wheeled in her grown, severely brain-damaged son and, unbidden, came to a complete halt at the table next to us.  She proceeded to spontaneously regale the couple there with her son’s story:  She’d waited 12 years to have a child, her only one, who was born and then died for five full minutes before springing back to life.  In Japan, she said, he was known as The Miracle Baby.  Out of the corner of my eye, I felt sure this adult man, his body twisted in a wheelchair, was somewhere deep within harboring an embarrassment that dare not speak its name.

When his mother finally took her seat and got her son settled, she immediately ordered a glass of white wine and a shot of sambuca…and dumped the sambuca into the wine.  All around her a flurry of beverage horror radiated to those nearby, in turn.  Within minutes, her noise level went up, her whooping voice reaching out to anyone whose eye she could catch.  For most of the evening, this proved to be a table of three women beside her, whom she effectively held hostage with stories about everything from her hysterectomy to a recipe for her favorite tomato soup.  We found her oddly charming — but then, we weren’t the focus of her attention.

By the time our entrees arrived — a barley risotto-stuffed tomato with pumpkin seeds, pea shoots and feta, and a chicken breast paired with the best mushroom and leek tart on Earth — all the Cafe’s waiters and the manager had clustered around the bar, whispering loudly and stressing over how to handle the situation.  Several of them came forward to reprimand this woman several times, but she wouldn’t be deterred; she was drawn to this table of women like a child to an ice cream truck. Having long ago given themselves over to the nuttiness, they at last decided to get their bill and extricate themselves gracefully.

On their way out, these women stopped by our table to smile and share a commiserating eye roll, and one woman said, “That’s the River Cafe for you.  Brings in the most rare, naturally-occurring things in Canada!”

When at last the sun went down, we bid our adieu and wandered out to the moonlit foot bridge — and stopped in our tracks.  At the end of the bridge stood a white hare, 2 feet high to the top of his gynormous ears.  Frozen, we stared at each other for a moment, and then he hopped away down the embankment in a few quick bounds.

Adam and I shared a quiet high five — you sure don’t see that in LA.

Looking over the side of the bridge, we saw yet more wildlife below:  Several adult Canadian geese being trailed by a dozen or more fuzzy babies.  The goslings were softly honking, growing sleepy; every foot or so, they’d plop right down for a rest.  But the bigger geese kept urging them on, further away from our prying, happy eyes.

Calgary may not be the most stunning city, but they’ve sure got enough beauty to go around.

Continued in To Victoria, Again