Craving a change from Canada’s coastal states – his head beset with fantasies of burly mountain men – Uwern Jong takes a drive through the province of Alberta to its capital Edmonton, where everything is bigger, better and more worldly than in the rest of the country. At least, that’s the word on the street.
I’m browsing the junk food in a gas station somewhere off the David Thompson Highway in Alberta – aisle upon fluorescent-tube-lit aisle of chip bags and supersize chocolate bars. It’s the kind of place you really only see in North American road-trip movies – retro 1980s fittings, dusty windows, a little bell that dings in almost-sinister expectation every time the door pushes open and sets the lights a-flicker. You know the kind of thing.
Above the entrance, as if it could tumble and hit you on the head at any time, is a badly tuned TV crackling with what I can just about make out is an ice-hockey match. Watching earnestly from behind the counter is a butch woman in a lumberjack shirt with cut-off sleeves. If we were in America, her clashing red baseball cap would most probably read ‘MAGA’, but this is the heart of Canada – one of the world’s friendliest and most welcoming countries to OutThere visitors, according to a recent industry survey – so instead it says ‘Love All, Serve All’, a well-worn, much-loved souvenir from her last holiday at the Hard Rock Casino in Vegas.
In the far corner of the store is an ATM that looks as if it’s been kicked in the side a dozen times. It even produces a dial-up internet tone as it decides whether or not to spit me out some money. It doesn’t; and, dutifully, my phone rings. It’s my bank. A lovely woman from a call-centre in India is on the other end of the line.
“Mr. Jong, are you travelling at the moment?” Unwittingly deadpan, she adds, “We picked up some activity at an ATM in the middle of nowhere”.
I hear a feverish click-clack of a keyboard. I imagine she’s googling ‘Didsbury, Alberta’, as there’s a short pause before she says, “Canada”. Then, in the way call-centre staff are trained to make conversation, she asks, “Are you in Canada? I hear it’s very cold there”.
She’s right: it’s -3C and the first day of October. I often wonder why people live in this climate. And why the Scottish and the Irish moved out here to start with. They must’ve been really desperate – or really tough. I imagine it was a little bit of both or perhaps it felt like home. But, as a wise friend from Sweden tells me all the time, ‘There’s no such thing as cold; just bad clothing’.
Perhaps that explains why the handsome young lad with piercing blue eyes that I came face to face with at the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site yesterday was wearing a wolfskin hat. No, let me tell you that again – a wolf’s-head hat. Eyes, whiskers, ears, the lot. Doubtless Métis (a descendant of the mixed-heritage European and First-Nations people), he’d also donned a shawl fashioned from a vintage Hudson’s Bay Company blanket. He looked as snug as a bug in a rug as he happily demonstrated the culture of his ancestors to the merry band of frozen visitors. He couldn’t, however, light a fire with a flint, despite several embarrassing attempts. He may have looked the part, but he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the savage conditions of central Canada in the 1800s.
This part of the country is oddly interesting. On most of my journeys on the North American continent, I’ve tended to hug the coast – British Columbia is more than an acquaintance and Ontario is an old friend. But, sped on by the notion of hirsute fur-trappers, I decided that this time I was going to head inland to Alberta.
The past few days have been quirky, to say the least. I’ve learned the steps of a somewhat erratic Irish-jig-like Métis dance (I did well, although, I’m told, not – as niche dance-offs go – to competition standard). Taught by community elders dressed in ancestral costumes, much like something out of Dickensian East London, I’ve mixed up potions from the fruits and twigs of the forests (I mused at the time that these woodland medicines could have fought off disease from the Great Stink there). The quality of life in Victorian England might also have been improved if they’d had the magic charms I was taught to tie together and smoke over embers to ward off evil spirits. The smoking, of course, only happened when Mr. Wolf’s-Head finally got the fire going. Flames raging, I watched as he fried bannock in an iron skillet and regaled us with one-sided tales of the hardship and resilience of those who came to seek their fortune in the fur-trade out here. If only the walls of the fortress ruins they left behind could talk, I felt sure there would be another side to the stories.
My visit to Alberta so far has also seen me get up close and personal with a herd of buffalo – or bison, as they call them here – at Elk Island National Park, where a conservation programme takes care of the great beasts. I’ve tried camping out in a tepee – for all of 10 minutes, before retreating to a warm, luxurious log cabin at Prairie Creek Inn, where the gourmet restaurant serves up a nostalgic retro 1980s European menu. I spent the after-dinner hours there propping up the bar, sipping red wine and talking into the wee hours to the chef (come on, did you think for one minute there’d be internet out here?). He lamented the underlying conservatism of central Canada and was apologetic for all the challenges the country’s facing – politics, race relations, the cold. Canadians, I’ve noticed, tend to apologise for everything, without stopping to recognise that, in relative terms, they have it good.
From my short time here, I surmise that Alberta is as ‘Canadiana’ as it gets. For those into experiential travel, it’s pretty mind-opening and deeply fascinating, not to mention jaw-droppingly beautiful – the scenery is stunning. Before I got here, I’d seen just a handful of Canada’s ‘Red Chairs’ – the sign with two wooden deckchairs-with-a-view they use to designate areas of outstanding natural beauty. Out here in the ‘wilds’ of Alberta, I’ve seen countless.
But, for all the province’s rural magnificence, the city slicker in me has been thumping his fists hard at my Dora-the-Explorer exterior. So you can imagine my ‘relief’ when I see ahead of me the majestic arc of the Walterdale Bridge stretching over the North Saskatchewan River Valley and the skyline of the glass skyscrapers beyond. Edmonton – civilisation, at last, and, so they say, the sunniest spot in the whole of Canada.
Whether there’s any truth in this meteorological hearsay, Edmontonians certainly have a sunny disposition. They’ll proudly tell you its history, from the building of forts by the Hudson’s Bay Company to the post-WWII oil-boom. They’ll tell you how they once met – or know by a degree of separation – famous fellow Edmontonians k. d. lang and Michael J Fox.
What I take away from my conversations with the locals is that Edmonton is a city of big dreams. And I can’t help but agree with them: whether it’s 4th Street, 124th Street or Whyte Avenue, you get the feeling here that there’s a desire not to let Toronto or Vancouver take all the credit for cosmopolitan Canada. Independent concept stores, artisan coffee shops, world eateries and art galleries abound. Sure, you might get this hipsterism anywhere in the world these days, but there’s something about Edmonton’s version that comes across with greater authenticity. Ask an Edmontonian what to see and do and they’ll direct you to the world-class Art Gallery of Alberta (housed in the magnificent Randall Stout-designed building, it’s equally inspiring inside and out). They’ll try to navigate you through the biggest shopping mall in all of North America, the West Edmonton Mall. And they’ll wax lyrical about their fringe festival – ‘the second biggest in the world, after Edinburgh’.
In Edmonton, it seems, people take pride in everything being bigger and better than in the rest of Canada. No surprise, then, that as I stand under the skeleton of the Albertosaurus at the grand opening of the new Royal Alberta Museum, my guide’s opening remark is ‘it’s the largest museum in Western Canada’.
The other thing I note about Edmontonians is their love and connection to the North Saskatchewan River Valley (no kidding – ‘it’s North America’s largest stretch of urban parkland, 22 times bigger than New York’s Central Park’). In fact, so deeply is the landmark embedded into the DNA of Edmonton, I experience it three times in my few days here. That’s how keen they are to show it off.
My introduction to the valley is by Segway from its banks, a somewhat bizarre experience, with a guide who’s high on life or perhaps high on something else (though Canada has yet to legalise the green stuff). Next, I traverse its surrounding woodlands on a pedelec electric bike, escorted by family-run Revolution Cycle. It owns the city’s biggest bicycle store and was the first to market pedelec tours in North America. My last encounter with it is the most mind-blowing: starting out from Edmonton airport in a private helicopter, I’m back above the city within minutes, as the aircraft winds its way over the river valley, then follows the North Saskatchewan River west, out to lake country and the Rocky Mountains. It’s here I grasp the magnitude and beauty of the region and its diverse landscapes. I marvel at how this city emerges from the rugged geology around it. To get me up really close, the pilot skillfully lands on a sandbar in the middle of the river.
The river itself provides much more than just fantastic tourist opportunities for Edmonton. Ask the distillers at Strathcona Spirits or the craft brewers at Situation Brewing. They’ll tell you that there’s a special quality to the water that gives their wares an edge. The river contributes to the city’s food culture too. Tam Andersen runs the agro-tourism experience Prairie Gardens & Adventure Farm, just outside Edmonton. Over my first Canadian Thanksgiving dinner, served in a rustic, old barn with delicious, course upon course of food sourced from the farm, she explains the long history of growing great produce and how important the rich valley soils and easy irrigation are to that. Tam and many other local farmers are part of an ongoing drive to supply the champion breed of Edmontonian restaurants.
“Edmontonians take their drinking seriously, with concept cocktail bars of the likes of Clementine, which raises classical bartending to new heights”
Fine dining – or ‘finer dining’, as chef Daniel Costa at Italian restaurant Uccellino chooses to call it (‘all the city’s restaurants are good’) – is at its best here at the moment. Whether it’s Corso 32’s fresh Italian simplicity or the constantly evolving seasonal menu that’s redefining farm-to-fork cooking at RGE RD, Edmontonians are becoming ever more discerning in their tastes. Even in more local neighbourhoods, amazing eateries, such as The Butternut Tree (literally a stone’s throw from the river valley), ‘Mexi-Edmonton’ meat-fest Rostizado and Christine Sandford’s Biera are putting the city on the foodie map.
What I also find impressive is that the locals are taking a deep interest in fresh, high-quality food at home. Walking through City Market Downtown among the throng of Saturday shoppers browsing the bounty of local Albertan farms, I taste the best raspberries I’ve ever had. People are grazing on stereotypical Edmontonian street-food –Ukrainian pierogies introduced by the large community here and the ‘local’ Chinese green-onion cake, somewhere between a hash brown and a Korean jeon.
Edmontonians take their drinking seriously too, with concept cocktail bars of the likes of Clementine, which raises classical bartending to new heights in a space inspired by 20th-century French Art Nouveau. In contrast, there’s Baijiu, with its Cantonese-inspired cocktails. Ask for a taste of ‘Little Hong Kong’ here and you’ll be whisked off to its private speakeasy bar.
I came to Edmonton looking to up-tempo from the Albertan wilderness – and in my mind, some decent sushi would have done it. But the city has taken me completely by surprise. It’s one of Canada’s best-kept secrets – hidden in plain sight, like Wakanda, home to the superhero of Black Panther. I thoroughly recommend a visit to the city the outside world might think of as ‘the middle of nowhere’; it’s totally OutThere.
The inside track
Five years since they started selling their hand-dipped treats at farmers’ markets, gay entrepreneurs Simon Underwood and Matthew Garrett have now opened their first brick-and-mortar operation and called it Doughnut Party. www.doughnutparty.ca / @doughnutparty
For traditional noodles and broth made fresh daily, check in for lunch at Tokiwa Ramen. Arrive early to skip the line and ensure there’s some soup left for you (and your date).
Check out one of the two western outposts for Québécois fashion retailer Simons, which carries global and upcoming designers, including Edmonton’s Malorie Urbanovitch.
- Spend time exploring Old Strathcona. Centred on Whyte Avenue, it’s my favourite of Edmonton’s trendy neighbourhoods and a must for fans of street art.
- Indulge your sweet tooth with the fabulous pastries and pies on offer at Duchess Bake Shop, then stroll along gentrified 124th Street.
- Time your visit to coincide with one of Edmonton’s many festivals, which range from the world-class to the quirky. Check out Explore Edmonton for the very latest goings-on.
- Don’t ignore the hype. Everyone in hospitality is talking about JW Marriott’s impending opening here, which will be just one of three of the luxury hotel brand’s outposts in Canada.
- Remember to check out Evolution Wonderlounge. Open Thursday to Sunday, it’s Edmonton’s top LGBT space and the clientele are a friendly bunch.
- Don’t nurse your post-Wonderlounge hangover in your hotel room. Head to Little Brick, a charming café in the heart of the river valley.
Uwern’s trip to Alberta was in partnership with Destination Canada.
Uwern’s helicopter tour was with Edmonton Regional Helicopters.
Photography courtesy of Explore Edmonton, the Art Gallery of Alberta and Taste of Edmonton festival, Neon Sign Museum, Argent Dawn Photography and the Royal Alberta Museum. Portrait of Simon and Matthew by Eric Beliveau