OH CANADA! NORTHERN NEIGHBOR PROVIDES SOME INTERESTING SURPRISES FOR VISITORS​

(Originally published in the December 2006 issue of SkyWest Magazine, the inflight mag for Delta connectors)

By John Geary

Canada.

For many, the name conjures up images of cold winters and short summers, hockey players and canoeists, outdoor adventures and wilderness, and sentences that always end with “Eh.”

Like every other country in the world, Canada has its share of stereotypes, and some of them are even based on reality. But dig a little, and you may find some interesting yet little-known facts about this country.

For example, if you’re looking for some of the world’s best rodeo action, you don’t have to go to the Calgary Stampede; the Canadian Finals Rodeo takes place in Edmonton, Alberta every fall. Calgary, on the other hand, boasts several world-class museums and art galleries that have nothing to do with cowboys.

While visitors to Vancouver often want to visit the city’s Chinatown, its Little India section can also provide some interesting cultural experiences and wonderfully authentic ethnic foods. And Victoria, named for an English queen, is home to a Scottish castle visitors can explore.

So sit back, relax and explore some of Western Canada’s other attractions in the following pages.

EDMONTON: CITY OF FESTIVALS

The crowd watches the drama unfold, yelling out its own suggestions as to what the Montagues and Capulets should do, putting some interesting twists in history’s best known romance. Eventually the curtain comes down, figuratively, if not literally; and while it certainly is not the way Shakespeare envisioned it, this version of Romeo and Juliet certainly did not fail to keep the crowd entertained.

That experience is just one of many participants in the Fringe Theatre Festival can enjoy. Oh, and by the way, that particular experience takes place in Edmonton, Alberta – a city usually known more for being a “City of Champions” or even “City of Oil Derricks” rather than a city of wonderful theatre or other cultural events and festivals.

The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival attracts artists and patrons from across Canada and around the world, including the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Each August, a mini-city comes to life within the boundaries of Edmonton’s historical Old Strathcona neighbourhood. Within a five-block radius you’ll find the Fringe’s 13 indoor theatres, two outdoor stages, 13 BYOV’s (Bring Your Own Venue) and throngs of busking circles. When one show ends in a venue, another begins within the next hour.

The annual theatre festival is just one of several festivals that take place in Edmonton throughout the year. Other summer festivals include international jazz and folk music festivals, a dragon boat festival and Klondike Days. If you’re interested in culinary experiences, don’t miss A Taste of Edmonton. During 10 days in July, more than 40 restaurants offer samples from the city’s finest culinary establishments.

In the spring, visitors can celebrate Earth Day or be entertained at the Edmonton Kiwanis Music Festival or Northern Alberta International Children’s Festival.

Come the fall, the Canadian Finals Rodeo rides into town every November. Also that month, the Global Visions Film Festival, Canada's oldest Documentary Film Festival, showcases its best films.

Winter celebrations include the Festival of Trees, a Yuletide event. In February, the Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival schusses into town; it’s Canada's premiere cross country ski festival and the largest classical Nordic ski festival in North America.

CALGARY: NOT JUST FULL OF COWTOWN CULTURE

Mention “Calgary” and there’s a good chance visions of cowboys and cowgirls, chuck wagons and pancake breakfasts, and bareback broncs and brawny bulls will dance through your head.

What visitors may not realize is that while the Calgary Stampede is second to none when it comes to rodeos and summer fairs, the southern Alberta city offers more than just cowboy culture. And while the Stampede gets people two-stepping for a few weeks in July, the rest of the year is not dullsville in Cowtown.

Calgary is home to some top-notch, world-class museums - eight, to be exact. Leading the way is the Glenbow Museum, a museum, art gallery, library and archives all rolled into one facility. While it does boast a First Nations gallery second to none in the country, it also contains several international collections and exhibits featuring extraordinary art and artifacts from all over the world. Recent exhibitions include last summer’s special exhibition, Egypt, Greece and Rome: Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World and the Temples of India exhibit.

Upcoming exhibitions include Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta, a new permanent gallery celebrating Alberta's history, which opens in February 2007; and, in October 2007, Emily Carr: New Perspectives, an exhibit featuring 150 works of art.

Military history buffs will certainly get their fill at either the Museum of the Regiments or the Naval Museum of Alberta. The former is one of North America’s largest military museums that combines high-tech displays with photos and vintage military equipment and paraphernalia. Although it is more than 600 miles from salt water, the latter is Canada’s largest naval museum, portraying the Royal Canadian Navy’s history.

Other Calgary museums and interpretive centers include the Aero Space Museum of Calgary; the Firefighters Museum; the Calgary Police Services Interpretive; the Lougheed House, an 1891 sandstone mansion originally occupied by Senator James Alexander Lougheed and his family; and, the Grain Academy Museum.

While you’re checking out some of the area’s history and culture, some other attractions to see include Fort Calgary and the Heritage Park Historical Village.

Built in 1875 by the Northwest Mounted Police, the fort was the base from which the forerunners of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police fought whiskey trafficking in the west.

A visit to Heritage Park sends you back in time, where you can take a ride on an old steam locomotive or cruise across the Glenmore Reservoir on a paddle wheeler.

VANCOUVER: ENJOY EASTERN PLEAURES WITHOUT TRANSOCEANIC TRAVEL

Vancouver is world-renowned for the incredible diversity of the Asian cultures within its city limits. Its Chinatown is Canada’s largest and best known; however, often overlooked by visitors is the Little India section of this cosmopolitan west coast city.

Thousands of Indo-Canadians call Vancouver home, and while the East Indian influence can be seen at many spots around the city, the most concentrated gathering of the culture lies along a five-block section of Main Street, centered around 49 Avenue. It is essentially a Punjabi marketplace of clothing stores, jewellery shops, grocery stores and restaurants.

A daytime stroll or drive down Main can provide a potpourri of colourful sights, sounds and smells. Women of all ages often sport colorful saris. When the men dress in traditional garb, their clothing is no less spectacular.

The strains of Hindi music – some contemporary pop songs, some more traditional tunes – blare not only from music stores, but also from the many other shops along the street.

Perusing through some of the stores, you might be surprised at some of the silks you can purchase for very reasonable prices. The materials you’ll find there also include some of the finest wools, as well as the usual assortment of synthetics. You can buy materials to make your own clothing or home furnishings; you can also find good quality ready-made clothing to suit all tastes.

Shopping of any kind always seems to work up an appetite, and with the aromas of curry constantly wafting through the air to tantalize you as you pass some of the area’s eateries, it won’t be long before you find yourself walking through a doorway to sample some East Indian cooking.

Located at the corner of Main and 49, All India Sweets offers buffet and a la carte menus that include Tandoori, Indian Curry, and vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. It also sells sweets “to go” at the front of the restaurant, tempting your taste buds with displays in large glass counters.

Another option is the Kewal Pabla, Himalaya Restaurant, just a block or two down the street. Both restaurants offer traditional Indian beers, for those who like some authentic liquid refreshment to compliment the spicy foods.

Of course, if you want to cook at home, there are plenty of green grocers and other sweet shops to supply you with the spices and other ingredients you’ll need to create your own East Indian feast.

Definitely worth a visit, and located not far away from Main Street, sits the beautiful Sikh Temple or Gurdwara, at SE Marine Drive and Ross Street, designed by Arthur Erickson, a prominent Vancouver architect.

If you happen to be in the city at the right time of year, you’ll have the opportunity to experience a traditional festival. Baisakhi (or Vaisakhi), a very popular springtime celebration, features a parade every April. In mid-November, the community celebrates Diwali, an annual festival of lights.

VICTORIA: GOING SCOTTISH ON VANCOUVER ISLAND

While Victoria, the capital city of the province of British Columbia, is named for the world’s best-known British queen, one of the city’s more unique attractions is Craigdarroch Castle, built between 1887 and 1890 for Robert Dunsmuir, a B.C. coal baron – and Scottish immigrant.

The castle - essentially a huge mansion - rises four-and-a-half stories high into the air and contains 39 rooms, replete with late 19-century era furniture and some of North America’s finest stained-glass windows. The interior design also features some beautifully carved wood, including white oak panelling (it came from Chicago, via rail), Spanish mahogany, western red cedar, walnut, ebony, rosewood and teak.

Tours are self-guided (free tour maps are provided in English, French, Japanese, Mandarin, German, Spanish, and Korean), and you can climb the 87 stairs relatively easily, with stops on all the floors to get a glimpse of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous,” circa 1900. The crowning glory is the castle’s Tower, which presents a panoramic view of Victoria, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the snow-capped Olympic Mountains in Washington.

Once you’ve finished the castle tour (allow 45 to 60 minutes to complete it), you may want to participate in “high tea” at the Blethering Place. While it does serve British high tea, there is a Scottish connection: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “blethering” is a Scottish term for voluble, senseless talking, as used in “blethering idiot.”

If you’d like something a little earthier than tea, drop in to Spinnakers, Canada's oldest brewpub and - in keeping with the Scottish theme - treat yourself to a pint or two of Jameson's Scottish Ale. If you need some food to fortify you, some wild pacific salmon will help (salmon is a favorite fish eaten in Scotland).

Of course, Scottish castles are often renowned for their ghosts. While the Craigdarroch may not boast a ghost of its own, one of B.C.’s most famous ghosts is Doris Gravlin, a nurse murdered by her husband on the Victoria Golf Course in 1936. Her ghost is frequently seen along the seventh fairway and the adjacent beach. You can learn about her in An Evening with Doris, one of many guided ghost walks/dinners offered by local guide John Adams. And if you’re wondering about the Scottish connection there, don’t forget - the Scots invented golf.

John Geary is a Vancouver-based travel writer who has lived in all of the western Canadian cities featured above, and still visits them regularly.

(SIDEBAR INFO)

Here’s how to find out more about the activities and attractions covered in this article:

EDMONTON

Edmonton Festival City: www.festivalcity.ca/ (it links to all major festival sites)

Phone:(780) 426-4715

Toll-Free:1-800-463-4667

CALGARY:

Glenbow Museum: www.glenbow.org

Phone: (403) 268-4100

Museum of the Regiments: www.museumoftheregiments.ca

Phone: (403) 974-2853

Naval Museum: www.navalmuseum.ab.ca

Phone: (403) 242-0002

Aero Space Museum of Calgary: www.asmac.ab.ca

Phone: (403) 250-3752

Firefighters Museum: www.firefightersmuseum.org

Phone: (403) 246-3322

Police Interpretive Centre: www.youthlinkcalgary.com

Phone: (403) 206-4566

Lougheed House: www.lougheedhouse.com

Phone: (403) 244-6333

Grain Academy Museum: www.grainacademymuseum.com/

Phone: (403) 263-4594

Fort Calgary: www.fortcalgary.com

Phone: (403) 290-1875

Heritage Park: www.heritagepark.ca/

Phone: (403) 268-8500

VANCOUVER:

Phone: (604) 682-2222 (Vancouver Convention and Visitors Bureau)

            (604) 683-2000 (Vancouver Touristinfo Centre)

VICTORIA:

Craigdarroch Castle: www.craigdarrochcastle.com/

Phone: (250) 592-5323

The Blethering Place: www.thebletheringplace.com/

Phone: (250) 598-1413; 1-(888)-598-1413 (toll free)

Spinnaker’s: www.spinnakers.com/

Phone: 1-877-838-2739 (toll free)

Phone: (250) 384-6698