Calgary: Pedal to the metal

That old grit turning into a high gloss

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CALGARY, Alberta — Cranes tower above the heart of Canada's third-largest city. 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 Stampede rodeo, hosting the 1988 Winter Olympics and 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.

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 balogna 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, which tourism officials say has largely returned to normal since being hit hard by June flooding. (I visited just before the floods.)

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. At other times, it seems more like Western Europe than its neighbor to the south.

Residents are excited to live there, and that was never clearer than when I watched the city burble deeply into the night. On the Friday I arrived in Calgary, I headed out into the brisk evening for a stroll along 17th Avenue, just south of downtown, which is the heart of the weekend action. The city was out in droves, lining up to get into bars, talking, laughing and packing businesses of all stripes: coffee shops, pizzerias, ethnic haunts and late-night burger joints. It had the energy of a college town, though the people in the streets ranged in age from their 20s to 50s.

Even the street musicians seemed to be flying. On one street corner, three guys with long hair banged on a banjo, acoustic guitar and steel guitar. When one wandered off, another hollered, "Thanks for the jam, brother!"

I walked on to find a poutine shop jammed with hungry youth digging into the national dish of French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. (Any city with a poutine shop open until 3:30 a.m. is OK by me.)

During the course of the weekend, I also came to learn that there is relatively open use of marijuana in Calgary, though not in a flashy way; it usually was as simple as a man walking down the street while smoking a joint. (Though pot is illegal in Canada, the prohibition is only moderately enforced).

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.

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. You will never see so many skateboarders as you will see in Calgary.

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. On a warm weekend afternoon, I did just that, leaning back to watch Calgary go by. At first that Space Age tube seemed a bit out of place, but in ever-changing Calgary, it came to seem right at home.

If you go

Getting there

Nonstop flights to Calgary from the United States generally originate from the West and Midwest on airlines including United and Air Canada. There are many daily options.

Staying there

Highlights beyond the usual chains include Hotel Arts (119 12th Ave. SW, 403-266-4611, hotelarts.ca), which boasts funky, modern touches such as dark-walled rooms; rates start at about $149 plus tax. Kensington Riverside Inn (1126 Memorial Drive NW, 403-228-4442, kensingtonriversideinn.com) sits at the edge of the Kensington neighborhood near downtown, and rooms start at $209 per night plus tax. Part of a Canadian hotel chain, Hotel Le Germain (899 Centre St. SW, 403-264-8990, germaincalgary.com) is considered one of the higher-end properties in town, with rates beginning at $209 plus tax.

Note that weekday hotel rates are significantly more expensive because of Calgary's high volume of business travel.

What to do

Prince's Island Park (698 Eau Claire Ave. SW, 403-268-2489) is an urban jewel full of rolling grassy acres, paths for walking and biking, Santiago Calatrava's Peace Bridge and the well-regarded River Cafe (403-261-7670, river-cafe.com).

The National Music Centre (134 11th Ave. SE, 403-543-5115, nmc.ca) offers a fascinating history of keyboards dating from the 16th century through today.

The largely chain-free Kensington neighborhood is worth a visit for its restaurants and boutique shops.

For late-night action, check out 17th Avenue, just south of downtown, which teems well into the night with people packing quality bars and restaurants.

Finally, dig deep into Calgary's burgeoning food scene.

Information

Visitcalgary.com, 403-263-8510

jbnoel@tribune.com

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