Edmonton, once an obscure frontier settlement, is now world famous for two things: the world's largest shopping mall and its status as the Canadian Oil Industry's working center. (Competitor Calgary has the white-collar executive oil company offices, but Edmonton is where the blue-collar work gets done, locals say.) It should be known for a third attribute: being a Festival City, with more than 20 feature festivals a year, 13 of them in an 11-week period in summer. (See the Culture section, below.)
Edmonton, with nearly a million residents, can also rightly boast that it has Canada's longest stretch of urban parkland and over 70 golf courses within a one-hour drive of the city center, including the oldest municipal golf course in the country. Despite its Wild West background and decades of hardscrabble prairie existence (before the discovery of oil), Edmonton and its province are culturally completely Canadian in outlook. Here is the kinder, gentler country that Americans think Canada is: with push plates for disabled people right on door frames, the training restaurant for disadvantaged young people up front in City Hall, the stadium that no longer serves peanuts, because a hyper allergic family comes there often. But they are all business too, with two new casinos opened this year and big expansions of museums and galleries scheduled for the next four years.
First on your sightseeing list must be the Royal Alberta Museum (tel. 780/453-9111; www.royalalbertamuseum.ca; 12845 102nd Avenue, Edmonton), with three permanent galleries and one for temporary exhibits. The Syncrude Gallery (named for its oil-producing sponsor) of Aboriginal Culture is said to be one of the finest collections of First Nations (Native American) artifacts in North America, but I found the Wild Alberta gallery the most fascinating. Alberta's four great regions (prairie, aspen parkland, mountain and boreal forest) are all highlighted beautifully in its splendid dioramas. Here, the Moose diorama is the most popular, officials said. This is reportedly the largest collection of mounted birds in Canada. There are over ten million objects in all collections. In the Aboriginal gallery, look for a magnificent eagle feather headdress with trailer, worn by Stabbed-by-Mistake, c. 1918. There's a nice café, open from 9 to 4, with freshly-baked muffins, cookies and buns, they say. Admission C$10 (US$8.80), less for seniors, students, youth and families.
The second-best site in Alberta's capital is the Muttart Conservatory (tel. 780/496-8787; www.edmonton.ca/muttart; 9626 96A Street) (1976), a five-pyramid gem (mostly glass) in the city's scenic Saskatchewan River Valley, filled with over 700 species of plants and one of North America's largest orchid collections. There are four glass pyramids, three of them full of trees and plants from arid (desert), temperate and tropical climates, a fourth meant for special shows of flowers and plants that change six to eight times a year. The Sept. 17-Nov. 20 2006 show will be "A Splash of Mums." You learn something new every day, they say. I learned that orchids grow in Alberta, though they don't look like tropical orchids at all. (The fifth pyramid sits atop the administration building, where you enter the complex.) There's also a tiny café, where a ham-cheese sandwich goes for C$5 (US$4.40), soup for C$3 (US$2.65).
The Art Gallery of Alberta (tel.780/422-6223; www.artgalleryalberta.com; Art Gallery of Alberta, 2 Sir Winston Churchill Square, Edmonton), on Churchill Square near City Hall, moves in January 2007 to a temporary home in the old Hudson Bay Store nearby, until new quarters are ready in about 2009. The AGA concentrates on changing high quality exhibits, occasionally adding some of its permanent collection to shows. Currently featured is a piece of installation art, a retro cocktail lounge serving real wine and beer at happy hour at the Art Bar through August 27, 2006 (call for hours). Admission C$10 (US$8.80), less for seniors, students, children, families. Closed Mondays.
If traveling with family and/or children, visit Fort Edmonton Park (tel. 780/496-8787; www.edmonton.ca/fort; Fox Drive & Whitemud Drive), a living history open-air museum, with four main areas. An impressive Hudson's Bay fort explains the fur trade in 1846, and offers a glimpse of frontier life on 1885 Street. Right next door is 1905 Street, showing the development of a new city. Then enjoy the roaring twenties along 1920 Street. A free steam locomotive-pulled train (every hour or so), a free trolley car (every ten minutes), or antique cars (in 1905 and 1920 street areas) are available transportation. You can also hire buggy or stagecoach rides at C$2 (US$1.76), wagon rides at C 85 cents (US 75 cents). Highlights of some streets include the Penny Arcade on 1905 Street, McDougall's General Store on 1885 Street and the Hotel Selkirk on 1920 Street. This fort was built here in the late 1960s; the earlier forts (always trading posts, never military forts) were near the site of the present Legislature building. Hint: to see the entire place in a logical fashion, take the train to the old fort, and then walk through 1885 Street, 1905 Street and 1920 Street to the train station and entrance. Open mid May to late September, admission C$9.75 (US$8.60), less for youth, senior, children, family, etc.
If you're here mid May to early October, take a ride on an historic streetcar from the Old Strathcona district through downtown and then across the world's highest streetcar river crossing on cars rescued from Osaka, Melbourne and Hannover routes, ranging in vintage from 1921 (Japan) through 1947 (Australia) to 1970 (Germany). The Strathcona terminal is behind the Farmer's Market there. Round-trip fares C$4 (US$3.50), cheaper for families and groups, under 5 free. More info at tel. 780/437-7721 or www.edmonton-radial-railway.ab.ca.
Edmonton's City Hall, just built in 1992, has a beautiful, huge glass pyramid topping its inviting lobby, and artwork all over, showplacing Alberta artists. (In their printed guide to the art, they actually list the price paid for each work!) On the main floor is Kids in the Hall, a popular bistro (going on its tenth year soon) that trains young people (16 to 24) in the restaurant business. Breakfast, lunch and dinner on weekdays, with entrees like Thai Salad or Grilled Teriyaki Beef Wrap, each for $8.45. More info at www.edmonton.ca.
The Alberta Legislature Building (tel. 780/427-7362; www.assembly.ab.ca; Visitor Services, 10820 98 Avenue Pedway Mall, Edmonton) is normally not on a foreign visitor's itinerary, but I recommend it to connoisseurs of state houses and politics. It's light and airy in the rotunda, and up on the fourth level, you can hear the echo of a fountain far below that makes you think the roof is leaking. Photos of Canada's "Famous Five," women who changed the course of legal history in 1929 (by making the courts recognize them as "persons," which they did not before) are displayed here, as is the first provincial mace of government, said to have been made from a piece of plumbing pipe and a toilet tank float, among other treasures.
Every city should be so lucky to have a place like Edmonton's Citadel Theatre (tel. 780/426-4811; www.citadeltheatre.com) for its performing arts center. Inside this spacious and airy enclave are four theaters, presenting everything from off-Broadway items to kids' plays. Check out the annual Shakespeare Festival (www.rivercityshakespeare.com) in June and July in the Heritage Amphitheatre at Hawrelak Park, and the Edmonton Folk Fest (www.edmontonfolkfest.org) in August, in Gallagher Park. Also consider the Vocal Arts Festival from late May through early July, info at tel. 780/487-4844 or www.operanuova.ca.
My personal favorite is the unusual Edmonton Street Performers Festival (tel. 780/425-5162 or www.edmontonstreetfest.com), each July, on Churchill Square. They had, among other acts in 2006, a one-man band, a magician, a man impersonating a circus horse act, a face painter, an impersonator of Queen Elizabeth II, a juggler, and more.
Out at the University of Alberta, the Edmonton Chamber Music Society (www.edmontonchambermusic.org) presents several concerts from September through March.
To most people, shopping in Edmonton means the West Edmonton Mall, five miles west of downtown, said to be the world's biggest indoor mall under one roof. The records are superlative: world's largest shopping center (48 city blocks, they say); world's largest indoor amusement park (25 rides and attractions), world's largest indoor lake (with a replica of the Santa Maria), world's largest indoor wave pool, world's largest parking lot (20,000 vehicles), world's largest indoor triple loop roller coaster, and world's tallest indoor permanent bungee tower. About 22 million people come here each year (of which a spokesperson estimated about 15% are from outside Alberta), making it the province's top tourist attraction. The statistics are pretty impressive, too, with more than 800 stores and services, including 100 places to eat, three major department stores, a casino, 21 movie theaters, a doggy daycare service and a staff of nearly 24,000 people.
This is the place to take children, as everything is geared toward families coming here and spending all day (and all their money). The brainchild of an Iranian immigrant couple back in the 1970s, the mall opened in 1981 with some 220 stores and services, and they have plans for an additional hotel and more shops. Presently, the mall spawned a community outside, with other hotels, restaurants and shops opening to take care of the overflow, so to speak.
For the kids, you have an amusement park (with mini Ferris wheel), sea lions performing and pirates running around. For everyone, there's a gigantic wave pool, an NHL-sized ice skating rink, and stores galore. The owners call it "the greatest indoor show on earth" and Edmonton Tourism calls it "the world's most unique shopping and entertainment experience."
If you spend enough time here, you may want to eat something, and your choices will be mostly junk food. That said, there are 20 restaurants in the mall (think Tony Roma's, Hooters, Old Spaghetti Factory, etc.) and at least one take-out spot I can recommend. On the advice of a local, I chose the Café Europa for its buffet lunch, which turned out to be above average, and costing only C$14.25 (US$12.60). The option I wish I had taken was to graze around the huge takeout sushi counter at T&T (tel. 780/483-6638; www.tnt-supermarket.com; Upper Level, above Bourbon Street), the big Oriental Food Supermarket on the second floor of the Mall, where a "Canadian Sushi Set" of 14 pieces costs C$7.50 (US$6.60).
Contact for the Mall, which is open 24/7: www.westedmontonmall.com.
To guide your outdoor experience, consider hiring a reputable guide to take care of every detail in planning the trip and making it something to remember fondly ever after. The premier guide to watching wildlife here is Wayne Millar, a former volunteer firefighter, certified cross country skier, and owner of Watchable Wildlife, formed just for people desiring trips into forest and mountains but can't spend over a day doing so. He has licenses to provide wildlife, bird watching, hiking and nature tours within several areas, including Elk Island National Park, Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Grazing Recreational Area, and more. I found him to be a veritable fountainhead of information on everything about city and province, and a person of integrity and intelligence. (Yes, being one of those kinder, gentler Canadians, he's a volunteer instructor for disabled skiers and a member of the Blackfoot Society Friends, which is dedicated to preserving a provincial recreation area.) You can take his Blackfoot trip (6 hours) for C$95 (US$84), the Bison & Beaver tour (4 hours) for C$75 (US$66), or Picnic in the Park (4 hours) for C$85 (US$75). Taking a bit longer are Majesty in Flight tour, 12 hours, C$210 (US$185) and a Rocky Mountain High expedition for C$225 or US$198 (14 hours). Shortest of all is Birds & Breakfast (2 hours), costing C$45 (US$40). More information at tel. 780/405-4880 or www.birdsandbackcountry.com.
Associated with Wayne's group are several other outdoor and adventure enterprises, all of whose activities can be researched at www.whileinedmonton.com. Camping retreats, fishing, weekend canoe trips, and more, including Eagle Spirit Cultural Programs, are featured.
You can rent equipment at MEC (www.mec.ca), similar to the USA's REI, the Edmonton store being at 12328 102nd Avenue, phone 780/488-6614, a tent going for C$84 (US$74) a week and up. You have to join, but the C$5 (US$4.40) fee is good for life.
(On a rainy day, if you don't want to be outdoors, consider the Edmonton Mall for walking. Covering the total distance on Level One brings you to 3.3 km, the total distance on Level Two another 2.8 km, for a grand total of 6.1 km., about 4.1 miles.)
Edmonton claims it has Alberta's best year-round hotel room rates, saying they are among the lowest of all major cities in Canada.
The Metterra Hotel on Whyte (tel. 866/465-8150 or 780/465-8150; www.metterra.com; 10454 82nd Ave, Edmonton) (opened 2004) is a deluxe boutique hotel, with 98 rooms, each more elegant than the last, costing C$135 weekends, C$165 weekdays (US$119 to $146). Included in the price are deluxe continental breakfast, evening wine & cheese tasting (except Sundays), morning paper and local phone calls, as well as a 24/7 fitness room and business center. In the heart of Old Strathcona, voted one of the top ten coolest neighborhoods in the country.
A well-located chain hotel is the Crowne Plaza Chateau Lacombe (tel. 800/661-8801 or 780/428-6611; www.crowneplaza.com; 10111 Bellamy Hill, Edmonton), in the heart of downtown. There are 307 rooms in the 24-story building, with two restaurants and other amenities Rooms run from C$145 plus tax, no breakfast included (US$128).
Consider the Union Bank Inn (tel. 888/423-3601 or 780/423-3600; www.unionbankinn.com; 10053 Jasper Avenue, Edmonton) if you like good dining (see below), for its excellent location. A boutique hotel, it has 34 rooms, a fitness room, business center, and Madison's Grill, a superb place for meals. A double room costs from C$179 to C$339 (US$158 to $299), depending on season, including sit-down breakfast.
Nook far enough ahead, and stay at Fantasyland Hotel (tel. 780/444-3000; www.fantasylandhotel.com; 17700 87 Avenue, Edmonton), right in the West Edmonton Mall, though a good choice only if you plan to spend all or most of your time in the Mall. There are 355 guest rooms, including 120 theme rooms (think Arabian, Igloo, Safari, Polynesian, etc.). If they're booked up, you can stay across the street from the Mall at the Mall Inn. Room rates at Fantasyland start from C$189 (US$167).
At Madison's Grill in the Union Bank Inn, you should be able to dine very well, indeed. There's a new chef in town, his name is Blair Lebsack. I sampled two of his creations that were heaven for my taste buds. His new menu will include them both, so try the watermelon and radish salad, superb in summer (C$7, US $6.18), or the oven-roasted salmon with cold cucumber soup, which was brilliant (C$16, US$14.13).
LaRonde restaurant, atop the Crowne Plaza Chateau Lacombe Hotel, is the city's only revolving restaurant and the view from this 24th-floor aerie is the best in town. (A colleague described the view at night as being "a necklace of light".) They have local specialties like musk ox casserole and venison. Average main course about C$30, US$26.50.
Murrieta's Westcoast Bar & Grill (tel. 780/438-4100; 10612 Whyte Avenue, Edmonton) is an Old Strathcona standby, with a spacious venue, excellent service and tasty concoctions such as clam chowder (C$6.43, US$5.68) and grilled prawns with pasta (C$22.71, US$20). 10612 Whyte Avenue, Edmonton, phone 780/438-4100.
If you're in Fort Edmonton Park or nearby, a good bet is Johnson's Café in the Hotel Selkirk, open in summertime only, with continental breakfast, light lunches and a dinner menu that includes Alberta T-bone steak and more. High Tea, they call it, available from now through August 30, 3 to 5, Wednesdays only, at C$15 (US$13.25).
Edmonton Tourism (tel. 780/917-7621; www.edmonton.com)
Alberta Tourism (www.travelalberta.com)
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