In the Rockies, Calgary's Still Got Game
Sunday, April 8, 2007
I keep expecting drivers behind me to start blaring their horns as I try to exit the parking lot, but I can't get the payment machine to accept my bills. But I hear not a peep, except my own muttered curses. Just as I'm tempted to ram the gate, a man from several cars back gets out and, with a smile, drops several dollar coins into the machine for me.
A fluke? All I know is that later, at a prepay lot, a woman walks to where I'm reading the instructions and hands me her prepaid card, which has hours' worth of parking on it.
But why shouldn't people in Calgary be feeling even more generous and good-natured than their famously nice compatriots? Residents of Calgary live in a beautiful, clean and exceptionally prosperous city. Unemployment is virtually nil. Oil and gas money is pouring in so fast that the province of Alberta last year paid off all government debt, invested in infrastructure such as parks and still had so much left over that every man, woman and child was sent a check for $400 Canadian -- just for living there.
Calgary's prosperity, and its opportunities for year-round outdoor activities, has been a magnet for young people. That helps explain the city's vibrant, dynamic, youthful feel. Its average age, 35, makes it the youngest population in Canada.
In three decades, the city's population has jumped from more than 400,000 to nearly 1 million. Olympic hopefuls come to train at facilities left from the 1988 Winter Games, oil industry types come for high-paying jobs, and others come to take any job that allows them the freedom to pursue their outdoor passions in and around the city, best known as the gateway to the Canadian Rockies. Together they've turned a city for suburban commuters into a lively, 24-7 kind of place.
Until arriving here, I figured Calgary would be a Canadian Houston. Both cities started out as cow towns, then hit black gold. Yet they couldn't be more different, says an oil industry executive who visits both cities frequently.
"Calgary is not at all like Houston. It's better designed, more walkable, easier to find your way around and has good public transportation," says Carol, who asks that her last name not be used because she doesn't want to offend Houston colleagues.
"Calgary is very cosmopolitan," she adds. "It has lots of boring oil executives like me but also skateboarders and skiers and people into an alternative lifestyle. People are exceptionally nice -- so law-abiding you won't even see a jaywalker."
The spirit of the place is captured during the annual Calgary Stampede, a 10-day rodeo that spills into the streets as people party Mardi Gras-style, with cowboy hats instead of beads. Every hotel turns its ballrooms into bars; every morning brings free pancake breakfasts all over town.
It's a city with 21,000 acres of parkland, two rivers, skyscrapers connected by walkways, and numerous cultural attractions.
If you're among the millions planning to visit the Rockies and wondering whether you should tack on extra days to check out Calgary, here are five reasons the answer should be yes.
1. Outdoor Activities. Two clean glacier-fed rivers, the Bow and the Elbow, wind through Calgary, which was originally settled where the two converge. Depending on the season, you can ice skate and go curling on the rivers or swim, fly-fish and go tubing within view of skyscrapers.