An ultra-modern city that doubles as a legit winter sports capital.
[Editor’s Note: The Sochi Olympics kick off February 7. We’d rather revel in winter’s cold sting and icy beauty with games of our own. Join us, and check in each week through February 11 for a visitor’s guide to North America’s past Olympic hosts: Lake Placid, NY | Squaw Valley, CA | Salt Lake City, UT | Vancouver, BC]
As a host, Calgary succeeded in most major metrics at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games, except one. We failed miserably at looking the part, thanks to record high temperatures (really, 65 degrees?) that painted the city wall-to-wall tumbleweed brown. Ah, but the memories. Canada’s team burst from that decade’s miasma of teal and fuschia in pimpin’ red knee-length dusters with white cowboy yokes and leather fringes, do-si-do-ing to a k.d. lang soundtrack. Alberto Tomba ruling the slopes while Brit ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards drove the clown car. Freestyle skiing was a demonstration sport, and I’m proud to say that I watched ski ballet die right before my eyes. And then there’s the regrettable fact that pin trading was widely considered retro cool. Hey, it was the ’80s.
Despite all that, Calgary remains a legit winter capital, well beyond its role as the closest airport to the orgy of skiing available in the nearby Rockies and Columbias. Canada Olympic Park, 1988’s sliding, freestyle, and ski jumping venue, now operates under the banner of the Winter Sports Institute (WinSport). It houses virtually all of the national programs—ski racing and hockey included—in a high-performance beehive that features the only Olympic-caliber halfpipe located in a city. Meanwhile, Calgary’s robust community of amateur skiers, mountaineers, and multisport athletes dwells only a short drive away from some of the most pristine alpine wilderness on Earth. Bring your stick and skates, too; we still have neighborhood outdoor shinny. [Editor’s note: Better known as pond hockey in the U.S.]
Time, however, has revealed our dirty Olympic secret: All the classic but weird winter sports? Even after a quarter-century, Calgarians are still only fractionally interested in that stuff. If several hundred watch World Cup speed skating, it’s a big crowd. Skeleton, ski jumping, biathlon—we’re not exactly pushing our kids into those, either. Still, for people who care about these matters in odd-numbered years, Calgary is the place to be. And it’s an ultra-modern, go-go city that is wicked fun for everyone else too.
Ski: Unless you’re a freak for the corduroy, skip the Olympic ski venue Nakiska (skinakiska.com), notable mainly for being the first resort to have its runs mapped by computer. Head instead to Banff (skibig3.com), the Rockies gem whose national park status spared it the five-ring circus. Lake Louise Ski Resort (skilouise.com) offers killer scenery and plenty of rocking slackcountry, while Sunshine Village (via an easy 90-minute drive; skibanff.com) boasts Canada’s longest season—192 days, suckers—with a reliably cold powder surface and 45-degree freeride zones.
Olympic Connection: You can still speed skate, though it’s damn hard. Take the tourist bobsled run at COP (winsport.ca). Watch World Cup competitions in various sports. Cross country at the Canmore Nordic Centre (canmorenordiccentre.org), where night skiing is free. And I suppose you could also trade pins.
Mountain Equipment Co-op is Canada’s REI, but with arguably better prices and selection. mec.ca
The city may be renowned for the liver assault that is July’s 10-day Calgary Stampede (calgarystampede.com), aka Mardi Gras North, but it’s a party year-round thanks to a young and upwardly mobile population. Mainstay pubs include the Ship & Anchor and Local 510. Dance at the Hi Fi Club, Commonwealth or, if you absolutely insist, the perma-Stampede of Cowboys Dance Hall.
While its signature steaks get overrated, Calgary has a thriving restaurant scene with a healthy dose of multiculture options. Vietnamese restaurants such as Pho Hoai outnumber McDonalds 10 to one. —Kevin Brooker