CANADA: Richard Jones dons his Stetson and joins the Calgary Stampede as he discovers what Alberta has to offer.
The poster bills it as “The Greatest Show on Earth”, and despite being relatively unknown in the UK, the Calgary Stampede is massive across the pond. Calgarians simply refer to “The Week” and for 10 amazing days in July, the “Heart of the New West” resembles something from the Old West. Business leaders don Stetsons, bankers wear boots, and half of the city walks around in denim outfits that are a tad too tight.
I spent day one of my eight-day trip around the province of Alberta in the centre of Calgary. After checking into the luxurious Marriot in the downtown area, I was whisked off to the rodeo’s epicentre, Stampede Park.
The first thing that struck me was the sheer scale of the event, and on the night I arrived, the Rangeland Derby chuckwagon races were in full swing. The idea of a chuckwagon dates back to the 19th century.
Nowadays, the chucks are used in dash-for-the-cash chariot-style races. Four horses are attached to each wagon and guided round the “Half Mile of Hell” to the finish line by famous drivers.
The races were rounded off by the Grandstand Show – an end-of-night spectacle featuring fireworks and motorbike stunts, put on each evening by the Young Canadians – an all-singing, all-dancing group of youngsters. Over at Nashville North, Stampede Park’s late-night music venue, Bon Jovi and Kid Rock performed to those who wanted to keep the party going.
Next morning, I met Stampede volunteers at Rope Square (Olympic Plaza for the other 50 weeks of the year), for a breakfast of bacon, pancakes and coffee. Calgarians are immensely proud that on each day of ‘The Week’ anyone can get a totally free breakfast in the city.
Meanwhile, another busy morning of events was taking place at the park, with cowboys and cowgirls competing in bronco, bareback and bull riding, as well as calf roping, steer wrestling and barrel racing.
After lunch, I was talked into having a go on the bungee slingshot ride on the fairgrounds, before going on a tour of the Bull Chutes to see the 2,000lb beasts along with their brave (some would say crazy) riders, attempting to land the rodeo’s top prize of one million dollars.
It was soon time to head out west, to my next destination: the Rafter Six Ranch near Exshaw, a 45-minute drive from Downtown Calgary. After the hustle and bustle of the city, the atmosphere on the ranch was more sedate and homely.
However, the adrenaline was pumping again next morning when I joined the Rainbow Riders white water rafting group at a point called the Widow Maker on the Kananaskis River. The scenery was breathtaking, and our guide pointed out specific spots which had been used for filming Hollywood movies.
After lunch came the activity I had most keenly anticipated: to become a real cowboy, for two hours at least. I picked up my mount for the afternoon, a mustachioed chestnut named Cruise, and our guide Kirsten took us on a trail ride into the Bow Valley forest and along the banks of the Kananaskis.
The next morning, I travelled 15 miles west along the 1 Trans Canada Highway to my next port of call – the picture-perfect town of Canmore. Nestled in the Rockies in Kananaskis Country, Canmore boasts a multitude of year-round and seasonal activities, including hiking, fishing, golf, skiing, snowboarding, dog-sledding tours and ice hockey.
From there, I set off on a drive to Mount Engadine Lodge via intriguingly named places such as Driftwood, Sparrow Hawk and Mount Shark, and taking in the views of Spray Lake. Despite being on the lookout for wildlife, I actually only saw a few mountain goats and deer, but no bears – or moose, which apparently can be more dangerous than the grizzlies in a one-on-one situation.
I arrived at Canmore Nordic Centre for a mountain biking trip in the afternoon with my guide, John from Trail Sports Inc. The ride, in the pouring rain, followed some of the 60km of beginner and intermediate trails which double as cross-country skiing trails in winter.
Battered and bruised after my ride, I checked into my base for the next two days, the decadent Studio suite at the Paintbox Lodge – a rustic guest house run by two former Olympic skiers, Thomas Grandi and Sara Renner. That evening, a few of us drank the night away in some of Canmore’s notorious watering holes – the Grizzly Paw, Rose & Crown and The Drake.
The penultimate day of my trip began with a 15-minute trip into Banff for check-in at the Banff Rocky Mountain Resort condo. My first port of call was the gondola station at the base of Sulphur Mountain, and just an eight-minute ride later, I was at the summit looking over some truly spectacular views of the town and national park.
Just a five-minute stroll from the gondola lies the historic spa and bathhouse at the Banff Upper Hot Springs. With the pool temperature a steaming 39C, I took a relaxing dip before driving back into town for a look around the Whyte museum.
On my final day in Alberta, I headed back east into Calgary, stopping off at the city’s Olympic Park on the way to experience a “big air” thrill on North America’s fastest zip line, which takes off from the ski jump made famous to UK sports fans by Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards.
Back in Calgary, I found the “Cowtown” had almost vanished and the city was back to its usual cosmopolitan self, with businessmen and women who had been shouting “Ya-Hoo!” at the top of their voice a week ago now going about their normal lives.
* Richard Jones was a guest of Travel Alberta and flew to Calgary with Canadian Affair/Thomas Cook Tours. Thomas Cook Signature offers seven nights’ room-only at three star Sandman Hotel Calgary City in July from £1,364 from Manchester. Optional add-ons include two nights’ half-board at the three star Rafter Six Ranch Resort, Exshaw, from £342 in July. Reservations: 0844 879 8014 and www.ThomasCookSignature.com.
* Experiences include Calgary City Tour (£35); Mountains, Lakes and Waterfalls Tour (from £74); White water rafting with Rainbow Riders (£43).