What We Did On Our Fall Vacation (psst, we went to Calgary, and it was grand)

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Aidan and I rarely take trips together unless we're going to visit family or attend a conference, so when we decided to go to Calgary for three days a couple of weeks ago, it felt monumental. We were getting on a plane to go somewhere for fun! Can you tell we needed to get out more? Because we did.

(Sidenote: this post is long on photos but not on words. Be not afraid! Also, you can click on any of the smaller pictures to see them bigger.)

When we landed in Calgary, we were greeted by the White Hat Volunteers. I have never been to another airport with such recognizable and welcoming people who just want to help make your arrival and departure a happy experience. They lead us through something called the White Hat Ceremony, which included an oath that made us honorary Calgarians, and then we all whooped loud and hard — they had us do it twice to get it right — to celebrate the whole thing. Normally, I drag myself off an airplane and wither into a cab ASAP, but now I think I've just been doing it wrong. From now on, I whoop.

Then we headed to the hotel we stayed in, what was called the Hotel Elan! Scout's honour.

The room, or I should say rooms, were quite large. We had a full-sized living room, a kitchenette, a large bedroom, and a bathroom with a giant shower that had two different kinds of shower heads. I could live in the shower, so this is notable.

After we settled into the Hotel Elan on Thursday night, we went out for supper at Trolley 5, a restaurant and brewery nearby in the Beltline.

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One of the owners, Ernie Tsu, took us on a tour behind the scenes to check out his brewery, and it was gorgeous. Even though I don't drink anymore, Ernie's enthusiasm about seeing his dreams in action was contagious. He's travelled all over visiting breweries and has brewed beer with nearly 200 brewmasters worldwide. If you ever get a chance to tour Trolley 5 with him, do. Even if you're not into beer, it's a gift to spend time with someone so clearly in love with their calling.

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On Friday, we went on a walking food tour of Inglewood with Calgary Food Tours. This is the first guided tour I've been on since I went to Universal Studios with my parents in 1981. When we travel, Aidan and I tend to wander out of our hotel and just find what we find, but this was a far superior way to go.

We started out at Rouge Restaurant where we met up with our guide Jenny and two other companions for breakfast. Rouge is in an historic house with its own large garden out back, and it was listed as #60 on S. Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants 2010 list, which I can definitely say is well-warranted. The beef bolognese was wonderful.

Then we hit The Silk Road spice store. The tour just about lost me there, because the store smelled and looked so good that it was downright therapeutic. I learned that my life was sorely missing urfa biber, and now it is not, because I kept saying urfa biber repeatedly until Aidan bought some.

Then we hit Knifewear. I feel silly saying this, but fancy knives are super sexy. You know it's true.

I have this fear of very sharp knives, though, like I will somehow fall over and accidentally chop my whole hand off if I just pick one up, so I let Aidan slice tomatoes alone.

Even if you live in Calgary, you might not know about Tea Trader, because it's tucked up on a second floor with an unassuming door down on the street. If I am remembering this correctly, owner Ted Jones is a third generation tea trader, so he knows his stuff. He and Kate walked us through the different kinds of tea and how they're grown, and it was at about this point that I started thinking maybe I needed to check out real estate in Calgary, because Calgary is literally delicious.

And then Calgary got even more delicious, because our walking tour landed at Sugo Caffe Italia, an Italian restaurant that serves fresh pasta and house-made cheese. One of the owners, Paul Campanella, makes all the cheese for that restaurant and a pizzeria by hand every day, and he made cheese for us right there. I had no idea you could make cheese and eat it right away like that!

I was still waddling from eating at Rouge, but who could turn down a plate of handmade cheese at Sugo? Not I.

Secretly, my favourite part of the food tour was one of our fellow tourists, Wallace. I could have just watched him laugh all day. I'm smiling just looking at pictures of him at Sugo. That face! 

We ended the tour at Deane House, an historic property along the river where we finished up three hours of meals and sampling with a small dessert and coffee. The light and the ambience in that building was so serene. Had there been a couch there, I would have been helpless against napping. Aidan nearly succumbed while sitting up, apparently.

But no napping was to be had, because Aidan and I had packed our trip with things! to! do!

After the food tour on Friday afternoon, we went to Contemporary Calgary, a modern and contemporary art space. The exhibits were physically immersive. We could hear the first one thrumming through the entrance when we arrived, and it nearly overwhelmed me. Behold, Zimoun's acoustic construction:

 
art installation at Contemporary Calgary
 

The video installations, Performing the Landscape curated by Lorenzo Fus, were so soothing that we lay about on the available couches and let it wash over us.

I'm not sure if I've ever mentioned it, but I was born in Calgary and lived there until I was seven. Although I have been there many times since to visit family, my ideas about the city are still largely shaped by those early years, and it's interesting to look at it now with new eyes.

When I was a kid, the Calgary Tower, that spike with the red top pictured below, was the tallest building in the entire city. I used to marvel at the fact that it could even stand without tipping in the wind. Now it looks like punctuation next to all the other buildings that have grown up since then.

Our final stop on Friday was Wine-Ohs. We sat down, secretly put our feet up (shh), and marvelled at the fact that we could even be hungry again. We were, though, because we are amazing.

(For those wondering about that photo below, mine was a ginger ale :)

My cousin Steven and his partner Manami joined us, and we made them order the incredible arancini that we'd already managed to down before they even arrived. In case you've never had it, arancini is an Italian rice ball made with risotto and cheese coated in bread crumbs and deep fried. I've had it before, but this was beyond all my arancini dreams. BEYOND. Every last thing we ate there was amazing, but the arancini was worth losing my belt over.

If Friday was about eating everything Calgary could throw at us, Saturday was about burning all that food off. We drove out to Drumheller to meet up with our friend Tiffany of My Dirt and two of her kids, Brigette and Hilary, for a tour of the badlands with Brent Noland, the Chief Executive Rock Hound at Drumheller Rocks GeoTourism.

Brent is a storyteller at heart and could tease out the deep history of the place and how it probably looked thousands and thousands of years ago. The man has a serious romance going with that land.

I have felt a strong pull to the badlands since I was a little kid. We always drove through them on the way from Calgary to Saskatchewan in the summer, and I would gaze out the back of the station wagon, wishing that this was our destination. I had a little spot picked out in an otherwise deserted valley where I would build my tiny, one-room house and keep a cow. We rarely stayed long enough to do more than use a roadside bathroom, though, so finally getting to tramp through those hills was a true thrill for me. 

I don't know if you've ever heard of hoodoos, but these are them. They form when the earth beneath a rock weathers away to leave a column beneath it. These ones are a couple of storeys high. 

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hoodoos just outside Drumheller
 

We even found some little baby hoodoos. Somehow baby hoodoos manage to be so darn cute.

And then we moved on to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, which you have to see. I'm a sucker for museums of all kinds, especially ones with dioramas. I will forever be that dorky eleven-year-old who was never too cool fall into distant or imaginary times and lands at the slightest suggestion.

Aside from the indoor exhibits, there is a lot of land to explore outside the Royal Tyrrell, and, again, because I could never state it enough, give me a one-room cabin and wi-fi, and I could live out there forever.

What really made the Drumheller trip, though, were Tiffany and her kids. Kids make things of what they see in a way that a lot of adults forget how to do. They imagine the whole place alive, and, in Brigette's case, quite literally. Below are her hands as she traced the landscape to show me where the dragons' limbs extended out beneath us while we stood on their backs. Kids brains are the best.

Then we said our goodbyes, and Aidan and I dragged our dusty, bedraggled selves back to Calgary so we could meet up with more family at Double Zero.

We met up with my aunts, Rachel and Jill at the left, and my cousins, Wyatt and Russell at the right. I don't get to see these people nearly enough, and the last time I was in Calgary it was for my dear uncle Mark's funeral, so I soaked as much of them up as I could. We get so little time together, and I kind of just wanted to hang out in a big cuddle pile, but that's not how restaurants work.

We let Double Zero decide our menu for us, which is not something I would normally do, but it was a stroke of genius. Everything they brought out was a surprise to us, and the whole meal ended up being one of the most honestly delightful meals any of us had had before.

My advice? Make sure you order the Formaggio Finale pizza. It's a cheese pizza, and to look at it you wouldn't think it was that exciting, but we all agreed it was the best pizza any of us had ever eaten. If I could ship it to Regina, I would. 

Also? My aunt Jill gave Aidan and I both t-shirts that she bleach painted — you can see Aidan's in that photo below — and her ability to catch detail is incredible. Thanks, Jill!

Our last day was Sunday, which we started out at Fort Calgary, because they have a pretty great locally-sourced and organic brunch there, and I got to get my museum nerd on again.

DIORAMAS!

I was basically crawling all over this miniature version of the original Fort Calgary with my iPhone, slavering over the details, when I realized that this other brunch-goer was staring at me. I felt awkward being caught out in my diorama love, so I felt compelled to say something. Ever the witty one, I came up with "I'm taking pictures of this diorama. It's pretty good." She raised her eyebrows like she was just figuring out that I was not like the others and said, "You keep having fun." I thought, "I HOPE YOUR EYEBROWS ARE HAVING FUN, LADY," but I did not hope her eyebrows were having fun.

Anyway, dioramas are really super damn cool.

After brunch, we hit Gravity Pope, which is my favourite shoe store of all time. I have a long-running problem with Gravity Pope, because I can't resist going in whenever I'm in Calgary or Edmonton, and one time I spent the equivalent of a mortgage payment on a pair of Trippens that I will love until I die. So, just guess where the Hotel Elan was? It was right across the street from Gravity Pope.

I managed to resist spending another mortgage payment on another pair of Trippens and settled on these nearly mirror-shiny Pumas instead. So fancy. I nearly banged into so many people in the airport on the way home because my feet kept distracting me.

Our last stop before heading to the airport was Moonstone Creation. It's a gorgeous shop filled with First Nations jewellery, clothing, and art. Yvonne Jobin, the owner, sat down with Aidan and I to give us a lesson in some simple edging beadwork. As we worked, we spoke, and she shared stories about her life as a First Nations woman in a culture dealing with residential school fallout. I am a bit shy, so I didn't thank her as deeply as I wanted to for the gift she had given us over the hour we sat together. 

It is such an honour whenever anyone opens up to tell their story, but this one in particular is still sitting with me.

That pouch above is the one I made. Not bad, huh? Even Aidan managed to do a pretty good job in between stabbing himself, which I was not at all expecting. Yvonne has the touch.

And then we sped off to the airport to head home.

I have to tell you I wasn't ready to go home. We had met such kind and generous people who were so happy to share of themselves and show us the best of Calgary and Alberta, and I was sad to leave it all behind. I'm really not kidding.

I was born in Calgary, and I have visited family there tens of times, but I had never really explored the place. I had no idea.

Calgary? You did good.

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The above trip was sponsored by Tourism Calgary. This post contains no affiliate links, and all opinions are mine.