I knew about Alberta. I had been to Edmonton, Jasper, and the Rockies, and though I hadn’t traveled to Banff and Lake Louise myself, I had heard much about those places from my colleague Pat Henderson.
So when Jim Warren of Anderson Vacations invited me to tour the southern tier of the province, I would be exploring territory that was new to me.
The Alberta I knew about was already outstanding. But the Alberta I found, from Calgary down to the U.S. border, was extra special. It was an Alberta bonus.
I began my mid-September trip with two bonuses: My wife, Mary Beth, accompanied me, and we were escorted by Darcie Guarderas, director of business development for Anderson Vacations.
Our four-day tour began in Calgary with a visit to the public library. I’m sure the books and research materials are OK, but the building, which opened a year ago, is stunning. The exterior façade’s geometric patterns can look like snowflakes, buildings, or open books. And the interior is a wood palace, with planks of white oak and hemlock artfully arranged for both purpose and elegance.
On the plains
We started drinking early in Alberta—a little, anyway. Driving south from Calgary, we stopped at the Eau Clair Distillery in Turner Valley. The building is a story on its own. Where today’s distillation columns and fermenters are lined up was a 1920s movie theater. What’s now the tasting room, which has a speakeasy vibe, was once a brothel.
After touring the facility, we sat down for a taste or two. The distillery’s shining star is its Single Malt Whisky, which won gold at the 2019 New York International Spirits Competition. As a Kentucky bourbon man, I appreciated the whisky for its rich flavor, but what scored two thumbs up with Mary Beth and me was Eau Clair’s Prickly Pear EquineOx, an award-winning white spirit that goes well with the house-made tonic water.
Continuing south—and sobering up fast—our next stop was Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, which commemorates the Canadian ranching industry. At its peak, the ranch encompassed seven townships and 250 square miles of land. Today it provides a scenic and interesting look at a century-old way of life on the Canadian plains.
The visitor center has displays and information boards, an orientation video, a gift shop, and a modest menu of lunch items. Rather than hopping aboard the open wagon for a tour led by two old cowboys, we chose to walk down a gravel road to view the collection of barns and buildings that were once integral to the operation of the ranch.
Inside the buildings—a harness repair shop, post office, and others—are treasure troves of tools and day-to-day items. It was like walking into 1930, and the workers had just stepped out for lunch.
We next visited a site with one of the best names in travel: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Members of the Blackfoot tribe staff the center, and groups can arrange for a tour or program led by a First Nations interpreter.
A very good orientation film shows how the indigenous people conducted a buffalo kill. The meat, hide, and other parts and pieces that they harvested were vital to their survival during the winter.
By stairs or an elevator, you work your way up five floors from the entrance, and each level has good information. At the top, a paved walkway leads to nice views of not only the cliff, but also of the Rocky Mountains and miles of plains. Those scenes, along with a stiff breeze on a nice day, made for an uplifting moment (especially if you can forget the image of scores of buffalo plunging to their death).
As we drove further south, I talked with Darcie about her company’s programs in this region.
“Anderson is really invested in promoting southern Alberta as a destination year-round,” she said. “We offer escorted tours that can be customized, and we also arrange self-drive tours for independent travelers.”
I was ecstatic to let Darcie do the driving. And I’ll also let her do the tour development. She described a program she cooked up for Vancouver Island, where she lives, that combines the best culinary delights of the island—seafood, fresh produce, cheese, and local wines—with walking tours, whale watching, and scenic drives.
Carriages and cobblestones
We arrived at Waterton Townsite just in time to see a beautiful sunset. It’s a cozy town on Upper Waterton Lake, full of shops, restaurants, outfitters, and hotels, and it lies within a national park that combines with a U.S. park to make the Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park, created in 1932.
The Prince of Wales Hotel had just closed for the season, but Pizza of Waterton was open—holding out for me, I suspect. I ordered the Peace Park Pizza—meats and veggies with a BBQ-ranch sauce—and was indeed at peace with the universe.
Seldom am I completely surprised by a town, but our next destination, Cardston, caught me off-guard. First, the Remington Carriage Museum located there is way more interesting than I had anticipated. The attraction tells the story of horse-drawn transportation in North America and displays 240 carriages, sleighs, and wagons arranged in a series of vignettes that are accompanied by information panels with archival photographs.
The namesake of the museum is Don Remington, a local rancher who developed a passion for carriages after procuring one to transport Santa Claus in a local Christmas parade. He traveled the world, buying carriages and shipping them home to Cardston, where he restored and displayed them.
As cool as the carriages are, I enjoyed learning that a number of common words originated with carriages: car, threshold, dashboard, and others.
We toured the museum and then we took a ride in a horse-drawn wagon, one of two that holds up to 15 passengers. Groups can enjoy a wagon ride as well as other activities.
The second Cardston surprise was Cobblestone Manor, a restaurant and B&B. Originating in 1889 as a log house, the building was bought by an eccentric Belgian carpenter in 1913. Henry Hoet collected local river rocks, imported rare hardwoods and stained glass, built wood ceiling tiles and bookshelves, and re-created one room after another, finally finishing in 1929.
It is a weird and wonderful place, and now it’s for sale … $100 at a time. Owner Ivan Negrych told us he and his wife are holding an essay contest in which people submit a one-page letter (and $100), describing how owning the property would change their life. The contest closes on Jan. 31.
And I’ll tell you: As we drove to Drumheller, the three of us tried out some phrasing for a letter.
We got the insider’s take on Drumheller because it’s Darcie’s hometown. Drumheller is surrounded by natural attractions, including hoodoos—sandstone pillars formed over millions of years—and Badlands beauty in places like Horseshoe Canyon, which offers stunning vistas and scenic hikes.
On our approach to Drumheller, we visited the Last Chance Saloon in the tiny town of Wayne. Our presence boosted the population to 30. I’ll tell you about a raccoon story I overheard there if you ask me.
I sampled a local pilsner beer, Capstone, from Valley Brewing. The microbrewery, owned by Darcie’s cousin—of course—had only recently opened, but they’ve got a solid lineup of beers. We later stopped by the taproom so Darcie could check it out.
Hometowns and family, man …
We did spend considerable time at the attraction that brings most visitors to Drumheller, the Royal Tyrrell Museum, named for Joseph Tyrrell, who, as a 26-year-old geologist searching for coal seams in 1884, stumbled upon a skull of Canada’s first known meat-eating dinosaur. The whole area, it turned out, was dinosaur country.
(Darcie may or may not have found hundreds of fossils while she roamed the hills as a kid. Breaking the laws protecting paleontological specimens carries a fine of up to $50,000, so I’m not ratting Darcie out.)
The museum is arranged in a series of chronological galleries that show not only the fossils and finds from the past, but also the tools used in discovering and preserving these extraordinary relics. The fossils aren’t confined to dinosaurs, as they include ancient plants, sea life, and mammals, and the local finds weren’t all achieved by scientists. Many fossils were unearthed by workers digging for oil—or even basements for houses.
Programs and guided hikes are available for visitors, although I had a personal expert at my side. Mary Beth, a biology teacher, detailed evolutionary science as we proceeded through the museum’s exhibits.
I was sorry to say goodbye to Drumheller, but happy to be back in Calgary a while later.
The Bell tolls
Before flying out the next morning, Mary Beth and I wrapped up our stay by visiting Studio Bell. Home of the National Music Centre, the facility celebrates and preserves Canada’s music, and it also facilitates the dreams of up-and-coming performers. To give you an example of the past-present interplay: Some of the country’s current artists record here using vintage synthesizers.
Groups can tour Studio Bell between 10 and 5 nearly every day of the year, and Backstage Pass tours are conducted on Sundays.
We had to rush through to try to see everything at the Bell. When I return with more time to spend, I want to hear a demonstration of the enormous Kimball Theatre Organ and try out the vocal booth to learn if I’m a true bass or tenor, or even a soprano. And I’ll go back and stare at the piano Elton John used when he wrote the songs for his first five albums.
I feel privileged to have explored this southern section of Alberta that’s both rugged and charming … equally ancient and inviting. And to see it through the eyes of an experienced tour operator—and to share the trip with my wife—offered just one bonus after another.
Top photo: Waterton Townsite
Photos by Bob Rouse