While temperatures rarely climbed above the single digits during my late January visit to Edmonton, I felt truly warmed by the hospitality and friendship extended to me by the residents of this tourist-friendly capital of Alberta, Canada. While I was there for the grand opening of the new Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA), I also found myself getting carried away by the lively atmosphere and activities that abound throughout the city.
The Art Gallery of Alberta recently reopened this January. // (C) 2010 Joe Vare
As one of the northernmost metropolitan areas in North America, Edmonton has long been a favorite destination for outdoor sports enthusiasts. In the winter, it attracts skiers, snowboarders and hockey fans and, in the summer, hikers, cyclers and golfers flock to it in droves. Nature lovers also are attracted to the city’s pristine, pollution-free environment. Among its natural attributes is its location in a vast river valley, the largest stretch of urban parkland in North America. Many visitors also use Edmonton as a base for day trips to the famed Banff National Park, set amidst the majestic Canadian Rockies.
Arts & Culture
Although Edmonton is known for its sports and nature, it also has a burgeoning arts scene, with an acclaimed orchestra, a year-round series of contemporary and classical theater performances and an array of galleries showcasing works by Canadian artists. The new AGA is yet another example of that.
Years in the making and built at a cost of nearly $88 million, this strikingly modernist and eco-friendly structure employs an extensive use of glass, steel and aluminum and was designed to resemble the Aurora Borealis (northern lights) that frequently light up the winter sky. More than 800 tons of structural steel were used in the framework of the building, including 5,000 custom-made steel pieces which, if laid from end to end, would extend for 7½ miles. The swooping, twisting exterior walls reflect the natural light and, depending on the season, changes in color from green to gray to blue.
The AGA’s debut in January instantly thrust the city into the international arts spotlight on a level with Canada’s other elite galleries. The museum’s inaugural exhibition included a display of rarely viewed bronze sculptures by French impressionist Edgar Degas and a collection of photographs by famed Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh, highlighted by his celebrity portraits of Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn and Andy Warhol.
If clients long to bring a piece of Edmonton’s art home with them, they should look into the city’s numerous craft and gift shops. The best place to start is in the historic district of Old Strathcona. At the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market, clients can purchase quality works by local artisans, as well as peruse through a colorful assortment of foods. At night, this same area buzzes with the sounds of jazz, blues and rock bands on the main thoroughfare, Whyte Street.
Following my visit to the market, I also stopped off at Fort Edmonton Park, the city’s most important historic site and, perhaps, the largest living history park in Canada. Other key historic landmarks found within this district include The Strathcona Hotel (built in 1891), the Ritchie Mill (built in 1892), the Strathcona Canadian Pacific Railway Station (completed in 1908) and the Princess Theatre (built in 1915).
Activities & Events
Shoppers will also be delighted to find out that Edmonton is home to a mammoth mega-mall, the West Edmonton Mall. The largest in North America, it goes by the nickname, “The Greatest Indoor Show on Earth.” While the AGA has already become a big draw, the mall continues to rank as one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, bringing in millions of visitors every year. Encompassing 48 city blocks, it contains some 800 stores, more than 100 eating establishments and nine theme parks and attractions.
I visited several of these parks, beginning with Galaxyland Amusement Park, the largest indoor amusement park on the planet. It is best known for the Mindbender, the world’s tallest and longest indoor roller coaster. I also checked out World Waterpark, which contains the world’s biggest indoor wave pool, followed by a brief stop at the Ice Palace, an NHL-size public ice-skating rink.
Another moniker adopted by Edmonton is that of Canada’s Festival City, since the city plays host to more than 30 different festivals every year. Events range from Shakespeare and beer to opera, rodeos and car racing. Among its most popular upcoming events are the Edmonton International Jazz Festival (June 25-July 4), the International Fringe Theatre Festival (Aug. 12-22), Western Canada Fashion Week (Sept. 16-23) and the Canadian Finals Rodeo (Nov. 10-14). Fashion Week is of special interest as it is the largest event of its kind in Western Canada, showcasing runway collections from both Canadian and international designers. More information on Edmonton festivals can be found at FestivalCity.ca.
Where to Stay
The city is not without its choice of accommodations, and I stayed at the Union Bank Inn. A former bank building that was converted into a luxury boutique hotel in 1997, it is ideally situated in the heart of the city’s business and arts district, a mere 15-minute walk from the AGA. The inn boasts 34 guestrooms and suites and is divided into an Historic Heritage Wing and a Contemporary Wing. Each spacious Heritage Wing suite features unique, distinctive interiors with 12-foot ceilings, goose-down bedding, fireplaces, jetted tubs and CD players. Business-class rooms and suites in the Contemporary Wing are outfitted with large working desks as well as refrigerators, flat-screen televisions, jetted tubs and CD players. Complimentary services for all guests include full a la carte breakfast in the award-winning Madison Grill, an evening delivery of a glass of wine and a cheese plate and high-speed Internet access.