When I heard that the 2016 International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics championships were being held in Edmonton, Alberta, my reaction was Edmonton? Really? But that’s the great thing about playing with an LGBT water polo team like the Toronto Triggerfish. We travel the world, from Hawaii to Sweden, and occasionally there’s a dark-horse destination. In 2014 it was the Gay Games in Cleveland. I had low expectations and wound up loving it. Could Edmonton be my Canadian Cleveland? I embark on a cross-Alberta road trip to find out.
It begins in the cowboy city of Calgary. I pick up my rental car and meet with Kristyn Snell of Tourism Calgary at the Hotel Arts, a downtown boutique hotel that has playful accents like a black-pig side table in the foyer and a beautiful courtyard pool. “On weekends they have a DJ. It has a bit of a South Beach feel,” Snell says.
The hotel prepares us a picnic lunch, which we place in the wooden box affixed to the back of a hotel bike, and we ride onto one of the city’s newest bike lanes. “Two years ago the city began a multi-million dollar project to add more cycling paths,” she explains.
Our first point of interest is the city’s Peace Bridge, which spans the Bow River. The pedestrian bridge has a red webbing look to it and at a cost of 25 million dollars was once “the most hated and controversial” public project in the city; but, once it opened, people “loved it.”
We eat in Prince’s Island Park and Kristyn asks me about my impression of Alberta before arriving. “Rednecks,” I confess. My eyes follow a pair of shirtless gym bodies as they skateboard by. “But it’s changing.”
We bike through the East Village, which is going through revitalization, including commissioned street art and the beautifully refurbished Simmons building. Once a mattress factory, it’s now a gastro delight of exposed bricks, home to a “butcher, a baker, and a coffee maker.”
We pedal on to the recently remodeled Saint Patrick’s Island. It has modern benches, an area for wading into the river, and a paved path along the water that offers a fantastic view of the city.
I see more of the area during a walking tour of the adjacent neighborhood of Inglewood. The area’s great for shopping, including a hipster shaving store, a spice merchant, and a fresh juiceteria. It’s also part of “Music Mile,” a strip where a variety of businesses feature 20 live acts every weekend, including Lolita’s Lounge, where you can catch drag-troupe Carly’s Angels.
The next morning, I get the lowdown on the city’s food scene when I meet for breakfast with Christie Gross of the Hotel Arts at their in-house boutique restaurant Yellow Door Bistro.
“In the last five years Calgary’s culinary scene has totally changed,” she says. High-quality local beef, as well as seafood draw in top-level chefs from B.C.
And thanks to changes in provincial legislation it’s now easier for small breweries to get started. A short drive takes me to an area of squat warehouse spaces, and the home of Banded Peak Brewing Co., Calgary’s newest brewery. There are pick axes attached to the walls, refillable jugs hanging from climbing ropes, and steel brewing drums in the back. The tap room is open Thursday through Sunday and can “get pretty crazy.” Flavors range from the straw-colored Chinook Saison to the amber Summit Seeker.
There are more fun monikers in store for me that night at a special Fiasco Gelato’s Pride flavor contest where queer tastes truly blend. The space is very Willy Wonka, with a door for “Oompa Loompa Land.” At their “Gelato Academy,” visitors mix their own flavor, which is where four contestants are vying to come up with Calgary Pride’s official 2016 gelato. Contestant Ryan Massel’s “Leather Daddy,” wins with its “pow pow pow” notes of black liquorice softened by “sweet, innocent¸ marshmallow.”
The contest is a demonstration of the grassroots queer spirit that’s transforming Calgary’s image. “We don’t have a Davie St. (the gay area in Vancouver),” says Jason Kingsley of Calgary Pride, but there are “pop-up [queer] events.” He says the conversation is now happening on how to show that Alberta is a gay-friendly destination.
“There’s a Gay Day at [the Calgary] Stampede,” he says of the hugely popular ten-day rodeo. “These individuals are not affiliated [with Stampede], but it’s become so popular that Stampede is picking up on it.”
It’s not the only switch. Calgary has long been seen as a gateway to the Rockies, but its now poised to be a destination unto itself, as an urban hotspot to spend a few nights before or after a mountain getaway.
Alberta is heaven for outdoorsy adventurists, so I head for some thrills half-an-hour outside the city at the sprawling WinSport Canada Olympic Park. I meet up with beefy, square-jawed Olympic-hopeful Simon Dunn. The Australian came to Calgary to play rugby, but was quickly recruited onto the Australian bobsleigh team, which trains at the park. He’s now the only openly gay bobsledder to be representing his county. He misses the beach, but says Calgary’s been “very friendly” and he has not had “one instance of homophobia.”
With crash helmets on, we do a summer bobsleigh run on a concrete track. A real run gets up to 5Gs, and he says, “The force puts my head pretty close to my crotch.” The facility also has a summer luge track, a zip line, and mountain biking.
I bid Simon adieu, and less than an hour’s drive away, I enter one of the most stunning places on the planet: the Canadian Rockies. As I pass through the gates of Banff National Park, I crane my neck to take in the jagged peaks all around. It gets even better when I reach “Canada’s Castle in the Rockies,” the luxurious Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. It rises up half-a-dozen floors, its many peaks mirroring the mountains behind.
Inside, the grand staircase and stone walls are lit by huge chandeliers hanging amid arched beams. I feel like I’m in a royal chalet.
The Fairmont’s Director of Public Relations Angela Moore, who insists I check out the spa ASAP to refresh before we meet for dinner that night, greets me. Who am I to say no?
The 38,000-square-feet spa has won a ton of awards and is on Forbes’ bucket list of Canadian Rockies experiences. It boasts three waterfalls with soaking tubs and a mineral pool inspired by the area’s thermal waters. The moment I step into the warm waters, I feel the tension in my chest easing away. I easily spend an hour moving from the main pool, to a cooling waterfall, to the steam room, to the hot tub, and back to the mineral pool.
When I go to my small upper-floor room, the attic feel of the slanted roof and the soothing tones of beige and brown make feel at home, but what really impresses is the view of the Bow River winding amid mountains and flanked by forest.
I unpack and change, then meet Angela and Jonny Biermann of Banff Tourism. Jonny’s openly gay, but he says Angela knows more gay people in Banff “because she works at the Fairmont,” which has earned a gay-friendly reputation. “We’re not going to ask three times if you’re sure you don’t want two beds,” she says.
As the queen of this castle, she leads us to the pop-up “Indian Summer” restaurant within the Fairmont.
“Normally we serve high tea here,” Angela explains, but during the summer of 2016 the upper Rundle Lounge has become their dinnertime Indian restaurant, where we order mild curried lamb, lentils, and sweet chutneys.
Food-wise, “you won’t get anything like this in town,” Angela says, because much of the tourist fare can be “generic.”
When I ask Jonny where he’d go on a date, he says “Juniper has a really good patio,” where “you can see all of Banff” and “Three Ravens also has a great view, perched on a hill, and a great wine list.”
There’s no queer scene per se, but they insist Banff is very gayfriendly. In 2013, locals Corrie DiManno and Joe Bembridge founded the town’s first one-night Pride event. “They did rainbow crosswalks for the first time last year,” Angela says. “If we build it,” Jonny says, “They will come.”