I'm happy to report that I can finally check the Calgary Stampede off of my life "to do" list. Having just returned from the 10-day rootin' tootin' Western extravaganza (this year's annual Stampede runs from July 8-17), I now understand why it's known as the "Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth".
The whole of Calgary is transformed for the Stampede: Hay bales and wooden fencing line downtown streets along the parade route, and free pancake breakfasts are a daily event. I had one at Rope Square, where people lined up down the block for flapjacks and bacon hot off the griddles. Meanwhile, clowns, mascots, impromptu hat-stomping competitions and old-fashioned gunslingers made the wait times go faster. These pancake breakfasts are held around the city during Stampede and are sponsored by corporations, community associations and even the CBC.
The Calgary Stampede Rodeo is the raison d'etre for the Stampede, and I cannot begin to describe how brave these cowboys are and how white-knuckled I was as I watched them compete in Bareback, Bull Riding, Barrel Racing, Saddle Bronc, Steer Wrestling and Tie-Down Roping. I must have shouted "Oy vey!" at least 202 times, especially during my behind-the-scenes Chute Tour, a rare up-close-and-personal look at the bucking chutes while the cowboys prepared to ride some of the toughest bulls and broncs in the business, just before those gates flung open. Heart-stopping!
When not watching bucking broncos and eating midway vittles, I had some really great food in Calgary at the growing number of rustic, field-to-table spots, including Home Tasting Room, where the fresh oysters and seared steak salad were as lovely as the Oregon Pinot Noir. I also enjoyed snacks at Charcut in the Le Germain hotel, especially Top Chef Canada finalist Connie's warm breadsticks with homemade mustard and pickled vegetables, and tuna conserva. Finally, brunch at Big Fish (you can only eat so many pancake breakfasts) meant a heaping dish of fresh shrimp-stuffed omelet with baby potato hash.
My final night in Calgary I took in the Chuckwagon Races and Grandstand Show as the sun dipped oe'er yonder and the rain suddenly came down in buckets (don't worry about me — I was tucking into AAA Alberta beef while dining in the Clubhouse Dining Room and watching the show from the reserved seats that come with the table.) As Chuckwagons roared across the finish line and the stars came out, a high-energy outdoor stage show featuring hundreds of singers, dancers, and musicians wowed the audiences, before the night closed out with fireworks.
In other words, it's a totally exciting time to be in Calgary, pardner.
P.S. They made me wear the hat.
1-6. Amy Rosen