One need only drive a few miles in any direction from Calgary’s gleaming downtown to get a sense of why directors Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”), Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James”), Walter Hill (AMC’s “Broken Trail”) and others have chosen Calgary to replicate the American West in their films. To the west and north, rolling foothills suddenly give way to the sheer, jagged peaks that make the Colorado Rockies look tame by comparison. To the south, the range land that makes Alberta beef some of the best in the world undulates toward the U.S. border, managed by a community of wranglers who look straight out of central casting. To the east, across the mighty Bow River, prairie and farmland stretch toward a horizon that defines the term “big sky.”
But Calgary’s approximation of the American West goes deeper than just its purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain. While more recently famous as the locale where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie shacked up during the “Jesse James” shoots, the region is steeped in the history of its native peoples — both the Blackfoot and Sioux Indian nations called these plains home before settlers arrived in the mid-1800s — nowhere so much as Heritage Park, constructed entirely of authentic buildings from the 1800s. “Almost all the Hollywood ranches have disappeared,” explains “Jesse James” producer David Valdez. “Even Warner Bros.’ Western street has been taken down. Heritage Park was built to educate a new generation about Calgary’s history, but it makes a great backlot for a Western.”
Robert Duvall, star of AMC’s upcoming “Broken Trail,” puts it into perspective: “I’ve worked on a few Westerns,” he says with a laugh, “and I’ve never seen more beautiful country in my life.”
“I’m from rural Texas, so what’s appealing to me is the countryside,” says “Broken Trail’s” Thomas Haden Church. “Every weekend, to the great distraction of the wranglers who worked with us on the set, I’d go to their ranches and ride horses.”
For guided horseback tours of the Rocky Mountain foothills and rangeland, contact Rafter Six (raftersix.com). Located 45 minutes west of the city, this ranch hosted Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum during the shooting of “River of No Return.”
An afternoon’s drive south of the city will bring you to both the Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump (head-smashed-in.com) and the Bar U Ranch (pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/ab/baru/). The former is a UNESCO World Heritage Site commemorating the Blackfoot Indian Nation and its unique hunting techniques. The latter is a living monument to Alberta’s ranching industry, preserving the methods used by local wranglers for much of the last century. On the way home, stop by the Longview Steakhouse (Highway 22, in Longview) to see why Duvall calls it “the best steak in Calgary.” But don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
While the Bow River is at its most scenic upstream from Calgary as it tumbles out of the Rockies, it’s the lazy stretches east of the city that make the region world famous among fly fishermen. There’s no shortage of operations running float trips down the river, but local production designer Ken Rempel recommends the Bow River Troutfitters (800-854-0464, bowrivertroutfitters.com) for both multiday and single-day excursions.
The boutique-hotel craze hasn’t quite hit Calgary, which puts the Kensington Riverside Inn (877-313-3733, kensingtonriversideinn.com) ahead of the curve. Opened in 1999, it is one of the few high-end hotels outside the city’s bustling downtown and offers a more relaxed and personalized stay — the staff greets guests by name and actually remembers them — not to mention a complimentary breakfast that’s worth staying in for.
In the heart of downtown, the Fairmont Palliser (403-262-1234, fairmont.com/palliser/) hosted Walter Hill throughout “Broken Trail’s” nine-week shoot and maintains the Old World charm of its days as the Grand Canadian Railway Hotel — so much so that “Jesse James” shot there. Connected by a skywalk to the convention center, the Glenbow Museum and the Center for the Performing Arts, it’s an ideal option for wintertime visitors.
Most of the major, high-end chains boast impressive hotels in Calgary, including the Sheraton Suites Eau Claire (403-266-7200, sheratonsuites.com) and The Westin Calgary (403-266-1611, westincalgary.com). The Hyatt Regency (403-717-1234, calgary.hyatt.com) is home to the Stillwater Spa (403-537-4474, hyatt.com/gallery/stillwater/), the city’s finest day spa, which has a warm-stone massage that will melt saddle-sore muscles.
Like any city worth its salt, Calgary has not let its lack of oceanfront property keep it from hosting a world-class seafood restaurant. When the producers of “Brokeback Mountain” needed to catch up on things, they reserved a table at Catch (403-206-0000). Located at the foot of the Hyatt Regency on the 8th Avenue walking mall, Catch has the best oysters in the city.
While Pitt and Jolie caused quite a stir during the shooting of “Jesse James” when dining at The Verve (403-283-2009), locals know that the best gourmet menu in town is right around the corner at Muse (403-670-6873, muserestaurant.ca). Executive Chef Cam Dobranski’s duck dishes — including a pan-seared foie gras and a crispy-skinned confit — are a must-order. As one Edmonton-based chef working on a Saturday night said: “This is the only restaurant in the world I’d drive three hours just to cover a shift.”
For a slightly lower-key atmosphere with a similarly creative menu, try The Living Room (403-228-9830, thelivingroomrestaurant.com). Heath Ledger reportedly did — several times. Try the lamb shank, as well as a drink concoction cryptically referred to as “The Shaft.”
The world-famous Alberta beef can be found on pretty much every menu in the city. However, the local secret is that the single, best cut of meat is at Carver’s (403-250-6327). Located in the airport Sheraton, it’s a bit of a drive. Those looking to stay closer to the city center (or follow Hill) can’t go wrong at Caesar’s (403-265-1222), which is short on creativity but long on good meat.
The Uptown 17 district, which runs along Seventeenth Avenue between 4th and 14th Streets and was frequented by both Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, features a slew of boutiques — but don’t let the hipster crowd turn you away from the overflowing shoe emporium Gravity Pope (403-209-0961, gravitypope.com). For more upscale fare, try the Shops of Mount Royal Village (mountroyalvillage.ca) between 7th and 9th Streets, which are packed with jewelry, clothes and spas.
Kensington is the city’s other shopping district, and it’s located northwest of downtown, just across Bow River. It’s a quiet, leafy few blocks with the city’s highest concentration of coffee shops and bookstores.
If you must get a Barney’s fix, Calgary has Canada’s own version of chic: designer department store Holt Renfrew (403-269-7341, holtrenfrew.com). In the heart of downtown, the store features everyone from Alexander McQueen to Yves Saint Laurent, as well as the best makeup counter in the city.
Finally, Calgarians love to brag about having the largest wine selection in Canada, which has something to do with the city’s liquor laws being different from the rest of the country. Regardless, all you need to know are two shops: Bin 905 (bin905.com), which serves the Uptown 17 district, and Kensington Wine Market (403-283-8000, (kensingtonwinemarket.com) — both are staffed by unpretentious wine experts and offer vintages that aren’t available in the States.