Some people describe Calgary as Canada's answer to Dallas or Houston. The association is understandable, given its most-famous industries have historically been (and continue to be) cattle and oil.
The Calgary Stampede, not surprisingly, continues to be one of the city's biggest tourist draws every summer, and the oil industry has continued to bring prosperity to the city in recent years. Come winter, there are the seductive ski runs of the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise and Banff.
However, you don't need to be a cowboy enthusiast, ski bum or oil baron to embrace Calgary's historic and cultural riches. Its gems include a truly cutting-edge foodie scene; an astonishing number of trendy neighborhoods tailor-made for both fashionistas and bargain hunters; the stunning Glenbow Museum (focused on Canadian history and anthropology with some modern art thrown into the mix); the lush Prince's Island Park; the distinguished Fairmount Palliser Hotel (noteworthy for its well-appointed kosher kitchen); and delightful boutique properties, such as the vibe-y Hotel Arts (and its Raw Bar, with insane gourmet cocktails).
My home for the week was the Kensington Riverside Inn (www.kensingtonriversideinn.com), a property that deftly mixes old school grace with attentive service, wonderful breakfasts, a mod lobby and surrounding neighborhood with everything a single girl (or couple) could ever want, including the main branch of Crave (a cupcake bakery with justifiably long lines), and some exceptional wine-and-cheese places.
Every time I arrive in a city for the first time and look out my hotel window (my view included the skyline and the river), the questions I usually ask myself are, "Would I want to come back here?" and "Could I live here?" While there are many places where I would cheerfully make a return visit, it is a revelation to discover a place where I actually could envision myself as a resident, thanks to a perfect balance of sophistication, cosmopolitan neighborhoods, natural beauty … and an inviting, well-organized Jewish community. Calgary, 9,000 Jews strong, is one of those rare places.
A great place to start experiencing the city is the Calgary JCC (www.calgaryjcc.com or www.jewishcalgary.org), located in the "Southwest" section. A visit will not only help you get your bearings, but enable you to take in some of the city's Jewish history and meet members of the community who can make some excellent suggestions on must-do's in town.
If you're timing's good, you may just run across Philadelphia native Lance Davis. Davis, serving as executive director of the Calgary Jewish Community Council (an umbrella organization that includes the JCC), points out that one's hometown JCC membership and I.D. (and some advance notice for stays of up to two weeks; drop-ins are okay) will provide access to much of the center's fitness amenities.
Karen's Café & Catering, open to the general public, is the city's only certified kosher café. The menu is homespun, with a nice array of guilt-free, mostly vegetarian salads, quiches, sandwiches, soups and paninis, as well as what owner Karen Bruce accurately describes as the "best French fries in the city." (Meat-lovers, for the record, can get their pastrami and corned beef fixes at the Haifa Deli, a traditional kosher deli a few blocks away).
After Karen's popular "Paula's Special" salad, there is plenty of food for thought to savor. In the JCC lobby, there is a display promoting the "Little Synagogue on the Prairie" (www.littlesyna gogue.ca), the restoration of a 1913 historic prairie synagogue that will soon make its home at Heritage Park Historical Village, a literally hands-on way to experience Calgary's past that is remarkably low on kitsch and high in substance.
Aside from the fact that only authentic tools, materials and sketches are being used in this restoration, the community is justifiably excited that its presence will also generate greater awareness of how Jewish settlers thrived in Calgary.
This "J" also houses an impressive Jewish Veteran's Wall and Senior Citizen area, while, just outside the center (in Jerusalem Park), there's a striking Holocaust memorial. Steps from that spot, one will come across the House of Jacob-Mikveh Israel Orthodox Synagogue, home to a mikveh open to Jews of all denominations.
The upper level, meanwhile, is lined with offices for the city's key Jewish organizations, as well as the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta. Under the care of Jack Switzer (the JHSSA's vice president), the society preserves elements of local Jewish history dating back to Jacob Diamond's arrival in 1898, and the purchase of land in 1904 for a cemetery, events that rooted Jews into a community that would include schools, synagogues and a disproportionately large group of model citizens, who shaped Calgary in every conceivable area of commerce, including the original white "Smithbilt Hat," which is still the official symbol of Calgary.
The company behind that iconic headgear was established by Russian immigrant Morris Shumiatcher, and, throughout the 20th century, Jewish people were major players in the area's oil and beef industries, as well. One of the current owners of the Calgary Flames is Jewish, and Martha Cohen (who, along with Jack Singer, has a downtown theater named in her honor) continues to remain active in the arts community.
Calgary was also home to one of North America's most-innovative architects, Harold Hanen (grandson of Calgary's first permanent rabbi, Simon Smolensky), who developed the "Plus 15"-enclosed bridges that, literally, keep an entire city connected during the winter months.
According to the recently-published A Joyful Harvest: A History of Jews in Southern Alberta, he is one of 16 Jewish Calgary-area recipients of the Order of Canada (the nation's highest civilian honor). That said, the spotless downtown area is also, in many ways, a monument to the successes of these citizens, from the Epcor theater complex (which includes the Cohen and Singer theaters), to the architecture, to the museums and businesses.
At Erlton Cemetery, near the Calgary Stampede complex, there is a Jewish War Memorial that provides a heavenly postcard view of the city.
There are many ways to savor Calgary's food scene: There's Alberta beef (or, if you prefer, local fish and enticing market vegetable dishes), from the elegant River Café and the Ranche, situated in park settings, to places like Olives, Brava Bistro and Avenue Diner, that do contemporary cuisine right.
For information, go to: www.tourismcalgary.com.