Surprise weekend in Edmonton

It’s been a while since our last surprise weekend (see [[Surprise Visit to Drumheller]]), but not for a lack of wanting. We’ve been that busy. Either Alex has had to work (the joys of working in the medical community) or we’ve both been traveling. This weekend was the first one we’d had to get away.

It was a bit of a special one, but for no other reason than we’d barely seen each other in almost three weeks. I was away in San Jose for a conference, followed immediately by the Calgary Dragon Boat Festival, and then Alex was off in Ontario for a week and a half. So I had to plan this weekend’s getaway so we’d have some time to ourselves.

That’s the tricky part, actually. I had a devil of a time finding something quasi-romantic, yet equitable, and that wouldn’t put a major dent in my wallet. Easier said than done when you consider that it’s high season out here for tourism. So I decided to go some place somewhere unconventional for tourism. The sort of place that doesn’t immediately come to your mind as a destination. (It is, at least at this end of Alberta, even considered a punishment by some.)


It’s a large city, with interesting things, comfortable hotels, and a wee bit of shopping. (Yes, that’s a joke.) I’d only ever been there three times before (once on my Trans-Canada tour in 1997, again with the Rocky Mountain Rail Society in October 2001, and then with the CBC almost a year later). In those three times, I’d barely seen anything of Edmonton, so this was a chance to see … well, more than I had. Now all I had to do was keep Alex in the dark as to where she was going.

That’s a lot harder than it sounds. Alex wanted to know — who doesn’t want to know what a surprise is? Be damned if she didn’t really dig for it, too. In fact, Thursday night, she kept at me for nearly two straight hours of questioning. She was persistent, and sometimes really sneaky when composing her questions. I was quite proud of myself for not supplying the answer, while not lying about the destination.

But everyone has their Achilles heel. Mine is Miao-Yin.

Alex took a turn of what was supposed to be silly questioning, where she asked if the cat would like where we were going. Would the cat enjoy the view? Would she like to drive? What about if she wanted to stop and get out for a while? Hey, maybe she could take us out for dinner one night! It was supposed to be in fun, but I got stuck on the more serious side: namely, the cat wouldn’t survive the trip down the block without me going insane from her yowling, let alone the three hour drive to Edmonton…

Insert a long string of emphatic expletives here. Because that’s what spewed out of my mouth immediately after — letting the cat out of the bag — I said where we were going.

So that piece of the surprise was divulged the night before. Doh. But Alex didn’t know where we were staying, or why she had to bring a nice outfit. And those I kept quite tightly under wraps.

Despite leaving Calgary a little later than I’d planned Friday evening, we arrived in Red Deer before 19:30. Hunting for a restaurant downtown (and turning up empty), we ended up at the White Spot. (Not my first choice of places for dinner, but it holds a particular place in Alex’s heart from when she was younger.) It took everything I had not to mock our waiter, obviously a student from Red Deer College, either trying to be an actor or a radio personality, and failing miserably. His schmaltzy shtick dripped of goofiness, despite an obvious desire to be taken seriously. I know more than a few people who would have talked back to him in the same manner.

I’d never arrived in Edmonton from the south before. Fortunately, signs weren’t too hard to follow to downtown, and the road was actually familiar from the time the CBC crew had taken a shuttle bus to the train station — surprisingly, I still remembered it. The hard part was then finding the hotel. Despite having the address, the grid system actually confused me rather than helped. Alex was rhyming off building names or companies, starting at the names of hotels before slipping into ones like banks, insurance companies, restaurants, and the YMCA. Finally, I found the Westin, and we pulled in.

Why the Westin? One reason: The Heavenly Bed. I spent a weekend in one during a prison term in Cincinnati and haven’t forgotten it. Given how much Alex and I hadn’t seen each other, and Alex’s less-than-stellar trip to Ontario, I felt that perhaps a really comfortable stay would help. It certainly couldn’t hurt…

We checked in on a very auspicious weekend. In addition to the Fringe Festival (an annual event in Edmonton), there was also the Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival (Topmade sent the Dragoneers, and Sang and Colette were also paddling for Crew Yahoo of the Calgary Dragon Boat Club), the Jazz Festival (I think), the 100th Anniversary of Edmonton, and the coup de grace, being held at the Westin, the National Bodybuilding Championship.

Be still my beating heart.

After waking up quite late the following morning (we were both quite content to stay in the Heavenly Bed), we went in search of breakfast. A flip through the phonebook was a bit frustrating due to the lack of options. Eventually, we decided on the Denny’s, about 12 blocks from the Westin. It would have been a nice walk, had it not been cold, windy, with a spattering of rain mixed in for flavour. We cut through the mall downtown to save ourselves from the chill.

The Denny’s was packed. But it was also one of the only eateries that we could find in the area that serves breakfast, at least from judging by the line-up inside. It took nearly a half hour to get a seat for two. It would take about the same amount of time to actually get our breakfast once ordered.

While we waited, we babbled nearly incoherently about whatever kept coming to mind. (Hey, we had almost three weeks of events and trivial crap to catch up on.) While we chatted, a semi-familiar silhouette passed through my peripheral vision, heading into the washroom.

Me: “I think that’s Mo!”

Alex: “Mo? Topmade Mo?”

Me: “Yeah… it is Mo! And there’s Byron, and Arnold!”

The Topmade Dragoneers were in town (the aforementioned Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival), and some of the team had apparently decided to grab a meal at Denny’s in between the races. (The Edmonton Festival, unlike it’s Cowtown counterpart, is planned very well. It also had the sense to judge teams by the times they logged racing, not by some idiotic point system — Calgary Festival organizers, take note!)

Arnold was surprised by our appearance:

“You’re the last two I expected to see here!”

Yeah, I know, what the heck does that mean? I was wondering that, slightly miffed. It wasn’t like we didn’t enjoy ourselves paddling. I’m rather looking forward to it next year. Actually, if anything, I’m miffed that I’m not getting the club updates (they were looking for volunteers this weekend; not that I’d have been able to go even if I had got the notice). We promised to drop by later on.

We trudged out into the rain following our meal, and decided to take a shortcut through Grant McEwan Community College, just across the street. (Partly because it’s an interesting-looking building, but also because it was warm and dry.) The college campus is situated on the old Canadian National rail yard that used to run through downtown Edmonton (well, what is now downtown Edmonton — it wasn’t downtown when the yard was built). With the yard relocated to the north end of the city, the lands were freed up for other uses. The $16 million parcel of land was donated to the College, which then built its main campus.

The College’s namesake, Grant McEwan, is a man of considerable distinction. Alex and I didn’t really know who the man was. Thanks to an exhibit in the main lobby, we found out that the Honourable Mr. McEwan was a Professor and the Director of the School of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan, a magazine editor (and prolific author), a Calgary alderman and a three-year Mayor of our fair city, became an MLA for Calgary and was elected the Liberal Party leader, became the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta for eight and a half years before going into semi-retirement. He never slowed down, however, and continued humanitarian work until his death in 2000 (at the age of almost 98).

There are times when you simply can’t avoid feeling humbled.

We ended up having to dive back into the rain, thoroughly unable to avoid it. We trudged through the Farmer’s Market before finally finding our way back to the mall we’d cut through earlier in the morning. We did some window shopping (I ended buying a new fleece jacket, mostly because I hadn’t come properly prepared for the weather) before returning to the hotel. We napped. It was great.

Dinner was a surprise I managed to keep on tap, though Alex guessed the destination by some of the clues I had let out (but by then, I didn’t mind) — Fairmont’s Hotel MacDonald, about a block from the Westin. Specifically, the Harvest Room. I was told this was one of the best restaurants in town, and I wanted to take Alex there. I even wore a suit and tie for the affair.

Alex and I before dinner, Westin Hotel, Edmonton, Alberta, 21 August 2004

Oh, one thing I need to point out. While we were preparing for dinner (mainly me ironing my clothes), we listened to the radio. Much to our surprise (and near shock), we came across 92.5, known as Joe FM. Now this might sound a little weird — why would I identify a radio station, you might ask? It’s a sister station of 96.9 Jack FM. Same commercials, same commercial voice dude, but it just didn’t sound right. Even the slogan was different: Playing … Anything! (In Calgary, it’s “Playing … what we want!”) Yet another reason why Edmonton and Calgary don’t get along.

I have to say that I was mildly disappointed with the experience. The hotel itself is nice, but the Harvest Room lacked the old-world quality you often find in the older Fairmont hotels (most notably the Banff Springs). The food was well done, but I felt I’d had better meals here in Calgary, and much “lower-end” restaurants. I also felt the service wasn’t quite to the level I’d expect for Fairmont. (Or more importantly, a Canadian Pacific Hotel.) Such as it is, the meal was wonderful, as was the company. Next time, though, I think we’ll go somewhere else.

By the time the meal was done, it was nearly 20:00, so we opted for a dip in our hotel’s hot tub (it was a little chilly outside). After a cold beverage in the bar, we headed for bed. Despite really doing nothing, we were both quite tired.

Awaking late again the next morning, we rose, showered and packed, while watching the Olympics. I haven’t watched much of it this year (partly due to the time change), but what little I have seen kind of annoys me. And it’s not he performances, it’s all the media.

C’mon folks, it ain’t about the medals. So what if Canada isn’t getting that many this year? Big deal! Our athletes are out there, competing, and doing a pretty good job, all things considered. Are they gonna bring home the bacon? Maybe, but will the world end if they don’t? Probably not. Just let them compete without all the additional pressure — they went there to represent Canada, not be bad-mouthed by us.

Checking out, we drove (as it was raining even harder Sunday morning) for Denny’s. No-one from Topmade was there that time, so we ate in relative anonymity. We headed back to our hotel’s parking lot, though, to go down to the festival area to see our friends and team-mates.

We arrived just in time for the Sistership tribute. This is something they do almost every festival (they didn’t do it in Calgary, for some reason). It’s in tribute to those lost to breast cancer. Sistership is a club whose members are all cancer patients, past and present.

Passing by the boards, we found the scores of the previous day. Topmade Dragoneers had done quite well, and were ranked up with EDBC and Jetstart (from Toronto). One of the others under the tent commented that the first race was going to be a good one. Alex and I would not wait to see it, as we were cold and wet, and really not wanting to stick around in the weather.

Finding Topmade’s tent, we found Sang and Collette inside. We chatted for a while before following them down as they went to get something to eat. We left them at the food vendors and returned to the car. We were off…

…to West Edmonton Mall. The largest mall in the world. The megalopolis of merchandising.

It’s a weird place, if you’ve never been. Parts of it make sense. But then you run into Galaxyland (formerly known as Fantasyland), which is the midway there. Rides that you would normally see at the Calgary Stampede, PNE, or CNE are permanent showcases there. Even the infamous rollercoaster on which people died a number of years ago. It’s loud. It’s hard to believe you’re in a shopping mall.

And then there’s the ice rink, the water park, the indoor golf course, the submarines, and the model of the Santa Maria.

West Edmonton Mall, Alberta, 22 August 2004

Oh, and lest we forget the over two decade-old design? That place is in serious need of a facelift. (It also didn’t help that the glass roof leaks, probably due to that nasty hailstorm and flooding of a couple months ago.)

Considering its size, the mall wasn’t that bad for crowds — we had little or no trouble getting around. Well, except for size — the mall is huge, after all. I was disappointed to see that Sega Playdium had closed down. Considering the other attractions in the mall, however, I could understand.

After about four hours, we’d had enough, and it was time to head home. Alex tried to cross-stitch as we headed out of town, but eventually switched over to reading for a while (reading to me, I might add) to take a break.

We stopped again in Red Deer for dinner, this time going to Boston Pizza for, well, pizza. Nothing outlandish, we split a small (10″) between us, which was just perfect. Then it was back on the highway in the rain, drizzle, and fog, before arriving back at Alex’s shortly after 21:00.

The weekend was good, despite the weather. Edmonton isn’t exactly the vacation destination I had thought it might be, but then we didn’t see much of it either. Next time, we’ll have to go somewhere else, though. Someplace less urban.

And if you’re looking for hints here, Alex, you’ll have to try harder than that!