When most Calgarians hop in the car for a day trip outta Dodge they tend to head west, toward the mountains, toward Banff and Lake Louise and skiing and snowboarding. And while those are very worthwhile destinations, I’m partial – once spring rolls around – to leaning more southwest, toward the Cowboy Trail, that gorgeous rolling expanse of foothills between the city and the mountains out on highway 22. Technically, the Cowboy Trail (named for all the ranches it winds past) runs 700 km, from highway 3 near Lundbreck to Highway 18 near Mayerthorpe, but the chunk we like to take goes from Bragg Creek through Priddis, past Millarville – and the farmers’ market at the racetrack on summer and fall weekends – to Turner Valley and Black Diamond. It’s a perfect distance – a couple hours in the car, with plenty to stop and eat.
The Millarville Market should be opening again soon for the season-typically it’s open Saturdays 9-2.
Keep driving another ten minutes and you’ll find yourself in wee Turner Valley, home of some of the best beef in Alberta. (And close to Diamond Willow Artisan Retreat – a place unlike any other I know, where groups of up to 12 can meet, work, play and eat in a wonderfully serene environment, with a hot tub and wood-fired pizza oven out back. And check out this kitchen! I’ve done a couple cooking events out there – it’s a blast. We should all go sometime for a sleepover, fire up the pizza oven and open some wine. For real.)
Literally around the corner in Turner Valley, the Chuckwagon Cafe isn’t as big a secret as it used to be – it’s the bright red refurbished barn right in the middle of town, where owner Terry Myhre’s own herd of cattle are the focal point of the menu. The burgers – some of the best in Alberta – are made with aged beef that’s hand-ground, seasoned and shaped, served with their own homemade relish and hand-cut fries. They also serve an all-day breakfast, and are equally known for their flat iron steak topped with a poached egg and hollandaise. But seriously – the burger alone is worth the drive.
Conveniently, they’ve built the brand-new Eau Claire Distillery and Tasting Room right next door, where they have a farm to glass philosophy. It’s Alberta’s first craft distillery, with a special vodka named after the neighbouring Three Point Creek skirting Turner Valley, Parlour Gin with its intense botanicals – juniper berry induced dryness and hints of rosehip, Saskatoon berry, coriander, lemon, orange, mint and spice. You can sidle up to the tasting room bar beside the distillery to give it a try.
They chose Turner Valley to be close to the source of their ingredients, sourced and harvested from Alberta farms, and to draw water from the Rockies. It also helps that Turner Valley has a storied history from prohibition times; the new distillery is housed in the old Turner Valley Movie Theatre and Dance Hall circa 1923, that once served as town hall, political rally point, dance hall and community gathering spot.
Right now they distill gin, vodka and Spring Equinox – a very prairie-inspired spirit made of prickly pear cactus. Up next: rye whisky. Last spring, the owners and a small group of friends camped out by the Bar U Historical Site Ranch and ploughed for 8 to 10 hours a day, equipped with horses and horse drawn farm equipment salvaged from old yards and auctions, and used a 1910 seeder to sow untreated spring rye seed purchased from a farmer in Provost, Alberta.
The crop grew and the plan was to harvest it 100 days from the date of planting – September 9. If you live in Calgary, you might remember this past early September – the harvest party was canceled, and they scrambled to gather all the grain before the massive snowfall. Crazy!
More burgers. One of these days I’m going to stick around and eat one for lunch, then stay for dinner.
If you’re not ready to head home yet, further down the trail you’ll find Black Diamond – and I love the old-school Black Diamond Bakery, owned by George and Patty Nielsen, which I managed to not get any photos of. Suffice to say you’ll find things like Parkerhouse rolls and homemade long Johns, Nanaimo bars and butter tarts.
And if you’re looking to make a weekend of it, there’s an equisite boutique hotel in Priddis called Azuridge that’s spectacular – once a private residence, this extraordinary estate was transformed in 2011 and is now one of Canada’s only estate hotels; 27,000 square feet on 13 acres, with indigenous Rundle rock, timber and sweeping glass architecture inspired by the Canadian Pacific Railway’s rocky mountain train stations.
There are just 13 guest suites, all with floor-to-ceiling windows, staggering views, and the very best, deepest claw foot tubs I’ve ever had the pleasure of soaking in. It’s gorgeous. Guests have access to a private butler, there to do anything from unpack your suitcase to draw a bath with your choice from a literal library of sea salts. The showers look like Charlie’s Great Glass Elevator. If you ever wanted to spend an over-the-top luxurious weekend, this is the place to do it.
The Chef’s Table is -literally- a slab of cedar that seats 12, with Executive Chef Yoshi at the helm in the kitchen – and the Opal restaurant is open even if you’re not staying there. They do a pretty mean eggs Benny and Caesar – and there’s really nothing better than waking up, putting on a fluffy robe and opening the door to a tray of coffee and pastries basking in the sunshine.
So there you go – a whole lotta ways to spend an afternoon, or a weekend semi-staycation, by venturing just southwest of the city.
Thanks to Dong Kim for the images from Eau Claire Distillery!
I love showing off my home province – thanks to Travel Alberta – for helping me do it!