Welcome to Edmonton, a metropolitan oasis smack dab in the middle of farm country; a breath of urbanity in the midst of prairie.
Drive east and you head into Canada's heartland. Drive south and you come to Calgary. Drive west to Jasper National Park and the Canadian Rockies. Drive north and who knows where you'll be.Edmonton is a city of stunning high-rises and parks that overlook a meandering river called the North Saskatchewan. Its humble beginnings took root in 1795 with a fledgling fur trade.
It was Hudson's Bay Company and rival North West Company that put the rustic settlement on the fur trade map. In 1821 they joined forces to establish a stockade called Fort Edmonton. In 1830 the fort was moved to where the Alberta Legislature Building now stands.
The fort became a major stopping point for adventurers heading north or west and soon developed into a center of trade. Gold seekers on their way to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 stopped in Edmonton for supplies. Many perished in their attempts to push onward toward the Yukon. Others settled in Edmonton as homesteaders when they discovered that a much publicized overland route to the Klondike was more fiction than fact.
The city, population 9,000, was incorporated in 1904. Alberta became a province in 1905 and Edmonton became its capital.
The discovery of oil southeast of the city in 1947 added fuel to the economy's fire. Today the city runs on oil, agriculture and tourism.
Edmonton turns its clock back in time briefly each summer to honor its heritage. A series of fun-filled events are lumped together under a broad umbrella known as Klondike Days. This year the celebration ran from July 21-30.
Activities include a parade, an antique car rally, a canoe regatta, a gala dinner and dance, a boat race on the North Saskatchewan in vessels of questionable integrity, a triathalon and breakfast at Fort Edmonton Park.
What sets this festival apart from run-of-the-mill celebrations is the attire. A good many people of Edmonton dress like they've stepped out of the turn-of-the-century.
WHEN A TURN-OF-THE CENTURY outfit dies, it goes to Shirley Potter's costume shop.
I am with a group of eight out-of-town guests who are being hosted by the Edmonton Convention and Tourism Authority. We rummage through Shirley Potter's extensive collection of Klondike costumes until we find something that fits.
Robin from Texas will resemble a dance hall girl. Ed from San Francisco will look like a river boat gambler. Jerry from Park City is dressed every bit the upstanding business man. I emerge with a dress of blue ruffles and black lace. A hat with feathers to match, fish net gloves and a velvet drawstring purse complete the outfit. Just call me Miss Kitty.
We attend a gala ball wearing our new clothes. I concentrate on keeping my heels out of my hem while dancing to the rock 'n roll music of Boby Curtola. The floor is ablaze with colorful costumes and feather hats are aswing to the music. I have never been to a dance where everyone was having so much fun.
But I don't catch the Klondike spirit until the next morning when we eat breakfast at Fort Edmonton Park. The park is a living history museum that traces the history of Edmonton from 1846 to 1920.
Park employees dress in period costume and buildings are authentic. Visitors are wearing Klondike clothes the morning of the breakfast. Hems of womens' dresses gather dust on the unpaved streets. If I didn't know better I'd feel I was alive 90 years ago.
The recreation of Fort Edmonton includes the Rowand House, which in 1846 was the largest building west of Winnipeg. "1885 Street" is the most extensive section of the park with nearly 30 buildings depicting the lifestyle of the time.
Sixteen authentic buildings line "1905 Street." They include Rutherford House, a comfortable two-story home of Edmonton's turn-of-the-century elite.
I buy a cookbook at the Ukrainian Bookstore on "1920 Street" and stop at the Mellon Farmhouse where a motherly looking woman is about to bake something in the king-size coal stove.
But the barnyard animals are calling. Two giant oxen are standing near McCauley Livery Stable. Black and white, they resemble Jersey cows - big Jersey cows. I move in close to stroke their soft noses. "They each weigh close to a ton," says the attendant. "We raised both of them from babies."
There are oxen and then there are horses. A stagecoach pulled by four sturdy horses takes us back to the fort. From there we board the Edmonton, Yukon and Pacific Railway, which takes us on a five minute ride to the train station.
The park is open daily from Victoria Day Weekend (May 20) through Labor Day Weekend. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $4.50 for adults; $3.25 for seniors, $3.25 for youth, $2.25 for children and $13.50 for families.
THE CITY LAYS CLAIMS to another distinction: the West Edmonton Mall, a tourist attraction in and of itself.
"Ninety percent of the visitors to Edmonton come to the mall," says the mall's tourism director Lyla LeBain.
The mall is a hybrid of many parts: part shopping center, part entertainment complex, part skating rink, part restaurant, part acquarium, part zoo, part amusement park, part art gallery and part child-care center.
But its sum is greater than its parts; so much so that it is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest mall.
Tourists who come here inevitably conclude that the big mall back home is nothing like this.
"I've never seen a shopping center this size," says a young woman from Quebec. "I spent the whole day here and I didn't begin to see everything."
A woman from Edmonton claims she finds what she's looking for every time she comes here. "It's a lot of walking but it saves on parking."
"It's neat. It's brilliant," say three young men from Scotland. "We've got something in Stirling (Scotland) but it's nothing like this. We're here to get the look of it, and for the women."
Two elderly women from Scotland are staying in Edmonton for three months. They walk the length of the mall every day. "There's always something going on," they say.
The mall is the size of 115 football fields. It is eight city blocks long and three city blocks wide. Everything about it is a variation on the theme of "big."
Among the attractions: a "grandiose" replica of Columbus's ship the Santa Maria; submarines that glide through a "large" lake filled with honest-to-goodness sea creatures; the world's "most huge" indoor amusement park and "most immense" indoor wave pool. The glass roofs that cover it all must certainly be the world's "most extensive."
Logic leads you to conclude that the mall has the world's "most enormous" parking lot, as well.
The skating rink is not the world's "most spacious" but it is NHL size, which seems big enough.
Things not colossal but certainly comely include the mall's theme streets Europa Boulevard and Bourbon Street; bird aviaries; water fountains such as one fashioned after a fountain at Versailles and others that dance to music; a dolphin tank; statues; and vases from the Ching Dynasty.
There's enough here to occupy everyone in the family.
The water park is my favorite. Statistics don't do it justice. Twenty-two slides; an 85-foot high Twister; an 82-foot high Screamer; Raging Rapids inner tube ride; two sun tan decks; and whirlpools just wet your appetite.
Bodies are torpedoeing out of slides everywhere you look. Everyone seems to be having a terrific time.
My trip to Edmonton is fraught with one regret: not taking my swimming suit.
Thanks to a chilly winter climate, Edmonton is supposed to have more malls per capita than any other city in the world. But the West Edmonton Mall is a mall among malls.
To first-time visitors I can offer only one piece of advice: Get a map.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS you shouldn't miss include the Alberta Legislature Building and the Provincial Museum. The museum has outstanding dioramas as well as an exhibit that traces the history of the Indians, the white man, natural history and an exquisite butterly collection.
For information about Edmonton, contact Edmonton Tourism 104, 9797 Jasper Ave., Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA T5J 1N9 or call (403) 426-4715.
GETTING THERE: I took one of Delta's direct flights from Salt Lake City to Edmonton. The route gives you a birds'-eye view of the Tetons, Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park. Many people combine a trip to Edmonton and Calgary with a drive through the Canadian Rockies.