Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2011-06-14
In the city of Edmonton you can follow in the footsteps of the Trappers and the early Francophone immigrants; in the evening you can let your hair down “on Whyte” in jazz bars or wander dizzily around the world’s largest mall before sitting down to eat bison in honey at Normand's restaurant.
An evening in Edmonton has to be spent “On Whyte” at Dadeo’s in front of a Bananas Foster. For those in the know, Whyte Avenue is 82nd Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Old Strathcona - the condensed area of nightlife, festivities and culture in Alberta’s lively capital.
The system of streets and avenues in Canada and the States isn’t as simple as it seems. Especially since a number of streets are wider, busier and livelier than the avenues . The streets run from south to north, whilst the avenues run east to west. In downtown Edmonton, Jasper is the central Avenue or 101st Avenue. Then 106th Street is one block north of 105th street that runs parallel to it, whilst 101st Avenue runs to the east of 102nd Avenue. As a tourist, once you’ve internalised this logic you won’t have too much trouble finding your way around, provided you carry a compass (and a calculator too if mental arithmetic isn’t your forte!)
Whyte Avenue has it all. Here you’ll find elements of a kind of intelligent, condensed Broadway (Whyte has North America’s largest annual theatre festival and in the evenings there are stand-up comedy shows and musicals), of Paris’ St Germain des Prés (the place par excellence for jazz clubs, street culture and students) and of the Champs Elysees - you simply go there for a pleasant stroll. Wander around on Whyte whilst snacking on a bagel, a hot dog or slice of pizza. Enjoy the street performers on the sidewalks, join the circles of spectators surrounding the musicians, and if you are so inclined you can even shop until dawn.
These thirty blocks have over one hundred restaurants serving Cajun (at Dadeo’s), Greek and Vietnamese food. There are gastronomic offerings such as Packrat Louie (famous for its wine list), as well as Canadian and American (specialising in grilled meat), Thai, Indian or Italian cuisine.
One hundred restaurants... but how many bars? Well it’s hard to say. They’re everywhere. There are sports bars, where regulars, with beer in hand, watch a game on TV, music bars with nascent rock bands or dimly lit blues bars, where world-weary pianists strut out jazz classics. As far as jazz is concerned, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity for an all night concert at the Yardbird Suite, a legendary night club on Whyte. It has hosted the jazz greats from Canada and around the world since March 1957 .
The Bananas Foster is an awesome dessert straight out of New Orleans! It consists of two bananas generously flambéd with rum and a dark rum-flavoured caramel sauce served with homemade vanilla ice cream. The recipe is a well known classic but what you get is out of this world. Dadeo with its seventies drive-in decor pays homage to Louisiana and its delicious cuisine that has to be some of the most original in the U.S: oysters, soups and gumbo from the bayou, spare ribs, Crawfish, wraps and several jambalaya with shrimp, chicken, BBQ sauce, spinach etc.
It has to be said that Canadian cooking (and Canadians don’t seem to take offence, they know it and lament the fact) is pretty much nonexistent. So the cuisine you find tends to be inspired by American, Italian, Asian and French influences. Here and there you can find a few local recipes, such as poutine in Quebec, Saskatoon berries and Lake Saint-Jean Pie, however their specialties usually consist of simple, unrefined country-style fare.
Nevertheless you can still find gourmet establishments in Edmonton. One such example is Normand's, a cosy little bistro where "French cuisine with an Albertan accent” is served. The cooking style is decidedly French here and you’ll find the province’s renowned veal marinated in Dijon mustard, Brome Lake duck is prepared à l’orange and bison is served with a whisky and honey sauce.
Big enough to get lost in...
Edmonton straddles the picturesque Saskatchewan River, one of the longest in Canada. The North Saskatchewan and South Saskatchewan tributaries have their source in Alberta’s Rocky Mountain glaciers; the former flows through Edmonton, and the latter through Calgary and Saskatoon, whilst both converge to feed Lake Winnipeg (Manitoba).
A major attraction in Edmonton is the West Edmonton Mall, which after Dubai’s shopping mall is the largest in the world. Imagine the scenario: it has a surface area of 500 000 m2, 800 shops including The Bay, an Olympic ice rink (open year round), a sea lion show, a three star hotel, a life-sized whale sculpture, a casino, a pirate ship that you can climb aboard twice a day, a Ferris wheel, an aquatic centre (with the world’s largest wave pool), a food court consisting of 20 restaurants, the world’s largest indoor amusement park (with the world’s largest indoor Russian mountain ride) and a car park with 20,000 spaces!
Edmonton’s city centre has everything you’d expect of an American metropolis, with its modern buildings, its right-angled road intersections, yellow taxis, grey-blue buses and old brick houses. It has few small boutiques, but does have an impressive city hall and a giant convention centre - the Shaw Conference Centre, with its terraces on the green banks of the Saskatchewan River’s that have a commanding view over it.
Edmonton - a city of adventure
Edmonton, the city of conventions and festivals, is also renowned for its aviation museum, for its famous pyramids at the Muttart Conservatory (a strange botanical garden with a tropical atmosphere that’s very popular in the winter) and for Fort Edmonton Park a kind of Disneyland that recounts the story of Canada’s pioneers.
The story begins during the era of the fur trade and ends at the conclusion of World War 1. Four reconstructed neighbourhoods are on show with their lively streets filled with covered wagons, stagecoaches and period cars, permanent shows, markets, working farms and carefully reconstructed saloons. We took a tour on the Pacific Railway train pulled by a steam locomotive and later we got off, watched by the stern gaze of a "red coat" – one of the moustached Royal Canadian Mounted Police, that kept the order on the docks.
The business district’s glass buildings now stand along the dusty tracks once used by the stagecoaches, which Alberta’s Francophone minority loves to remember, even if the tracks have long since been paved over. There are approximately 35 000 French speaking Franco-Albertans in Edmonton (a little less than 2% of the population).
Situated 1900 miles from Toronto and 800 miles from Vancouver, at the foot of the fabulous Rocky Mountains, accessible by plane from many cities in Canada (however there are no direct flights from Europe), and by train with the famous “the Canadian” connecting the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean in three days and four nights, Edmonton is an amazing city to visit on one’s way West.
Places to stay in Edmonton
Hotel Selkirk, in the heart of Fort Edmonton Park (in the 1920 district): www.hotelselkirk.com
Places to eat in Edmonton